1993: Blue Block

Blue Block (1993) by Scott Deschaine and Jim Woodring

Here’s where the “Kitchen Sink” concept becomes a bit muddled.

Flush with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle money, Kevin Eastman started Tundra Publishing, who seemingly had a mission to give all alternative comics artists huge paychecks for publishing things that didn’t sell well. My impression was that it was halfway between a charitable concern and a commercial entity? Three years in, Eastman was fed up with the entire enterprise (understandably enough), and brought in Denis Kitchen to mop things up.

Or as they tried to frame it: The Comics Journal #158, page 17:

Kitchen Sink Press Buys
Tundra Publishing

Right from the start, everybody called bullshit on that story. How did Kitchen Sink, a small company, buy Tundra, which was much larger? I’m not sure whether anybody has ever gotten down into the nitty gritty of it and figured out just what actually happened, but everybody assumed that Eastman had paid Kitchen a bunch of money to get the mess off his hands, and to avoid losing even more money:

“Going down the list (of Tundra’s creators),
some contracts will obviously have to be rene-
gotiated,” said Kitchen. “Some are structured
in a way that I don’t think KSP can benefit from
them. In some cases, Tundra was just too
generous in its deals. KSP just isn’t positioned
to carry on with certain projects that are big
money loser-s unless I think there’s an overriding
artistic or political reason for me to do it.

I.e., Eastman didn’t want to be the heavy and cut his friends’ books, but Kitchen could. So Kitchen moved the Kitchen Sink offices from Princeton, Wisconsin to Massachusetts, where Tundra had their offices. Of the 14 people who were employed in Princeton, five made the trip, and many of the people who already worked for Tundra were fired, too.

And for the next year or so, Kitchen Sink’s publishing schedule would be dominated by things that Tundra had in the pipeline, of which this is obviously one.

So that left me in a slight conundrum for the concept of this blog — should I perhaps just bite the bullet and also cover all the pre-Kitchen Tundra books? Because it’d be weird to do just, say, Tantalizing Stories #6, when the first issues were published by Tundra and that one by the Kitchen Tundra.

I decided to just wing it, and do all the books that have “Kitchen Sink” in the indicia (as determined by comics.org), but with continuing series, I’ll also be looking at previous issues.

*phew* So much drama!

But let’s look at Blue Block!

It’s written (and layouted (that’s a word)) by Deschaine, but the very pretty artwork is by Jim Woodring, who was doing various oddball series at Tundra at the time, as well as illustrating monster comics for Fantagraphics.

This is a done-in-one 32 page comic book, which is on par for Tundra: They published a lot of stuff that you’d be hard-pressed to see how would reach a larger audience. But the colour reproduction here is just weird — it mostly looks really good, but look at that net the dog er cat catcher is using: It’s pretty much illegible what’s actually going on.

This is a semi-dystopian sci fi story, and we’re not given much of an explanation about anything in that society. Instead we focus on a couple of small events (the cat getting its head caught in a glass jar and this guy’s attempt to help it), and one big event.

(Don’t worry, the cat’s gonna be fine.)

It’s… it’s a kind of perfect little book? It’s a jolt of mystery and humanity — it’s without context, just 32 pages of a little story about a day in this society. Woodring is an odd choice for an artist for a sci fi story, since his art looks so grounded (in this mode of drawing), but that only heightens the strangeness of the book.

It’s really good.

The Comics Journal #166, page 128:

This is a strange little work, writ-
ten and laid out by Deschaine and
illustrated by Woodring, with col-
Ors by Mary Woodring. It tells the
story of@man and his family
who live in the “blue block” of some vague future
city where districts are separated by color. Huge
banks of lights crown all the buildings, making the
sky glow blue day and night. The other star of the
book is•årt omery alley cat, who prowls the margins
Of the, centralized society and whom the man feeds
and inadvertently traps in a
broken bottleneck.

[…]

No, I’m not going to give away the end-
ing. Blue Block is a short, simple Story. but in the
Woodrings’ hands it becomes something beyond
that, something hypnotic. There’s nothing all that
original about the story, but for some reason I find
myself rereading this book over and Over. Maybe it’s
because the cat’s so darn cute.

I don’t think this book has ever been reprinted? Somebody should do a collection of Woodring-illustrated books from this era.

This is the one hundred and forty-fourth post in the Entire Kitchen Sink blog series.

