By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jul 12, 2006 at 5:35 AM
Denis Kitchen is a major player in the world of comics; that’s the world of R. Crumb, Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman and others. And he’s a Milwaukee boy.

Kitchen grew up here in the 1960s and by the latter part of that decade was at UWM and ensconced in the vibrant counterculture here, which encompassed music, literature, film, poetry and more. In 1969 he started Kitchen Sink Press, which went on to become perhaps the most influential graphic novel and comics publisher.

Kitchen is still active and has never stopped creating new ventures. But we’ll let him tell you about all that in his own words. As Kitchen prepares to visit Milwaukee as curator of the documentary film “Will Eisner: The Spirit of an Artistic Pioneer” at the Milwaukee Art Museum this week, we asked him about his work, his history and Milwaukee.

OMC: I think younger generations think they've got a lock on DIY and counterculture, but Milwaukee in the late 1960s was a hotbed of activity of all kinds, wasn't it? What was it like for a young artist at the time here?

DK: Surprisingly rich, actually. Milwaukee, at least then, had a rap as an un-hip blue-collar industrial city, always in the shadow of Chicago. Maybe that's still the view of many, and Chicago will never go away. But when the counterculture exploded beyond San Francisco, Milwaukee very quickly developed its own identity, one with sometimes national impact.

Kaleidoscope was there very early and when I and a handful of friends founded The Bugle in 1970, Milwaukee was one of the few cities with two competing underground newspapers. The Bugle ended up lasting as a weekly for eight years. There was a lot going on in the city regarding the music and fine arts field, too, but I can only speak with expertise in my own area.

Outside The San Francisco bay area, the biggest other underground comix pocket by far was in Milwaukee. We had six or seven good local cartoonists contributing weekly strips and covers for the Bugle --- including Jim Mitchell, Don Glassford, Bruce Walthers, Wendel Pugh plus Dan Burr and others. Many of our strips were then syndicated to another 50 or so college and underground papers across the country. With Krupp Distribution and Kitchen Sink Press in Milwaukee, the city became a cartooning magnet. Alternative cartoonists from all over the country and Europe sent their work to us for publication or for distribution.

To put it in perspective, Chicago only had three underground cartoonists of note and even New York City had fewer. There were four substantial comix publishing companies. Three -- Rip Off Press, The Print Mint and Last Gasp -- were all in the Bay Area and then there was Kitchen Sink in Milwaukee. And we ended up the largest ironically enough.

OMC: The scene was pretty diverse, wasn't it; with the Avant Garde and Reitman's poetry nights and the avant garde film nights and bands like The Velvet Whip and the Negative Movement?

DK: Absolutely. It was a wonderful time.

OMC: What led you to start Kitchen Sink Press in 1969? Can you tell us a bit about the gestation?

DK: I co-founded Snide, UWM's first -- and maybe only -- humor magazine in 1967. The initial issue did well, the editor graduated and I assumed the editorship my senior year. I planned the second Snide to be an all-comics issue. But then I discovered that the editor took the treasury with him to Mexico. That effectively killed the magazine, but I still began writing and drawing the comic.

Then, soon after graduating with a journalism degree in 1968, I was drafted, spent 22 days in the U.S. Army -- another story -- and on my release in late '68 I had an epiphany and decided to pursue cartooning instead of a career in journalism. I finished the solo comic book in early '69 and self-published 4,000 copies, all I could afford. It was called “Mom's Homemade Comics,” sub-titled "Straight from the Kitchen to You." The price tag said "49 cents -- slightly higher in foreign countries and South Milwaukee." I was able to sell 3,000 copies on the East Side of Milwaukee alone, rather astonishing in retrospect, and then my roommate, Bill Kauth, was headed to San Francisco and offered to place the remaining 1,000 out there.

The biggest retailer sold those out quickly and asked for more but I had spent all my earnings and didn't think a bank would bankroll me on a reprint -- I was probably wrong there -- but then Bill told me that the Print Mint in Berkley would publish a reprint. I was thrilled to have a "real" publisher take the business side over and promptly created a sequel for them as well. The problem came when they sent me a check without any accounting and I became suspicious.

When I called the publisher for an explanation of how they calculated the royalties, he said, "Are you calling me a crook?" That hadn't fully occurred to me until he acted evasive and wouldn't answer my questions. So I yanked my two issues of “Mom's” back and decided to self-publish again. Jay Lynch, one of the Chicago underground cartoonists, heard that I was self-publishing again and said he was also having problems with Print Mint, then asked if I'd handle “Bijou Funnies” that he was editing with fellow Chicagoan Skip Williamson. I fatefully and probably foolishly said, "Sure, two's as easy as one," and on that date Kitchen Sink Press was born. I decided to treat cartoonists as I would want to be treated myself and that simple philosophy turned out to be the key to success.

OMC: Soon you were publishing the best, right? Guys like R. Crumb and Will Eisner.

