CCI: Spotlight on Denis Kitchen

Distinguished elder statesperson. Add that to the list of titles Denis Kitchen wears well. The legendary cartoonist/publisher/historian was on hand at Comic-Con International in San Diego Saturday for a Spotlight panel that looked back on his 40-plus-year career. The session kicked off with a long introduction from Michael Dooley, author of the 2005 article "The Unsinkable Denis Kitchen." It was Dooley that coined the "distinguished elder statesperson" line, as he ran through an impressive list of Kitchen's career accomplishments:

  • Published his first comic, "Mom's Homemade Comics" in 1968.
  • Founded the Krupp Comic Works - which included Kitchen Sink Press - in 1969.
  • Co-founded two alternative newspapers, "The Bugle American" and "The Fox River Patriot."
  • Published many of the legendary comix artists, including Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Trina Robbins and many others. He was also one of the first to publish the next generation of alternative cartoonists, including Dan Clowes, Charles Burns, etc.
  • Brought undergrounds to mainstream newsstands by editing "Comix Books" for Stan Lee.
  • Brought back into print the work of many legendary comics artist, most notably Will Eisner and "kindred spirit" Harvey Kurtzman.
  • Founded the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and served as its president for its first 18 years.

Dooley's intro finished with an extensive, fast-paced slide show featuring Kitchen's cartooning work, much of it scheduled for inclusion in "The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen," a planned 2010 collection from Dark Horse.

Following the slide show, Kitchen finally took to the mic: "When I was young, I was pretty prolific," he said with a smile. Kitchen was surprised by the sheer volume of art available for the book, as his duties as a publisher often pulled him away from the drawing table. "I'm not content doing just one thing," he said, noting that his entrepreneurial side ultimately got the upper hand. "I second guess all the time if the right path was taken."

Kitchen's underground publishing empire was set up in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisc. Seemingly an unlikely home for a hippy enterprise in 1969, the location provided Kitchen with low overhead, cheap printing, and distance from the often-cliquish politics of the Bay Area underground scene. It was a good fit for Kitchen, who "took perverse pride in being a hippy where I was."

Kitchen said the early underground scene was built on a "hippy dippy" business model, where deals with artists were based on personal relationships and distribution relied on head shops around the country. Still, he was able to move "hundreds of thousands" of comics through this "rickety" distribution system.

So successful was this system that industry legend Will Eisner sought out Kitchen in the early '70s to learn more about the underground business model. While shocked by some of the more extreme material in the undergrounds, Eisner was attracted to the freedom of expression and creator ownership the new model offered. It was "appealing to him, even though he wasn't part of our movement," Kitchen said.

The young publisher soon asked Eisner if Kitchen Sink could bring "The Spirit" back into print. Eisner said yes. Inspired by this success, Kitchen would seek out and publish other classic comics artists, including Kurtzman, Milton Caniff, Al Capp and George Herriman.

Kitchen Sink continued to be a leader in the comix and alternative comics market until 1999. Kitchen didn't go into great detail about the demise of his company, noting that a merger with Kevin Eastman's Tundra Publishing ultimately led to his loss of control over Kitchen Sink. Kitchen said Eastman had called with an offer that was either dream come true or worst nightmare. "All I heard was 'dream come true.'"

Post-Kitchen Sink, Kitchen has "less ulcers," though he sometimes still wishes he was out on the Comic-Con floor behind a table. But post-corporate life has been good: he's reinvented himself as a writer, agent and book packager, and still publishes from time to time. Most importantly, the distinguished elder statesperson is still enjoying his life in the comics industry.

"I'm still having fun and I let that be my guide."

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