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An Interview With Dan Nadel
posted November 13, 2005
 

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I met Dan Nadel at a Small Press Expo several years ago. I purchased a copy of The Ganzfeld at his table; I remember this because it was the only publication I bought all weekend. The Ganzfeld grew in size and scope since a modest first issue to become the most valuable resource for the exploration and examination of comics in the wider context of visual narrative.

During a short period when I was writing only occasionally about comic books, Nadel was solidifying his position in the New York design and arts community through his company PictureBox, Inc. and its work on projects such as The Wilco Book.

The years 2005 and 2006 find the art director and writer assaulting the comics world with a startling number of projects, some currently out, some soon to be, and all worth your attention. They include: the brand-new The Ganzfeld 4; an introduction and editing credit on Mark Newgarden's gorgeous new We All Die Alone; a stint as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Illustration Department at Parsons that includes teaching and bringing in outside lecturers; editing a forthcoming Rory Hayes anthology for Fantagraphics; writing a Milt Gross book with Mark Newgarden that has to find a publishing home, recently releasing the beautiful Paper Rad, BJ and da Dogs through his own company, and finishing up with perhaps the one book about comics I'm looking forward to the most right now, Art Out of Time: Unknown Visionary Cartoonists, 1900-1969, due next Spring from Abrams.

I'd never spoken to Nadel before; he came across as opinionated, funny and really, really smart. I look forward to speaking to him again.

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TOM SPURGEON: As a way of introducing you to people who may not be familiar with your past work, could you talk about doing The Ganzfeld?

DAN NADEL: The Ganzfeld is my annual book of visual culture. The new issue is just out. It is an anthology that focuses on what interests me at the intersections of comics, art, illustration and design. My goal is to make a compelling document of visual culture in the round -- without any divides between media and generations. That includes a lot of picture stories, portfolios of drawings, features on interesting visual phenomena, and historical excavation projects like Frank Johnson in issue three, Frank Moser in the current issue, and the Hairy Who oral history in issue three. I want to bring artists I consider neglected to the fore. The Hairy Who is so relevant to what's going on in comics and art today, and yet they're rarely mentioned. For the comics, I ask that cartoonists try something new visually or thematically.

The first one was just me, my friend Patrick -- who just re-did the Ganzfeld web site and is a phenomenal artist -- and my other friend, Tim Hodler, who is a great writer. I don't know what we were thinking; it was an excuse for us to make our own work and publish it. And we thought it would be fun. None of us had published much of their own stuff before outside of school publications. We were all college buddies. I had the publishing bug early on, for lack of any other way to do what I wanted to do. I also learned a bit about the business from having worked for Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly at RAW for about nine months my first year in New York.

That first issue was kind of an excuse to get our own stuff out there. We saw this gap where the kind of non-fiction we were interested in wasn't being published that much, the kinds of comics we liked weren't really out there, so we just thought we'd do it ourselves. Then it shifted with the second issue because Patrick left and I got increasingly interested in illustration and fine art. Tim left during the second issue and I brought a new partner in [Peter Buchanan-Smith, who has since departed. Jessi Rymill designed the new one -- and now The Ganzfeld is just me with whoever is designing the issue or otherwise helping out], and it shifted away from more personal, organic growth -- for better or for worse -- and started to become more of a showcase for artists I felt fell between the cracks of fine art, illustration, comics and design. I was and remain intrigued by people who were making picture stories, not necessarily comics. That's sort of the second and third issues, you can see these people creeping in. Michael Bartalos, Richard McGuire, Paul Cox, Maira Kalman, Lauren Redniss, Peter Blegvad; artists innovating in a form of narrative illustration that, at the time, seemed to comics-y for art people and too arty for comics people.

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SPURGEON: Is it better now?

NADEL: Yes and no. I think there's a huge amount of reverse snobbery in comics. People are recently obsessed with comics as literary fiction, and they feel so marginalized themselves they tend to kind of rearguard comics against non-traditional forms of narrative storytelling. Which is why I think there are still arguments like, "Gary Panter can't draw, dude." Stuff like that, which is really just ignorant and close-minded. To me that's like saying "The earth is flat". I think it's better, but not a lot better. There's still a lot of stuff that's ignored because people don't know what to do with it. It's sort of narrative picture storytelling, but it's not comics, and it doesn't fall into a genre of literary fiction, which is now very popular in terms of graphic novels. We could get into a whole discussion about it, but I think that literary fiction is as much a genre as superhero stories, with just as many traps for an artist -- Tim wrote a fantastic essay about this in the first Ganzfeld; I am poorly stealing from him here. It's also equally as meaningless -- as proven by the outpouring of mediocre comics-lit in the last couple years -- if it's not done right. I think some people think it's inherently better, which is just not true.