DK: Almost from the start Robert Crumb visited Milwaukee. We hit it off and he promised me his next comic, “Homegrown Funnies,” which ended up going through something like 14 printings. After that we did “Mr. Natural” and many others, culminating with his definitive book in 1997, “The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book.” I also produced his first record in Milwaukee, "Wisconsin Wiggles," which we issued mischievously on the even then long-obsolete 78 rpm speed and it still sold 10,000 copies. Crumb and I once went on a 78 rpm record hunt in Sheboygan, hence the "Snoid from Sheboygan" on the cover of “Homegrown.” And yes, I was very proud to have a long association with Will Eisner as well. His “Spirit” revival began in Milwaukee in 1971 and Kitchen Sink published virtually all of Will's 20 or so graphic novels, including “A Contract with God,” which began the graphic novel revolution in 1978.

A number of the earlier generation of cartooning greats like Harvey Kurtzman, Milton Caniff, Al Capp and others came to KSP too, plus Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Justin Green, Jack Jackson and, geez, way too many underground guys to enumerate here.

OMC: The next year you started The Bugle American. Was Milwaukee desperate for a counterculture voice like that at the time?

DK: Actually, at the time, my Bugle partners and I didn't think so.  Four of us -- Dave Schreiner, Mike and Judy Jacobi and me --  met in UWM's journalism program and toiled together at the UWM Post. After graduation in '68 the others took reporting jobs elsewhere while I starved, quite literally for a while, in Milwaukee. We conspired long distance about regrouping to start an alternative paper and finally pulled the trigger in 1970.

Maybe we were too close to Milwaukee or not objective enough to judge, but we were unanimously convinced that the real state market was Madison, where the counterculture appeared to be stronger than Milwaukee. When I designed the cover of the first issue it said "Madison-Milwaukee Bugle-American," but in truth we established our headquarters in Madison and expected to flourish there. Everyone else moved to Madison while I commuted back-and-forth to Kitchen Sink in Milwaukee.

But what we quickly found was that Madison proved lukewarm while Milwaukee was a far more supportive market, and before long the headquarters came to Milwaukee.

Kaleidoscope had by that time become especially strident and seemed prone to being controlled one month by a radical feminist group, then by a radical gay or anarchist group. The Bugle billed itself as a "hybrid between the Milwaukee Journal and Kaleidoscope," if you can imagine such an offspring.

What gave the Bugle its longevity and popularity I think is that it was run by a young staff that reflected the anti-war, pro-pot and progressive politics of the time but it also had balanced cultural and political content. And the latter was not extremist. We still pissed off enough people that the Milwaukee office was fire-bombed, in 1975, I think, and the police never did figure out who did it. Some thought it was the forces own "Tac Squad." In any event the paper sold throughout the state but Milwaukee was always the heart of the market.

OMC: You've never stopped launching these projects, have you?

DK: I'm afraid that's too true.

OMC: In '76 you started the Fox River Patriot, a rural alternative paper. Can you tell us a little about that? What was your goal? Did it last long?

DK: I loved Milwaukee and never would have left, but in 1972 my first wife Irene was ill and believed moving to the country would cure her. We found a farm outside Princeton, in central Wisconsin, and moved there at the start of '73. Mike and Judy Jacobi, two of the other Bugle co-founders already had bought a farm there, so we weren't the only hippies in town, and the Jacobis and I commuted for a while together. They'd do three very full days at the Bugle office and I'd do the same at the Krupp/Kitchen Sink offices, then we'd have long weekends in Princeton. Ironically, it was Irene who left within a year, in the middle of the night. I woke up one morning in Princeton with her "Sorry, I left" note and our daughters, who were one and two.

I stopped commuting and moved everything to Princeton, eventually converting the barn into an office complex, turning the outbuildings into cabins for employees and built a warehouse. During this time Mike became a partner for a while at Kitchen Sink and we decided to create a country version of The Bugle, which was the Fox River Patriot.

The politics were still on the progressive side, but it focused more on back-to-the-land values, local history, organic farming, that sort of thing. I drew many of the covers and to some, I'm sure, it seemed like The Bugle just moved north. Around 1980 I had a falling out with Mike. As part of our settlement he took the Patriot and Yesteryear, an antique tabloid we also published, and I took Kitchen Sink back.

OMC: Do you get back to Milwaukee much these days?

DK: My mom still lives in the area, so I'm back at least once or twice a year.

OMC: What do you think of the city now and the situation for artists here?

DK: It's been amazing to see the new stadium, the new look of the art museum and other dramatic changes. On the down side it was sad to see the Oriental Drug store go. That was a big East Side hangout of mine. I'm glad to see that there's a new generation of cartoonists in Milwaukee organized around Riverwurst and Undercurrentz and such. I've been in periodic touch with Tea Krulos who seems a key organizer of the new breed of Milwaukee cartoonists.

OMC: Do you keep in touch with others from 1960s and '70s Milwaukee?

DK: A handful. I regularly talk to Jim Mitchell, one of that core of early Krupp and Bugle cartoonists, who's still in the city. I talk now and then to Bill Sanders, the Milwaukee Journal's long-time now-retired editorial cartoonist, who was a big influence when I started out.

