By Alan Bisbort

Denis Kitchen is, in my view, the Stan Lee of underground comix. While Lee’s Marvel Comics was cranking out Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange, et al, Kitchen—at his Wisconsin-based Krupp Comics and Kitchen Sink imprints—was publishing a Who’s Who of renegades like Robert Crumb, Jay Lynch, Skip Williamson, Trina Robbins, S. Clay Wilson, Howard Cruse, Justin Green, John Thompson, Kim Deitch, as well as his own titles. Befriended and encouraged by two titans of comics history, Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner, Kitchen now keeps their flames alive as the art agent for their estates and he keeps his own hand in the game via Kitchen Sink Press. PKM recently caught up with the genial and generous Kitchen at his Massachusetts home. 

A few months after the great cartoonist and illustrator Basil Wolverton suffered a career-ending stroke in 1974, his wife got in touch with the cartoonist, writer and publisher Denis Kitchen. In the 1950s, Wolverton’s strange, twisted cartoons in MAD magazine had a profound influence on 1960s underground comix, and Kitchen, growing up in Wisconsin, was among the early comix artists inspired by him. By 1974, Kitchen was a well-known publisher of comix himself (Krupp Comics, Kitchen Sink Press) and he’d commissioned Wolverton many months earlier to draw his caricature as an author’s ‘photo’ for a magazine he was planning to publish. Mrs. Wolverton informed Kitchen that she’d found the caricature on her husband’s drawing table, where it had been sitting there for months, perhaps the last thing the great artist had drawn.

“It gives me chills sometimes when I think about that,” said Kitchen, who now lives in Massachusetts and still, more selectively, publishes comics under his Kitchen Sink imprint, as well as continuing to pursue his own art.     

During his long career, Kitchen has collaborated with and published a Who’s Who of underground comix: Robert Crumb, Trina Robbins, Jay Lynch, Skip Williamson, S. Clay Wilson, Howard Cruse, Justin Green, John Thompson, Kim Deitch and so many others.

More impressively, perhaps, he has befriended and/or published some of the iconic figures of cartooning who influenced that hippie-era gang, including Basil Wolverton, Will Eisner, George Herriman, Al Capp and last but not least, Harvey Kurtzman, the man who shaped/warped MAD magazine in its glorious early days and went on to create Humbug, Trump, and Help!, and serve as a teacher and mentor to hundreds of young cartoonists and artists. Kitchen has also been a tireless promoter of the comics art genre, an early champion of work by women, gays and people of color, and the curator of numerous museum exhibitions.

In 1986, he founded the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit that protects the First Amendment rights of artists and booksellers and has won some landmark court cases in the past three decades.

 Nowadays, Kitchen serves as an art agent for the estates of Kurtzman, Eisner and Capp, among his many other projects, including curating museum exhibitions of the art form, publishing a memoir, collecting and selling American cultural arcana, consulting on documentary films about Al Capp and flying saucers, all while continuing to draw. A new collection of his work, Creatures from the Subconscious, is due out in early 2022.

We spoke with Denis Kitchen at his home:

PKM: I keep coming back in my head to that story you told me about Basil Wolverton, how his caricature of you was among the last things he drew before his stroke. Basil is a big favorite with PKM readers and I’m sure they’d love to have you reflect on that a bit

Denis Kitchen: In 1973-74, I edited Comix Book, an experimental magazine for Stan Lee and Marvel Comics that was primarily a newsstand showcase for underground cartoonists. But I also included some older artists like Kelly Freas, editorial cartoonist Bill Sanders, and Basil Wolverton, one of my all-time favorites. Basil was a wonderful caricaturist, so after some correspondence with him I asked if I could commission one of myself. He said, “Sure!” so I sent him snapshots and—as I recall—$75. Time passed. Eventually Basil’s wife Honor wrote me, indicating that Basil had suffered a stroke. She found the drawing of me on his drawing board and figured out it was mine from correspondence she found. Basil lived a few more years but never recovered his skills as I understand, so the caricature may have been the very last thing he drew, which gives me chills sometimes. It went unpublished for over thirty years until finally appearing at the very beginning of The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen (Dark Horse, 2009).

