Rare Book and Manuscript Library Acquires Kitchen Sink Press Archives

crumb2 Date-stamped 1984 holiday card to Denis Kitchen with self-portraits drawn by R. Crumb, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and 4-year-old Sophie Crumb.

KSP published many of the most important names in comics history, which are represented in the archive’s files, including Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner, two key figures of 20th century comic art.  Kurtzman (1924-1993) was the founding editor and creator of Mad magazine and later founded the satire publicationsTrumpHumbug, and Help!, and co-created Little Annie Fanny for Playboy.  Eisner (1917-2005) is recognized internationally in the field of sequential art, a term he coined, and created The Spirit in the 1940s and ‘50s. In part through his work with KSP, he became the acknowledged pioneer of the graphic novel; his collection of stories A Contract with God is widely credited with establishing the form as a unique and viable literary form.   

“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.  “Kitchen Sink Press was so much more than merely an underground press, publishing everyone from giants of the early newspaper strip such as Al Capp and Ernie Bushmiller, to mid-century innovators Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman, to underground pioneers such as R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, and Art Spiegelman.  As a result, in both publications and correspondence, the archive captures the changing mores of a turbulent time.”

The KSP archive’s correspondence files are a collective time capsule of 20th century comic artists from the 1930s onward, with over 50,000 letters, many of which contain draft artwork and both published and unpublished story ideas. Notable contemporary creators represented in the files are Robert Crumb, Charles Burns, and Neil Gaiman.  A sizeable percentage of the files are hand-written, documenting the artists’ careful lettering and illustrations. 

Kitchen date-stamped virtually every letter on receipt, kept its envelope and attached a copy of his own response, creating a carefully preserved and deeply comprehensive archive. Kitchen’s early correspondence with Art Spiegelman predates his Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust memoir Maus by several years, and Kitchen helped publish some of the early Maus strips more than six years before Spiegelman began to publish them in Raw, the magazine Spiegelman co-edited with his wife, Françoise Mouly.

“Apparently I am a natural-born archivist,” said Kitchen.  “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.”

KSP began publishing underground comics in 1969 when Kitchen, a comic artist before he became a publisher, began self-publishing after encountering payment problems for his own commissioned artwork. It was an alternative, idealistic publishing model, more artist-friendly than the work-for-hire commercial model.  Artists could keep their own artwork, retained the copyright to it after publication, and were paid royalties instead of flat rates - a significant departure from the commercial norm at the time.   

Early on, Kitchen received requests for publication of unsolicited artwork and stories.  He published artists both well known and virtually unknown, commanding quality above all other factors.  A lifelong comics fan and collector, he also corresponded with artists of previous generations and would republish their sometimes long-forgotten works.  In this, KSP took a path different from the other major underground comics publishers, and brought all of 20th century comic art under its umbrella, documenting the progression of the field in a way no other publisher did at the time.  

The archive, which contains over 200 linear feet of material, embodies three decades of innovation and transformation in the field of comic art and visual storytelling and includes a roster of the most important names in the industry.  Correspondence, publishing and editorial files, mechanicals, original art and mock-ups, business files and more comprise the meticulously preserved collection.  

"One of Columbia's great strengths is the history of American publishing in the 20th century,” said Michael Ryan, director of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.  “Few libraries have archival holdings as deep and as rich in major commercial publishing as Columbia.  The acquisition of Denis Kitchen's spectacular archive builds on and adds to this impressive array of material.  It would be hard to find someone more important than Kitchen in the business of comics in the later 20th century.  He helped launch the careers of many of the major comic artists of today.  His archive, when opened, will prove indispensable to researchers in the field."

This acquisition supports a major collecting strength of the RBML, the history of publishing and related archives, with notable recent additions including the archives of Granary Books, the Dalkey Archive Press, and Hanging Loose Press, all recently brought in by Karla Nielsen, Curator of Literature at RBML who also collaborated with Green on the KSP archive acquisition. These new acquisitions build on a pre-existing collection of publishers archives that goes back to the nineteenth century, including the papers of Random House and Harper & Bros, and other recent additions including Ballantine Books and the papers of Barney Rosset, founder of Grove Press. Additionally, it is the latest development in CUL/IS’s support for research, teaching, and learning with comics and graphic novels.  Since its beginning in 2005, a growing circulating collection of such graphic novels at CUL/IS has inspired scholarly inquiry, as well as academic writing and coursework, including The American Graphic Novel, a course co-taught by Columbia University Professor Jeremy Dauber and former DC Comics president Paul Levitz, and a long-running summer course on comics as literature.

Columbia University Libraries is one of the top five academic research library systems in North America. The collections include over 13 million volumes, over 160,000 journals and serials, as well as extensive electronic resources, manuscripts, rare books, microforms, maps, and graphic and audio-visual materials. The Libraries employs more than 400 professional and support staff and hosts over 4.7 million visitors each year.  The website of the Libraries is the gateway to its services and resources: library.columbia.edu.