About the Exhibition

August 8, 2020–January 3, 2021

MOWA | West Bend and MOWA | DTN

Wisconsin Funnies is the first exhibition to present the rich history of comics in Wisconsin. The nearly two hundred works by twenty-five artists will illustrate the major themes, innovations, and publications that characterize the state’s past half-century of comic art. The exhibition pairs hand-drawn original art with printed material such as comic books, alternative weekly newspapers, and other collectibles and ephemera.

Wisconsin Funnies is on view at both the Museum of Wisconsin Art’s “mother ship” in West Bend and MOWA | DTN, located in downtown Milwaukee at Saint Kate – The Arts Hotel. MOWA | DTN will feature comics with a political bent; the West Bend location will offer a comprehensive overview of comics in Wisconsin. While California is often considered the birthplace of underground comics (also known as “comix”), Wisconsin began producing independently published, subversive comics at the same time. Beginning in the late 1960s, the Wisconsin comix scene, spearheaded by Denis Kitchen’s Kitchen Sink Press, marshalled the countercultural appeal of comic art to educate, instigate, and entertain a disaffected generation.

“Anyone…interested in the history of comics, politics, and popular culture should visit MOWA and absorb the power of this historic collection.” –Chris Yogerst, Comics Journal

The comics and cover art of the alternative weekly Bugle American (1970–78), for instance, were eye-catching, irreverent distillations of the countercultural take on the contemporary political scene. While this satirical function of comics is well known, their didactic use has been underappreciated. Consumer Comix, a 1975 Kitchen Sink publication underwritten by the Office of Economic Opportunity and the Wisconsin Department of Justice, illustrates this side of comix. The publication was distributed to high school seniors in Wisconsin (and later in Kentucky and California) to create educated consumers by warning them about predatory lending and retailing practices.

The 1980s found Kitchen Sink Press publishing not only comic books but also books of comics with handsomely produced reissues of historical comics by luminaries such as Ernie Bushmiller, Milt Caniff, and Al Capp. The press was also at the forefront of the burgeoning genre of the graphic novel, which adapted the autobiographical and often irreverent flavor of underground comics into a longer, more literary format.

“Formats and preoccupations change, but comics never lose their power to communicate, criticize, and entertain.” –Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Madison comic artists were also hard at work during the 1980s, creating several long-lived superhero series. Nexus applies a cleanly composed style to science fiction and superheroes five hundred years in the future. Badger follows the escapades of the eponymous hero, a Madison-based urban vigilante with multiple personality disorder who can communicate with animals.

Wisconsin has remained a hotspot for creative comic activity—as is evident in selections on view from 2019 MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient Lynda Barry, associate professor of Interdisciplinary Creativity at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In her work, Barry promotes the liberation of creativity by inaugurating the idea of using comics as a vehicle for self-help.

Wisconsin Funnies was co-curated by James P. Danky, J Tyler Friedman, and Denis Kitchen with contributions by Paul Buhle.

Support for this exhibition provided by:
WI Department of Tourism, National Endowment for the Arts, and The Wisconsin Humanities Council