Caricature of Denis Kitchen drawn by Basil Wolverton, 1974

PKM: What was the first comic art you ever saw that really left its mark on you? Krazy KatMAD? Wally Wood? EC? Robert Crumb and Jay Lynch thought you were deeply influenced by Ernie Bushmiller. Any truth to that?

Denis Kitchen: I never saw Krazy Kat in my youth—collections of classic strips were almost non-existent then but Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad and Humbug certainly left big impression. Al Capp’s Li’l Abner was the first daily strip that hooked me. His characters, his distinctive style, and cliff-hangers were particularly effective in luring me. I was always fascinated with Ernie Bushmiller and Nancy too, though I early on dismissed his gags as dumb, and it took me a while to fully appreciate his pure, beautiful, and meticulous artwork. And even later I learned that his gags were simple and dumb because that’s what the syndicate instructed him to produce.

In 1972, Kitchen drew this parody Nancy strip, partly in homage to Ernie Bushmiller for the Milwaukee underground paper the Bugle-American.

PKM: I never really developed a thing for superhero comics. Only Silver Surfer and maybe Doctor Strange ever did anything for me, mostly for the psychedelic graphics. Did you ever go through a superhero phase?

Denis Kitchen: When I was in grade school I loved almost all comic books, including superheroes, but lost interest in the caped crowd in my early teens. Then, in the early ‘60s, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko began their fresh takes on the genre—Fantastic Four and Spider-Man in particular. I was so taken with that early Marvel revolution that while I was in college in Wisconsin I’d buy five copies of virtually every Marvel off the drugstore spinner rack, week after week, and carefully store the mint copies, at a time when very few others did that. Those early Marvels ended up providing valuable working capital for Kitchen Sink Press when the notion of hippie entrepreneurs getting money from banks was, let’s just say, a bit challenging.  Of course if I had those same stacks now, they’re commanding astronomical auction prices. But you can’t look back.

In the early ‘60s, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko began their fresh takes on the genre—Fantastic Four and Spider-Man in particular. I was so taken with that early Marvel revolution that while I was in college in Wisconsin I’d buy five copies of virtually every Marvel off the drugstore spinner rack, week after week

PKM: Because you were in Wisconsin and hadn’t seen a whole lot of the Bay Area and NYC stuff before you created Mom’s Homemade Comics in 1969, did that help you to develop your own style and subject matter, without too much outside influence?

Denis Kitchen: I think so, early on. I was living in a relative cultural vacuum in terms of where counter-culture influences were least prominent, but keep in mind that the generational movement was quickly taking hold almost everywhere. The first underground I saw, around the time Mom’s #1 came out, was Bijou Funnies #1, which had some limited circulation in Milwaukee. That’s when I connected with Jay Lynch and first discovered there were similar comix popping up, Crumb’s Zap being foremost. Jay told me Mom’s was the eighth underground comic, but the phenomenon seemed to be spontaneously erupting all over the map. As the hippie scene rapidly grew, comix flourished as an integral part of that culture.

The first issue of Denis Kitchen’s Mom’s Homemade Comics, June 1969.

PKM: Robert Crumb and Jay Lynch took a bus to Milwaukee to meet you after you’d sent a copy of your earliest comics to Bijou in Chicago. What was your first impression when these two guys walked in your front door?

Denis Kitchen: They took a bus, by the way, because neither Robert or Jay ever drove cars. In particular I was struck with how “straight” Crumb was. That was not completely a surprise because I remembered a couple photos of him in Help! magazine when he drew Bulgaria and Harlem sketches at Harvey Kurtzman’s direction. Crumb was never a hippie in terms of having long hair or wearing the kind of clothing usually associated with the tribe. He showed up in a porkpie hat, and wore old-fashioned trousers. He had short hair, no facial hair, and thick coke-bottle glasses. He’d done plenty of drugs, including hallucinogenics, when he first hit the San Francisco scene, but by the time I met him in ’69 he wasn’t even smoking weed. But where we had an instant connection, aside from comix, was when Robert saw the old 1940s Wurlitzer jukebox in my apartment, stocked with 78s. Crumb then, as now, was obsessed with 78rpm records.

