Denis Kitchen is that most rare of comic book industry creatures — a chameleon. Kitchen has worn many hats over time, including cartoonist, publisher and now, literary agent. In his new book from Dark Horse, The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen, Kitchen’s earliest days as an cartoonist are revealed to those who might not be familiar with his first incarnation — and even he admits that amounts to a lot of people.
Kitchen got his start in the late 1960s, creating and self-publishing Mom’s Homemade Comics with friends and associates in Milwaukee. This grew into further efforts, including the chance to publish such legendary figures as Will Eisner and Robert Crumb, among many others. Kitchen applied a hippie, communal form to his comic book publishing efforts, which eventually blossomed into Kitchen Sink Press in the late 1970s. It was at that time that Kitchen prepared to ditch publishing and following his cartooning muse, consulting two of his heroes — Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman — about his decision. Eisner gave him his blessing, but Kurtzman — much against Kitchen’s expectations — convinced him that his work as a progressive publisher was far more important. Kitchen devoted his life to publishing and never looked back.
Kitchen has another volume on his art coming out from Boom Studios — Denis Kitchen’s Chipboard Sketchbook — and he’s also working on a deal that would see Boom representing out of print Kitchen Sink titles. Kitchen will also co-curate an exhibition of underground comic art with Howard Cruse, to take place this fall at MCLA Gallery 51 in North Adams, MA.
John Seven: This collection has given you a way to go through your body of work from some distance. What’s your critical summation of your own work at this point?
Denis Kitchen: I’m proud enough of most of it. There’s a lot of stuff that I’m glad isn’t included — I think any artist would say that. A good deal of it reflects the time, and being a hippie at a particular time of our cultural history, starting right at the peak of the Viet Nam War and all those movements that were inescapable when I was fresh out of college. Besides the war, it was trying to legalize pot and the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the gay movement, everything seemed to be coalescing and it was hard to not be political. It seemed to me and to a good number of my cohorts at the time that expressing ourselves through the vehicle that was most comfortable, which was comics, was the course to take. I think we were semi-conscious of the fact that comic books prior to that had been strictly entertaining. I guess there had been a handful of educational comics, but for the most part, comic books were assumed to be a juvenile medium and weren’t taken that seriously. Undergrounds gave us a platform to reach our peers in an easily accessible manner, weirdly paralleling underground newspapers that were also proliferating at the time. Those two crossed over a good amount because a lot of us who did the comic books were contributing to the underground newspapers as well.
Looking back, I can’t really separate the times from most of the work. I see my style gradually evolving, and that’s also not unusual. In a weird way the book actually inspired me to start drawing again, so I think later in life there may be a second career there yet.
J7: What kinds of drawings have you been working on?
DK: It’s hard to describe. What I did starting about 15 to 20 years ago, when I had Kitchen Sink Press and we had peaked at about 35 employees and we used to have these regular production meetings and editorial meetings and so on, and as the publisher I had to take part in all of them, and most of them were dreadfully boring. I used to have this tablet, standard writing tablet in my hand, and I’d get bored and flip it over to the chipboard, the thick stuff at the bottom, and I’d have typically a Sharpie marker and a Uniball pen and I’d start doodling. Those began evolving — those three unique pieces, the chipboard, the Sharpie and the ball point — and I began doing these elaborate, surreal drawings. I was still listening to the meetings more or less, but I would get carried away with these things and maybe half finish, or sometimes flip it over and continue.
I did that for years and only people sitting near me, or close friends, would see them. Sometimes they were kind of crazy and demented, but they weren’t comic strips in terms of telling a story, they were strictly stream of consciousness. Boom Studios is coming out with those after this Dark Horse book, I think in October. It’s completely different. It’s the opposite of the cartoon stuff, where I’m very persnickety and I’m using a brush and it’s very precise. This stuff is free form. Suddenly, after being not prolific as an artist at all, I have two books in one year, which in itself is a little surreal.
J7: How much more of a daunting task was it to self-publish back then?
DK: Today there’s a big company called Diamond. They sell millions of comics every year, but back when I started in the late ’60s, literally I was dumb enough to actually go and look up the periodical distributors in the Yellow Pages and took some meetings and realized what a babe in the woods I was — I also found out what a crooked business it was. I did the only thing that made sense to me at the time, which was literally I paid to have the comics printed with the local printer and I went around to every shop that I thought might be sympathetic — from used bookstores to head shops — which were the most obvious ones, and university bookstores and a local drug store, and I would put things on consignment. Amazingly they sold very well. I would give them 25, come back a week later, replace them, they’d pay me. I actually did quite well doing that in the first summer, so that made me feel like clearly there was a market and people liked my stuff and I didn’t need anybody else.
