Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library has reached an agreement with comics artist, historian, publisher and literary agent Denis Kitchen to acquire the archive of Kitchen Sink Press, the publisher of underground comics that Kitchen directed between 1969 and 1999. The acquisition includes correspondence, original art, and much more from many of the most important comics artists of the 20th century.
“These archives do far more than simply document comics history; they are a chronicle of the cultural and social history of the twentieth century,” said Karen Green, librarian and developer of the CUL/IS comics and graphic novels collection. Green cited her RBML colleague Karla Nielsen, who called Denis Kitchen, “the Barney Rosset of underground comics publishing,” comparing Kitchen to the late acclaimed and maverick publisher of the famed Grove Press, whose papers were also acquired by the RBML. The KSP archive acquisition is part of two initiatives at the RBML: it is part of both the RBML history of publishing project and its ongoing research into the history of comics and graphic novels.
Michael Ryan, director of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, described the KSP archive as “spectacular,” emphasizing that “it would be hard to find someone more important than Kitchen in the business of comics in the later 20th century.”
Launched in 1969 by Kitchen to self-publish his own underground comics, Kitchen Sink Press developed into one of the most important publishers of the underground comics years. Among the underground comics luminaries published by KSP are R. Crumb, Art Speigelman (KSP published sections of Maus before they appeared in RAW), Justin Green, Reed Waller and S. Clay Wilson in addition to Mad magazine’s acclaimed artist/editor Harvey Kurtzman. Kitchen also founded the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in the 1986.
Kitchen founded KSP both to publish his own comics and to offer artists a better model than the work-for-hire policy at the big comics publishers of the day. He offered artists the ability to keep their original art and receive a royalty rather than page rates. And unlike other alternative publishers of the period, Kitchen also sought the best work of earlier comics’ eras. KSP was the publishing home of Will Eisner, creator of the Spirit newspaper strip and generally considered one of the greatest innovators in the medium, as well as such acclaimed newspaper comics artists as Al Capp and Ernie Bushmiller.
The KSP archive, Green said, includes more than 50,000 letters (a compulsive collector, Kitchen date-stamped and saved every letter he received along with a copy of his reply) from such artists as Neil Gaiman and R. Crumb. The archive contains over 200 linear feet of material including editorial and business files, original art, handwritten letters and drawings. The collection is currently with Kitchen in Northampton, Mass. and will be shipped to New York City in late January.
The Kitchen Sink Press Archive is the latest high profile comics archive to come to the Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library as it works to build an academic resource center for the study of the comics medium in New York City, where the American comics industry began. Over the last two years, the RBML has acquired the papers and archives of X-Man writer Chris Claremont, the complete Elfquest archive of Wendy and Richard Pini and the archives of renowned Mad magazine cartoonist Al Jaffee.
Green called the collection “meticulously preserved” and joked about Kitchen: “God bless his compulsive, obsessive comics collecting tendences.” She said the comics literary agent Judy Hansen, who formerly worked with Kitchen Sink Press, told her of the existence of the collection and encouraged her to approach Kitchen. Although initially he said he wasn’t thinking about what would happen to the archive, Green said he eventually realized that Columiba University offered, "the resources to show off and preserve the collection. He knows his stuff will be taken care off."
“Apparently I am a natural-born archivist,” Kitchen said joking, “I will miss the rows of file cabinets full of handwritten letters, illustrated letters, and even letters that came out of devices called typewriters, all created before the digital age made traditional correspondence all but obsolete, but I hope they provide scholars with insights into the development of underground comix and the work of the multiple generations of creators I had the distinct pleasure of working with.”