Crumb was never a hippie in terms of having long hair or wearing the kind of clothing usually associated with the tribe. He showed up in a porkpie hat, and wore old-fashioned trousers. He had short hair, no facial hair, and thick coke-bottle glasses. He’d done plenty of drugs, including hallucinogenics, when he first hit the San Francisco scene, but by the time I met him in ’69 he wasn’t even smoking weed.

I’d met Jay earlier in Chicago, so this wasn’t my first impression of him. He was much more the prototypical hippie, in terms of having a beard and more casual clothes, but he’d also stopped doing drugs at that point, so the carefully-rolled joints I had prepared as a proper host went unsmoked by all but me. Jay was generally twitchy and nervous, he chain-smoked cigarettes, and he spoke in a subdued voice that you had to strain to hear. But we all had a great time getting to know each other, talking about making comix, influences like Kurtzman, old records, and so on. The biggest thing that came out of the meeting was Crumb promising his next comic book, which helped put my fledgling company on the map.

Bijou Funnies # 4, with a cover by Robert Crumb, published by Kitchen Sink Press, 1972.

PKM: Krupp Comic Works and Kitchen Sink Enterprises gained steam when the Chicago gang came on board (Bijou) and you were able to publish some of Crumb’s titles (XYZ ComicsHomegrown Funnies).

Did you get any blowback in Milwaukee from the local conservatives? Was the atmosphere—politically, religiously, tolerantly—in Milwaukee decidedly different from the Bay Area or Chicago?

Home Grown Funnies, by Robert Crumb, published by Kitchen Sink Press, Jan. 1971.

Denis Kitchen: Nope. Never any local political problems with the comics entity. Any problems were associated with the Bugle-American, the alternative weekly paper I co-founded. The newspaper covered local politics with a critical eye, so there was often blowback from politicians, slumlords, an angry judge, or far left radicals. At one point the Bugle’s offices were even fire-bombed. But Krupp/Kitchen Sink seemed to fly under the local radar. Milwaukee was certainly more culturally conservative than the Bay area, and probably Chicago, but it had largely been politically progressive. The city was almost unique in that it had a Socialist Party mayor for many years, from the early 1900s right up until 1960. And, during the early part of the century, it sent the only pre-Bernie Sanders socialist to Congress, a fellow named Victor Berger who served time in prison—for sedition—because he opposed America’s entry into World War I. He was even re-elected while in prison. Granted, that incident preceded my era by a few decades, but Milwaukee was, generally speaking, known as a pretty progressive city. It certainly tolerated me and my motley crew for the most part.

PKM: What were the first titles you published after merging with Bijou? How did that work? Did you move to Chicago or were you running back and forth from Milwaukee to meet with Lynch and Williamson?

Denis Kitchen: It wasn’t a merger and I never lived in Chicago. I simply became the publisher of the Bijou series, paying royalties to Jay, Skip Williamson, and other contributors. Jay would mail or deliver the contents of each issue. I had them printed, warehoused and distributed like any other of my titles, all in Milwaukee till my move to the rural upstate in 1973.

PKM: Did you ever get hooked into the music scenes of Milwaukee and Chicago? What was happening on that front back then and how did it spill over into the comix that you were publishing?

Denis Kitchen: I was always a blues fan and lucky that the top Chicago bluesmen played pretty regularly in Milwaukee, often at a great hip nightclub called the Avant Garde where I was able to see many performances. The venue was small, so I’d often be three or four feet from Big Joe Williams, Walter ‘Shaky’ Horton, Johnny Young, Fred McDowell, and the like. I sometimes got poster gigs and free passes to bigger Milwaukee venues, like a particularly memorable one where Muddy Waters performed. He’s still my favorite.

Concert poster for Big Brother and the Holding Company, Denis Kitchen, artist. 1971.

The evolving local psychedelic music scene also pulled me in. I was close friends with members of a band called the Velvet Whip, often doing their flyers and posters, and attending many of their concerts. For a while they were the house band at the Avant Garde, where I spent many evenings. There were also popular local groups like The Baroques and Shags, and an inventive musician/songwriter named Jim Spencer. I did one of Spencer’s album covers, Major Arcana, in a psychedelic style even though the music really wasn’t. A local band that went national was the Violent Femmes. I was friendly with bass player Brian Ritchie, who asked me to create an album cover for them too, but it never happened, probably because their national label had other ideas.

