Lynda Barry

The stairs to the second floor of the Overture Center led to comic-book heaven on Sunday afternoon, as the Wisconsin Book Festival offered "A Serious Look At Comics." The panel featured comic historians Paul Buhle and James Danky, as well as veteran comic author and artist Lynda Barry, and its aim was to discuss the way comics have gained in critical esteem and cultural significance since their early days of superheroes in tights. Through a presentation more playful than serious, the panelists offered their varied perspectives on the art and history of narratives that combine pictures and text.

James Danky is on the faculty at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University here in Madison. He is the co-author, with Denis Kitchen, of Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix. He kicked off the panel's presentation with a discussion of the works and artists that serve as the subject matter for both his book and the exhibit of the same title that could be seen at the Chazen Art Museum this past spring and summer. Danky observed that the venues for presentations such as his have become more "high-tone" over the years, and suggested that this parallels the gradual "institutionalization of comics."

"Comics have always been art," he stated. "It's just been a difficult job getting institutions to put their imprimatur of recognition on them." The unexpected success of the Chazen exhibit, which featured original artwork by such pioneering cartoonists as R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman, "was a real confirmation of the broad audience there is for comix." Danky went on to discuss the meaning of the term "comix": "We mean to refer to the visual and text revolution of the 60s whose consequences are absolutely felt today." As examples, Danky cited Zap and Mad Magazine as well as smaller, self-distributed publications sold in head shops that made it "possible to imagine completely different kinds of comix."

Paul Buhle, author of Comics in Wisconsin, is a former Brown University professor who has, as his co-panelist and Wisconsin comic author Lynda Barry put it, "tasted the wine of the East Coast and come back for beer and cheese curds." Buhle briefly discussed some of the history chronicled in his book, including the Wisconsin roots of Tomah's Frank O. King, author of the renowned Gasoline Alley strip. He pointed out the historic appeal of comics to Wisconsin's rural and immigrant populations, who might not have had the reading skills to tackle more highbrow materials.

Echoing Danky's description of the decline of underground comix, Buhle mourned the passing of the Electric Eye head shop on Gilman Street in Madison: "The police got rid of all those drug paraphernalia stores by the '80s and all the underground comic artists lost their venue."

While Danky and Buhle's presentations of the historical context of underground comix were relatively sedate, the event exploded into vibrant, unpredictable life when Lynda Barry seized the stage, infecting the rest of the panel with her loopy, digressive verve. With her 50s science-nerd glasses and long, gingery curls secured with a jauntily-knotted red bandanna, she resembled one of her own irrepressible characters.

Barry drew the audience into a discussion of favorite and least-favorite comics, including her own surprising pick. "I loved [Bil Keane's] Family Circus because I lived in a violent, difficult home. I used to look at that little circle and think, 'Goddam! How can I get into there from where I am?" She had Danky and Buhle red-faced with laughter as she led the Q& A period, which devolved into a collective reminiscence on beloved comics of the past.

Buhle fondly remembered the erotic promise of the Wonder Woman comics he encountered in his youth, noting, "They were the first books we were ever allowed to purchase, the first thing we stacked neatly. They were the first books we read repeatedly." Danky recalled reading comics in the grocery store while his mother was shopping. "That's how I became a fast reader." He'd save money by reading the titles he found to be of "marginal interest" in the store, and spend his allowance on those he liked best.

Barry closed the panel by encouraging each member of her audience to add his or her own irreverent mash-ups of artwork and words to the canon. "Comics are a fantastic container for experience," she said, suggesting we all start by tracing one of our hands, making a turkey out of the outline, and then drawing a cigarette dangling from its beak.