The cartoonists R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman and Al Capp have one thing in common. All were published, at one time or another, by Kitchen Sink Press, whose archives were recently donated to the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Columbia University by Denis Kitchen, the press’s founder.
Mr. Kitchen, a cartoonist living in Milwaukee at the time, founded Kitchen Sink in 1969 after unexpectedly selling out the entire run of his first self-publishing venture, Mom’s Homemade Comics. For the next 30 years, in addition to publishing new work by S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton, Jay Lynch and Charles Burns, Kitchen Sink reprinted newspaper comic strips like Capp’s “Lil’ Abner” and “Fearless Fosdick,” Ernie Bushmiller’s “Nancy,” V. T. Hamlin’s “Alley Oop” and Milton Caniff’s “Steve Canyon” and “Terry and the Pirates.”
Mr. Kitchen extensively reprinted work by one of Mad’s original artists, Harvey Kurtzman, after he left he magazine, and also work by Will Eisner. Some of the early strips for Mr. Spiegelman’s “Maus” ran in Comix Book, an anthology series that Mr. Kitchen produced for Stan Lee at Marvel Comics in the mid-1970’s.
Karen Green, the librarian who presides over Columbia’s collection of graphic novels and comics, set her sights on the archive after visiting Mr. Kitchen at home near Amherst, Mass. “There is no way to convey what Denis Kitchen’s house is like,” she said. “It is a temple of comics history. Classic newspaper comic, underground comics, mainstream comics, graphic novels — he has correspondence with all these people. It seemed like a gold mine for scholarship.”
Mr. Kitchen described himself as a keen letter writer with an interest in older comic artists that was somewhat unusual in underground circles. “Very early on, I was corresponding with my compatriots — R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton and a dozen others — but simultaneously I was reaching out to Kurtzman and Eisner and Capp and Caniff,” he said. “I was cranking out a tremendous number of letters and getting number back. And I saved everything.”
The archive, large enough to fill a shelf 200 feet long, includes original art, mechanicals, mock-ups and a trove of more than 50,000 letters that Mr. Kitchen meticulously dated and stored in file cabinets. Many are hand-written, with illustrations. Some deal with routine business matters.
Others mix business and pleasure. Mr. Crumb, whose relationship with Kitchen Sink dates to 1970 and “Home Grown Funnies,” kept up a lively correspondence. His letters, usually illustrated with a self-portrait, are instantly recognizable for the same nervous lettering as his cartoon texts.
The archive includes a somewhat wistful 1970 fan letter to Mr. Kitchen from Stan Lee, of Marvel Comics, a frequent correspondent. “It must be great, D.K., to be able to let yourself go, without being hampered by considerations of a Comic Mag God — or your ‘company policy’ — or a million other restrictions such as we poor pros are burdened with,” he wrote. A few years later he replied to an offbeat proposal from Mr. Kitchen. This was not a fan letter.
“Whoa! Hold it!” Mr. Lee began. “You’re out of your tree! There’s no way — repeat NO WAY we can let you do an underground version of SPIDER-MAN!” Mr. Kitchen could, he suggested, go ahead and publish a Mad-style parody, at which point “we’ll sue the hell outta you — but think of the great newspaper headlines!”
The sorting and cataloging is scheduled to start when the material begins arriving at Columbia in late January. “I feel like doing a Scrooge McDuck dive into it,” Ms. Green said.