Album cover drawn by Denis Kitchen for the Milwaukee-based band Major Arcana, 1975.

PKM: You’ve worked with so many of the giants of the comics field. Maybe I could just free associate with some names and questions related to them? First and perhaps foremost, it seems nearly every underground comics artist was influenced by Harvey Kurtzman, even if they never met him, or even realized the influence. You were lucky enough to not only meet him but to get to know him well. How/where did you meet him?

Denis Kitchen: After I self-published Mom’s Homemade Comics #1, I mailed him a copy. I got an encouraging reply that led to further exchanges, and eventually personal meetings. I was never shy about reaching out to cartoonists I admired.

After sending Harvey Kurtzman a fan letter and a copy of Mom’s Homemade Comics, Kitchen received this encouraging note from the master, written Aug. 5, 1969.

PKM:  Is there any one anecdote about Harvey Kurtzman that speaks to the essence of the man?

Denis Kitchen: There was a time in the 1980s when I seriously considered giving up publishing to return to the drawing board full time. I was very discouraged by comic industry politics, feeling the pain of being perpetually under-capitalized, having to collect money from deadbeats, dealing with artists who rarely met deadlines, and all the other chronic issues that can plague a small or middle-size house in a crowded field.  I knew if I didn’t return to being an artist full-time soon, I would never do it. So I made up my mind and I felt empowered by the imminent return to my creative roots. I did not yet share this decision with my employees because it would mean letting everyone go, selling the business, the inventory, etc. and those were all painful steps pushed around the corner. I first wanted to share the decision privately with my two mentors.

I had a trip planned to New York to see Will Eisner and then Harvey. I was very nervous, as you might imagine. I did a lot of business with each man, and it would not be easy to separate those relationships from my change in personal direction. I regarded Harvey as more of a “pure” artist, without Will’s savvy business skills, and knew that Harvey would understand and sympathize. I also knew that Will would do his best to talk me out of the decision, and I did not look forward to that anticipated pressure.  So I flew to NYC with a mixture of  joy and dread, with the expectation that I was on the cusp of a major career change.

I visited Will Eisner and his wife Ann first, in White Plains, took care of the business we had in progress, and then afterward I cleared my throat. With some hesitation, I told Will that I was giving serious thought to ending Kitchen Sink Press and becoming a full-time cartoonist again. There was a silent pause and then, to my astonishment, Will expressed complete support. He essentially said, “I understand what you are going through. You should follow your heart. If that’s your decision, I wish you the best of luck.” I left the Eisner home feeling quite liberated. “The hardest part is over,” I thought to myself. Now I can visit Harvey and Adele and just enjoy myself without visions of Will urging me to stay in business.

After Will Eisner died in 2005, Kitchen contributed this drawing of his first meeting with the master in 1970 for Jon Cooke’s Comic Book Artist Vol. 2 # 6.

At the Kurtzmans, in another northern suburb of New York City, I also followed our expected agenda, then I casually mentioned to Harvey that I was planning to quit publishing and to return to cartooning. There was no silent pause this time. Harvey became quite agitated. “You can’t leave publishing,” he said. “You have a certain proclivity for publishing. I don’t mean to dismiss your creative skills, but good cartoonists are a dime a dozen. Good publishers are very rare! We need you! You cannot do this!” His fervor seemed uncharacteristic and I was not prepared for the intensity of his feelings.

On the flight back to Wisconsin I tried to sort and makes sense of the two opposite and unexpected reactions. My brain felt twisted as a pretzel. As you know now, I did not leave publishing. I found Harvey’s pleas to be moving and heartfelt. His response was selfish in a sense (he had bad luck with publishers throughout his career), but selfish also in the greater interests of the medium we both loved. At the same time I had new admiration for Will because he showed genuine empathy for my plight: he was not a robotic businessman, but a kind and empathetic man who understood that I’d prefer to be drawing than writing endless letters, fighting with distributors and creditors, and endlessly on the phone or in meetings. I had profound new feelings for both men after that fateful trip. I also learned to be less quick to pigeon-hole people.

