Denis Kitchen Interview
One, of course, is The Spirit, the masked detective who first surfaced in 1940s newspaper supplements and has returned in various formats to entertain every generation since.
The other is Denis Kitchen, a character in his own right.
The day Will Eisner met Denis Kitchen for the first time.
(Illustration by Denis Kitchen.)
Kitchen, at six-foot, six inches, with long hair and distinctive mustache, literally caricatured himself in the funny pages back in the 1960s when he was an underground comix artist and publisher. The soft-spoken Wisconsin native is known for many commercial enterprises over the last 35 years, including Krupp Comic Works, Steve Krupp's Gallery & Curio Shoppe, Kitchen Sink Press, Denis Kitchen Art Agency, Denis Kitchen Publishing Co., and the Kitchen & Hansen Agency.
And amidst all these varied enterprises, Kitchen became Will Eisner's publisher in 1972, a relationship that continued with scant interruption through the late 1990s, when Kitchen Sink Press shut down and Kitchen - by then a great friend and favored confidante of Eisner's - became Eisner's art and literary agent (with his partner, Judy Hansen).
Since Eisner's death in January 2005, Kitchen has continued coordinating artistic issues for the artist's estate.
Today, the hair is shorter and grayer, but the mustache remains, as does the sardonic sense of humor and wonder. I got to know Kitchen in 2002 when he pre-screened me for several hours by telephone before endorsing my candidacy to write Eisner's biography. And one of the great pleasures of that enduring relationships is that I periodically get to engage in long conversations with Kitchen about all kinds of things, from comics to politics to baseball.
These days, a new generation of comics fans are discovering the Kitchen name and talent - but it's his eight-year-old daughter Alexa grabbing the headlines. She is a sweet, talented, funny kid who may wind up surpassing dad's own renown before too long, based on her own comic book convention appearances and publication of her first collection, Drawing Comics is Easy! (Except When It's Hard).
With the annual Comic-Con International event just days away in San Diego, I thought this a perfect time to get an update from Kitchen about what's been happening in the Eisnerverse and what details he can spill about the new Spirit movie.
Will Eisner, Alexa Kitchen, Denis Kitchen and Pete Eisner
(Photo courtesy of Denis Kitchen.)
ANDELMAN: I wanted to talk with you about what’s happened in the last eighteen months, from your perspective as Will Eisner’s long-time friend and agent, and then look at what is ahead. As you look back on these eighteen months since Will died, how do you assess the time in terms of his legacy, in terms of business, and in any other way that you would measure it?
KITCHEN: Well, it’s amazing how much is out there and still being created. I don’t know of any other authors with a posthumous schedule quite like this. Among many other things, Will’s work is part of the “Masters of American Comics” exhibition that is touring the country. A separate touring retrospective just ended and his work was exhibited in Paris and New York. At one point his art was simultaneously in four different venues.
In the literary world, let’s start at the top with W. W. Norton. We had The Plot finding some real success both in the U.S. and in Europe. It has done phenomenally in Europe, especially France, where the publisher Grasset quickly sold over 30,000 hardcovers. There are also twelve or thirteen language editions, including some countries where Will was never translated into before, like Greece and Hungary. In the U.S., The Plot has sold over 20,000 in hardcover, which by far exceeds any other hardcover edition of Will’s work. It has gotten generally very positive review attention, and the paperback has just come out.
Then we have the thick hardcover Contract With God Trilogy, which also is opening very well, and advance reading copies of the next big compilation, Will Eisner's New York, just mailed in the last week to reviewers.
There is a lot going on with Norton. I will soon be helping put together the third big compilation, which will concentrate on the autobiographical material. Then the following year, they will begin re-releasing the individual graphic novels, with all new designs and in some cases new intros and annotations. They have a whole program that is dynamic and first class. It’s a shame, because Will was alive when the deal with Norton was made, and it’s the kind of respect he wanted his entire career; to be, as he used to put it, with an uptown publisher. And now he is uptown. They had even planned an author tour. He was “fighting” with Ann over how many cities he could do. Will said, “I can do eight cities,” and Ann would say, “You’re doing four!” But he would have loved to have seen what Norton is doing.
