The Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen
Tea Krulos interviews cartoonist Denis Kitchen
People may be surprised to know that one of underground publishing’s most important figures started here in Milwaukee in the late 60’s. To try and chronicle all of Denis Kitchen’s work is an exhausting task. Kitchen ran an empire called Krupp Comic Works, inc. The most significant factor was Kitchen Sink Press which published a variety of underground and classic artists for thirty years. He started with his own comic, Mom’s Homemade comics as well as comics by R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Jay Lynch, Charles Burns and other underground legends as well as collections of classic strips such as AI Capp (lil Abner) George Herriman (Krazy Kat) Bob Kane (Batman) and others too numerous to mention. Kitchen Sink won so many Eisner and Harvey awards, it’s not even funny. Kitchen helped create The Bugle-American, later simply known as The Bugle, a Wisconsin alternative newspaper that ran for seven years.
As an artist Kitchen’s comics and illustrations have appeared in such titles as Blab, Bijou funnies, Consumer comix, Dope comix, Nard n Pat, and the Milwaukee Journal’s Insight magazine and many more. He also founded and serves as president of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), a non-profit corporation dedicated to defending the industry’s first amendment rights. Since 2000 he has also chaired the Harvey awards committee which oversees the annual industry awards program. In 2002 he became a member of the board of advisers of MOCCA (Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art) in New York City.
More recently Kitchen now runs Denis Kitchen Publishing which prints a smaller amount of books including recent titles by Harvey Kurtzman and R. Crumb. More information and art can be seen at www.deniskitchen.com. I recently interviewed Denis Kitchen about his early days in Milwaukee and he sent some art from this era to be reprinted in Riverwurst comics...
I’m interested to hear about the early days of Krupp Comic Works, Inc. and Kitchen Sink Press. What was the scene like then?
If you mean the “hip” scene, everyone knows that San Francisco was Mecca. But with regard to the underground comix subculture, there were actually two centers: San Francisco and Milwaukee. That will surprise a lot of people. But I was able to find quite a few really good cartoonists in Milwaukee and they became a part of Krupp Kitchen Sink’s core. Krupp was the “umbrella” organization (the corporation).
Kitchen Sink Press was the imprint and eventually the sole entity. But for a while Krupp had a head shop (Strickly Uppa Crust), a Krupp Mail Order catalog, a national distribution arm, a commercial art studio (The Cartoon Factory) and, of course, the comic book company, which was always at the heart. As a joke on our own capitalistic tendencies, I created an octopus as the corporate symbol, with a division in each tentacle. At the very same time I founded Krupp I co-founded The Bugle (originally the Bugle-American) with several fellow UWM journalism graduates. That ended up being kind of a conflict. I was torn between two different organizations, devoting most of every waking moment to one or the other for the first year or two. But it was an exciting time. There was a palpable sense of revolution in the air. Nobody was making any money but we were intensely creative and felt integrally part of a larger cultural movement. It seems fairly idealistic in retrospect, but it was – for a while anyway – an amazing period. A quick example: For the first two years of Kitchen Sink we sent packages all over the country to distributors and head shops on “open terms.” We never asked for credit references. If you called and said you were “The Electric Eyeball” in Minneapolis, we shipped the order on 30 day terms. Yet no one ripped us off for the first two years. It would be unimaginable now to conduct business that way. But in the early 70s it worked.
What sort of contributors did you have? Were they local artists?
I discovered several great cartoonists right in the city: Jim Mitchell, Don Glassford, Bruce Walthers, Wendel Pugh, and I initially got together every week to do a strip for The Bugle, which ran in the Krupp Syndicate (another tentacle) newspapers. All five also did Bugle covers, though I think I did the most over its seven year run. A bit later Peter Loft, another Milwaukeean, joined the group. Pete Poplaskimoved to the city from Green Bay and Dan Burr became part of the scene. Eight really good alternative cartoonists in one city is amazing. There were only two or three in Chicago, for example, and anyone good in New York City had migrated to the bay area, so Milwaukee really was an unusual comix oasis. On top of that local core, artists from all over contributed. Robert Crumb regularly visited Milwaukee, and gave us a high percentage of his work over the years. I knew we were doing something right when several San Francisco cartoonists began sending their work to us!
