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Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2010

Denis Kitchen’s ‘Oddly Compelling Art’

Underground comix and other works by a Milwaukee master

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Comics fans tend to forget—if, in fact, they ever knew—that prior to founding Kitchen Sink Press and publishing some of the most important work in comics history, Denis Kitchen was an artist himself, producing everything from underground comix to commercial art. The publisher, who printed the early work of such giants as R. Crumb, Harvey Pekar and Art Spiegelman, as well as reprints of such icons as Will Eisner, Al Capp, Harvey Kurtzman and Ernie Bushmiller, started out modestly enough, attending UW-Milwaukee and starting up a campus humor magazine; co-founding (and contributing many covers to) the Bugle-American alternative newspaper; and putting together Mom’s Homemade Comics, a standout contribution to the undergrounds in their infancy stage. As a kid, he read comic books and hoped to follow in the footsteps of some of his favorite artists, but his work as a publisher derailed those ambitions.

Publishing, he likes to remember, was a happy accident, more a matter of his being dissatisfied with the way his work was being handled by a West Coast publisher than his interest in publishing the work of others. He figured to self-publish Mom’s Homemade Comics, but he was roped into publishing Bijou Funnies, a Chicago-based underground comic book that had enjoyed success in San Francisco, the heart of the undergrounds and the hippie counterculture. Once he took the plunge, Kitchen found that he had a sizable audience.

“What I had going for me was that there was a rapidly growing market amongst hippies—what we now call a niche market,” he told Charles Brownstein, author of a lengthy biographical essay accompanying the beautiful new coffee-table book The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen (Dark Horse). “They also had a certain fashion sense, and clearly had tastes that weren’t being fulfilled by the mass market, in literature and certainly in entertainment, like comics… And freaks seemed to be everywhere, not just the Bay Area.”

Unfortunately for the artist in Kitchen, the more deeply he became involved in his newfound press, the less he produced in his own art. By the end of the 1970s, Kitchen had moved almost entirely away from the drawing board.

“I always thought it was rather a shame that Kitchen became a publisher and businessman to the neglect of his artistic talent,” R. Crumb states in his cover blurb for the book. He is hardly alone in this observation. The Oddly Compelling Art reprints the most memorable of Kitchen’s work, and, in the process, provides a history of a period in comics that greatly influenced today’s writers and illustrators of comic books and graphic novels.

There’s plenty of Wisconsin, in general, and Milwaukee, in specific, in this book. There are healthy samplings of Kitchen’s college work, his covers for the Bugle-American and Fox River Patriot (a biweekly publication started up in late-1976), and his early underground comix. Kitchen’s quirky sense of humor, highly influenced by Mad magazine creator Harvey Kurtzman, is on display everywhere, from cornball Midwestern puns and jokes, to social commentary made funnier by the use of outrageous characters, to the kind of cartoon-like drawings associated with Keith Haring, to surrealism predating some of the popular work being produced today. It was the type of humor and expression appreciated by Stan Lee of Marvel Comics, who enlisted Kitchen’s editing and publishing skills in his short-lived Comix Book, intended to be aboveground competition with the undergrounds and National Lampoon. This was material intended for the kid still inhabiting the adult, or for the adult refusing to be sucked into the bland, boring humor that seemed to be mass-produced and force-fed to the general public.

Brownstein’s essay addresses the ways in which Kitchen applied his sensibilities as an artist to the building of the various Kitchen Sink enterprises, and how his historian’s and fan’s interests in classic comic strips and books led to his reprint work, virtually all of it accomplished in Wisconsin. It’s no wonder that Will Eisner, known to be an astute businessman as well as an influential artist, thought of Kitchen as a younger version of himself.

Kitchen, who recently won an Eisner Award for his work on The Art of Harvey Kurtzman, a collaboration with fellow Wisconsinite Paul Buhle, hopes to return to the drawing board now that he is no longer tied down to Kitchen Sink Press and other endeavors, but judging from his heavy involvement as an editor and writer in other projects currently in the works, that might be a pipe dream. In the meantime, readers and comics fans have this book, which shows what Kitchen sacrificed in his pursuit of publishing others.