1992: Spirit: The Origin Years

Spirit: The Origin Years (1992) #1-10 by Will Eisner

Kitchen Sink had published all the post-WWII Spirit strips as a monthly comic book. After that’s run its course, it must have seemed like a pretty natural thing to do to start over with the pre-WWII material, which is what this series attempted to do — but they only managed to get ten issues out before having to cancel the series.

These comics have cardstock covers with metal-ish ink, so I guess Kitchen Sink was trying to fancy these up a bit.

But… it’s hard to see who would be buying a bi-monthly series that reprints this stuff. Hard-core pap pap comics people would presumably prefer to have sturdier books, and most other people just don’t care.

And… neither do I, so I’m not actually going to read these books. Each one reprints four stories, and the first few are pretty nicely reproduced. I mean, there’s a lot of line shrinkage, but it generally looks reasonable.

Steve Geppi is thanked for providing the books that this series is reproduced from, and he also gets one ad page per issue.

For the first half of the series, the Spirit stories are seven pages long, which leaves some pages over — and these are filled by essays and interviews.

I read a couple of the stories, and they’re sometimes amusing, but not really all that thrilling.

Halfway through, the reproduction changes abruptly. These are obvious shot from colour comics, but apparently without any attempt to clean them up, so things just look muddy and ugly.

There’s also basic sloppy reproduction issues, like moire and stuff.

This page (with a lunatic talking about Jesus) apparently got some push-back from readers from being blasphemous or something. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

With the tenth issue, the series goes on a “hiatus” (to never appear again).

DC Comics later reprinted the entire Spirit series in thick hardback colour volumes, I think, which is a much more sensible format.

The Comics Journal #167, page 33:

Eisner’s The Spirit Cancelled,
but Not for Long
Kitchen Sink Press has cancelled their reprint
series of vintage pre-World War II Will Eisner
Spirit strips, subtitled The Origin Years, with
issue ten. Marketing Director Jamie Riehle
cited production difficulties as the reason for
the cancellation, and added that the Spirit’s vis-
ibility will continue to be high throughout
1994, with many other projects in the works.
Riehle said that with previous, post-WWII
Spirit comics and magazines clean stats had al-
ways been readily available from Eisner’s own
archives. The stats of the pre-war material,
however, have all been destroyed or lost
through the years. Kitchen was forced for their
series, which is in black and white, to attempt
to blow the color out of existing Sunday sec-
tions that the material originally appeared in,
and neither the production staff nor Eisner him-
self have been satisfied with the results.
The status of the book is in limbo for now,
said Riehle, while the company considers alter-
native printing formats, with color a possibility.
Meanwhile, many other Spirit-related projects
are on the boards. This year Kitchen will re-
lease a new collector-card set, an updated re-
print of The Spirit Jam, and a full-color
Christmas Spirit collection, featuring eight
holiday tales done by Eisner over the years,
along with a new cover. Riehle also said that
Eisner is close to signing a film deal for the ad-
ventures of Denny Colt, but that no specifics
could be given at this time.

This is the one hundred and forty-third post in the Entire Kitchen Sink blog series.

1992: Peepshow: The Cartoon Diary of Joe Matt

Peepshow: The Cartoon Diary of Joe Matt (1992) by Joe Matt

I remember what a thrill it was when Joe Matt’s pages first appeared in various anthologies. I think they were a staple in the Drawn & Quarterly magazine, and also appeared in… Weirdo? Perhaps Snarf? They were immediately graphically recognisable — black borders and tons of itsy bitsy panels. Oh, and the subject matter: Autobiographical minutiae of the most intimate sort: Like… masturbation and eating snot. Oh, and eating scabs. Lots of eating, I guess.

I also remember being a bit puzzled that Kitchen Sink was publishing this, since the strips were serialised in Drawn & Quarterly, but I guess Kitchen Sink had money to throw around in those days.

But I haven’t read these pages since they were originally published more than thirty years ago, so let’s see what this collection is like.

The strips are presented strictly chronologically, I think? And most (or all) of them had been published before.

In the anthologies, they usually functioned as a total break from whatever preceded them. This sort of dense storytelling style was unlike most anything else, although the influence from R. Crumb is pretty obvious. But it’s like a condensed Crumb. At the time I imagined that it was inspired more by Aline Kominsky (because of the subject matter), but I’m not really seeing that now.

And as you can see in the early page above, Matt wasn’t really exactly honest, and is sugar-coating things to try to get to something resembling an acceptable end to that story. I almost wrote “anecdote”, but I think that’s not really accurate — these pages feel like a whole little short story, only condensed a lot. Reading this 80 page collection took me all day — it’s exhausting in some ways.