PKM: In Comics Journal, right after Kurtzman died, Gary Groth wrote a thing in the front of the tributes. He said Harvey was “often expressing bewilderment at how Denis Kitchen and I could stay in business…” Harvey worried about you guys! Do you look back now in wonder that you’ve been able to make a living that in some way, shape or form has been connected with comics and comic art?

Denis Kitchen: Without question. Especially in the early days when I had so little working capital and the market for my product was so disjointed and challenging to reach. It could so easily have collapsed at one point or another, but I had kind of a blind faith that it would all work out. And it did. For thirty years. It only failed, ironically, when I agreed to bring on investment partners that were supposed to make it grow.

In 2014, Kitchen Sink Press, in collaboration with Dark Horse Comics, published a definitive reprint edition of Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book, long out-of-print but far ahead of its time (1958).

PKM: They’ve named the highest award in comics art after Will Eisner and now you’re representing his estate. Was he aware of underground comix during the initial peak in the late 1960s to the mid-‘70s? Or was he quietly working in his own world?

Denis Kitchen: Will was immersed in his own commercial art business for private companies and the US Army and not paying close attention to the comics business in general. He only became aware of undergrounds at the urging of Phil Seuling, the early comics convention impresario in NYC. When I went to my first convention, in 1971, Will sought me out, to my astonishment, to pepper me with questions about this new business and aesthetic model that intrigued him.

PKM: When/how did it occur to him that these younger readers, raised on Crumb and Zap and Bijou, were the key to a revival of interest in his work?

Denis Kitchen: It didn’t occur to him. Shortly after I got to know Will, I pitched reprinting his Spirit stories. He expressed considerable skepticism that those 1940s stories would hold any appeal to my readers. I had no valid argument or market survey to support my gut feeling, I knew I’d like to read them and that a good portion of my long-haired young market would appreciate the work if it was made available. He basically said, “Okay. It’s your risk.” My sales were impressive enough on the two “underground” Spirits—20,000 copies each—that Jim Warren swept in and poached Will for a more lucrative newsstand deal. After sixteen issues, Will came back, and never left. It took a few years, but the undergrounds had a steady influence on his final career reinvention. His A Contract with God, the work that shook up the whole industry in 1978, became the cornerstone of the graphic novel revolution.

PKM: Frank Stack! The original underground comix artist! Foolbert Sturgeon. It’s amazing that he survived in Texas with all the blasphemous Jesus cartoons. Are you in touch with him now? What have you collaborated with him on?

Denis Kitchen: I’ve been in pretty steady touch with him till the past year or two. Frank’s in his mid-eighties now, and finally slowing down. He’s not a kid like me. For my money, his various comix about Jesus coming back to Earth are among the funniest of any undergrounds. He has an amazingly sharp wit and ear for dialogue. Frank contributed to various Kitchen Sink anthologies, but my favorite is our collection of his Dorman’s Doggie strips, hilarious observations of a man and his poodle, Pingy-Poo, with both hopelessly neurotic.

It took a few years, but the undergrounds had a steady influence on his final career reinvention. His A Contract with God, the work that shook up the whole industry in 1978, became the cornerstone of the graphic novel revolution.

PKM: Who are some of the talented women comix artists you’ve worked with?

Denis Kitchen: Earliest on it was Trina Robbins, then Sharon Rudahl, Lee Marrs, and Aline Kominsky-Crumb in the ‘70s. Each created one or more solo comics, and all were in differing Kitchen Sink anthologies. Trina also edited Wet Satin, a comic about women’s erotic fantasies. Kate Worley wrote Omaha the Cat Dancer and Sylvie Rancourt wrote Melody, both long-running erotic comix series. Later I published the start of Melinda Gebbie and Alan Moore’s Lost Girls. Diane Noomin edited Twisted Sisters for me in the ‘90s, an anthology that featured a dozen or fifteen women and was collected into two hardcover editions. Additionally, Trina wrote a couple of books for Kitchen Sink: The Great Women Superheroes and A Century of Women Cartoonists.

Wet Satin and Trina’s Women were two of the titles by Trina Robbins published by Kitchen Sink Press.

PKM: Tell me about Richard “Grass” Green, one of the few Black artists involved in underground comix. You published a few of his titles, didn’t you?