SPURGEON: There's an idea out there which I think I read first in the Onion, of all places, that people are emulating the literary fiction model whether or not they're suited for it.

NADEL: I absolutely agree. I think it's a huge problem, and part of that problem is that a lot of cartoonists aren't yet able to write prose as distinctive as their pictures. They're modeling themselves on literary fiction and trying to write that way, but don't have the chops yet. If you take away the pictures from a lot of contemporary graphic novels, all of the prose is the same and you can't tell the difference between one voice and another. And I think that's a big problem, and one that people rarely ever address. It's that, and -- of course you read that Peter Schjeldahl piece?

SPURGEON: Sure.

NADEL: A lot of it was right on. He was right about Will Eisner. One thing I really disagreed with was when he talks about Marjane Satrapi and he mentions this really cliched bit of dialogue -- remember that part? And he wrote something like: "But we don't go to cartoonists for their views about life." But why not? Why are we letting somebody off the hook who is essentially a trite and cliched thinker? Because it's "comics"? Because it's "issue based?" Because we don't expect anything? That's just silly. We should expect the best from our artists, period.

SPURGEON: I think that people sometimes excuse cartoonists their writing because they can draw and for a lot of people that remains a magical act, much more so than writing.

NADEL: That's true. But I think if you look at sophisticated criticism of fine art, nobody would let Mike Kelley off the hook if he were inarticulate or couldn't draw. In no other medium do critics -- and, to a certain extent, fellow practitioners -- give so many free passes to artists who aren't in control of an essential part of their craft.

SPURGEON: I read a Washington Post article you wrote a while ago, a survey of contemporary art comics. You spent a lot of time discussing the quality of drawing.

NADEL: Yeah.

SPURGEON: At the time, I thought it was just something you value, which is probably true as well, but now I'm thinking that maybe it was a case where you didn't want to get into the writing?

NADEL: [laughs] No, it's just that I value the art a lot. I feel like most people write about comics as though it was literature, and I don't think comics is literature. I think comics is its own medium and should be addressed as such.

SPURGEON: When you talk about the quality of drawing, what exactly do you want people to appreciate?

NADEL: Oh shit. [laughs] What do I want people to appreciate? What I'm looking for from art is, not to be too vague, that it retains a certain sense of mystery. I don't like cartooning that's a closed circuit. Where everything is on the page and it's so tight, so closed, you can't read anything into it. I want cartooning that's open, that stimulates you to envision the rest of what's going on on the page. At the same time, I want cartooning that vibrates a little bit, that has life to it, a line that... vibrates.

In his interview in the first Ganzfeld, Paul Karasik summed it up the best. He said he could tell Jack Cole apart from Jack Cole's ghosts because of the velocity of the line. I think that's a really apt description. If you look at Milt Gross or Jack Cole or Jack Kirby or Brian Chippendale or Gary Panter or Mat Brinkman or George Herriman or Chris Ware, there's a certain velocity to the line, a life to it -- a spark -- that just comes alive on the page. VIP had it. Bud Fisher had it. The great guys had it. Roy Crane had it to the max, maybe more than anybody else except for Kirby and Panter. It's right there. It's visceral.

SPURGEON: So am I right in thinking that a list of those who write in a way you find interesting and appealing would be a smaller list?

NADEL: Well, not necessarily... it's a different kind of list.

SPURGEON: Can you also reduce what you want out of writing to a specific quality?

