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Friday, August 6, 2010

The Oddly Compelling Interview: Denis Kitchen

Denis Kitchen is special.  One of the most influential, respected, and beloved titans of the comics industry, he has the intelligence, ambition, and talent of five men.  One career could never suffice to allow full expression of his remarkable abilities.  We know him variously as publisher, agent, writer, collector, curator, artist, and founder of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

He’s also known for sartorial elegance (or soon will be) and shining wit.  But I don’t want you to get the idea that he is some kind of Noel Coward of comics.  Kitchen is earthy.  He keeps it real.  He is completely genuine, giving and getting respect with cheerful humility and a kind and welcoming spirit.

Kitchen’s comics and cartoons are bursting with his splendid personality.  Dark Horse just published a collection of his art, spanning 45 years and captioned by Kitchen himself.  Art is such a great way to get to know an artist, and now we can all settle down with a good book and get to know Denis Kitchen.

The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen is designed by the talented John Lind using an understated palette that only pretends to confine an irrepressible creativity.  It comes with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, who justly celebrates Kitchen’s wardrobe, artistic genius, and genuine goodness, and a fascinating essay by Charles Brownstein that helps to establish Kitchen’s monumental place in comics history.  But above all, this 9×12 volume is packed with the wonderful art of Denis Kitchen.

Some reviewers will tell you Kitchen’s work is “underground,” a proud epithet to be sure, but younger readers may not care.  With fresh eyes, what you might see is art that is playful, wry, cutting, and sometimes downright dangerous.  Be careful about putting Kitchen and his art in “historical perspective.”  He’s alive and kicking, showing us how to see things in new ways.  Some imitators would be most welcome!

But enough from me.  Let’s hear what Denis Kitchen has to say about Denis Kitchen, presented for your reading pleasure with some tantalizing peeps at the contents of The Oddly Compelling Art.  Enjoy!

What are you wearing?

Hah! You’re no doubt poking fun at Neil Gaiman calling me a “snappy dresser” in his introduction, Beth. It’s true that I’ll wear black suits for certain industry events, but at the moment, I’m home and it’s plain old jeans and a denim shirt. Then again, even if I was wearing Sluggo pajamas, I’d hesitate saying so. I’d have to worry about Craig Yoe casing the joint.

What was your first comic strip/cartoon/comic?

My first comics were drawn to entertain grade school classmates, passed around and, with few exceptions are long gone and forgotten. The first recurring comic strip I did wasn’t till college; forgettable stuff, but a good training ground.

What are you reading right now?

I’m simultaneously reading The Girl Who Played With Fire, like half of the country, and an advance copy of Michael Schumacher’s new biography of Will Eisner.

What is your guilty pleasure?  At least, the one that really answers an ITCH!

Collecting tacky postcards. I collect a number of things, and each has its own peculiar satisfaction, but at the moment postcards best answer the itch. Somehow, in sorting the incoming into distinct categories like “Bad Hair,” “Losers,” “Tramps,” “Ugly Tattoos,” and “Giant Vegetables,” I feel at peace with the world.

Who was the first cartoonist/animator you met?

It wasn’t easy to meet cartoonists where I grew up in the Midwest, but the first professional was Bill Sanders, editorial cartoonist for the Milwaukee Journal. He was a great guy, very encouraging, and he gave me my first sable brushes, so it was crucial in a way.  The first underground guys I met were Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson. The first animator was Grim Natwick.

Which dead cartoonist/animator would you most like to meet?

If the very first thought is best, Ernie Bushmiller.

What would you say?

“Ernie, why wouldn’t you return my calls or answers letters when you were alive?” And, in truth, he did ignore my efforts to make contact. On reflection, I’d actually rather meet Cliff Sterrett or Al Capp, the ones I respected most as cartoonists, but Bushmiller holds a particular fascination for me.

What has been the highlight of your career to date?

Sheesh. I guess it depends on which career! I’ve worn a few hats. At varying times, first publishing Crumb or Kurtzman or Eisner or certain other luminaries would have qualified for that hat. As an agent, it’d probably be for Crumb’s Genesis. As a curator, the underground comix exhibition that opened in Madison last year. As a writer, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman was especially satisfying. The Oddly Compelling Art book is a culmination of my artistic side, though hopefully it’s not the last. Just as it would be difficult to show you my tackiest postcard, I’m not sure I can identify a singular career highlight. Aren’t I too young for this kind of reflection?

Please tell us a little about your latest project.

John Lind, Greg Sadowski and I just wrapped up my Chipboard Sketchbook, a collection of a couple hundred of my surreal drawings drawn on, well, chipboard over twenty years. It’ll be out this October. I’m also putting the final touches on the last Collected Shmoo volume for Dark Horse. Starting now on The Complete Trump, Harvey Kurtzman’s short-lived 1957 satire magazine for Hugh Hefner, which will include much never-published material.

Which old-time cartoon character do you most identify with?

Wow. Good question. No character jumps out as a really good fit, but I guess I can identify with Walt in Gasoline Alley, the simple Midwest lug. I kind of feel like babies get left on my doorstep. I adopt or nurture them, they grow up, I open the front door and a new Skeezix appears. Every project, like a baby, takes on its own character. But life takes strange twists. One wrong turn here or there and I could be Hapless Hooligan.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

In my younger days I’d go right for the X-ray vision. But today I’d take the power to transform average comic shops and graphic novel sections of bookstores into genuine oases of the best products so that more people could discover the deluge of great material being created. Of course I might need a second power to upgrade the taste of the average consumer too. Rats! Am I limited to one power?

Here at ITCH, we know this for certain: we’d never want any limits when it comes to the powers, abilities, and wonderful spirit of Denis Kitchen.  Thanks, Denis!


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2 Responses to “The Oddly Compelling Interview: Denis Kitchen”

  1. booksteve Says:

    I’ve always enjoyed his artwork and his publications. I met him once at a Con (sold him some Li’l Abner stuff!) and was impressed by the man himself, also. At this point and for many years now, Mr. Kitchen’s name on any product is a sign of true quality to me. Nice piece, Beth!

  2. Bob Andelman Says:

    For more on underground comic artist and publisher Denis Kitchen, check out this 30-minute Mr. Media TV interview with him from August 19, 2010:

I.T.C.H is looking forward to your thoughts. Please, no flame. Thanks!