The Unsinkable Denis Kitchen
By Michael Dooley August 24, 2005
The Unsinkable Denis Kitchen
By Michael Dooley August 24, 2005
The Unsinkable Denis Kitchen
By Michael Dooley August 24, 2005

For mainstream press reporters, covering last month’s Comic-Con in San Diego was the same old routine: with 100,000 attendees roaming the cavernous convention center, they chose to focus on the geeks in superhero, Stormtrooper, and hobbit garb and the Tinseltown celebs like Charlize Theron, Adrien Brody and Natalie Portman. The vast multitudes of comic art lovers were ignored. Innumerable stimulating panel discussions with such luminaries as Scott McCloud, Gary Panter, Heidi MacDonald and J.J. Sedelmaier were ignored. Neglected as well were the Will Eisner Awards, comics’ own Oscar ceremony.

Had the news media attended the Eisners, they would have seen the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund present its venerable “Defender of Liberty” award to its founder, Denis Kitchen. They also would have heard from Kitchen that a Georgia comics retailer is currently facing trial on charges that could not only lead to imprisonment for up to three years but also could endanger the comics industry at large.

Kitchen’s voice resonated throughout the four-day convention. He was a featured speaker at several sessions, including one devoted to censorship and taboos. He was an on-screen voice in no less than four documentaries about comics, from a three-part, two and one half hour 1999 Brazilian TV series titled Will Eisner, Profession: Cartoonist to three works in progress: Will Eisner: The Spirit of an Artistic Pioneer; Caveman: V.T. Hamlin and Alley Oop; and The Sequential Art, an historical and critical examination of the medium. For smart, informed commentary, Denis Kitchen has become the medium’s go-to guy.

If the 1960s underground comix movement can be said to have distinguished elder statespeople, then Kitchen would definitely be one of them. It also seems logical that someone who emerged from a subculture committed to expanding the boundaries of free expression would be responsible for creating an organization to protect such freedoms. But oddly enough, of all the original publishers, his first books were by far the tamest. The swaggering, self-important late-1960s artists situated in the East Village and on the west coast believed that violating the sex, drugs and violence restrictions of the Comics Code Authority was a mandate rather than an option; consequently, they mostly scorned this Milwaukee bumpkin’s more laid-back style. His line had the audacity not to be audacious.

Growing up in Wisconsin, Kitchen had been a fan of comics in general and Harvey Kurtzman in particular. Famed as the creator of EC comics’ Mad and Playboy’s “Little Annie Fanny,” Kurtzman was one of the medium’s most influential innovators. His 1959 Jungle Book paperback was as much a “graphic novel” as Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, published 17 years later. His short-lived Humbug, from 1957-58, was a particular inspiration to Kitchen. Like Kurtzman and Eisner, Kitchen has been an artist, writer, editor, publisher and educator.

Kitchen had an early attraction to publishing. While attending Horlick High in Racine in the early 1960s he was the cofounder, editor, writer and illustrator of Klepto, the school’s unofficial, proto-underground newspaper. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) in 1967 he cofounded, art directed and cartooned for the university’s first humor magazine, Snide.

After he came across Bijou Funnies with Chicago-based Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson, Kitchen decided to publish his own work in 1969, titled Mom’s Homemade Comics. Encouraged by a quick sellout of his 4,000-copy print run and fortified by positive feedback from other area cartoonists as well as the master, Robert Crumb, the following year he established an alternative newspaper, The Bugle-American, in which he ran weekly strips by himself and others, some of which were Mad-style parodies. He also formed Kitchen Sink Press (KSP).

KSP’s first titles included Bizarre Sex, Death Rattle, and Snarf. Contributors included S. Clay Wilson, Trina Robbins and Bill Griffith, and content became decidedly less apple-pie flavored than Mom’s. It also stuck with its unpopular contributors like Howard Cruse, initially reviled for his cutesy Barefootz strip but eventually acclaimed, by former critics and new fans alike, for his homosexual-themed tales.

His output proved profitable enough for Kitchen to expand operations under an umbrella company, Krupp Comic Works. Krupp encompassed a mail order and distribution center, a commercial art studio, a record company, a head shop and a syndicate that distributed weekly strips to alternative and college newspapers. Fully aware of the inherent ironies of hippie entrepreneurship, he’d named his venture after the German munitions manufacturer. His corporate icons, a tentacled octopus and a monocled SS commandant, also reflected the tongue-in-cheek nature of the operation.