NADEL: Well, I should say that comics writing is hard to separate from the drawing. The two dovetail seamlessly. And, of course, I'm loath to talk about comics like literature. That said, I think Gary [Panter] is one of the best comics writers ever. He has a prose voice that's unique and idiosyncratic and poetic. It's the way people put words together, and to me the best kind of comics writing is writing akin to someone like Stanley Elkin, William Gaddis, or William Gass. Which is not to say that it's formally deconstructive, but it's the way the words string together, it's sometimes lyrical, sometimes impressionistic, but always as immersive as the art. The structure of the language, the way it sounds and how it resonates in your mind brings up associations and interacts and enhances the art in a way more conservative, purely expository prose doesn't. That's what I like. To my mind, somebody like Panter does that. Gary's words, to me, are as important as his art. Those Jimbos are great reads, period. Herriman does it, too. So does C.W. Kahles.

imageBut I think that Roy Crane was not the best writer; Winsor McCay was not. That's something people don't really like to face. But have you ever tried to read a couple years of Terry and the Pirates? It's fucking hard, man. Al Capp is unreadable. [Chester] Gould was a good writer. I think Boody Rogers was an excellent writer. I think the guy who wrote all the Herbies, a guy named Richard Hughes -- now that's a good writer. He was funny, he moved the plot along, he put words together really nicely, he had a great feel for puns. Harry [Bungle Family] Tuthill captured the rhythms of relationships and daily frustrations so hilariously and insightfully. The Hernandez brothers are amazing. So is Peter Bagge; Chester Brown; Chris Ware; Dan Clowes. Those guys are in full control of their unique voice, and use it to great advantage. Milt Gross was a great writer and a great gag-man. Mark Newgarden is a fantastic prose stylist; Ben Katchor finds poetry in the mundane, and his dialogue is specific to each character -- it tells you about each character as much as the visuals. And there are others of course.

I'm going to sound like I'm promoting his book, but I think Ben Jones is one of the best writers of the "young" generation, in terms of conveying real meaning with language and achieving genuine profundity in his comics. Not just in moving a story long, but in the way he transports you with sentence structure and word association. There is a gag at the end of a strip in his new book that ends with "Am I petting or massaging?", which to me, seriously, just about sums up every kind of existential crisis I've ever faced. Ben's comics are serious (funny) meditations on existence that achieve a tremendous amount within the medium.

SPURGEON: Why Ben? Is it because he has a different set of influences, or is he just naturally talented?

NADEL: I think he's a naturally good writer, and I think unlike a lot of talented young cartoonists he's not hung up on comics. I think that helps a lot. He's not trying to compete with "Comics." He's just writing to write. I think that's the case with a lot of the guys I'm most interested in personally and as a publisher. It's not to say that they're better or worse than anyone else, but they approach comics as though it was a medium like painting or sculpture or whatever else. Instead of approaching it from inside comics, they're coming from outside. And that's not to say that's the only way that works at all.

SPURGEON: Looking at your web site today, Dan, I was astonished by how many works you have out there all at once. How did you make the transition from The Ganzfeld, this magazine, to the much bigger publishing effort that is PictureBox?

imageNADEL: It was pretty organic. The Ganzfeld put me in touch with a lot of different people, and my ambition has always been to write and publish. I've also been very fortunate to meet a few crucial mentors -- who became close friends -- in New York, including Steven Guarnaccia, Mark Newgarden, and Steven Heller, all of whom helped me out a huge amount and taught me a lot about both art history and how to carry myself in the business/art stream. I quit my job in '02 and formed PictureBox with my then-partner, Peter. I wanted to do books. We did Cheap Laffs -- a book about novelty design with Mark Newgarden, as well as The Wilco Book with Wilco -- We did a lot of work for the band for a couple of years, which consumed a huge amount of time. That book was a big success and we got a Grammy for the album cover design. Along the way we applied for and received a publishing grant from the NEA. I pitched my own book about comics in '01, Art Out of Time: Unknown Visionary Cartoonists, 1900-1969. It started at one publisher and finally wound up at Abrams, which is releasing it in the Spring.

Peter left in late 2004 and I looked at it as a chance to dig deeper into my own personal tastes. I've always wanted to have more dialogue between art and comics -- never understood why each "faction" is so isolated from the other. The Ganzfeld tries to bridge that, and I want my publishing company to do the same. And, I decided I wanted to continue building a company that could, on the one hand do a Wilco book, and on the other, do a Ben Jones book.