Denis Kitchen: I published one solo title, Super Soul, but Grass appeared pretty frequently in various KSP anthologies over the years. It’s funny, I never automatically knew the race of most contributors early on because almost everything came through the mail. But I met Grass pretty early on because he lived in Indiana, just outside Chicago, and I’d periodically see him when also meeting Jay Lynch, Skip Williamson or other Windy City cartoonists, or at regional parties. He came from the fanzine scene and was a little older than the rest of us. Grass was a funny guy in person, very gregarious. And entrepreneurial too: later in his career he produced and sold pre-lined blue ink layout boards for cartoonists.

PKM: What were the titles that did best for you? The Crumb comix (HomegrownMr. NaturalSnoid, etc)?  Grateful Dead ComixMickey Rat?

Denis Kitchen: Yes, most of the Crumb titles sold very well. Homegrown went through, as I recall, fifteen printings, most of which averaged 10,000 each, so it sold around 150,000 copies. Mr. Natural #3, XYZ, and Snoid were all best sellers too. Bizarre Sex #1 went through at least seven printings for 70,000 or more total sales. Grateful Dead Comix #1 sold 50,000. But when I came to Northampton I inherited The Crow in its infancy. I can’t even tell you how many comic books sold, but the softcover collection sales were through the roof after the movie adaptation hit. I have a promotional button we put out when book sales hit 375,000, so we ultimately must have approached half a million. For a while we were regularly printing 20,000 Crow books a month to keep pace with sales, even after the movie peaked. That was our all-time best-seller.

For a while we were regularly printing 20,000 Crow books a month to keep pace with sales, even after the movie peaked. That was our all-time best-seller.

PKM: What were the strangest of the titles? I always like what little I saw of John Thompson’s art, and you published an entire issue of his work, Tales from the Sphinx. But then there was Weird Trips.

Denis Kitchen: Those are both contenders, to be sure. John Thompson seemingly drew everything while on acid. His “stories” may have made sense to him at the time, but not so much for readers, though the graphics were intensely detailed and oh-so-strange. The first Weird Trips was trippy in its own way, but the second featured an illustrated Ed Gein article with a brilliantly disturbing William Stout cover. The Bizarre Sex series was probably also pretty damn weird for many readers, and even the Dope Comix run. It’d be tough to pick the single strangest, Alan, but perhaps Mondo Snarfo? That was a spin-off of our Snarf humor series. It had a strong line-up—Crumb, Wilson, Griffith, Spiegelman, Deitch, myself, others—but the angle was to combine comics and surrealism. It’s another example of, I think, beautiful imagery with often non-linear panels that stretch and stimulate a reader’s imagination.

John Thompson seemingly drew everything while on acid. His “stories” may have made sense to him at the time, but not so much for readers, though the graphics were intensely detailed and oh-so-strange. 

PKM: You worked with Stan Lee to create a hybrid (underground/mainstream) publication for Marvel, Comix Book. By 1974, this would have seemed like a good idea to try, given that the underground venues were drying up. What went wrong? That is, why didn’t a larger audience gravitate to Comix Book?

Cover of Comix Book, an ill-fated collaboration between Kitchen and Stan Lee at Marvel Comics.

Denis Kitchen: Marvel had enough confidence to print 200,000 of each issue, staggering numbers by underground norms. Larger audiences might have gravitated, but Stan pulled the plug on Comix Book after the third issue had just hit newsstands, so there were no meaningful sales numbers to analyze—new publications always need some rope and time to gain enough readers. It was killed, as I saw it, for political reasons. I had negotiated a deal that broke some of Marvel’s key traditions: artists retained their original art, artists retained their copyrights, foul language and limited nudity was permitted, and so forth. Those policies did not go over well with Marvel’s mainstream contributors and, honestly, it seems naive of [Stan Lee] to have not anticipated the blowback. When the bullpen guys asked Stan why the new hippies got better treatment than his old guard, he had no easy response, so the simplest solution was to kill the experiment. I had two issues in the can, so Stan ate the losses and kindly allowed Kitchen Sink to publish issues #4 and #5.

It was killed, as I saw it, for political reasons. I had negotiated a deal that broke some of Marvel’s key traditions: artists retained their original art, artists retained their copyrights, foul language and limited nudity was permitted, and so forth. Those policies did not go over well with Marvel’s mainstream contributors and, honestly, it seems naive of [Stan Lee] to have not anticipated the blowback. 

