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The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen

(Dark Horse; US: Jun 2010)

Sit Down Folks, This Is Going to Take a While...

How do you begin read the life of Denis Kitchen? The man is a giant.


I guess part of the problem in reading The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen is old rockers who never die. There was a Joy and an Energy to these rockers, Back When. Remember wanting to be Eddie from Iron Maiden? To defy death and come back as a Rock Zombie. That was what rock ‘n’ roll was all about. Wasn’t it?


These days though, despite the nu-metal of Linkin Park and the dulcet, poetic overtures of Cursive, the boy-next-door clean-cut easy listening of Daughtry, Rock’s passion seems to have dissipated. The legends of rock ‘n’ roll once read to storm the fortifications of Hell itself, have become old men grown graceful. Meat Loaf waxes on with a starry-eyed wisdom on VH1’s Storytellers. The Stones grind out a slow, steady rhythm of seemingly endless tours. It feels like the Rock Generation has found a way to keep warm in a world grown colder. The passion has flared, and now maybe cooled, but we’ll eat through this winter, and we’ll eat well.


Maybe the Stones isn’t such a bad place to start. Cartoonist Joe Sacco’s highly recommended But I Like It, his dizzying tour of the seedily lush and strangely redemptive journeys that take Greil Marcus’ Old Weird America global, does a strange four-story riff on the Stones. Not the “Back in the Day Stones”, but the Stones of today. The Stones that work out the daily grind of stadium gigs, arena rock and an unending life on the road. Long after they’d need to sustain this lifestyle.


There’s something strange about the Stones. Something reaffirming about listening to them especially now. There’s some kind of rock absolution to be won from knowing that You are the one fan that’s been there from the beginning, even when you’re not that fan at all, Sacco asserts.


And Sacco of course, is one of the secret heirs of Denis Kitchen. Kitchen worked his way up as a Milwaukee cartoonist among other Milwaukee cartoonists. He spearheaded, in the early ‘70s, a syndication of his Kitchen Sink Press cohort. Kitchen tirelessly promoted cartooning, cartoonists and underground comix in the popular imagination. And while Joe Sacco may never have benefited directly from Kitchen, the equation is almost sadistically simple. Without Kitchen there would conceivably be a sustained ignominy around the daily grind of an honest American artform.


The great Trina Robbins (it is time to use that word unapologetically again, great) would see her profoundly important books A Century of Women Cartoonists and The Great Women Superheroes published by Kitchen Sink Press. As would Howard Cruse and Spain (Rodriguez) see their works published. Kitchen would go on to found the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. And take point on editing Stan Lee’s vision of underground comix for Marvel Comix Books. And Art Spiegelman’s precursor short story to Maus would grace the pages of this book. It would be three pages that started a long, strange trip that would end with the very first comicbook to win a Pulitzer.


It wouldn’t be unfair to say that comics culture, at least the creator side of the culture, grew up under the watchful eye of Denis Kitchen. One of the many parents who helped usher in the new age of popular culture we now all live in. There is a quiet, reassuring benevolence here.


But still, how to grapple with enormity of Denis Kitchen. How to measure if The Oddly Compelling Art is a good and clear and clean animation of the life and the drama and the struggles of Kitchen and his times. Thankfully, Oddly Compelling steers clear of hagiography. Instead, and elegantly, Oddly Compelling is able to tell the story of the children (in the same sense that Carlos Santana uses the term ‘children’) of comics, the story of the inheritors.


Oddly Compelling is the story of the defense of culture, not in small human-sized slabs bought on the street corners for pocket change, but one told in large sweeping strokes. And it recognizes a tirelessness of spirit. And an ongoing, and a resilience. And even so far afield as the TED talk given by m00t earlier this year (a passionate plea against persistent identity and the secret wellspring of such internet memes as LOLcat and Comixed), the unusual gravitas of Denis Kitchen can be felt by the savvy reader of culture.


The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen is not a book to read in one sitting. It is to be savored.

Rating:

AB-, ENTJ, PhD: shathley Q is deeply moved by the emotional connection we build with our perpetual fictions, and hopes to answer for that somehow, somehow. He holds a Doctorate in Literary and Cultural Theory. His writings have appeared in Joss Whedon: the Complete Companion and Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men, as well as regularly on PopMatters. Like a kid in a china shop, he microblogs as @uuizardry on Twitter. Or hit him up directly on shathleyq@popmatters.com.


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