Matt backtracks a bit from that earlier story’s “resolution”.

Most of the pages stick to the formula when it comes to pacing and the look, but Matt does try some experiments here and there. To the left we have a more playful layout, while to the right we have a super-duper dense one.

He also tries to go for longer stories — there’s one eight page epic about trying to join Sexaholics Anonymous, but it’s not really a successful move. For one, the subject matter just isn’t that interesting: His strange hang-ups seem pretty trivial, and it seems like So Much Fake Drama. And it also seems over-worked — like he’s tried to make a really, really tidy little story out of it all, and it feels a bit dead. (And it almost feels like Matt did the Sexaholics thing not because he really wanted to, but because he thought it would make a good story.)

Matt’s comics were enormously influential — for good reason. They’re just thrilling in their mundanity. It seemed like half the people who read these strips went on to create their own autobio strips (we see Matt meeting Chester Brown above, who did so, and we later meet Seth, who also started doing autobio), and the other half went on to write irate articles about how awful, trivial and cringy these things are), and the third half went on to do parodies of the phenomenon. Yes, three halves — that’s how influential Joe Matt was.

Part of the thrill of reading these comics at the time was the way many of these autobio people portrayed each other, because it soon seemed to become a “scene”, and they were writing about what they were doing, which was hanging out with other autobio artists. (Yes, very incestuous, but…)

A recurring theme in these strips (as indeed in many autobio comics) is how people feel like appearing in them. I guess that seems quaint these days with social media and all…

Anyway! I wouldn’t exactly claim that these strips haven’t aged at all? Because they have. And reading them in a collection like this isn’t ideal, because Matt goes over the same things, over and over again, and it becomes repetitious. But! They’re still great, and they’re still fun, and now I want to re-read Matt’s later work, too.

Cliff Yang writes in Amazing Heroes #202, page 81:

What is Peep Show anyway? Like the
title says, it’s Joe Matt’s diary. Who
is Joe Matt? He’s a cartoonist—a
singularly self-absorbed, introspec-
tive, obsessive, neurotic, repressed,
some-might-even-say-whiny cartoon-
ist. Fortunately, he’s also funny and
has the unmitigated bravery to admit
that he’s all of the other above-listed
adjectives.
He seems to be compelled to
disclose all these really intimate
personal details about his life, which
is, like I said, funny, but also frighten-
ing. Watching Joework (especially in
his longer pieces) is like watching a
high wire act: he always appears to be
in danger of tipping over into either
self-pity or buffonery, but amazes you
by staying on that dividing line.
June, 1992
The collection spans the years 1987
through 1991. His drawing style does-
n’t change significantly over this
period, though it would be difficult to
imagine how it could, considering that
the panels are only an inch square; he
packs 10 to 20 in a page, and Joe is
very verbose. Though he draws well
and occasionally enjoys pulling little
visual tricks, Joe appears to me to be
more of a writer who draws than an
artist who writes. Expect the art to
be more experimental in the larger-
paneled, ongoing Peepshow comic
from Drawn & Quarterly.
So what’s the attraction of Joe
Matt’s work? I doubt if this is an
original comment, but in Joe’s early
work, he comes across in much the
same way as Woody Allen did in his
early stand-up and film work. Like
Woody, Joe is the little schlemiel who
knows he’s smarter that every one
else, the guy who could be a big hit
at parties if people would just let him.
Unfortunately, he’s so crippled by his
insecurites and compulsions that he
can’t relax. Fortunately, as Woody has
his Mia, Joe has a woman-who-
makes-a-difference, Trish.
Unlike Woody, Joe was able to
make the transition from being the
Lonely Guy to being the Relationship
Guy, and he manages to keep it
interesting. In fact, the best strips in
the collection are the stories about Joe
and Trish: their misunderstandings,
their making up, and the way Joe’s
(and Trish’s) insecurities continue to
nag. If you can uork your way around
the really basic, idiographic cartoon-
ing, Joe and Trish’s relationship is one
of the richest, most fully developed
in comics.
But, hey, it isn’t all that serious.
There’s lots of play time and other side
attractions, including juicy stories
about old girlfriends, old roomates,
and old employers. In fact, you have
to wonder how much Joe’s friends are
willing to tell them about their lives.
They never know where the intimate
details might start showing up. You
can’t trust someone who’s willing to
be this confessional.