PKM: I noticed in Comix Book # 1 that, among the tantalizing art and stories, you included a Richard Meltzer comix gossip column. What was that? How did you hook up with Meltzer?

Denis Kitchen: Hah! Good eye. Stan and Meltzer had some ongoing conversations before Comix Book but Stan couldn’t figure out how to plug Richard into the Marvel universe. So when I came along, Stan saw an opening and said, “Talk to Denis!” What resulted was that kind of fake comics industry gossip column, but his brand of humor never seemed to click with our readers during the short time we had for feedback. I probably would’ve pursued doing more with Richard at Kitchen Sink but he expected more money than I could afford.

PKM: Tell me about the genesis of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit you founded after a comic store owner was charged with selling “obscene” material, including some Kitchen Sink titles. What did they deem to be “obscene”? And is the CBLDF still an ongoing entity?

Denis Kitchen: In the late 1980s a shop in suburban Chicago, part of a small Friendly Frank’s chain, was busted by two cops who seized various titles, including Omaha the Cat Dancer; Heavy Metal, a Richard Corben title, and several others. The manager, Michael Correa, was charged with “displaying obscene material.” The owner, Frank himself, called to alert me that one of my titles was included. A local newspaper quoted one of the officers saying the shop contained “satanic” images “including Wonder Woman.” I was indignant because Omaha was not porn; it was an erotic comic to be sure, but one with real literary value. Furthermore, why are religious cops factoring Satan into law enforcement? Finally, it wasn’t like Michael had sold the comic to a ten year-old. The alleged crime was simple “display.” WTF? Frank assured me he had a defense lined up, but the local attorney he picked had no First Amendment experience and the jury found Michael guilty. At that point he faced jail time and a significant fine, so I decided to jump in. I recruited a dozen top artists, including Will Eisner, Frank Miller, Sergio Aragones, R. Crumb, Rich Corben, Omaha artist Reed Waller, Howard Cruse, and others. I established The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and published a portfolio of the new art they created, persuading the printer, the distributors, etc. to minimize their fees to maximize the fund-raising, and it worked.

With proceeds from the sold-out portfolios, I hired Burt Joseph, the best First Amendment attorney in the Midwest. He appealed the case and overturned Michael’s conviction at the appellate court level. There remained about $20,000 in the fund at that point. So with some key volunteers who had helped, we formed a board, and wondered if there might be further incidents. There certainly were. We found out that comics retailers, especially in the Bible Belt but even in the suburbs of Chicago, were frequently bullied by local cops and zealous prosecutors to eliminate “offensive” titles. The shop owners almost always had no choice but to acquiesce. But once there was an industry umbrella organization that would hire First Amendment specialists on their behalf, it was a whole new ballgame.

A local newspaper quoted one of the officers saying the shop contained “satanic” images “including Wonder Woman.” I was indignant because Omaha was not porn; it was an erotic comic to be sure, but one with real literary value. Furthermore, why are religious cops factoring Satan into law enforcement?

Soon the CBLDF became a 501 (c) 3 non-profit, and with ongoing fund-raising was able to hire staff, and continues to flourish and provide legal aid, now headquartered in Portland, Oregon. I chaired the organization the first eighteen years, then resigned to encourage fresh blood. In recent years I’m limited to co-chairing the Advisory Board with Neil Gaiman.

PKM: It’s all kind of come full circle, hasn’t it? All the young hipsters now love Basil Wolverton, Will Eisner, Al Capp, vinyl and fedoras.

Denis Kitchen: You forgot Ernie Bushmiller and the Nancy cult! [laughter].

PKM: Who are some of the younger artists who’ve carried the underground torch forward, or even done interesting work?

