Comics publisher, activist, and free speech advocate Denis Kitchen has done a lot both for comics themselves as well as protecting the creators who produce them. In a recent interview with Mark Voger at NJ.com, Kitchen talks about his work as creator in the underground comix movement to his founding of the CBLDF to protect the First Amendment rights of the comics community.
In the 1970s, Kitchen did something never done before and completely ambitious: He started Kitchen Sink Press, a comic publishing company that dedicated itself to collecting and printing both the best, most edgy, and most controversial underground comix of the time, as well as a slew of classic comics from the 1940s and 1950s that hadn’t seen the light of day since their initial floppy form (and the institution of the Comics Code):
I started out as a fan, became a cartoonist and then became a publisher by default. For me, it was all about sharing the best comics as an art form. When I was publishing underground comics, I was frustrated that very little of the old material could be had. So largely for myself, I wanted to print them for my own library. Little by little, I got permission from people I admired.
Beyond just a desire to print a personal library, though, Kitchen had the goal to share the great works of the past and present with a whole new generation of comics fans and a broader variety of readership.
I don’t think the audience for the reprints necessarily overlapped with the hippie audience. For some, it was nostalgia. For others, it was the joy of discovery. When I was in college, it was so cool to discover a Marx Brothers film, or a great silent film. There are young people today who could appreciate a Charlie Chaplin film or a George Herriman “Krazy Kat” cartoon they’ve never seen.
It was exactly this kind of entrepreneurial thinking that allowed Kitchen a unique position in the comics industry and made him not only an educator of sorts, but also a protector of the form. In 1986, when Friendly Frank’s comic shop manager Michael Correa was arrested for distributing “obscene” materials, Kitchen and First Amendment attorney Burton Joseph stepped in to defend Correa. Kitchen Sink Press acted as a vehicle to raise money for Correa’s defense, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund was soon born.
Although Kitchen’s role with CBLDF is now in the less directly involved position co-chair of the Advisory Board, he still plays an active role as a protector and advocate for free speech and creators’ rights. The comics world has changed greatly since his days of distributing underground comix to head shops and avoiding Comics Code regulation, but the industry and its creators are still face censorship and persecution, this time on a much broader, global scale — something Kitchen recognizes all too well:
Here’s the thing: If you’re going to be a satirist, you must be honest. Internal integrity is central to being a satirist… When I started the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, it was to address First Amendment rights in the United States. So it’s a little bit different. I can’t speak to foreign cartoonists. Clearly, being a cartoonist is a dangerous profession these days.
Being a cartoonist, especially in certain political and social climates in which free speech is limited, has shown itself to be a challenge, but it is the work of individuals like Denis Kitchen to protect and educate people about freedom of speech that has demonstrated the importance of missions like CBLDF’s. Read the full interview here.
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!