Share this @internewscast.com
Denis Kitchen has always been a contrarian. In the late 1960s, when counterculture skepticism of capitalism ran high, underground cartoonist Kitchen launched a business, the long-running Kitchen Sink Press imprint that featured important work by R. Crumb, Jay Lynch, Howard Cruse, Trina Robbins, and many others, including Kitchen himself. Now 50 years later, as startups and new publishing imprints are appearing all over the landscape, the erstwhile entrepreneur has dusted off his drawing board and is finally getting back to his hippie roots.
His current project is a collection of psychedelic drawings called Creatures from the Subconscious from Colorado-based Tinto Press, but he says more artwork, including comics, is forthcoming. This is good news for fans of Kitchen’s work, which appeared sporadically in undergrounds of 60s and 70s, but has long taken a back seat to his business ventures.
“I chose the publishing path early on, because there was a huge opportunity,” Kitchen explained. “Hippies were craving their own comics, and you didn’t have to be a business genius to be successful because demand was so much greater than supply. Even a cartoonist could do it.”
Kitchen began by self-publishing his own work in a comic called Mom’s Homemade Comics, which he printed and distributed in his home turf of Wisconsin in the late 60s. He learned enough from the experience that when a fellow cartoonist asked him if he could take over publication of a comic that he was doing, Kitchen fatefully decided that “two would be as easy as one.”
Before long, Kitchen Sink Publishing was distributing hundreds of thousands of underground comix to head shops, independent bookstores and other alternative outlets around the country, laying the groundwork for trends that would sweep through the mainstream comics industry in future decades including the direct market (distribution to outlets other than newsstands, such as comic book stores), creator ownership, independent publishing, and an explosion of art, literary and political themes in comics beyond the traditional genres of superheroes, science fiction and humor.
In the mid-70s, the “war on drugs” cracked down on drug paraphernalia retailers, shutting off a key retail outlet for undergrounds and driving a number of publishers out of business. Kitchen Sink soldiered on, in part by diversifying its lineup and reprinting older work like Will Eisner’s The Spirit, Al Capp’s Li’l Abner and Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon along with a new generation of alternative comics artists.
Kitchen credits his mentors, Eisner and legendary humorist Harvey Kurtzman (MAD), for helping him understand the importance of focusing on the business aspects of publishing. Ironically, the business-minded and entrepreneurial Eisner had counseled Kitchen to pursue his art, whereas the stereotypically bad-at-business artist Kurtzman advised the opposite, explaining that comics needed smart, honest businesspeople more than it needed another cartoonist.
As the publishing enterprise grew, Kitchen found less and less time to draw his own charming, quirky comics, despite their popularity. The 2010 volume The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen (Dark Horse Books) provides an aptly-titled retrospective of his work.
Through the 80s and 90s, Kitchen Sink found a new audience in the burgeoning comic store market. Kitchen was an early publisher of important creators like Charles Burns, Joe Matt, James O’Barr (The Crow) and Mark Schultz (Cadillacs and Dinosaurs), while expanding comics’ footprint on bookshelves with original graphic novels, trade book reprints of classics, and items like Scott McCloud’s seminal treatise on the medium of comics, Understanding Comics. In the mid-90s, Kitchen Sink merged with Tundra, the publisher founded by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman, but soon ran into financial troubles and closed its doors in 1998.
Rather than return to art at that moment, Kitchen got deeper into the business as an agent, book packager, author, editor, founder of the anti-censorship nonprofit Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and comics historian, paths he pursued until the pandemic allowed him to refocus his priorities.
“I’m significantly into my 70s, but I’m still healthy, still full of energy, and I’ve been able to simplify my life by reducing my clients and outside obligations,” he said. “I finally have the chance to come full circle.”
Kitchen says he has a backlog of projects that has been keeping him busy at the drawing board. The Creatures from the Subconscious book is a collection of spontaneous drawings that he composes when he is sufficiently “relaxed.” But he’s also working on a more structured material including anecdotal stories and funny incidents that he’s collected over the years, in collaboration with other artists.
“I’m reaching out to old friends and colleagues who are willing to work together on these in the way that Harvey Pekar [American Splendor] used to work with different artists [including Crumb] to do stories in his own voice,” he said.
Kitchen says that he may not have all the energy of his youth, but his years of experience make up for it. “As you live life, you go through a lot of pain and anguish and pleasures, that deepens the stories you can tell.” He’s also inspired by his daughter Violet, herself an up-and-coming cartoonist, who “keeps me on my toes.”
Despite his renewed focus on art, Kitchen can’t help admiring the innovations in the business that have made this career renaissance possible. “I love the crowdfunding model,” he said. “If Kickstarter had been around when I was getting started, I’m sure I would have embraced it from the start. Not only does it solve some of the fundamental economic problems of publishing, you also get interactions with your customer base that you’d never see otherwise.”