My basic idea for the company is that each book is a different thought. To me, culturally speaking, there really shouldn't be a difference between the Ben Jones book and The Wilco Book. In my mind the same people are buying them both, even though that's not true. And in my mind the process of making those books is exactly the same. It's working with artists that I really respect and admire to make something that hasn't been thought before. To me a book should be an immersive, intense experience, not just "a read". With The Wilco Book, the idea was that it was a new kind of rock and roll book.

In the Ben Jones book, it's a fresh take on combining comics and art. I hope to do many more Paper Rad and Ben Jones books -- we're planning one for late next year -- and they'll each have different concepts. Brian Chippendale [Fall '06] and Marc Bell's ['07] books will hopefully each solve the same problem in different ways. C.F.'s book that I'm going to do in a couple of years is simply an entirely new conception of comics as fresh -- and as beautifully drawn -- as McCay was 100 years ago. In the spring I'm releasing a book with Trenton Doyle Hancock, who is a wonderful fine artist, that should, I hope be the book that destroys all other art monographs. Likewise for one I'm going to do one with Fred Tomaselli. I'm releasing a book with the band Black Dice in the Spring, and it's essentially one giant collage -- another new way to visualize music in print form. And soon I'm going to do a Sonic Youth book that's going to be equally idiosyncratic. Things like that. I just want to work with people I really admire. It doesn't matter to me what they are.

SPURGEON: So you see what you do as participation in a collaborative process.

NADEL: Yeah. That's the only way I want to do books. I'm not a heavy-handed editor. I'm not interested in dictating what the book is going to be. I am interested in opening up options they might not have thought of. "Gee, maybe we should structure stuff this way. Maybe we can try this paper stock here." And then the artist is free to veto whatever they like. That's the kind of process I prefer.

SPURGEON: How are you set up on the business end of things?

imageNADEL: I modeled my business structure on what I've read about Dischord Records: Keep overhead low, prices down, spend little on promotion and other extraneous items, and treat everyone with respect and a business-like bearing. I also work very hard on the publicity end of things, which has paid off tremendously. The Ben Jones book is in Wired, The Fader, Res, and many other magazines. Each book is independently funded through grants or investors. I have a great accountant, an excellent lawyer, and artists get regular royalty statements. My goal is to be as transparent as possible so that the artists can exert as much control as they want to and feel as safe as possible. The Ganzfeld is now co-published with Gingko Press, who can give it the kind of push that, after having assembled the whole thing, I just lack the energy for. It's too personal -- too all consuming for me to be impartial about. They've been great to me. For all of my other books I have an excellent, responsive distributor called D.A.P./Distributor Art Publishers. They distribute the MoMA books, the Guggenheim, and most of the major art book publishers in Europe and North America. I'm an assistant professor at Parsons -- I teach illustration and comics history -- so I'm not trying to make a living off this stuff, which takes the pressure off.

SPURGEON: So where will Ben's book be found exactly?

NADEL: It should be in any major or minor bookstore in the world. DAP is in America and Canada; they have affiliates in Europe and Asia. I loved that Ben's book in the catalog was placed after Jasper Johns' book. That makes sense to me! I think that's the case with most of the books I'm going to do. It's what I like, and I love the people at DAP. I trust them. It's a good set up.

SPURGEON: Are your books in comics shops at all?

NADEL: Yeah, in the usual suspects: Quimby's, Big Brain, Copacetic Comics, Big Planet. Diamond is carrying them, too.

SPURGEON: I think we all kind of know that list of twenty stores.

NADEL: The audience for Ben's book is a different audience than, say, Alex Robinson's new book. I think there's a huge audience for comics that are not necessarily comics readers. And I think it's not literature readers, either. I think it's people interested in visual culture. I can't tell you how many people I've run into in New York that are designers or artists or whatever who have all bought Kramer's Ergot. I had this Paper Rad party a couple weeks ago. There were about five to six hundred people there, and maybe five people from the New York comics scene. I think there's something else happening that Tom Devlin [Big Up to Tom D., Peggy B. and Gigi D.!] started to tap into with Highwater, itself a completely new idea about what comics could be at the turn of the century. Certainly a lot of people who bought the Brinkman book aren't comics people. It's an interesting phenomenon to me.

