"I see no intrinsic reason why a doubly talented artist might not arise
and create a comic strip novel masterpiece.”
--John Updike, 1969
“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
-- Hunter S. Thompson, 1974
When first approaching the archive of Denis Kitchen’s Kitchen Sink Press (hereafter KSP), it is impossible not to be dazzled by the seemingly infinite volume of eye-popping and mind-blowing visual content, quite literally a parade of 20th Century North American and European comic history unfolding before one’s eyes. From the earliest beginnings of the sequential narrative strip, which began appearing in American newspapers in the late 1800’s as an outgrowth of the political cartoons of the day, through the rise of the Superhero comic books in the Golden Age of comics of the 30’s & 40’s; through the genre-bending pre-Comics Code EC and MAD Comics of the 50’s; through the the sexndrugsnrocknroll explosion of the 60’s & 70’s undergrounds; through the rise of the alternative comics and graphic novels of the 80’s & 90’s, this collection has it all and more.
Multi-faceted doesn’t quite capture the reality: multi-dimensional is closer to the mark. To fully grasp and honor the importance of the 30+ years of Denis Kitchen’s role as archivist, curator, publisher, historian and collector in this universe, there is no better way than to pore over the original letters and drawings of the most important and ground-breaking graphic artists of that era. The acquistion of this archive will be a veritable coup for any institution hoping to attract scholars, researchers and historians to their Special Collections.
And it is specifically from a scholarly or research-oriented perspective, however, that makes this archive the Motherlode, the Holy Grail, the Tabula Hypergraphia. Here’s why:
#1) DENIS KITCHEN IS AN ARCHIVIST
Denis Kitchen (besides his usual hats as artist/publisher/collector) is, for all intents and purposes, an archivist himself. He has always been, by his own admission, a “saver,” a person who would tend to save, cherish (and catalogue) the very things that a pedestrian individual (one without a trained eye) would banish to the (literal) dustbin of history. From the very beginnings of Kitchen’s activity in the radical underground newspaper world of the late 1960s onward, he saved everything and filed it away with the care of a little old lady tending her flowerbed.
Take his correspondence files, for example. (Almost) every single letter (and there are many thousands) received by Kitchen over the years bears his own hand-stamped date in red ink on the top of the page of when the letter was received; a carbon copy of his (usually lengthy) typewritten response and the mailing envelope, all stapled together and organized chronologically. From an archivist’s perpective, this represents the complete or full correspondence between two individuals (i.e. “both sides”) . However, Kitchen, never to be outdone, also retained the notes of important telephone conversations (!) that occurred between himself and his artistic collaborators, often embellished with his own surrealistic artwork. For scholarly researchers, this attention to detail is of utmost importance in determining historical timelines, attributions and context.
This conservational aspect of the Kitchen Sink Press archive is what makes it unique and so valuable. Of the “Big Four” publishers of underground comics (the others being Last Gasp, Rip Off and Print Mint), KSP is the only one today that can boast of such detailed, complete holdings. Beyond the correspondence files, Denis (amazingly) has retained the complete business files of Kitchen Sink Press and its sister endeavor Krupp Distribution, from 1970 to the dissolution of the business in 1999. For any student studying underground publishing and distribution history (think “head shops”), this is, again, a unique treasure trove of material unavailable anywhere else.
#2) THE LETTERS ARE PRIMARILY HAND-WRITTEN.The primary difference between the letters in Denis Kitchen’s correspondence files and, say, the letters one usually finds in 20th century literary archives is so obvious at first that it almost goes unnoticed: the majority of the letters are holograph (i.e. hand-written) and often beautiful works of art in-and-of themselves. Robert Crumb, the Grand Poobah of the undergrounds, in fact, never touched a typewriter and carefully hand-lettered every letter he wrote to the point that his lettering is as instantly recognizable as his graphic work. Interestingly, Crumb seems to have set a precedent, in that most of the comic book artists from the 1960s onward, followed his lead in hand-lettering and illustrating their correspondence. Why are these letters so wonderful and delightful? They are graphic productions, just as the letters of poets are poetic and the letters of writers literary. Often, at the end of a letter, the artist has rendered a quick-sketch of either themselves or one of their characters.
Of particular historical interest are the letters of other heavyweight artists like Charles Burns, Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, Joel Beck, Robert Williams, S. Clay Wilson, Richard Corben, Bill Griffith, William Stout, Harvey Kurtzman, Jay Lynch, Pete Poplaski, Harvey Pekar, Chester Brown, Skip Williamson, Joe Matt, et. al. Denis Kitchen understood the importance of these letters, by storing them in a humidity-controlled, air-conditioned, and fireproof environment. Again, the professional, curatorial care of this collection should not be under-estimated.