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Sunday, December 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Comic book heroes: Madison has produced greats of graphic storytelling
From lefty cartoonists to cutting-edge illustrators, underground comix got a start here
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Comics and artists may be found in the gallery.
Credit:Eric Tadsen

Sometime in October 1968, Austin, Texas, comics artist Gilbert Shelton pulled up to my apartment on Spaight Street.

You could see the old black Caddy coming a block away, and when he parked, the back window, full of stickers, tourist-type and hippie-LSD-type alike, was an eyeful. Gilbert was a tall, tanned, well-built guy in his late 20s, a former University of Texas graduate student and sometime partygoer with Janis Joplin. Now he was on a mission.

Gilbert, famous in Austin for "Feds 'n Heads," a dopey hippies-versus-cops strip appearing in the underground newspaper The Rag, had some months earlier brought out a small comic under the same title. It had the same three heroes: Phineas, Freewheelin' Frank and Fat Freddy, otherwise known as the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

By this time Gilbert was on his way to San Francisco, where would-be underground comix artists were in the process of gathering. He had come to Madison to collect $2,000 that an Old Left philanthropic foundation had donated to my magazine, Radical America. That was an enormous sum in the days when movies, dope and beer were all cheap, and rents mighty low. Genteel bohemian poverty, unbeknownst to us, was fast approaching its final days.

It had been my idea to put out a special comic-book issue of Radical America, the bimonthly that I published in the interests of Students for a Democratic Society. Two numbers of Zap Comix, drawn by Robert Crumb, been published in San Francisco, and Gilbert wanted to create his own comics outfit, with a circle of pals also mostly from Texas.

We hit the ground running in January 1969, with Radical America Komiks. George Mosse, the distinguished historian on the UW faculty, first thought he had been sent the wrong magazine for his subscription. I was supposed to be educating the young.

Radical America Komiks emerged from one of the most fertile countercultures to be found in 1969. The explosion of rebellion on and around campus found garishly lovely outfits, fairly open hallucinogen sales and much, much more - confirming what rural legislators had always said about UW's corrupting influence.

All this doubtless forced local police and FBI to pick and choose their targets: who to watch, who to pursue through a small army of informers, who to phone-tap. The denizens of Bassett and Mifflin streets, in particular, seemed to be living out a Freak Brothers strip of Shelton's, minus the cowboy outfits.

Who could have predicted it? Underground comix got a start right here in Madison, along with San Francisco and Berkeley. And in the intervening years, the Madison area became something of a fertile comics capital. Within a decade, alternative comics of the most remarkable and daring kinds blossomed in nearby Princeton, Wis. And today, when comics dominate the blockbuster programming of Hollywood, several stars of 21st-century art comics trace their origins to these parts.

Who could have predicted it? Seen differently, however, it was all very Madisonian.

Underground comics - also known as comix - were first seen in San Francisco, in the poster shops where Day-Glo images and photos of very angry looking Black Panthers pioneered a print business big enough to keep Ramparts magazine, then master of muckraking journalism, going for years.

Nationwide, comix were later seen in the far-flung underground press, whose Madison version was one of the best anywhere. The Madison underground tabloid Connections reprinted comix from San Francisco but also launched a local artist, Nick Thorkelson. He was the grandson of a UW administrator from decades earlier.

Thorkelson - also brother of Monkee Peter Tork - was practically Connections' staff artist. Like the rest of us, he had been reading Mad comics and magazines since childhood, and he fashioned a takeoff on a well-known Gilbert Shelton strip, "Set My Chickens Free." Thorkelson retitled it "When I set my gangsters on my freaks," and redirected the narrative metaphorically, unforgettably, at the cops swinging clubs at freaky looking undergrads in the October 1967 Dow Riot.

It wasn't brilliant comic art, but it contained memorable strokes. It made Madison comix history.

Fifteen months later came Radical America Komiks. This one-shot comic sold best at the head shop Electric Eye, on Gilman Street. It was probably the first comic book of any kind actually produced for Madison. The 30,000 print run seems to have largely disappeared, but you can find scans on the web, within the virtual files of Radical America. A hyper-phase of Madison comics lay just ahead.

There was already a glimmer in Milwaukee, whose hipsters, and there were quite a few, considered Madison a youth-culture nirvana. Denis Kitchen, a Brew Town lad and boy socialist - he ran for lieutenant governor on the Socialist Labor Party ticket in 1970 - was thinking hard about producing his own comics. He co-founded, drew strips for and, for the first year, art directed the short-lived hippie weekly, the Madison-Milwaukee Bugle American, launched the same year of his candidacy, with a near-full page of comics drawn entirely by Wisconsin artists. It was a Madison alternative-press first, though the Bugle eventually dropped "Madison" from the title and went statewide for most of its seven-year existence.