It got complicated when cartoonists in Chicago who had been doing similar comics asked me if I would also do their books. I remember saying naively, “Why not? Two’s as easy as one.” At that fateful moment I became a publisher, because suddenly I was responsible for them, and I had to pay them. Next thing I knew other artists were coming to me and Robert Crumb passed through town and I did one of his books that ended up being a best seller. I did business before I had really consciously planned it or prepared for it, and so as that grew, my being at the drawing board shrank. I deluded myself a while that I could be both, but the truth is the business, like most businesses, is all consuming if you let it be.
J7: How hard was it for you to face the choice between business and art?
DK: I guess it would be like having two women you loved. The decision I thought I made I changed because of Harvey Kurtzman’s really forceful encouragement. I think the part that scared me the most was when he said that artists are a dime a dozen. He didn’t mean that to knock artists, he just meant that there are a hell of a lot more good artists out there than there are good publishers, and he said that it’s so weird to have a conscientious publisher who’s creator friendly. He was saying that if I leave it would hurt the market a lot more than if yet another artist joined it. And it was also a safer course at the time. I was not in a financial position where I could stop everything and live a couple years off my vast earnings. For a lot of pragmatic reasons, that’s the course I took, and I didn’t really look back other than to occasionally do guest pieces for people.
That’s how this book came to be after twice being postponed at my own company. Diana Schutz, my editor at Dark Horse, saw me on this fundraising cruise we took about a decade ago asked me to contribute a story that ended up being “My Five Minutes With God.” I hadn’t drawn in a while when I did that and I had so much fun doing it, that was one of those points, too. After 30 years my company had finally gone under and that’s when I had the chance to be creative again and that’s when she started talking to me about this book. It literally took years to put together for a lot of reasons.
Now I have got an idea file full of things and I hope to start doing them more, but the problem now is that I have a different kind of business — I’m a literary agent and represent 20-some clients and it’s hard to just quit that and tell them goodbye. I’m in the same conundrum as before, which is that I think my ambition is outpacing my artistic proclivities.
J7: The cliched view of hippies has them as irreverent, even disrespectful, toward their elders. But you and other underground cartoonists really embraced the previous generation.
DK: I think the thing that made me different from my contemporaries was that I had grown up reading these comics and being influenced by them and so in love with them that I couldn’t disrespect those cartoonists, even if their generation as a whole left something to be desired. I certainly felt no compunction about reaching out to them. When I first published Eisner in particular, collecting The Spirit, I remember getting a lot of flack from some of the head shops and had distributors who said, “What the fuck is this, man?
Back in those days there was virtually nothing on comics history that you could find. Today there’s scores of books out there. Graphic novels in general, we’re drowning in them. Back then was pretty much a vacuum, so I felt obliged to pull some of this stuff out of the dust bins and get it back into print.
J7: Is part of your hope with this book that the younger generation of comics readers will not only discover you, but also the world you came from?
DK: I literally don’t know what to expect a younger reader to make of it, whether they’ll be baffled or what. I expect some contemporaries will get it because they maybe read it the first time around or there’s enough familiarity, but I think there are probably enough younger generation people out there who are curious about what came before, just like hopefully most of us are. It was a fascinating period, so to have lived though it, to have helped chronicle it, and then sometimes to look back and be reflective about it, that’s what I do the way anyone would do representing their generation. I’m glad that I was at least part of an interesting generation, because to me it seems like a good deal of what has followed has not been as interesting a time to live through. But that may show its own generational prejudice.
The other thing is that I still consider myself relatively young. I’m 62. I saw Will Eisner drawing until he was in his late 80s and had shown not one bit of deterioration in his skills. Carl Barks made it to 99½ and he was still painting. I remember reading Rudolph Dirks, who did Katzenjammer Kids, he was 97 when he hung it up and so on. Nice thing about cartooning is unless you get palsy or poor eyesight or something, your physical skills can allow you to keep doing what you do way, way into old age. I draw as well or better as I ever have and I have plenty of ideas, so my feeling is a new chapter is beginning. I only look at this book that just came out as volume one, I guess.