Denis Kitchen Discusses his Career and Harvey Kurtzman’s Trump

Denis Kitchen has decades of experience in comics publishing. Some of his notable accomplishments have been founding Kitchen Sink Press and the Comic Book Legal Defense. One of Kitchen’s more recent projects is Trump: The Complete Collection, which is an annotated collection of Trump, a magazine that was edited by Harvey Kurtzman and published by Playboy’s Hugh Hefner. Though it only lasted two issues, Kitchen’s collection of this series provides important insights into Kurtzman’s legacy.

Wanting to learn more about Kitchen’s life and his latest publication, Kitchen allowed me to interview him for Sequart.

Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, when did you first become a fan of comic books? Was there a specific character or story that got you hooked?

Denis Kitchen: Many of my earliest memories, from the early and mid-‘50s, are of reading comics books and newspaper strips, Nick. A babysitter’s home where I was frequently dropped off had several stacks of comic books taller than I was, and two older cousins had a large closet filled with comics. At either house I’d be thoroughly immersed in those stacks for hours on end. I had to be pried away at meal times. The ones that fascinated me most were the horror and crime titles. On the funny side Uncle $crooge and Little Lulu were particular favorites. I read the superheroes too, but they were never among my favorites. As I got a little older I discovered Humbug and MAD and they were life changers.

Yanes: The comic book industry has chewed up and spit out a lot of people. How do you think you’ve managed to survive in this industry for so many decades?

Kitchen: Well, for one thing, I was almost always outside the mainstream comics industry where it was probably easier to get chewed up and spit out. I was lucky enough to enter the field in the late ‘60s right out of college. I saw and exploited a vacuum in the market for “underground” comix to my counter-culture peers. I first self-published, and then quickly published many other cartoonists for a seemingly insatiable hippie market well into the ‘70s. As the market inevitably evolved I gradually shifted to classic reprints, relatively mainstream comic books, graphic novels and sidelines. It was pretty seamless and, for the better part of thirty years, I stayed in control of my little empire. After Kitchen Sink Press folded in 1999 I reinvented myself as an agent, packager, writer, and returned to drawing. And now with the Kitchen Sink Books imprint for Dark Horse I have a toe back in publishing.

Yanes: You recently contributed essays and annotations, and edited Trump: The Complete Collection. For people who have never heard of Trump, how would you quickly describe this short-lived magazine?

Kitchen: It’s understandably obscure because Trump lasted only two issues sixty years ago. It was important to get this historic material back in print because it was what lured Harvey Kurtzman to risk leaving MAD, the very successful magazine he had founded a few years earlier, and it was the only time Hugh Hefner ventured into the satire magazine field. Given Hefner’s resources and upward spiral and the tremendous talent that Kurtzman brought to the table (Will Elder, Jack Davis, Al Jaffee, Arnold Roth, Wally Wood, Russ Heath—and even Mel Brooks) you’d expect big success. But for a lot of complicated reasons I discuss in the book, Hefner pulled the plug when the third issue was being assembled. Helming a “slick” color magazine was Harvey’s life dream and the cancellation broke his heart.

Yanes: The word “Trump” has taken on a lot of meaning in the past few years. What did it mean as the title for this magazine?

Kitchen: At the inception in 1956 Kurtzman and Hefner were looking for a catchy and appropriate title. “Trump” was not Harvey’s choice. Hefner wanted something suggesting sophistication and of course he prevailed. It’s an unfortunate coincidence that the magazine now shares the name of the media-sucking president because our book comes up about seven millionth in Google searches [laughs]. As Forbes cleverly put it in a recent review, “Sixty years ago we were laughing at a different Trump!”

Yanes: Trump’s creation was spearheaded by Harvey Kurtzman. What insights into Kurtzman’s creative process and ability does Trump provide?

Kitchen: Harvey was a taskmaster and fanatical about quality. He demanded the best from his contributors and collaborators and usually got it. With MAD as a comic book for its first 24 issues Harvey was able to write everything, create the compositions, and he drew most of the covers himself or designed them. When MAD converted to a fatter magazine format, at his behest, he was unable to do as much himself, and he had to learn to herd cats in a different way. Deadlines weren’t always met. With Trump Hefner provided enough funding so the magazine had an Art Director and a production staff, but Harvey still couldn’t help being hands-on with everything. That didn’t make things go any faster. Throughout his career Harvey’s perfectionist tendencies conflicted with time frames dictated by the market.