SPURGEON: Do you find it disheartening that the bulk of comics readers might not be interested in this type of comics, not even to note their existence so that they can later talk about them?

imageNADEL: I wish it wasn't the case. To me, Ben's book should be taken like people take The Simpsons or Garfield or The Far Side. It's so natural to me, so intuitive. It's honestly hard for me to see what people find weird about it. I think people are freaked out by the surface, but if they read the book, and didn't worry about notions of "arty-ness", they'd find it very familiar, funny, and satisfying.

But look, to me, it's amazing that Kramer's has been embraced as much as it has, thankfully. But then I look at the message board occasionally, and there are still people arguing about whether Ron Rege can draw or Gary can draw. And SPX this year was a study in contrasts. I watched as one notable lit-comics star picked up the Paper Rad book and looked at it with utter revulsion. Now, if that were me, I'd be intrigued and curious, but I think it's that rear-guard thing. "We made it in -- now let's keep out this yucky stuff!"

I'm actually not even sure you can find an agreed upon set of conditions on which to build a discussion. I don't think we are all speaking the same language at all and I don't see a lot of tolerance for the different languages. You know, there's a huge disconnect between Alex Robinson and Ben Jones. I don't think people have figured out how to talk about those two kinds of artists in the same sentence. It's like comparing Norman Rockwell and Picasso. It's two entirely different approaches. I'm not dissing Alex Robinson, but they're just different things. Should we be trying to talk about both? Or are they now two entirely different paradigms that can't be reconciled? I don't know, but I wish there was a way to address all of these things at once. When I was in Providence recently, CF was saying something like "Brian C. is making his own version of X-Men and Mat B. is doing his own Dungeons and Dragons." That's pretty interesting, and suggests a way to link "art" and mainstream comics. Maybe there is a way to address the new Alan Moore comic and the new Ron Rege comic at the same time. Film critics do it. I think comics has a ways to go towards developing a common critical language. And yes, I do wish the keepers of the comics-canon were more open minded and far less conservative about art and literature. It's the most conservative canon of any medium I know. I wish that TCJ 100 was taken more seriously. That is the right direction. Even SPX was very conservative.

SPURGEON: You're doing a book about some of the stranger artists working within the American comic book mainstream during the industry's first few decades, Art Out of Time. It seems germane to what we're talking about here.

NADEL: Totally.

SPURGEON: Except instead of these very strong currents shaping the markets, there was an even more rigid structure in place. Have you finished that book?

NADEL: I wish... I'm almost done; it will be out in Spring.

SPURGEON: What's the difference between then and now?

imageNADEL: Well, first, the book is an anthology of overlooked cartoonists from 1900-1969. About 30 artists, total, including Boody Rogers, Jack Mendelsohn, Gene Deitch, Hervert Crowley, Cecil Jensen, Walter Quermann, C.W. Kahles, A.E. Hayward, and many others. Anyhow, one major difference I think is that before 1968 or so, and everybody has a different idea of when, comics were mostly treated as a business. If your strip got canceled that was it. You weren't going to go out and do a mini-comic or distribute it to head shops and sell it next to bongs. [laughs] I think that the aesthetic history of comics is directly tied to the history of the business, but not in the way it's been written so far, except for Gerard Jones' recent, wonderful book. Without financial success, the medium could not -- and cannot -- grow. It is, after all, commercial art. Each financial boom-let for comics [1896 for the newspapers; 1938 and 1969, or thereabouts, for the comic books] gave vent to major innovations in the form. Booms meant there were pages to fill, and more opportunities to create. With rare exceptions that boil down to patronage -- as in the case of Hearst and Herriman -- there was very little room for personal visions to grow and be nourished in comics unless they were also financially successful. Today is a perfect example. Publishers see that there is money to be made from comics, and that opens up opportunities to publish for cartoonists who might not otherwise have a shot at a graphic novel deal on that scale.

I should note that I'm not a historical materialist, but the link between comics and money is too crucial to ignore. Crumb broke through aesthetically, with the massive declaration that comics could be anything we wanted them to be, and financially, by using alternative distribution systems, that changed the paradigm of making comics. Suddenly eccentric talents could do whatever they wanted, rather than shoehorning their visions into a mainstream character -- as I believe happened to a lot of the artists in my book. My book begins with the turn of the twentieth century because that is when I believe what we consider to be comics took shape. That is when the business of comics created the modern medium as we know it. I know there's claims for Topffer as being the unknown cartoonist, but I see what he did as part of a pre-history of modern comics, and not immediately relevant to 20th century comics history. Topffer is an interesting formal and literary antecedent, but I'm not sure how much more he is than that.