Then take the other side of the Eisner coin with DC Comics. They are continuing with The Spirit Archives series. There are seventeen out now, and there will be twenty-some all told. But what most pleases or shocks fans is that, with Will’s permission, they are developing a new Spirit line starting with a crossover, at last, between Spirit and Batman. Jeff Loeb wrote the script and it is being illustrated by Darwyn Cooke. And then you have Darwyn solo doing a monthly series of new Spirits that are going to be very respectful from every indication I have seen.
Last July in San Diego DC made their big annual announcements to a huge room packed with people and when they mentioned a new Spirit series, it got by far the largest applause and hoots and howls from the audience. Bob Wayne literally turned to Paul Levitz on stage and audibly in the microphone said, “I guess we need to revise the numbers on these, eh Paul?” That remark got an additional laugh, so that was very encouraging.
Will would have loved to have seen that after all these years the Spirit still has life. And in this case, a whole new life, because you have the ultimate show of respect in the hardcover volumes, and then you have hot new creators doing their take on his venerable character. Those, I am sure, will be translated in Europe and perhaps elsewhere, as well.
And speaking of The Spirit, Will authorized a series of Spirit novels. One was completed by the husband/wife team of James Vance (Kings in Disguise) and Kate Worley (Omaha) and a second was mid-way when Kate died two years ago. The novels are in temporary limbo but are too good not to continue, possibly with Jim alone.
Then we can’t tease your readers without touching on the Hollywood situation, where some very serious people with resources are developing a Spirit movie. I have every indication that it actually is going to happen this time. It’s Hollywood, so we will all believe it when we see it, but the producers are making a big announcement about the writer and director in San Diego, so stay tuned. This is about to be seriously ratcheted up!
We also have a separate group of people connected to National Public Radio who are hoping to develop a Spirit radio show.
ANDELMAN: Oh really? I hadn’t heard that before.
KITCHEN: Well, now you have a scoop! It may not happen, but it would be dramatizations of actual Spirit stories. On still another front, we have the educational books which Will did, Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling, which in recent years were distributed by F & W and actually published by Will’s vestigial publishing entity.
ANDELMAN: Poorhouse Press?
KITCHEN: Right. But what almost no one knew is that he was at work on a third element of what he viewed as a trilogy, and he left that book in penciled stage and with the text mostly written. As we speak Pete Poplaski is at work finishing that final book. Some people reading this will recognize Pete as the guy who art directed many of Will’s books at Kitchen Sink and who also finished the pencil drawings Will had done for Will Eisner’s New York, the second big compilation Norton is coming out with. There were ten or twelve drawings in there at pencil stage, which Will had intended to ink, so Pete did them in Will’s style. Everyone who has seen them has been pleased with the unintended collaboration. Pete also designed the wraparound cover to Will Eisner’s New York.
KITCHEN: Pete will be doing the same thing to the third educational book, which is probably going to be called Expressive Anatomy. That focuses on, as the title suggests, one of the things that Will was so masterful at, which was telling part of the story by body language and posture and expression in a way that few cartoonists can. That’s also the toughest thing to both teach and to learn, so I think that is why he saved it until last. I don’t think anyone could have done it the way Will could, so we are looking forward to that one. Then when that is finished, Judy Hansen and I are going to seek the right publisher to do all three. So they will be re-issued probably with new covers and revisions on the first two.
ANDELMAN: So they won’t necessarily be at F & W?
KITCHEN: Correct. F & W has been the distributor. They are a candidate to publish it, but there are several suitors, and I will just leave it at that.
ANDELMAN: All right. Let’s go backwards for a minute, because you have mentioned a bunch of projects. Let me ask you about each of them a little differently. On the next book in the collected edition that Norton is going to do, you said that one will be the autobiographical material. That will be what, The Dreamer and … ?
KITCHEN: The Dreamer and Heart of the Storm would be the most obvious ones.
ANDELMAN: Are there others that would be part of that?
KITCHEN: Well, we are looking at the body of work, and we are deciding… We want to keep a similar page count if possible, and there are some things that are semi-autobiographical that have already been done, like elements of Contract with God, which we obviously are not going to repeat. But to be honest, I haven’t gone through the material yet, so…
ANDELMAN: On to DC and The Spirit Archives. I understood through Mike Richardson that they have worked out something with DC that the New Adventures that Kitchen Sink Press did will eventually be the final volume of the Archives.