I've been in touch with Tom Ruppenthal and Dan Ball from The Velvet Whip and Furry Quim Slash and they've threatened to reconnect with some other old musician pals. Among younger folks, local blues musician Alex Wilson has been dating my middle daughter Scarlet so I've gotten to know him. I recently reconnected with Terry Heaton, who used to work at Channel 4 and throw parties in Shorewood with people like Donovan, Lionel Aldridge and such.

I remember thinking how cool it was to smoke pot with the same people I'd see doing the local TV news broadcasts! Many people from the "old Milwaukee days" have simply dispersed across the country, like me, or died, like Dave Schreiner not long ago. But maybe an old lost friend or two will see this article and track me down!

OMC: Have you heard that Reitman is retiring from his long-running radio gig later this year?

DK: I did not! Now there's a local institution. I used to listen to Bob's early FM show frequently.

OMC: Do you ever think about trading Kitchen Sink Press for a margarita and a beach chair on the Mexican Riviera?

DK: Technically Kitchen Sink Press ended in 1999 after I made the mistake of getting involved with investment bankers and some Hollywood types. So that particular trade can't quite be pulled off. Kitchen Sink has since been supplanted by other business entities. The Mexican margarita and a beach chair are nonetheless tempting, but I'm still in my '50s -- though just barely -- and far too ambitious and busy to retire in the foreseeable future.

OMC: What's the state of the comics scene these days? It looks pretty vibrant from your Web site and it's nice to see that even the New York Times Sunday Magazine has brought back the "Funny Pages" in a smart and engaging way.

DK: It's simply amazing to see how far the medium has come in my lifetime. In grade school I was punished if caught with a comic book and these days teachers are glad to see kids reading comics. Graphic novels are now the fastest-growing literary genre in America and are far bigger in Europe and Japan. Movies are being made left and right based on comics, and not just the superheroes. The ultimate recognition is the "Masters of American Comics" exhibition that is passing through our fair city. I can tell you that it would have been literally unimaginable to discuss such an event with a straight face when I started out here. And now, for better or worse, comics are now downright respectable! It's taking some getting used to, not that I'm complaining!

OMC: The next generation of Kitchen is also drawing and writing, right? I see that your daughter Alexa has a comic.

DK: Yes, Stacey and I have a true prodigy cartoonist on our hands. Alexa's first hardcover book just came out, “Drawing Comics is Easy! (Except When it's Hard),” which she wrote and drew when she was 7. And speaking of The New York Times, they were just at our house a week or so back to interview the 8-year-old cartoonist for several hours! They tell me she'll be featured in the Sunday Arts & Entertainment section sometime in July. It's pretty unreal! I'm quite certain that I will soon be best known as "Alexa Kitchen's father."

OMC: You're curating a film documentary about Eisner, what does that entail exactly? You didn't make the film, correct?

DK: I'm simply introducing the documentary at the museum with a short talk Thursday evening. I didn't make the film. Andrew and Jon Cooke are the directors. But I appear in it and I provided much of the archival footage and imagery since I published and knew Will Eisner for over 30 years. Among the various hats I wear these days, I represent his estate as the literary and art agent.

OMC: Are you excited to be coming back to Milwaukee for the project?

DK: I am. I especially look forward to the walking lecture tour on Friday since it will touch on all of the cartoonists in the show. I was at the opening of the comic art show when it originated in Los Angeles in January, but I'm especially pleased and personally proud that Milwaukee is the second stop. It'll be very strange for me to step into that setting. I remember once going to the Milwaukee Art Museum around 1970 with a girlfriend in long hair and bell bottom pants -- both of us! -- and feeling generally pretty scruffy with the guards looking at us rather suspiciously. I remember feeling they were going to pitch us out the museum door at the time, and here I am an invited speaker. So it's come full circle. I guess the adage is true. If you live long enough...

OMC: Can you tell us what you're working on at the moment?

DK: Aside from managing the career of my favorite third-grade cartoonist? Let's see. As a part-time publisher (Denis Kitchen Publishing Co.) I'm today wrapping up a postcard book called “Reading Comics” -- vintage photos of regular people and celebrities reading comics over many decades. I just re-released R. Crumb's “Heroes of the Blues, Early Jazz Greats” and “Pioneers of Country Music” trading cards, and licensed Harry Abrams the right to produce a book based on them, which will be out this fall.

I'm also working on a coffee table book about Harvey Kurtzman for Abrams. I'm packaging a two-volume “Complete Shmoo” book for Dark Horse, followed by a definitive “Trump” collection. “Trump” was a wonderful late ‘50s Kurtzman/Hugh Hefner satire magazine never before reprinted. I'm meeting this Thursday with the director of the Chazen Museum in Madison, for whom (Wisconsin Historical Society’s) Jim Danky and I are co-curating an exhibition on Underground Comix art that will debut there in 2008.

I'm working with Pete Poplaski to finish Will Eisner's final, unfinished, book, “Expressive Anatomy.” Then there are two separate agencies and separate partners, each with their own list of projects. And a Web store -- is a plug for http://www.deniskitchen.com in order? And somewhere in the mix I'm making gradual progress on “The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen,” a long-planned collection of my own cartoons.

I think that Mexican beach is going to have wait a while, Bobby...
Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.