The guys in my book were eccentric talents that were either overlooked in their day due to poor sales or simple weirdness, or were forgotten in the history books -- perhaps because they failed to create enduring characters and the like or were too eccentric for contemporaneous fans and historians to process. It's that conservative canon again. It hates to acknowledge the weird underbelly of comics, since it's so desperate to legitimize itself. That's the beautiful thing about the early days of comics, that doesn't exist anymore. Somebody like Fletcher Hanks, who was this dissolute pulp artist, could waltz into the Eisner/Iger shop in 1939, drunk off his face, and make these totally visionary comics. They had to go out, they had to fill the fucking pages!

I think the same thing about artists like Charles Forbell and Harry Dart. They were both tremendously respected illustrators who worked for Judge, were very active in the New York illustration and publishing scene, did a handful of months in comics, and that was it. It was this medium that was evolving at such a rapid pace, with such a demand for it, that you could just slip these things in. You could give it a shot because pages had to be filled. These experiments, essentially, would go out to millions of people. Some of them lasted a long time, like Herriman, which is like the longest [laughs] mass-produced avant-garde art around. It's crazy it lasted that long. McCay didn't last that long. I think that somebody like Boody Rogers was just an eccentric artist who came down the pike. A lot of it comes down to who these people were. The reason I end up focusing on some people more than others is because if you didn't make it into the '60s when aggressive fandom really started, then you were mostly lost. [Joe] Kubert survived, [Alex] Toth survived, Kirby survived, [Steve] Ditko... a lot of those guys survived, but if you didn't, like Boody Rogers, Fletcher Hanks, Howard Nostrand... you were mostly forgotten, except by dedicated fans whose work some jerk like me later digs up. I owe a lot to those early fans, and people like Ron Goulart, who have always dug below the surface.

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SPURGEON: I wanted to ask before we quit about Frank Sontoro, who as Sirk did a newspaper-format comic called Storeyville. You just published something of his. What has he been doing?

NADEL: He took up painting full-time. He was in San Francisco, and then L.A., and he's been working as Francesco Clemente's assistant for the last few years. Do you know his stuff? He's a great painter from the '80s generation of Basquiat and Schnabel, those guys. Neo-expressionism. He was doing that and the art thing and wrote me a letter. We got in touch, got be really good friends talking about art and comics and life. He's one of the few people I can talk to about Kevin Nowlan, Don Heck and Basquiat. What could be better? [laughs] Outsiders Annual #1 is the one to get by Kevin Nowlan. Wrote, drew, colored, everything. It's some kind of masterpiece.

SPURGEON: Will you do more work with Santoro?

NADEL: Yeah. When we met he didn't want to do any more comics at all. And so, first he did something for The Ganzfeld, and then kind of worked up to this newsprint thing. I am doing a series of "Ganzfeld Presents" publications as a stop-gap between issues. The current series is Santoro, Matthew Thurber, Marc Bell & Peter Thompson, and soon, Jim Drain. They're just out now, with another series due out in May. I offered him one and he knocked it out of the park, I think. It's this great combination of drawing and comics, this very intuitive way of telling stories. I love that he can draw that way. He draws so elegantly, so beautifully, but without it ever approaching cliche or anything familiar. It's familiar in its sentiment but really mysterious and even erotic in its execution. There's real mystery to those things, I think it's amazing.

SPURGEON: That's such an odd format. How do you distribute those?

NADEL: [whispers] They're so cheap. [regular voice] Some bookstores and some comics stores. They're small runs, they're only editions of 500.

SPURGEON: Do you have an eye on anyone new out there?

NADEL: In comics, I think Matthew Thurber is great; that's why I did something with him -- and hope to do more. I think he's a great writer, great drawer, and I think he has a unique prose style that combines loopy wordplay, unpretentious metaphysics and gags. And underneath it all is a really earnest, obsessive artist trying to communicate his vision of the world. He's thinking about his own invented worlds, and punk rock, and 21 Jump Street. What could be better? And C.F., of course, but I feel like everybody knows that already. His book will be astounding.