There are plenty of stories about the counterculture in Madison's past - some of which remains, since we Madisonians still exist at least part of the time in a cheerful parallel reality.
But you don't hear so many stories about comic art. Looking at The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen (Dark Horse Books) is not quite like smoking a joint discovered accidentally in the back of a drawer. Perhaps, on some pages, it just feels that way. Kitchen, the operator of a former mukluk factory in Princeton, Wis., frequently on the scene in Madison, was once almost a world in himself.
The Kitchen story can be told the easy way or the hard way. Either he is a former hippie-become-capitalist who made (and then lost) a little empire with the meteoric career of alternative comics; or he's a former socialist candidate for state office who, once he got some publishing experience, set the pace for what seemed oddball material (say, the first gay comic line) and for the reprinting of comic classics like The Spirit and even Nancy and Sluggo.
Either way, the evidence is in these lavish pages. Although there is ample prose (including an introduction by famous comic writer Neil Gaiman, who lives secretly in the state), the pics and the captions keep the story going. We get Kitchen drawings galore: covers of the old Madison Bugle American, circa 1970 (as good as the underground press was otherwise in Madison, it practically lacked its own comics, until Kitchen); lots of sex-joke comics; more dope-joke comics; even a satirical gag at Oscar Mayer's expense. Who would know that the guy designed an official consumer guide for the state's high-schoolers?
Reprinted comics from the rural alternative paper the Fox River Patriot may mark the most exotic pages. Kitchen had joined a local group making a go of the counterculture in a most unlikely spot. The tabloid only lasted a few years, but you can see Madisonian culture spreading outward (and so could worried parents).
Where are those romantic pothead revolutionaries of yesteryear, anyway? Gone with the summer breeze (if we ever get a breeze), but also right here on the printed page. Dig it.