Matt is interviewed in The Comics Journal #183, page 61:

BRAYSHAW: You said that you hadn’t looked Over the
material recently, but do you have any thoughts about the
Kitchen Sink collection, as a unit?
MATT: [laughs] Yeah, I see it as pretty juvenile. It’ s embar-
rassing in a lot of ways. but not completely, because I was
doing my best at the time. But I never look through it. It just
doesn’t appeal to me.
BRAYSHAW: One of the things that did interest me about it
though is the way you don’t ever settle on stories about
your life as it is currently in progress; they ‘re interspersed
with memories of growing up or with fantasies or play
strips. There’s a real sense of variety to the material. It’s
exploding all Over the place.
MATT: I saw this collection as a base that would support
further collections that would expound on some of the
same topics or stories, like I’m doing with my childhood
story. But I was under the complete delusion that I was fast.
[laughs] I was thinking I could get out a collection a year
or something. God knows what I was thinking. But I did
want to cover as much ground as quickly as possible, just
in case that was maybe the only book I would ever do.
Maybe I’d die, who knows? I wanted to get as much
covered as quickly as possible.

It’s difficult to find actual reviews of this book, for some reason. Well, here’s one:

Whereas his later work, such as Fair Weather, bring more technique and poetic qualities to the page, they lose something of the appealing visceral quality of this first collection. Make no mistake it’s a grim read, partly due to Matt’s extremely basic lifestyle, but mainly due to his unflinching desire to uncover every dark thought he’s ever had or selfish attribute that he possesses. He treats his girlfriend, Trish, terribly and is an extreme miser.

Matt now posts pics of cats on Instagram, so I guess he’s no longer a struggling artist.

This is the one hundred and forty-second post in the Entire Kitchen Sink blog series.

1992: Motherless Child

Motherless Child (1992) by Thom Webb Scott

As I said in a previous post, Kitchen Sink seemed to publish at lot of books that were just, uhm, inexplicable. I mean, from a sensible publishing point of view. This, for instance, is a 24 page standard comic book, with cardboard covers, from somebody who’s not done comics before. How is this supposed to reach any readers?

But what’s it about?

It’s a befuddling book, and completely original. We start with a text in the first person, and talking about “mom” who’s apparently dying. It’s unclear who this “I” is — is it the author?

Then things become slightly clearer — “What do I remember about uncle Kenny?” So it seems like the author is interviewing this woman, and we’re hearing her talk — perhaps while the author is snapping these pics of her? The artwork is kinda stunning, but obviously drawn straight from snapshots. And they’re very posed snapshots, just like what you’d get if somebody said “sit here while I take some pictures of you that I can later trace”. You know — awkwardly half-smiling while wondering where to put your hands.

As the book progresses, though, we get further abstractions, and… it’s enthralling, listening to this woman talking about her uncle Kenny. (He’s the motherless child — he died (at 37, apparently) soon after his mother (who’s the storyteller’s grandmother)). Oops spoilers!)

It’s a unique book, and it’s astoundingly successful. It’s really wonderful, and the lack of context makes it an even more thrilling object. I had to read it twice — it’s just that compelling.

The Comics Journal #158, page 89:

This book is startling compared to rmst of the comics
you’re likely to see.
A woman talks about Kenny, her “favorite uncle.”
She relates anecdc*es, explains family dynamics,
comments, all to trace a portrait of a man with prob-
lems. Not desperate, melodramatic problems — he’s
just someone who doesn’t get along very well with
the world he lives in.
Her monolog is illustrated by shots of herself.
interspersed with pictures of the main actors. That’s
not to say that these drawings actually show the scenes
described in the narration. Instead, they show family
snapshots of the people involved, Otfring us an
tunity to size them up, to guess at their personalities
fmm their their expressions. The art is quite
appealing. shifting smoothly back-and-forth
near-photorealism and expressionism.
This comic never forces itself on us. It is never
uorld.” according to the information on the back cover.
melodramatic, never condescending. I can quibble
with a few details — the Story could be a bit more
focused, the last two pages are rather sententious —
but this book’s uorth a look.

It has apparently never been reprinted, and it doesn’t look like Thom Webb Scott (also named Thom Scott III, apparently) has done any further comics. Or… much of anything? I’m not able to google him at all. Well, that’s a shame.

This is the one hundred and forty-first post in the Entire Kitchen Sink blog series.

An Entirely Ill-Advised Reading of all Comics Published by Kitchen Sink Press