KITCHEN: I can confirm that, yes. DC holds the broad rights to The Spirit, but The Spirit: The New Adventures was carved out beforehand for Dark Horse, and it is their intention to do it in a format essentially identical to the DC line. I think the way it will happen, probably, is Dark Horse will release theirs following the completion of DC’s series, so when you have the complete Spirit Archives or you think it is complete, you have to buy one more volume.
ANDELMAN: So that volume will come from Dark Horse but will be in a similar format.
KITCHEN: Yes. Exactly.
ANDELMAN: Do we know numerically what the final number on the Archives will be?
The Spirit returned briefly in this New York Herald Tribune comic on January 9, 1966.
(Courtesy of Will Eisner Estate.)
KITCHEN: I seem to recall it was 22, but it is easy enough to figure out, because they are doing six months at a time. The reason it is a little bit uncertain is that we are in discussion with them about doing an extra volume, which would include the Spirit dailies and then the miscellaneous Spirit material, like the short story Will did in 1966 for the New York Herald-Tribune. It’d probably also include the single pages and the four-pager he did for the “underground Spirit” for Kitchen Sink in 1972 or so, the separate Spirit origin story he did for Harvey Comics around 1966, and some miscellaneous pages. So if you add all this up, you probably have another volume of Spirit material that is outside the original newspaper section run.
ANDELMAN: Would that include the Spirit Jam?
KITCHEN: Probably. Again, we haven’t worked out the final list, and a lot will be determined by the page count if they want to keep it consistent with the other hardcover volumes, so we may have to edit a bit or pad a bit depending on how it all adds up. There may also be more annotation material there, which puts all these post-1952 Spirits in their historic context. It’s not like the other stories that are self-explanatory and chronological. And then there is also the question of how many of the covers that Will did might be included. If you needed to pad it, that would be another option. We also have all kinds of unpublished Spirit material or Spirits that were on, say, the covers of the Comics Buyer's Guide or Overstreet Price Guide; there are also covers and illustrations for San Diego program books. In other words, where do you draw the line?
ANDELMAN: What about the Spirit story that he did after you had been asking him for years to do it and that you told him just didn’t work. Will that ever see print?
KITCHEN: I think so, just because so many people are curious and so many people have registered a complaint that it hasn’t been allowed to be printed, and I would probably feel guilty for holding it back. It’s in the files, and it’s, I think, 50-some pages, so it could be a self-contained book. It was called The Spirit – The Last Hero. I suspect it will eventually see print, but we haven’t determined where or when.
ANDELMAN: Let’s talk about the DC Spirit. Maybe it was just me, but the expectation I had and that I think other people had was that the Spirit/Batman book was coming in December 2005 and that the Spirit monthly was coming this summer, but now I understand it’s not until…
KITCHEN: That got pushed back about a year.
ANDELMAN: What was the reason for that?
KITCHEN: I can’t tell you. That was an internal DC decision, and it probably had to do with the schedule.
ANDELMAN: Where is it in terms of the schedule now?
KITCHEN: I think you need to get that answer from DC. I know that the Spirit/Batman is in production right now. It’s written, it’s penciled, it’s being inked. All I can tell you is that it’s looking terrific.
ANDELMAN: What can you tell us about Darwyn Cooke’s work on The Spirit?
KITCHEN: I am impressed with it. He is very enthusiastic, and he is respectful of what Will did, but he is bringing his own style to it. People shouldn’t expect it to be a clone in any way of Will’s work, but it is clearly inspired by Will. Darwyn’s going to put a personal stamp on his own series, In the new Spirit series, Darwyn will be bringing back certain key villains like P’Gell and The Octopus, but he is also going to be creating some new villains. So that will be a bit of a surprise to some diehard Spirit fans.
ANDELMAN: Is it going to be contemporary?
KITCHEN: Good question. It’s going to be in the neverland. It’s not going to be in the forties and it’s not going to be particularly contemporary. It’s going to be kind of a timeless in-between, and you can draw your own conclusion when you see the cars and so on. But they decided not to make it a period piece, probably to broaden the appeal.
ANDELMAN: So, Batman is meeting the Spirit…. What continuity is that happening in? Is that like a Marvel/DC continuity – happening outside their respective universes – or is that DC continuity?