Meanwhile, the Madison underground journal Takeover had an art director named Sharon Rudahl, who was soon to be one of the masters of the comix medium, and who last year produced A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman (which I edited). She was mainly an illustrator in her Madison days, though her 1976 "Wisconsin Story," in Kitchen's Snarf, is the hands-down memorable strip treating Madison's political counterculture.

By the early 1970s, new comix were flowing out of the Bay Area by the dozens, and then hundreds, per year, with hardly anything from historic pulp publishing center, New York, or anywhere else. That includes Chicago, where a start in comix had trickled into near-nothing.

Denis Kitchen and his friends, however, could be seen hawking issues of his first book production, Mom's Home Made Comics, at Milwaukee's own Schlitz Circus Parade, until halted by cops alerted to Kitchen's cheerful drawings of nude ladies.

Soon after, in 1973, Kitchen set up a studio and warehouse in a former moccasin factory outside Princeton, 70 miles north of Madison. Kitchen Sink Comics took flight. By the time Kitchen left for Massachusetts in 1993, in the midst of one more financial crisis of a historically boom-and-bust industry, he had brought out dozens of volumes.

These contained much fresh art, some of it notably daring. One artist was Howard Cruse, whose 1995 Stuck Rubber Baby, about the urban South during the early 1960s, later won him a Lambda Award. Cruse was emerging as the first openly gay comic artist when Kitchen published Cruse's work in the banner anthology, Gay Comix.

Kitchen Sink was one of the first venues for Alison Bechdel, renowned 30 years later for Fun Home. Kitchen also became famous for repackaging and publishing the classic art of comics: Al Capp's "Li'l Abner," Will Eisner's "The Spirit," Milt Caniff's "Terry and the Pirates," and even Ernie Bushmiller's "Nancy and Sluggo," a strip oddly suited to the mental lapses of the LSD generation.

Back in Madison, our story resumes on Monroe Street in 1975, where Bruce Ayers opened Capital City Comics. A few years earlier he and Steven Grant, a future comics scriptwriter, had brought out the first Madison-based comics fanzine: The Vault of Mindless Fellowship, a title sometimes, but not always, punctuated by a final exclamation mark.

The Vault didn't last long, but Ayers' store endures eternally, or at least until he retires. For 30 years Madison's future comic scriptwriters, future artists and above all budding fans have found their way to the ever-loquacious Ayers and the store's overflowing stock of insight and encouragement.

Ayers always knew everybody. His circle of intimates included two collaborators who have hit it big commercially, writer Mike Baron and artist Steve Rude. Both local boys, the first a student at UW and the second at MATC, they embarked professionally in 1981 with an ambitious science fiction book, Nexus.

It was very much in the EC Science Fiction tradition of the early 1950s, when comic art greats including Harvey Kurtzman and Al Williamson created colorful galaxies of fantasy - brought down to reality with references to the likely consequences of atomic war.

Nexus was in black-and-white for the first issues, with many cost-cutting features that insiders would immediately recognize as the stamp of the fanzine. The stories themselves tended toward the oblique or elliptical, the direction that postmodern mainstream comics were going, at least in the high artistic end of the trade.

Two years later, in 1983, Baron brought out the first number of The Badger, with art by Jeffrey Butler. Opening in northern Wales, circa A.D. 432, the comic finds a wizard in a tough spot. Somehow or other, he manages to land in the Mendota Mental Health Institute of the present, watched over by an exceptionally curvaceous caseworker and joined by a former UW football star and Vietnam vet who will become, in his alter-ego identity, you know who. Typical superhero-style adventures follow.

Nexus and The Badger were among the handful of books actually published by the second-largest comics distribution company in the U.S. Madison's Capital City Distribution was an idea cooked up by local businessmen-slash-comics fans - some of them still in town, including Milton Griepp and John Davis. It hardly lasted a decade, but it filled a gap left by the perpetual uncertainties of the comic-book distribution trade.

Comic fandom, rising fast by the middle 1980s, had created a whole new category of fan, the collector. The trade shows looked a bit like freak shows, with costumed characters, elderly Jewish artists autographing their creations, semi-naked babes sent by aggressive publishers, and a whole lot of adolescent guys with bad complexions. The trade shows were more than a little like authentic expressions of American popular culture.

They were, in their odd enthusiasms, anticipating the superhero-based films that are a staple of Hollywood summer fare, as well as the new animation that makes the old Disney standards look pale and, of course, comics-based videogames. In the 1980s, unfortunately, comics fandom wasn't enough to stave off a downturn of the commercial cycle in the pulp trade. Suddenly, sales were falling, many storefronts could not survive new rent levels, and fans themselves seemed, at least for a moment, to weary of the whole thing.

