Denis Kitchen Discusses His "Oddly Compelling" Art Book

He is perhaps best known as the man behind Kitchen Sink Press, the publishing house that, between 1969 and 1999, published some of the most innovative creators of underground comics (or comix) including R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Kim Deitch, Justin Green, and Howard Cruse, as well as new and reprint titles by Will Eisner and, later, works by Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns. He also founded the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in 1986, currently serves as an agent for the Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner estates, and recently announced a deal to package several products through BOOM! Studios' new BOOM! Town imprint, the first being an R. Crumb trading card set. But in June, Dark Horse celebrates Denis Kitchen as an artist with the publication of "The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen." The hardcover features artwork from throughout Kitchen's forty-plus years in the comics industry, an introduction by Neil Gaiman, and an extensive biographical essay by CBLDF president Charles Brownstein. CBR News spoke with Kitchen about the book and its long, winding path to publication.

"It came to me in a dream twenty years ago," Kitchen said of the oddly compelling title. "I think I had read 'The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta' a short time earlier, and I had been wanting to do a book of my own art. Then I just literally woke up in the middle of the night and saw this cover with this name, so I wrote it down. And I like it. Sometimes the lightbulb just goes off." 

As hinted in Kitchen's statement about the book's origins, "Oddly Compelling" has been a long time coming--it was originally planned for Kitchen Sink's twentieth anniversary in 1989. Kitchen said that the project has evolved somewhat in the course of those twenty years. "It's a bigger book. Though I haven't been prolific, I have done a fair amount in the last twenty years," he said. "I'm glad another publisher is doing it. One of the reasons I hesitated was that it seemed frankly kind of self-indulgent at the time. I can't help it that I was a publisher and a cartoonist, but it just seemed to me like a vanity project. So I just decided to focus on the other artists. The stalling lasted ten years and then my marketing director convinced me to do it for Kitchen Sink's 30th anniversary in 1999, but that's the year we went out of business. It seemed that it was not meant to be. But then [editor] Diana Schutz at Dark Horse approached me a few years ago. And so, we're finally there."

Another feature that would have been substantially different had "Oddly Compelling" seen print when it was first conceived is the book's biographical essay, written by Comic Book Legal Defense Fund President Charles Brownstein. "He was, I guess, a booster from the younger generation," Kitchen said of Brownstein. "He had the right enthusiasm, and I always liked Charles's writing, and he was someone I trusted. He had been a house guest before, he had seen my art, and step one he literally came up and spent an entire weekend going through flat files with me and helped me organize everything. He's interested in underground comics and he's also interested in the business side of comics, which is kind of rare. Most fans only like the work itself, but he's always been fascinated with the business of comics and that's where I have a foot in both fields. I guess he thought I was a more interesting than average topic."

Paging through "Oddly Compelling," readers may be struck by the astonishing amount of original art and archival material Kitchen has retained over his long career, including issues of "Klepto," which he published in high school on a Ditto machine. "I'm a bit of a pack rat," he confessed, adding that keeping and caring for artwork has served him well in his current role as representative for the Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman estates. "In my line of business, you have to be organized. I have a lot of flat files, and I'm personally responsible for archives of Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner, and I have to be aware of the heat, the humidity, keeping things away from vermin or mice or anything. I first went into Harvey Kurtzman's attic and was appalled that some of his things had been damaged by heat or mildew. I think some artists just don't think archivally.

"The other thing that helps me, that I still had 90% of [my art], I was more fortunate than most underground cartoonists in that I was never quite desperate enough to have to sell my art as part of a way to make a living. Being a publisher provided enough of a steady income to me that I was able to get through leaner times, whereas most of my contemporaries had to sell their art."

In addition to providing a forum for Kitchen's artwork, "Oddly Compelling" traces the strange evolution of his career as a publisher with Kitchen Sink Press. From self-publishing endeavor to hippie collective to shrewd publishing house for the best in underground comix, perhaps the most intriguing episode was Kitchen Sink's brief dalliance with Stan Lee and Marvel Comics. A risky partnership for both parties--Marvel stood to have its family-friendly image tarnished by the subversive underground, while Kitchen Sink could lose its underground credibility by getting in bed with the mainstream--each also had much to gain from their alliance. "Stan was curious about us. He wanted to be regarded as hip and with-it, and so we allowed him to get a piece of this without alienating the mainstream," Kitchen recalled. "He was real paranoid about what might happen.

"I was intrigued by Stan's interest and, to be honest, given that the underground system had gone through the Crash of '73 as we called it, everybody was in a bit of a panic," he continued. "So I thought it was time for compromise--but we can only compromise so far. So I told Stan, we've have to keep our own copyrights, get our art back, and so on. And Stan said, 'Whoa, whoa! We can't do all that.' But we found a middle course." Kitchen first negotiated to have original art returned, then agreed that Marvel would have first serial rights, with copyright reverting the artists after a set period. While the stories in "Comix Book," the series that would emerge from the partnership, could be a bit saucier than normal Marvel fare, there was a level of restraint imposed, rather than the complete creative freedom the underground cartoonist had been accustomed to. "We worked it out in a way that it wasn't perfect for us, but it allowed us to save face and basically quadruple our income, because the undergrounds at that point in time were paying about $25 a page up front for a page of art and Marvel was paying $100 a page. So you can imagine, back in the days when rent might have been $75 a month, that was a good amount of money"

The deal, though, ultimately rankled Marvel's stable of artists, who did not receive any of the benefits Kitchen negotiated for his own crew. "I can't say I was surprised they were upset, but at the time I wasn't thinking about them, I was really only concerned with my own artists," Kitchen said. "In Kitchen Sink and the underground, everybody got to keep their own copyrights, everybody got to keep their own artwork, they were paid a royalty, and it was very different business model from Marvel and other companies of the time." "Comix Book" was only published through Marvel for two issues, but the larger publisher gave Kitchen Sink the material it had already commissioned and the series continued through issue #5.