KITCHEN: Well, since DC is doing it, I think it’s fair to say it’s a DC-style continuity. In terms of where it is on the time line, I have only seen the rough pencils so far, so again, I would rather not tell you that they are driving 2006 Oldsmobiles…
ANDELMAN: Of course, the other question is, now that DC is going to publish new Spirit stories, will the creative talent at DC have the opportunity to bring the Spirit into other stories as time goes on?
KITCHEN: In theory. Again, this is subject to estate approval, but DC is free to bring proposals to the estate, and the estate can make the decision. It was easy with The Spirit/Batman, because Will personally approved that, so anyone who absolutely hates the idea, they should not send me dead fish. Any future crossover or weird spin-off of The Spirit, they probably can blame me or praise me, as the case may be, but it’s important that they know that Will permitted this after many, many years of saying no to Marvel and DC. As you know from your own book, people remember that Jim Shooter wanted to do a Spider-Man crossover, and DC had long proposed the Batman crossover.
ANDELMAN: And of course, Will told Shooter that the Spirit would kick Spider-Man’s ass.
KITCHEN: Actually I think he said, “The Spirit would beat the shit out of Spider-Man.” Yeah, that’s still funny.
ANDELMAN: What do you know about The Spirit movie at this point?
KITCHEN: I can only tell you I have seen the first provisional script. I am not allowed to talk about it, so I can’t say.
ANDELMAN: Okay. But there is a script?
KITCHEN: There is a preliminary script, but it was not finished.
ANDELMAN: Is this a new script, or does this have elements from the previous drafts by Harlan Ellison and other people?
KITCHEN: No, it has nothing whatever to do with the earlier ones that were rejected way back when director William Friedkin (French Connection, The Exorcist) had the rights and commissioned four different treatments from four “name” writers and rejected all four. I think it is safe to say there is no residual holdover from that.
ANDELMAN: Who wrote the script that exists now?
KITCHEN: Jeph Loeb.
ANDELMAN: Oh, he did?
KITCHEN: Correct. But as some readers of this will know, Jeph had a son who died last year, and the grief was so great he was unable to finish, and that’s in a nutshell what happened. Going forward, the producers are about to announce the new writer/director, as I indicated earlier, in San Diego. I’d love to shock your readers but mum is the word till then.
ANDELMAN: All right. And then the radio program. That must be a fairly new development.
KITCHEN: It is. It was pitched to the estate by a couple of producers, one of whom is very experienced with NPR, so we have been back and forth on how that would work. Again, it would be premature to tell you it is going to happen, but it is in serious discussion.
ANDELMAN: All right. Back to Expressive Anatomy. How were the other two books used? How pervasive are they in terms of art education?
KITCHEN: Well, I think if you look on the indicia page of the newest edition of Comics & Sequential Art, you will see they are in something like the twenty-eighth or thirtieth printing. They are way up there. Now, those aren’t huge print runs in each case, but it adds up past the six-figure mark. They consistently sell to the mainstream stores through F & W and through the comic shops via Diamond, and I don’t think they have ever been out of print, literally, from the day they were first published by Poorhouse. They have been revised a number of times.
ANDELMAN: About two years ago, right, was the latest revision?
KITCHEN: I think most recently, Will added a chapter on Digital Comics with some help from Gary Chaloner, who is doing the John Law revival (including a syndicated online version). Will perodically went back, and changed elements including various facelifts of the covers over the years. I can remember at least three, maybe four, different cover treatments.
So how pervasive are they? Pretty darn pervasive, especially if you look worldwide, because there have been a number of foreign editions. They have been all over Europe, and it’s also the only book of Will’s, I think, that has been translated into Korean, for example. So they are literally worldwide in both circulation and influence.
ANDELMAN: In the span of about twelve months, of course, the biography that I wrote came out, the Eisner/Miller book came out, Stephen Weiner and Chris Couch’s Will Eisner Companion came out. Are there any other books of that sort in the works, or have we kind of exhausted that vein?
KITCHEN: There have been proposals and discussions. I can say, for example, that a major publisher is looking to do a coffee table art book on Will, one that is focused on the images, but that’s not official, either. There is also a very well known and respected author who has a book coming out next spring in which Will has been described to me as “the hero of the book,” but I can’t say more than that, other than I have high expectations.