The creative people had, meanwhile, landed on their feet - by leaving town. Mike Baron went on to major comics publishers DC and Marvel, has won many comic industry awards, and is preparing his return to Madison from Colorado sometime this year. Steve Rude, in Dark Horse, First Comics and elsewhere, has worked on big, mainstream titles like Spiderman and even gone into movies. (He likes Phoenix, Ariz., and is staying there).

Steven Grant, another of the Capital crowd, joined Marvel in New York and in his first big assignment, scored major in 1982 with The Life of Pope John II ("From his childhood in Poland to the Assassination Attempt"). He went on to modest success in mainstream comics and is one of the more acute bloggers of the evolving art form.

The artistic drift through Madison continued through these ups and downs, of course. The Daily Cardinal's leading cartoonist of the 1980s, James Sturm, was probably already looking toward better but also very different kinds of comic art. A few years after graduation found him in New York, assisting Art Spiegelman in bringing out Raw magazine, the hottest avant-garde print-medium item with vernacular roots since American Dada circa 1920.

Sturm, subsequently a comic artist of great renown (his genius creation and Time magazine's "Comic of the Year 2000," The Mighty Golem Swings, tells about a traveling Jewish baseball team of the 1920s), founded the Cartoon Academy in White River Junction, Vt., and also the National Association of Comic Arts Educators.

Through Sturm Madison was, at least vicariously, part of the art comics scene that took definitive shape in the wake of the New Yorker's showcasing of Spiegelman, Ben Katchor, Robert Crumb and a very few other comic artists. Katchor and the Crumbs from time to time still share space with the magazine's premier cartoonists.

Madison, meanwhile, remains a place for comic day-trips, swap shows, visits to Capital City Comics and so on. Starting in 1983, a couple of prominent day-trippers, who made their home in Iola, were Don and Maggie Thompson. Among the founders of comic fandom, they edited Comic Buyer's Guide, a mixture of business and pulp-artistic aspiration out of rural Wisconsin.

It's still around today, with Maggie on the job after Don's death. Who would have imagined, in 1970, a slick magazine with plentiful ads for insurance companies' special comics-collections policies?

Then again, who would have expected fiction magazines from Cambridge, Wis., and classic comics from Mount Horeb? Tom Pomplun, a Madison local who grew up loving pulp fiction, took a job in the early 1990s as designer of The Rosebud, a lit mag still published in Cambridge. After his 10 years at Rosebud, Graphic Classics was born.

We need a footnote, probably, to Classics Illustrated, the immensely popular comic book series that ran from 1941 into the early 1960s and subsequently stumbled into cycles of collapse and small-scale revival. We children of the 1940s, the more bookish ones, anyway, loved these comics, not because we disdained funny animals, let alone Mad, but because the stories were our first taste of real classics.

Pomplun's Graphic Classics lack the inside color pages, the budget and the distribution of the original. But the art is often extremely good, an outlet for comic artists who rarely get the chance to do something serious - and the only chance for many of them to do literary adaptations, one of the fine arts of old-time illustrators.

Classics is up to 15 titles, with several revised and expanded along the way (www.graphicclassics.com). My favorites include the adaptations of Poe, O. Henry, and H.P. Lovecraft, the horror writer of the 1930s-40s (whose short stories and novelettes were brought back into print and kept in print by August Derleth's Arkham House Publishers in Sauk City).

Back in Madison, we still have Capital City Comics, and Bruce remains at the counter when not out in front, shoveling snow or sweeping dirt away, as the season demands. On the distribution end, 20th Century Books on South Park Street, owned by local distribution veteran Hank Luttrell, likewise holds a spot in the long list of mostly vanished local comics outlets.

On the artistic end, Mike Konopacki seems on the verge of a long-awaited breakthrough. A syndicated labor cartoonist, for decades a political cartoonist of The Capital Times, Konopacki collaborated with Dave Wagner, former Capital Times writer, and myself on A People's History of the American Empire, a graphic adaptation of Howard Zinn's best-selling People's History of the United States.

Elsewhere, UW grad and yet another former Cardinal cartoonist, John Kovalic, has for more than a decade edited what has become a prize-winning "game-related periodical," known by the ironic knock-off title Dork Tower, and featuring characters' lives in Mud Bay, Wis., a.k.a. Madison. It's been on the web and, less often, in printed form for a decade now, and remains as dorky as ever.

Thus we Badgers, spanning generations and types, artists, merchants and fans, have continued do our part to sustain a tradition of literature looked down upon when not actually forbidden by generations of worried parents.

Paul Buhle teaches at Brown University until he retires to Madison. He's looking for a publisher for a little book entitled A History of Comics in Wisconsin.

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