Great Moments in Comic History: Will Eisner Goes Underground

When people talk about the defining moments in the history of comics, they usually bring up events like when Bob Kane met Bill Finger and made Batman, or when Jerry Siegel met Joe Simon and created Superman, or Stan Lee meeting Jack Kirby and coming up with a host of memorable characters. I would like to add one more hugely important meeting to the list: when Will Eisner met Denis Kitchen.

The interesting thing is, this meeting of great minds almost didn’t work out at all. In the 1970s, Will Eisner was already a veteran in the comics industry, having published hundreds of comics including The Spirit (which he penciled and wrote) and numerous other action comics. Denis Kitchen was an up and coming figure in comics, having just started his own “underground” comic publishing group called Kitchen Sink Press. Many of the younger generation of comic artists and writers had come to revere Will Eisner, and perhaps none more so than Denis Kitchen, who ran into Will Eisner at a comic convention and immediately tried to get him to publish with his company. 

Will Eisner though was an old-fashioned gentleman, so when he saw the sort of explicit content that was the norm for underground books, he declined Kitchen’s offer.

Thankfully for us, Denis Kitchen didn’t give up, and was soon able to persuade Will Eisner to draw up some new work for Kitchen Sink Press. Eisner had long championed the idea that comics could be art, but wasn’t taken very seriously, in part because he was only able to publish genre comics. Kitchen offered him something none of the pulp magazines could: complete artistic freedom.

Will Eisner then decided to take the medium in a completely different direction. He started writing and drawing personal comics which were often tragic and awe-inspiring. He even tinkered with the craft by frequently abandoning the panels themselves in favor of pages that resembled storybooks rather than comics. Denis Kitchen didn’t seem to mind at all what Eisner did, so long as he was producing new material.

By attaining this freedom, Will Eisner was finally able to confirm that comics were a real art. For proof, look at any of his later work (although everything Will Eisner drew was fantastic). The comics he produced for Kitchen Sink Press were just plain beautiful. His book The Building is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, and I’ve read an awful lot (review of The Building forthcoming).

I would argue that comics were always an art, but others might disagree. If anyone looks at the work Will Eisner did at Kitchen Sink Press and says comics still aren’t art, then I wouldn’t put much faith in that person’s ability to be a critic.

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When Will Eisner met Denis Kitchen, comics finally and irrevocably became art. I’d call that an important event in comics history, wouldn’t you?

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