ANDELMAN: There was talk of a PS magazine book.
KITCHEN: Yeah. That actually is in the proposal stage, and publishers are looking at that, so hopefully there will be an announcement on that in the fairly near future, but I can’t say at this point.
ANDELMAN: Mike Richardson indicated in a previous interview that he has an interest in bringing back into print some of the books that Will did in the ‘70s, the joke books, that kind of stuff.
KITCHEN: Yeah, what Will called the “Gleeful Guides.” Actually, yes, it’s gone beyond him wanting to do that. He has formally acquired the rights to do that series, but they are not scheduled to my knowledge. There are some serious questions of format. To be honest, elements of those are pretty dated, and so they are not sure if they just want to play it straight, just reprint them, or whether they want to edit them and do kind of a ‘best of’ or whatever.
These may not be the best books that Will Eisner produced, but elementary school kids loved them, including the future author of Eisner's biography.
ANDELMAN: Would those include the Scholastic books?
KITCHEN: No. Those remain in limbo. They may be the only books of Will Eisner’s that are never reprinted.
ANDELMAN: Is that Will’s choosing, or are they just too dated?
KITCHEN: I would never say it was Will’s choosing. Will was always delighted to reprint everything. I think they are just so, speaking personally, they are so damned corny, and a lot of it is seriously dated. Just take the title of one of them: Star Jaws.
ANDELMAN: That was the big one, wasn’t it?
KITCHEN: Yeah. I think that was the big one. And then you have The Dating Book, and I think dating habits have changed a bit since Will put those out, and even when he put them out, he was about sixty himself, so he relied on help from a couple of students. Also keep in mind that certain of Will’s students, or ex-students, did a good deal of the artwork and writing, so these aren’t even pure Eisner. I just don’t see those holding up other than in some ultimate everything-he-ever-drew compendium. I don’t think anyone’s holding their breath for these books!
ANDELMAN: A lot of people ask me this, so I am going to ask you, how is Ann Eisner doing?
KITCHEN: I am happy to report that Ann is doing very well. She has moved. She has a new apartment. She is involved in a lot of activities. She is a member of various clubs and organizations. She is very active. She has been traveling. She has involved herself in some of the decisions involving what’s being done with Will’s work in terms of exhibitions and publications. For the most part, she has turned the business aspects over to one of her nephews, Carl Gropper. who is administering the estate, but I would say under the circumstances, Ann is doing very well.
ANDELMAN: Was she surprised in the months following Will’s passing at how broad the respect and the adulation was? Obviously, she knew….
KITCHEN: That’s hard to say. Yes, I think she knew, but I think it was certainly gratifying to see how broad it was, and it’s still not over. Literally, just last month, the National Cartoonists Society had their big convention in Chicago, and an old friend, Jose Delbo, put together a presentation on Will for all of the professional cartoonists, some of whom had known him for many years, like Mort Walker, but many are newer and in a field outside of comic books. So they did this very respectful tribute, and it’s going on, as you know from your own presentations. There was also that wonderful tribute issue of Comic Book Artist that Jon B. Cooke put together.
ANDELMAN: There was one in Paris this year, also, right?
KITCHEN: Yes. That was an exhibition of work from The Plot. It wasn’t broader than that, but there is talk from two different entities about doing essentially retrospectives in Europe that would probably begin in Paris and go to two or three cities and another that would begin in Italy and travel separately, beginning in 2008. There is so much happening. Again, Will would be very pleased, but none of us should be surprised that the interest continues. It is very gratifying.
Oh, one more thing is that the official Will Eisner website is going to be undergoing a transformation.
ANDELMAN: How soon do you think that will happen?
KITCHEN: Soon! Carl Gropper and Gary Chaloner are taking the lead on this. The official Will Eisner web site was initiated by Jamie Riehle and Katy Garnier, about six years ago, and they did a commendable job as tireless volunteers despite grueling schedules. Carl will be able to devote more time to it and Gary intends to make the site broader in scope, more interactive and with considerably deeper archives. Readers who haven’t checked it out in a while will want to pay close attention again.
Denis Kitchen and Will Eisner.
(Photo courtesy of Denis Kitchen.)