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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Comics Transformed Into Comix

Denis Kitchen’s underground art comes home to Wisconsin

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Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit and the graphic novels A Contract With God and A Life Force, used to joke about a "Wisconsin mafia" in the comics world.

Or, to be more precise, the comix world, the "x" signifying the kind of adventurous, creative and confrontational graphics produced by such underground luminaries as R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith and Harvey Pekar.

As illustrated by "Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix, 1963-1990," an exhibition in Madison's Chazen Museum of Art, Wisconsin was near the forefront in the creation and distribution of this alternative art form.

The exhibit, which runs through July 12, features 125 pieces of original art, printed pages, merchandising items and other materials. The artists, including Eisner, Crumb, Spiegelman, Griffith, Pekar, Harvey Kurtzman, Trina Robbins, Skip Williamson and others, reads like a Who's Who of the undergrounds. Viewing the entries is a check-back to another era, when rock blared out of head shops and record stores stocked with black-light posters, pipes and papers, vinyl records and incense, when comix and alternative newspapers took on the mainstream media by addressing the issues swept into dark corners by editors fearful of offending advertisers.

It's not coincidental that the exhibit opened in Wisconsin. Co-curator (with James Danky) Denis Kitchen, who founded Kitchen Sink Press, one of the most important comix publishers of its day, has strong ties to southeastern Wisconsin.

"It's opened in the Midwest to show that the Midwest had a surprisingly strong contingent of artists," says Kitchen, who co-edited (with Danky) the accompanying book published by Abrams, UndergroundClassics, a collection of essays and cartoons that explore comix as art. The underground movement, he admits, was "associated pretty much with San Francisco, but next to San Francisco-Berkeley, the Milwaukee-Chicago axis was by far the strongest."

Kitchen's involvement began in the late-'60s, when he drew and distributed his own comix, and co-founded Milwaukee's Bugle-American alternative newspaper, which featured the work of such Wisconsin artists as Jim Mitchell, Pete Poplaski and Kitchen himself. The commentary was pointed, and the laconic artistic style seemed to make each panel all the funnier.

Kitchen's education was strictly on-the-job. He spent the last of his money on self-publishing Mom's Homemade Comics (1969), one of the earliest underground comic books in the country. His target audience was decisively regional.

"I was creating an underground comic for Milwaukee youth," he says. "If you go back and look at a copy of Mom's No. 1, you'll see that it's replete with in-jokes about Milwaukee and Wisconsin. I wasn't intending to sell it to hippies in San Francisco.

"I ran around every shop on the East Side of Milwaukee, whether it was a head shop or drugstore or used bookstore," he adds. "I'd sweet-talk them. I'd say, 'Hey, let me leave 25 copies with you. Just sign here. I'll come back in a couple weeks, collect the money, and give you some more.' To me, it was just common-sense stuff. For lack of a better description, I had that hustler instinct."

Those instincts, as it turned out, led him to become "a publisher by default."

Hawking his work earned him a meager income, but nowhere near enough to print a follow-up. He hooked up with a West Coast publisher willing to print his books, but wound up getting ripped off. Two of his friends, Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson, publishers of Bijou, the first underground out of Chicago, had a similarly bad experience with the same California publisher.

"I remember saying to Jay, 'I'm just going to publish the second one myself. I did it the first time, and I'm just going to do it again, only on a broader scale.' And Jay said, 'We're unhappy with those guys, too. Will you do Bijou No. 2?' And I said what may be the smartest or dumbest thing I ever said: 'Sure. Why not? Doing two is as easy as one.'"

Kitchen Sink Press was born. Kitchen, with his Bugle connections, had plenty of Wisconsin artists to publish, as well as a growing number of artists across the country, including a Cleveland transplant making a splash on the West Coast named Robert Crumb. Underground comix were flourishing, and Kitchen's press gained the reputation of being a great place for artists, both for aesthetics and fair business practices.

Then, several years after founding his company, Kitchen caught the biggest break of his life when, while attending a comics convention in New York City, he met Will Eisner. Baldheaded and wearing a jacket and tie, Eisner was the grand old man at the convention and an obvious contrast to Kitchen, with his long hair and mustache and hippie attire. Unlikely as it seemed, they hit it off.

Eisner was amazed that young collectors, many not yet born when he was doing TheSpirit in the '40s and early-'50s, were interested in his Golden Age detective. Further, after spending more than two decades out of the public light, producing educational and commercial work, Eisner was looking to get back into his creative endeavors. He was taken by the range and creativity he saw in the undergrounds. Kitchen was interested in re-issuing The Spirit, and wound up reprinting it in a series of magazines and comic books. Perhaps more important, he became the publisher of most of Eisner's graphic novels.

The relationship proved fortuitous for Kitchen's Wisconsin associates. Dave Schreiner from the Bugle-American became Eisner's editor. Pete Poplaski worked with Eisner on a number of projects, including the covers of The Spirit magazine. Judy Hansen, another former Milwaukeean and a driving force in the early days of the Express newspaper, teamed up with Kitchen, and the two acted as Eisner's art and literary agents.

Other comics and comix giants followed. Besides publishing R. Crumb and Harvey Kurtzman (founder of Mad magazine and co-creator of Little Annie Fanny), Kitchen reprinted such mainstream comic strip artists as Al Capp (Li'l Abner) and Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon). Kitchen Sink moved to Massachusetts in 1993, and chugged along until Kitchen shut down operations in 1999.

Odd to think that comics, once the domain of "12-year-old cretins in Kansas City," as readers were disparagingly known in the business, have not only reached a level of historical artistic importance; their breakthrough work is now considered rather tame, even if it will never be for kids.

Brown University's Paul Buhle will lecture on "Wisconsin Ideas About Comics! The Madison Underground, and as Far Away as Princeton and Mount Horeb, in the Growth of Comic Art, 1967-Present" at 7 p.m. on June 25 at the Chazen Museum of Art.


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