Written by Neil Greenaway
At DINK 2017 I had the chance to sit down and talk with Denis Kitchen of Kitchen Sink Press about his take on publishing indie books. This interview originally ran on Bleeding Cool on 4/15/2017, and you can read their version of it here.
Denis Kitchen is the king of the underground comix movement. Starting in 1969 with the decision to self publish his own comics, he created a model for independent comic distribution that led to a thirty year career and his own publishing house. Denis was in town for the second annual Denver Independent Comic and Art Expo and I took the opportunity to talk with him about his love for self published comics, what Kitchen Sink Press is doing now, and his involvement with the Cannabis & Comix tour.
Neil Greenaway: This is your second year at this show. How did you come to be attached to DINK?
Denis Kitchen: I was invited by Charlie LaGreca, and I am always intrigued to see what is going on in the indie comics movement, because I feel a kinship there. I had not been to Denver in many years, so I thought, all right. Let’s do this. I had a great time and I met a lot of really good people. So, when Charlie asked if I might be willing to do an encore, I said absolutely. I go to a lot of big shows (like San Diego or New York) that are kind of obligatory professionally. I can get very jaded about those shows but a show like this is full of passion. The only thing comparable is maybe SPX or MOCCA, and in a way even they have been around for a while and they no longer have that freshness that you find here. I think that the Denver scene is really an exciting one to witness.
NG: Do you find that you do well at this show?
DK: I do well enough to be happy, but its not really about the money. I’m here for the experience. I came in two days early just to see the city and its surroundings. Ted Intorcio from Tinto Press was my tour guide, and we had a great time. That was a bonus, a lot of the time I will come into a city for a show and I never really see beyond the convention center or hotel. It’s like you weren’t really there. These days, more and more, if I go somewhere I want to see more than the hotel.
NG: How did you get to be a part of the Cannabis & Comix portion of the show? Was that just a natural extension of your being here?
DK: I guess that it was. They had an old hippy for a guest, and what can you do with an old hippy? At that time, just a year ago, I believe that Colorado was the only state with legalization. Since then my state, Massachusetts, has voted. Last fall. But it was a chance to see Colorado at that moment of legality. Remember, when I was young, one of the movements that I was a part of was to legalize pot. I don’t think that we ever thought that we would see it in our lifetime.
*As we are talking, almost everyone who walks by stops to thank Denis, or introduce themselves, or tell him what his work has meant. He takes it all with the calm grace of a seasoned professional.*
NG: A lot of the people here sort of fawn over you. Do you get that a lot at conventions?
DK: Sometimes, I guess. It is a little embarrassing, but if I’m not the oldest guy here I’m close to it. I just see it as a sign of respect. I appreciate it. When I was young and attending my first conventions, I was anxious to meet some of the older professionals. I get it, its a part of that continuum, and of comics history. I just know that I am hardly mainstream. The guys who created the super heroes are always going to be the ones with the long lines. That is understandable. They sold books in the millions compared to my tens-of-thousands or hundreds-of-thousands. I am more cult for my underground stuff. At the same time, people like Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, and others I’ve published are certainly mainstream in their own way. Of course by the time I collected their work, they weren’t contemporary in the same way. But I have always felt a dedication to preserving the best comics of the past. If someone else does it, that makes me happy, too. I’ll buy their edition. I feel like it is almost my obligation to keep those works available. To keep them in libraries and good comic shops. Because of that, because I wear so many different hats, there are people who know me for different reasons. I can never assume that I am known for one thing. There are people who know me as a publisher but don’t know I’m an artist. So anytime someone says something kind, I appreciate that. But I can’t take it too seriously.
NG: Speaking of the many hats you have worn, which do you more see yourself as: a publisher, or an artist?
DK: The clue there is in the cover to my “Everything Including the Kitchen Sink” book. It has me surrounded by all the hats I wear, but the one I am wearing is the general’s hat that says Artist on it. I see myself as an artist, but the publisher hat is big too.
NG: I like that the Publisher hat is being handed to you by someone else.
DK: Yeah! And the agent hat is a klan hood because that is my least favorite, but I have to wear it. I put the File Clerk hat at the bottom to remind myself that I have to do a lot of shit work, too. I think that it is both a curse and a blessing that I am able to cross over into these other areas. I say curse because originally I wanted to be a cartoonist, period. I got involved in the business side. I don’t necessarily have any regrets. I was good enough at it that it flourished and lasted 30 years or so. There is that part of me that wonders, though. If I had just stuck with it as an artist, would I have found any degree of success or not? I don’t know. I have never stopped drawing, and I’ve even released a collection or two of material. But it is a relatively modest artistic achievement compared to all the books that I’ve published.
NG: Are you still creating new comics to be published?
DK: Periodically, I will do one. I don’t do even a story a year anymore. Typically, an editor will ask me to do something. Like, 2 or 3 years ago Monte Beauchamp was putting together a book called Masterful Marks about cartoonists doing comic style biographies of other cartoonists. And he asked me to do Dr. Suess. Well how could I turn that down? That is the last relatively long thing that I did. It was fun, I just don’t have the time to do that regularly. I am more likely to do it if an editor that I know, like, and respect asks me and the deadline is far enough away. But it is rare these days for me to sit at my drawing board and do a comic. I would like to but I am pulled in too many directions.
NG: In that same vein, is Kitchen Sink Press still seeking new works to publish?
DK: Technically, yes. But as a practical matter the imprint is only doing 3-4 books a year and right now they are focused on what I would call monograph-type books. The most recent one that we did was Will Eisner: The Centennial Celebration. Will would have been 100 this year. I curated 2 art exhibits, one in France and one in New York City, that will travel. Basically, the new book is a catalogue based on that show. It is focused on the art, but next year we will be doing a deluxe edition of Contract With God in 2 volumes. We’re doing some more Kurtzman books. We did one last year, a big Artist’s Edition type book on Frank Miller’s first volume of Sin City. We are really not an imprint set up to do new work. With that said, if some full blown genius sent something in, yeah, we would find a way to do it. But that is not anything we are “seeking” at this point. What we really have now is a way for me and my partner John Lind to make books without being publishers. After doing this for three decades, the last thing that I want is to deal with distribution, manufacturing, warehousing, and marketing. All of those things that I am thrilled to have Dark Horse do, and they in turn are thrilled to get a book just handed to them on a platter where they don’t have any editorial time invested. At this point in my career, it is a way for me to be creative without needing to have any employees or other complications.
NG: Do you still enjoy seeing the wide variety of indie publications being put out? Do you still find that exciting?
DK: I do, I do. In fact there are several people here that I sought out. Tinto Press had a couple of new ones that I wanted to pick up. Kilgore has the Noah Van Sciver stuff, like Blammo. I basically come back from every show with a stack of new reading material. That’s part of the fun. I don’t get a lot of time away from the table at these things. If I had my druthers, I would be able to slowly go around and discover these things. More often than not, I look for recommendations from people I trust. Or the awards. I saw the DINKy awards last night. I am more likely to go and seek those out because they were good enough to at least be nominated. But I can’t read everything.
NG: If people want to see more of you or of Kitchen Sink Press, where can they look online?
DK: There is always DenisKitchen.com. I am not on Facebook myself, but we have a professional page that announces new projects and appearances. We have one of those for Denis Kitchen and one for Kitchen Sink Press.