Underground comics were Steve Chappell's original source of subversion growing up in the late '70s and early '80s. Comics like the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Zap "broke all taboos" and opened his mind to new politics and culture.

"It showed me how limitless graphic art can be," said Chappell, a Madison comic and block print artist.

The heyday of underground comics is long past, and now lives on museum walls, like the exhibit up through July 12 at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison - "Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix."

Even mainstream funnies are hitting hard times as print newspapers shut down their presses and move online.

"The future for cartoonists as a career isn't good," he said.

So, what's a comic artist to do? Chappell's block prints have sold well - local theater-goers may have seen his print of the Bartell Theatre in ads and on the wall of the downtown venue - and he recently created the cover for Art Paul Schlosser's album, "Leftovers," and designed the hanging sign outside the Froth House coffee shop on the Near West Side.

But he still had that "comix" (the slang term used for underground comics) itch to scratch, so in April he started an online strip called "Stark Plug."

It's a one-year experiment. Every Tuesday, he posts a new edition on his Web site, schappellstudio.com.

The action unravels week by week "like a slow European film, not like a Hollywood action blockbuster."

The main characters in Chappell's strips are Stark Plug, a disgruntled office drone, and a street musician named Bernie the Banjo Bum.

Chappell has worked happily at the American Printing Company for 23 years, but he understands Stark Plug's restlessness at his job.

"He's a person who's had a job for many years and he dreams about being an artist," he said. "(Artists) like to think we're adding something to the creative consciousness. A lot of artists, they wonder where they fit into all of that."

He wanted Bernie the Banjo Bum to be homeless, because "the street is the real surface of society. People living on the street don't have as much of a facade." But he added, "as we'll read more, we'll see he's kind of an ironic character."

Madison's homeless newspaper Street Pulse is going to start carrying the strips that feature Bernie the Banjo Bum.

While Chappell embraces technology, he worries that "modern technology has imposed a kind of superficiality in the art world."

"People are used to everything being so conveniently digital. A lot of art now is taken for granted. We're spoiled now by technology. We go to a movie expecting the special effects to be superb," he said. "The solution to that is education, educating audiences about what it is they're looking at."

He displays the blocks he uses to make prints at art shows, for instance, to give people a visual idea of the work that went into the print.

Chappell is also designing Paul Buhle's illustrated history, "Comics in Wisconsin," due out this fall. The book details Wisconsin's rich past in underground comics, from their start in campus political pamphlets to the Kitchen Sink Press, which started in Milwaukee and has published R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman and many underground comix legends.

Stark Plug doesn't have a stridently political message or ulterior motive like many of those comix from the '70s.

"It's pure entertainment," he said. It's just something to "get people away from the perils of their life."

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