Kitchen Sink quickly earned a reputation for producing high-caliber material. By 1973 Kurtzman and Eisner were both contributing covers and contents. However, comix sales began to plummet around this time, largely due to a huge influx of shoddy books that glutted the market. Another factor was the increasing reluctance to carry the product among head shop owners who feared a new Supreme Court decision that allowed local communities to define obscenity.

Fortunately for Kitchen, this was also the year Marvel, publisher of Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four, approached him to edit the nation’s first underground comic magazine. Instigated by Stan Lee, Comix Book was a mutant attempt to capitalize on antiestablishment artists while staying newsstand-safe.

While some, such as Crumb, initially refused to work for Stan the man, Kitchen persuaded many others to compromise content for higher pay and circulation in the hundreds of thousands rather than their typical tens of thousands. Among Comix Book’s lineup were artists Justin Green, Kim Deitch, Sharon Rudahl, air pirate Ted Richards and writers Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches. It also provided overground exposure for Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the three-pager that served as the foundation for his book of the same name.

Dealing with Lee on behalf of the artists, Kitchen had certain non-negotiable demands with regard to ownership of original art, trademark rights and character copyrights. Marvel’s work-for-hire staff naturally resented the fact that they were denied such benefits, and eventually mainstream publishers conceded similar rights to their regular artists. Comix Book also helped spur Spiegelman and Griffith to start their own similarly formatted, but less co-opted magazine, Arcade.

Poor sales and weak marketing support led Marvel to abandon Comix Book after three issues, and Kitchen’s Sink produced numbers four and five with the remaining inventory.

Marvel’s paychecks helped bankroll Kitchen through economic hard times, and as mail-order operations and comic book stores began to replace head shop distribution, his press reached out to explore new territory. Under Leonard Rifas’ editorship Corporate Crime Comics, begun in 1977, seriously examined the Karen Silkwood case several years before Meryl Streep’s screen portrayal. In the 1980s Gay Comix, edited by Howard Cruse, was not only pioneering in its unabashed treatments of alternative lifestyles, but also the first comic to tackle the subject of AIDS. Kitchen Sink was also among the first to publish Dan Clowes, Drew Friedman, Charles Burns, Richard Sala and others in the bourgeoning alternative cartoon movement of the 1980s.

KSP released a mammoth amount of old and new Eisner material, from tens of graphic novels to hundreds of Spirit stories, including “Spirit Jam,” in which dozens of writers and artists such as Denny O’Neil, Archie Goodwin, Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz, Brian Bolland, Milton Caniff, Kurtzman and Kitchen himself collaborated to produce a new adventure starring the man with the blue mask and sidelong smirk.

The press also resurrected Goodman Beaver for a paperback collection. Goodman, a latter-day Candide created by Kurtzman in the early 1960s, was illustrated in stunning detail by Will Elder. Unfortunately, copyright infringement suits brought by Archie comics disallowed the reprint of “Goodman Goes Playboy,” an exceptionally powerful and poignant seven-page satirical parody.

Volumes by other past masters were reproduced as well, from Caniff’s Steve Canyon and Terry & the Pirates and Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon and Secret Agent X-9 to Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy. Typically, these books were handsomely designed, with a sharp eye to fine detail.

Kitchen also endured his share of hardships. In 1976 his local printer, who had no previous qualms about running Bizarre Sex and Dope Comix on his presses, decided to draw the line with Wet Satin: Women’s Erotic Fantasies, edited by Trina Robbins. A willing printer was procured in San Francisco where, notes Robbins, “they’ll print anything.”

In the mid-1980s Michael Correa, manager of Friendly Frank’s, a suburban Chicago comics shop, was convicted of possession and sale of obscene materials. Among the titles was KSP’s Bizarre Sex and Omaha, the Cat Dancer, written by Kate Worley and illustrated by Reed Waller. As a publisher, Kitchen felt a responsibility to fight the verdict. He organized a fund-raiser, which garnered more than $20, 000, and was able to hire expert First Amendment litigator Burton Joseph. Consequently, an appellate court acquitted Correa. After Kitchen had paid the legal costs, he decided to use his few thousand in surplus to establish a permanent nonprofit group to help oppose similar injustices in the future. He established the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in 1986 and served as its president for its first 18 years.