Denis Kitchen: Gosh, there’s so many. The generation right after the undergrounds included the Hernandez Brothers, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Pete Bagge, Jim Woodring, Jeff Smith, and so on, a lot of talent, but manageable numbers of creators to follow. The field has so exploded since that it’s impossible for anyone, certainly including me, to stay on top of the seemingly inexhaustible flow of comics and graphic novels just in print, not to mention all the digitally-based comics. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining, it’s just overwhelming. And while much exciting work is done in small-run indy areas, some reach best-seller status. Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novel sales, for example, are off the charts. It’s all healthy. And in a field dominated for so many decades by white men, it’s wonderful to see so many women, people of color, and gay and trans, and creators worldwide producing comics like never before, in numbers that defy any serious fans’ ability to see everything. After all, who can stay on top of everything the world of literature annually produces, or the music industry, or film? Comics are now also a prolific creative medium to reckon with, with countless voices and drawing styles and concepts to appeal to wide tastes.

Some younger or newer comics creators I’ve read recently and enjoyed were Jilian Tamaki, Meredith Gran, Karl Krumpholz, and Josh Pettinger. But there are certainly others. I just got a package today of new arrivals from Wig Shop, a wonderful mail order purveyor of small press comics based in Denver.

And in a field dominated for so many decades by white men, it’s wonderful to see so many women, people of color, and gay and trans, and creators worldwide producing comics like never before, in numbers that defy any serious fans’ ability to see everything.

PKM: You kept your head at a time when many were losing theirs, to drugs, radical politics, depression, psychosis, violence, etc. How? Were you more of a beer and cheese guy, at heart, than an LSD and patchouli guy?

Denis Kitchen: Hah! You may have already answered it. I was certainly a card-carrying hippie who enjoyed weed and selected hallucinogens. But I always had an innate sense of moderation in all things. Perhaps that was a component of starting out as a Midwesterner. But seeing some close friends get sucked into the cocaine habit becoming alcoholics was quite literally sobering for me. Also, just the act of creating comix was, and remains, its own deeply satisfying high. And running an offbeat publishing company, once I embraced the responsibility early on, forced me to stay clear-eyed and focused. Too many creators and employees and, indirectly, their families, counted on Kitchen Sink for steady revenue. The ship had to be steered carefully or it’d flounder on the rocks.

Three books co-written by Denis Kitchen: Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman, and Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics Into Comix.

PKM: Finally, what’s in the works for Kitchen Sink Enterprises now? You just returned from the New York ComicCon and, judging from your Instagram feed, fans were flocking to your booths. Are you planning to publish a book of those amazing Wolverton-esque doodle creatures?

Denis Kitchen: Those Wolverton-esque—thank you—drawings, done on chipboard, will indeed be published shortly. There was an earlier collection, Denis Kitchen’s Chipboard Sketchbook, but the upcoming one, provisionally titled Creatures From the Subconscious, is bigger and better. It’s coming from Tinto Press in Denver in early 2022. Beyond that, my youngest daughter Violet and I co-authored a book about twentieth century cartoonist/illustrator Harrison Cady for Beehive Books a couple years back. We’re starting a similar large monograph for Beehive on Boris Artzybasheff, another amazing but largely forgotten artist. 

Denis Kitchen’s Chipboard Sketchbook, 2013.

I still keep a foot in actual publishing, mainly via boxed sets of vintage musicians by R. Crumb (Blues, Jazz, and Country) and his more recent Weirdo set. But at press right now are Legends of the Blues and More Legends by William Stout, a hundred wonderful musician portraits and mini-bios all told. I also have a set of Emily Dickinson postcards in the works, mostly for regional distribution. There’s that one Emily photo everyone has seen a hundred times, so I commissioned Peter Poplaski, an amazing artistic chameleon, to draw her as she might have been drawn by various famous painters and cartoonists. Those will be out in early 2022.

     
     Robert Crumb card sets published by Kitchen: Pioneers of Country Music, Jazz Greats, Heroes of the Blues.
 

I still represent talent via two separate agencies, package books periodically with John Lind for Dark Horse, and handle art sales for certain cartoonist estates. And because I obsessively collect topical postcards from the early 1900s, there’s usually not a lot of spare free time, but I’m also in the early stages of a documentary film about Al Capp with Andrew Cooke, and may be involved in another doc on the early flying saucer culture. Keeping busy, Alan, as I delude myself that semi-retirement is just around the corner.

Kitchen Sink Press and Denis Kitchen Art Agency can be reached at:

https://www.deniskitchen.com/

http://www.pleasekillme.com
 
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