What was your first publication?
Mom’s Homemade Comics No. 1, sub-titled “Straight From the Kitchen to You.” It was done entirely by me; the last time I was able to do a solo book. It retailed for 49 cents, with “prices slightly higher in foreign countries and South Milwaukee.” It came out on July 4, 1969. I remember hawking them at the Schlitz circus parade with my brother Jim and another friend or two. Cops stopped us and said, “Where’s your seller’s permit?” I said, “The press is free, man,” and they surprisingly walked away. I subsequently went to every head shop and book store on the east side or downtown and placed copies on consignment. That was the primitive genesis of what became Krupp Distribution.
How well did underground comics go in Milwaukee?
Amazingly well. I sold 3,000 copies of Mom’s No. 1 in Milwaukee alone. A lot of underground comix sold 10,000 copies in the entire country.
What was the address of Strickly Uppa Crust?
Strickly Uppa Crust, our head shop, was at 1234 East Brady Street. It had the usual head shop fare but also boasted the “largest selection of comics in the state.” There was an entire wall of underground comix, both Kitchen Sink’s and all the west coast titles. We also had a couple token spin racks of “mainstream” Marvel and DC comics. Kareem Abdul Jabbar was a regular customer, and various celebrities visiting the city would drop in. John Mayall, the British bluesman, was the first that I recall. After that the clerks became a bit jaded.
What area of Milwaukee did you operate out of and what was it like at the time?
I started out of a second floor apartment on the corner of Frederick and Webster on the east side. For the first year or so I had to pick up comix from our Port Washington printer in my 1954 Cadillac hearse, park in front of the apartment, then carry each box of comix to the back door, walk up two flights of steps to my attic, and start over again. Hard to believe in retrospect. The apartment served as the warehouse, shipping department and editorial headquarters. Jim Mitchell and Don Glassford used to meet with me a day each week to pack orders and then shlep the boxes down the steps and to the post office. It was a prayer answered when we finally got a real combination office and warehouse on North Avenue, a couple blocks from Farwell. I think there’s a McDonald’s there now. One night, working late, Poplaski, Loft, and I took a break at the late, great Oriental Drugstore, returning to the Krupp office around midnight. I must have been fumbling with the lock when two of Milwaukee’s finest descended and assumed three hippies were breaking into the place. I had to show them my business card with the address. They seemed genuinely astonished that longhairs actually held jobs and worked long hours.
Was there a lot of collaboration with the music scene?
I knew some of the local bands pretty well and frequently did posters and flyers for them. The early ones I recall most fondly were The Velvet Whip, Furry Quim Slash and The Baroques. The Shags were also big then. Sigmund Snopek III was a friend, as was Paul Cebar. I did the psychedelic album cover for Jim Spencer’s “Major Arcana” album, which Japanese and European collectors now pay $200 and $300 a pop for. I was invited to do a Violent Femmes album cover but that one somehow fell through. Early on I participated in some concerts, sharing poster billing, as a body painter. I’d paint butterflies and various things on girls’ foreheads, arms and thighs (those were mini-skirt days) in Day-Glo tempera paint, then they’d gyrate under the black lights while the bands droned on. I sure miss those days.
Did you work with a lot of flyer artists? Was there an exciting Milwaukee music scene at that time?
I created a lot of original flyers, but in those days no one called themselves “flyer artists.” I was pretty versatile in that I’d do flyers and posters for acid bands and hard rock bands while at the same time I’d be doing illustrations for The Milwaukee Journal Sunday magazine or posters for Schlitz. The latter paid the bills. But doing underground comic books was always the central focus. I was far too busy to have the luxury of hanging out with musicians all that much. I think they’d say the same thing. We’d see each other at bars or parties, but I wasn’t attending a lot of concerts. Kitchen Sink would often hire live music for its parties. It seemed to me that it was an exciting music scene but I didn’t have the music perspective that I had in the comics field.
