Denis Kitchen’s ‘Oddly Compelling Art’
Underground comix and other works by a Milwaukee master
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
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.
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.