With limited resources, Kitchen’s watchdog organization has experienced a number of failures. In 1994 Boiled Angel, a self-published zine that pushed the bounds of acceptability with graphic, gruesome depictions of child abuse, rape, and cannibalism, was declared obscene by a Florida jury. As part of the sentence creator Mike Diana was forbidden to draw, the first such judgment of its kind. The CBLDF petitioned for a U.S. Supreme Court hearing, but was turned down. It also supported Planet Comics, an Oklahoma shop, through a two-year battle involving a Verotica comic, but in 1997 the owners, Michael Kennedy and John Hunter, decided to plead guilty to felony charges of trafficking in obscenity.

And then there are the victories. Last year, U.S. Customs in South Carolina seized issues of Stripburger on the grounds of copyright infringement; at issue in this anthology series from Slovenia were “Moj Stub,” a Serbian tale by Bojan Redzic that utilized Peanuts characters, and “Richie Bush,” Peter Kuper’s anti-administration attack formatted as a Harvey comic. When challenged by he CBLDF, the government backed down.

On September 12, Gordon Lee, a Georgia retailer, will stand trial on a case involving “The Salon,” a strip by Nick Bertozzi in Alternative Comics that depicts Picasso painting nude in his studio. The Fund, which has already spent more than $30,000 preparing the defense, is attempting to obtain further financing through T-shirt and poster sales.

Although Kitchen has retired from the board, he remains passionate in his belief that comics deserve the same constitutional rights as adult literature, gallery art, and films. At the Eisner Awards he concluded his “Defender of Liberty” acceptance speech with a rallying paraphrase of Ben Franklin, “If we don’t hang together to support the Fund, surely we will hang separately.”

A few weeks after the Convention, Kitchen was a bit more sanguine. “Fortunately cases like Gordon Lee are still an aberration and not the norm. I've never met an artist or writer who was adversely affected by political climate; if anything, an ‘adverse’ climate spurs creation.“

“But getting good comix created and published is only half the battle. Getting them into the hands of customers is always the more complex equation. My concern is that every case like this one makes some retailers more nervous, particularly those in the Bible Belt, and thus even more cautious about carrying ‘borderline’ material. It's much easier for a retailer to quietly take preventive steps to avoid being ‘the next Gordon Lee’ than to be brave and carry the full variety of material you ideally want your customers to be able to choose from.”

Kitchen Sink Press folded in 1999, but Kitchen, after the many fluctuations and detours in his varied career, continues to forge ahead. The man who ran for lieutenant governor of Wisconsin on the Socialist Labor Party ticket in 1970 currently juggles several comics-related businesses. From his current base in western Massachusetts, he’s established Denis Kitchen Publishing Co., which markets books, collector’s cards, buttons and such. He’s proprietor of Denis Kitchen Art Agency, which represents the estates of Eisner, Kurtzman, Al Capp and others. He’s a partner in two enterprises: Kitchen and Hansen, a literary agency for comics artists and writers, and Cheesy Products LLC, which sells Crumb’s Devil Girl Hot Kisses Candy. He’s also managing partner of Steve Krupp’s Curio Shoppe, a web store with a variety of merchandise from serigraphs by major artists to spiral-bound homemade comics by Alexa Kitchen, at eight the youngest of his three daughters and apparent heir to the Krupp/Kitchen comic art dynasty.

Among several upcoming projects is “The Unsyndicated Harvey Kurtzman,” scheduled for release next year. Also, a Kurtzman coffee table book, coauthored with Paul Buhle, Brown University instructor and the force behind 1969’s Radical America Komiks, is currently under consideration with a major publisher.

Of his multiple activities, the most neglected is his first love, cartooning. Denis the artist seldom adheres to deadlines imposed by Denis the publisher, and his lack of output has even become a running joke in the rare strip he does manage to ink. But he’s not without regrets: “Every time I draw I love the experience, and wish I could do more, but my other hats reliably cover the overhead. Consequently they take precedence. And thus cartooning runs a distant sixth among my professions.”

Also in the state of perpetual postponement is a compilation originally scheduled for a 1989 release, The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen. The title is apt but incomplete, inasmuch as his work is as unique as it is odd. His humor has always been more wry and self-deprecating than his edgier countercultural colleagues. And he renders his most bizarre visions with a forthright simplicity, like Basil Wolverton tempered with Little Lulu’s John Stanley.

Whether or not his collected comics will ever reach bookstore shelves, Kitchen’s legacy is secure. Charles Brownstein, the CBLDF’s executive director, succinctly summarizes his four decades of accomplishments: “Denis has expanded the boundaries of what this medium has to offer. Without his contributions the wealth and diversity of content that comics now displays would be diminished.”

“But getting good comix created and published is only half the battle. Getting them into the hands of customers is always the more complex equation.”

Tags history Voice