Why did you leave Milwaukee?
In late 1972 my first wife Irene was in the hospital and begged me to leave the city. She longed to be part of the back to the land movement. I was quite content in Milwaukee. As a matter of fact, I very much loved Milwaukee. But while she was ill I promised her we’d find a place in the country. We ended up in early 1973 in Princeton, Wisconsin, where two fellow co-founders of The Bugle, Mike and Judy Jacobi, already had a farmhouse. The sublime irony is that one year after the move to the country Irene abandoned me and our two infant daughters and she went back to Milwaukee. I ended up being the back-to-the-lander. But it turned out to be a good practical move for the business. I was eventually able to convert a large barn into an office complex, kept overhead minimal, built a warehouse and was able to focus on the comics business without the distractions of the city. The truth is, I hosted and attended a lot of parties in Milwaukee in the early 70’s. Great memories, but it was not the most productive situation.
Why did you leave Wisconsin? Was it because of the crappy weather?
Hell, New England winters aren’t much better. Actually, I decided in 1993 to merge Kitchen Sink Press with Tundra Publishing in Northampton, Massachusetts. The new company could just as easily have been in Wisconsin, but I had divorced a second time and could not meet anyone in Princeton, a tiny town 100 miles north of Milwaukee, and I realized I was culturally starved. Northampton is a smaller version of Madison which I was quite enchanted with. So I decided to do something radical and uproot. It was the right time. Prior to that I could have been on Wisconsin’s tourist board, I was so loyal to the state. But I needed a change at that point and don’t regret it. I met my third and last wife Stacey after the move and we have a delightful five-year-old daughter who is, I might add, an astonishing little cartoonist.
This question is about the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. What sort of cases have you dealt with? Any notorious ones?
I founded the CBLDF in 1986 after one of Kitchen Sink’s comics, Omaha the Cat Dancer, was part of a bust in a suburban Chicago comics shop. A self-admitted religious cop found 14 or so comics offensive, including Heavy Metal and a “Satanic” Wonder Woman poster, and arrested the manager, who was later convicted of selling obscenity. I was genuinely upset by the incident and rallied artists to create a fund--raising portfolio for a defense fund. About $20,000 was raised and we were able to reverse the conviction. At that point I made the CBLDF a permanent non-profit organization. It now raises about $200,000 annually to protect cartoonists’ and retailers’ First Amendment rights. Our most notorious case so far? It’s probably Mike Diana. His is also one of the very few we’ve lost. Diana was convicted of drawing obscene and blasphemous fanzine comics, which he sold in tiny quantities only to other consenting adults by mail. He was unfortunately living in Gainesville, FL when there was a serial killer at large and he came under suspicion. He was innocent of any connection to the murder spree but police discovered his crude comics and he was arrested and convicted of producing obscenity. Part of the judge’s unprecedented sentence required that Diana not draw any comics, even in the privacy of his own home! Police were allowed to spot check his apartment for compliance. Astonishingly, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review this case, the only one to my knowledge in which an artist was forbidden to draw.
Did you run into any censorship issues in Milwaukee? We’re sort of famous for that (such as George Carlin being arrested at Summerfest)
I remember the Carlin incident well. But, no, I never had any legal problems whatsoever in Milwaukee.
Do you think computer technology has helped or hurt the comic industry, in particular underground comics?
I believe the best comics are art and, to me, the original inked drawing has an inherent value aside from its communicative value. No computer will ever be able to replace a sable brush on illustration board, nor can any screen provide the aesthetic satisfaction of creating or seeing a hand-drawn original. That said, I certainly believe computers and the internet are an indisputable boon to the medium in that distribution to an audience is much easier, much cheaper and more international. The problem remains how to make any kind of living doing digital comics. No one yet has solved that challenge, but I suspect it’s not far away.
Do you still visit Milwaukee? When was the last time you were here, and what were your impressions?