Later, Kitchen Sink Press was also instrumental in giving voice to the new generation of alternative comic artists in the 1980s and '90s, including Charles Burns, Mike Allred, and others. By this time, the industry had changed substantially from what it had been during hayday of underground comix, both creatively and as a business. "The primary difference is, by the '80s you had a secure distribution system, with companies like Diamond and Capital City. There were still maybe ten or twelve distributors and they focused on comics, which was very different from the headshop distributors where comics were not the primary business," Kitchen said. "And then of course you had the new generation of artists, who were not necessarily or were probably not what I'd call hippies. A different mindset. And the source of their satire, the purpose of their satire, was generationally different. But I think we were kindred spirits in most respects. They  benefited from the generation of artists that had come before, to them it was a given that they would own their copyright and keep their art and that sort of thing."

The publishing house would endure until 1999, when, following a disastrous merger with Tundra Publishing, KSP finally shut its doors. Will Eisner, who published "Spirit Magazine," "A Contract with God," and other projects through Kitchen Sink, was instrumental in setting Kitchen on his current career path of an art dealer and representative. As recounted in Brownstein's essay, Eisner phoned Kitchen after the publishing company's collapse and invited him to become his literary agent. "I was pretty depressed, as you can imagine," Kitchen said of Kitchen Sink's demise. "I ran the company for 30 years and then, in circumstances too complicated to go into, I basically lost control to corporate entities and I lost it all. I literally didn't know what I was going to do. I was sitting at home, depressed, when Will called. Honestly, in retrospect, he didn't need a literary agent because he could do it himself. But as a gesture of our friendship and to nudge me in a new direction he made that offer. And it worked. It got me out of my doldrums and forced me to reinvent myself in a way that evolved into a new business. Eventually, it got to a point, too, where Will was at an age where he would rather focus his time on the creative side and he didn't want to deal as much with the business. So it was a win-win for both of us. That relationship had evolved at that point to where he was like a father figure."

As to his own art, "Oddly Compelling" showcases doodles, self-portraits, full and partial comics, and covers for weekly alternative newspapers ranging from excessively cute (as in many "Fox River Patriot" images) to absurdly lewd (such as his cover for "Weird Sex" #1 and his painting "Evening Cocktail"). Many of these display an unusually acute level of detail, a fact Kitchen himself calls out in his captions, in which he recounts drawing individual circular snowflakes or strands of hair in a beard. "It was just a predilection," he told CBR. "I didn't have the deadline pressure of somebody working for Marvel doing 30 pages a month, I could do it on a more leisurely basis."

Kitchen also noted that, even outside of editorial guidelines imposed during his brief partnership with Marvel, the audience for an artistic venue--comix readers versus community newspapers, for example--necessarily determines the artwork. "Certainly, on covers in general, one had to use more discretion. But on newspapers, these things would be stacked in drug stores, co-ops, grocery stores. Sometimes the audience was quite young. Usually [the covers] were toned down to some extent," Kitchen said. "I used to revel in making them more surrealistic or outrageous in other respects, but they were never sexy. If you were going to do a newspaper strip for a syndicate, and you know your audience is going to be from kindergartners to 90 years old--it was the same feel [as comix], but we toned it down."

On top of his roles as artist, publisher, and artist representative, Kitchen is also the father of "the world's youngest professional cartoonist," twelve-year old Alexa Kitchen, author of "Drawing Comics is Easy (Except When it's Hard)" and "Grown Ups are Dumb (No Offense)." The forty-year industry veteran insists, though, that his career has "absolutely zero influence" upon his daughter's current interest in the medium. "I can tell you that she is not at all impressed with me on any level. In fact, the book that I'm doing after this one has a blurb on there that says, 'I'm not a fan.' It's self-deprecating in a way, but not. She's 12 years old. She thinks my work is a little weird."

Kitchen said that Alexa had always done drawings and, though he thought her earliest work was "pretty good for someone four years old," it took Will Eisner to confirm that Alexa had unusual talent. Eisner had been visiting Kitchen's home when Alexa showed him one of her drawings. "Will looked at it, as you would when anybody's kid shows you something, and he said, 'ah, this is really nice. Did your dad help you with it?' And she very indignantly said 'no.' Will looked at me, and I said, 'I swear, Will, I'm not even allowed to look at her work.' He looked at her again and said, 'You did this by yourself?' 'Yes.' And then he ignored me for the next half hour and talked to her," Kitchen said. "And that's when I realized there was something going on there, because Will--he was a sweet man, he would have patted her on the head and so on, but he literally was impressed with her work. And when she walked away, he said, 'There's something going on here that I've never seen before in someone that age.' So I began to take it more seriously myself. Before she was seven years old, the New York Times had done a feature on her. The odd thing is, she could care less. She doesn't even know if she wants to be published, and she announced to me recently that she doesn't want to do any more books. She's turned down offers, and that's her choice."

Kitchen's next book, the one Alexa pans in her blurb, will be a collection of artwork done on chipboard and includes more spontaneous art than that featured in "Oddly Compelling." "Over the years, I've done a ton of drawings on chipboard. It's a peculiar surface that I really like and it started from just doodling," Kitchen said. "I love using a Sharpie marker and a Uniball ballpoint pen combination."

Wrapping up discussion of "The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen," Kitchen said, "I'd just like to thank Dark Horse for doing what I didn't. I hope it appeals to my own generation and a few younger readers who are curious about underground comix."

Evil Captain Marvel Targets the First Avenger on Her Kill List

More in Comics