Yanes: How do you think Trump enabled Kurtzman to grow as an artist? On this note, are there any specific parts of Trump that showcase Kurtzman’s abilities in a way that he couldn’t while making MAD?

Kitchen: I don’t think Trump allowed Harvey to grow as an artist per se, because he didn’t have the luxury to do any art himself for the magazine, other than layouts. I think he would have grown tremendously as an editor if the magazine had lasted. And maybe he would have eventually been able to contribute solo pages or illustrations, but we’ll never know. After Trump failed, Harvey started Humbug, also short-lived, and then he wrote and drew the marvelous Jungle Book himself in 1957 but it flopped. Harvey’s career was in many ways jinxed, to the detriment of the larger culture and those of us who so appreciate his genius.

Yanes: Hugh Hefner published Trump. Given that Hefner’s identity is inseparably connected to the Playboy brand, what unique insights into Hefner do you think Trump’s production offers?

Kitchen: My own conclusion is that Hefner meddled too much with Trump, just as he did for many years on the Playboy feature “Little Annie Fanny,” which Harvey & Will Elder spent the last quarter century of their careers laboring at. Hef could afford to hire the very best talent, but he couldn’t respect the inherent talent enough to keep his hands off. In the case of Trump he also had some unexpected financial problems in 1957 that affected his decision to kill the magazine in its infancy. But on the creative side Hefner was a frustrated cartoonist—that’s how he began his career. The main problem was that Harvey and Hef didn’t see eye-to-eye on humor but Hef, writing the checks, always had the last word.

Yanes: While putting together this collection, was there any new information about this magazine, Hefner, or Kurtzman that took you by surprise?

Kitchen: The biggest surprise for most readers will be that a good portion of the unpublished third issue of Trump survived in Harvey’s archives: some in final form, but most semi-finished or as concept drawings. Some planned features, like Harvey’s “Hexaflexagon” centerfold construction is astonishingly ambitious. Whether or not the audience in the mid-50s would have appreciated that kind of material or satire on a sustained basis is impossible to say. In my extensive annotations and essay I try to put everything in full context. To me, assembling the published and unpublished Trump is sort of the comics equivalent of finding an unfinished Orson Welles film. Experts can speculate and make intelligent guesses but we can never experience the full intended picture.

Yanes: When people finish reading Trump: The Complete Collection, what do you hope people take away from it?

Kitchen: To me it’s one of the biggest what-ifs in comics history. If Hefner had been able and willing to give Trump more rope, would it have caught on? Would Trump have found an adequate adult and college-age audience for sophisticated satire, or was it premature in its ambition? The post-Kurtzman MAD under Feldstein and others flourished as it gradually appealed more and more to adolescents.  Were the guys at MAD ultimately the smart ones, or at least the savviest? But, mainly, I would hope that a serious comics fan can simply soak in the magnificent material that survives from two and half Trumps and savor it.

Yanes: Finally, what are some other projects you are working on that people can look forward to?

Kitchen: Will Eisner: A Centennial Celebration is just shipping. It’s a beautiful oversize art book, designed by John Lind, condensing the two big parallel Eisner retrospectives this year, in Angouleme, France and at the Society of Illustrators in New York, honoring Will’s hundredth birthday. John and I are currently working on a few other projects for our Kitchen Sink Books imprint, including another Harvey Kurtzman project. Our publishing partner, Dark Horse, would prefer to release the full details closer to publication, but I’ll just say it’s solo art by Harvey and will be done in the “artist’s edition” style, like our recent Sin City Curator’s Collection. We are also working on a major Will Eisner 2-volume boxed set in that same vein, as well as another by Mark Schultz. On a more personal level I’m assembling new and selected “chipboard” drawings for a rather unusual 3-D portfolio.

Remember, if you want your own copy of Trump: The Complete Collection, you can purchase it here.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Sequart on Twitter @Sequart and on facebook.

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Nicholas Yanes has a Ph.D. in American Studies, and his dissertation examined the business history of EC Comics and MAD Magazine. In addition to being a professional writer, he frequently consults entertainment companies in regards to video games, films, and comic books.

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