My mother, a couple siblings, and some close friends live in Milwaukee, so I get back at least a couple times a year, last around Thanksgiving. What I miss most is walking into east side bars and recognizing faces. Every time I come back I see changes for both better and worse. The closing of the Oriental Drugstore was criminal. I was surprised to see Ma Fisher’s on Farwell go from a hole in the wall to a large restaurant a year or two back. I was impressed with the dramatic architectural addition to the art museum. As an old Braves and Brewers fan, I was pleased that the city built a domed stadium, even if a leaky one. But it’s no fun reading the box scores out east and not seeing a winning team in the entire decade I’ve been gone. Truth is, I’ve lost interest in baseball, like many. I still like Milwaukee, but it’s like seeing an old girlfriend. The original spark is no longer there.
A collection of your art is in the design stage. When will it be released? Looking back at years of comics and illustrations does anything really stick out in your mind as a definitive Denis Kitchen piece?
It’s called The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen. It was announced in 1989 for Kitchen Sink’s 20th anniversary, but I withdrew it when other artists’ projects at the time seemed more important. In early 1998 my employees convinced me to publish the book for Kitchen Sink’s 30th anniversary. I scheduled it and then in January 1999 the company folded! I finally decided to do it under my new imprint (Denis Kitchen Publishing Co.), though I just received a call from Dark Horse Comics, located, ironically enough, in the other Milwaukee (Oregon) and it looks like they might publish it. In either case, late 2004 is the earliest target. I’m currently editing the material. It will include a lot of Bugle covers and other art deeply rooted in Milwaukee. In an ideal world, I’d like to arrange an exhibit somewhere in the city to coincide with publication. It might draw some old Wisconsin hippies out of the woodwork, as well as some younger fans who still seem to be out there. As far as a definitive piece, I’d pick “The Square Publisher,” an autobiographical yet surreal piece which ran in Blab #8 and will be in the upcoming collection.
To close, any great or wild Milwaukee related stories?
A wild Milwaukee story? Okay. I regarded myself as a politically progressive guy in the late 60’s. I was the socialist candidate for Lt. Governor in 1970; I marched with Father Groppi, opposed the draft, and thought my credentials were in order. America was boiling over with burning political issues. The Vietnam War was raging. The civil rights movement was intense. Legalizing pot was a big issue, as were Gay politics. The Feminist movement was also quickly emerging and was one I was particularly curious about. The counterculture, of course, had its own political divisions. The local underground newspaper that I was part of, The Bugle, was in direct competition with Kaleidoscope, a more radical underground. They probably seriously thought the CIA funded The Bugle. Nonetheless, in mid-1971, I naively approached the “feminist collective” that, at the time, controlled Kaleidoscope. I wanted to hear their views. They invited me to their Brady Street office. It was a hot summer day. They said, “Let’s go on the roof. It’s cooler up there.” So we went up to the third or fourth floor roof with folding chairs. There was no railing of any kind. I quickly found myself on the edge of the roof with six angry women surrounding me in a semi-circle. They weren’t interested in an intellectual exchange. They began by thrusting copies of comic books drawn by R. Crumb and S. Clay Wilson. I protested that I hadn’t published those particular comic books. Unacceptable answer, I was told, as they inched their chairs toward me, that I needed to stop distributing misogynist comix. The Brady Street traffic was all too visible over my shoulder as they leaned in on me. I assured them I would talk to my wayward brothers. “Why don’t you publish comics by women?” they said sternly. “There aren’t very many good women cartoonists,” I stupidly responded. They inched their chairs toward me again. “I’ll look harder,” I promised. The intimidation continued. Finally, one of them, I believe it was Jennie Orvino Sorcic, a local poet with prominent breasts, produced a copy of Mom’s Homemade Comics. “Why do you draw women with large breasts?” she demanded. I wanted to say with a smirk, “I draw what I see,” but was scared shitless and instead apologized for the error of my ways. With that the “meeting” ended. The Brady Street pavement looked good enough to kiss on my way out. True story.
This interview appeared in Riverwürst Comics #2.
Riverwest Currents - Volume 2 - Issue 7 - July 2003
Riverwest Currents online edition - July, 2003