Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

December 27, 2008

CR Holiday Interview #5: Dan Nadel



PictureBox Inc. Publisher Dan Nadel helped provide me with some of my best comics memories of 2008, among them the wonderful Gary Panter art book bearing the name of its creator, the first Goddess of War volume, a new Powr Mastrs, the always contentious Comics Comics site, Yuichi Yokoyama's Travel, and a series of pleasant convention encounters sometimes with and sometimes without Tim Hodler and Frank Santoro. With a recession expected to run all the way through 2009 and beyond, I wanted to talk to at least one boutique-sized arts comics publisher about the days ahead, and I was happy Dan agreed to talk about his consistently excellent company. There are a pair of direction-of-company announcements in the conversation presented below. I had fun doing it. -- Tom Spurgeon


imageTOM SPURGEON: I wanted to ask you a question about your book Art Out Of Time... how did you feel about how the book was received? Do you think people read it in the spirit you wrote it? Was there any reaction to an individual or a general take on the book that surprised you?

DAN NADEL: I feel good about how it was received. I'm flattered that so many books have sprung out of it and pleased that it gives context to projects that were gestating long before AOT was released, like the Fletcher Hanks book. That said, I think the main thrust of it -- that these comics are not "weird" or "wacky" but, rather, just really great examples of comics that utilize the medium in a different way than the initial historians of comics were used to seeing, was overlooked. Paul Karasik has made a similar point: These are just plain good comics.

It's been suggested that I tried to set up a counter-canon, which is not true. I just wanted to broaden our collective vision of what comics are and can be. And I'm also not sure I fully understand what a canon is in the context of comics, or perhaps even in general right now. Regardless, I think it's far too early in the practice of the history of comics to establish a canon. There's just too much out there that hasn't been explored, and by and large the history as written has been rather conservative in aesthetic terms. I'm grateful for all the work that's been done already, though -- don't get me wrong. There is so much fertile ground thanks to a few generations of historians. But I'm looking for another, broader vision of the history, and of the relationships between artists and their larger visual context.

SPURGEON: How are plans coming together for a second volume? What's different about doing this one?

NADEL: Oh... plans are fine. Me and volume two sit on the beach and chat. This second one is focused on genre comic books, and is more about a specific kind of comics drawing and rendering based in adventure comics, Caniff, Crane, and heavy ink on the page. I'm following my interests again, and right now they are mixed up in certain kind of drawing and staging that I want to write about and showcase. Beyond that... I shouldn't say too much.

SPURGEON: You traveled a lot this year, and did a lot of shows -- or at least more than I've ever seen you attend. How was that experience? Would you repeat it? What do you think the difference was between your having a good show and a bad show? Is there a memory of one of the shows that sticks out to you that's worth sharing?

NADEL: It was OK. For me, frankly, it's all business-based. The fun I had at HeroesCon was great, but it doesn't offset the fact that it was a financial loss. And it was a lot of fun. But still. I don't enjoy shows, really. I mean, it's fun to see people and it's nice when a customer is enthusiastic, but... it's a business and that takes a toll on me. It's not an "oh I can't take it" kinda thing. It's just that all I can see is dollars and cents. The difference between a good and bad show is money. Simple as that. One could argue that the good will and visibility of a show is worth quite a bit -- but I don't think I can reach anyone new at the non-indie cons or anything other than an art book or art fair. So right now (and that could change) that bit of publicity doesn't pay for itself. This was my last year of Comic-Con for now -- it's just not worth it, financially. Memories don't really stick out, I have to say. Maybe the Chaykin panel at Comic-Con? Ha. No, I don't know. I always like traveling with Frank, I'll say that much. Anytime Frank is there, it's at least interesting.


SPURGEON: Are you ever resentful of Comics Comics in that it seems to take up a greater proportion of time than its importance to your overall publishing efforts? Does it ever feel like a time-waster?

NADEL: No more than this interview. Just kidding. Well, Tim and Frank really do the lion's share of work on Comics Comics, so, no, it doesn't bother me. I wish I had more time for it, really. I like comics. A lot. It's a subject I feel fluent in and enjoy writing about when I have time. I don't often have the time, though.

SPURGEON: Are you planning to continue Comics Comics in much the same vein in 2009 or beyond? I seem to remember an announcement that you either were or you were considering making a move to a more standard format or away from print altogether. Where would you like to see that part of your efforts in three years, say?

NADEL: We're trying to figure out what to do with it now. The blog is popular, but no one seems to want to buy the issues. This presents a problem, huh? So, we're figuring it out. I don't think "the industry" as it were has taken the slightest notice, which makes sense, since it's a retarded format and we champion artists like Justin Green and Shaky Kane. Nevertheless, I feel like it's an important voice in the wilderness, and we'll figure out something or other. As for three years from now: I'd like to see a line of books written by me, Frank and Tim on different subjects in comics. I unabashedly want to take a bite out of the critical landscape and reshape it in our grotesque image. I want to burn down other institutions and institute a stringent rules! I want to help write the history of my generation of cartoonists. Also, I hope Tom Devlin is still annoyed by our love of Moebius in 2012. If I can achieve a certain amount of Devlin-annoyance, I'll be happy while waiting in the breadline.


SPURGEON: What's the general state of PictureBox right now? I've heard rumors that every company other than Marvel is going under... is everything healthy, ready for 2009? Will the proportion of comics and comics art books remain the same in the seasons ahead?

NADEL: It's been a crazy year, with a ton of books in a variety of categories, and we'll see how it all pans out. It's certainly not easy street. As for comics, PictureBox won't be putting out any comics until at least the Fall. It's all art and design for the next six months. Then perhaps some comics. We're still working out the Fall. None of "my" cartoonists have any work ready to publish in book form at the moment, though I certainly hope to have a couple graphic novels out next Fall. We'll see. There might be some little zines along the way, but right now everyone is working, but have a ways to go before finishing their books. And, I really want to focus on just a handful of cartoonists.

I also need to be careful financially, in terms of over-committing. Right now I happen to have gallery and museum based books coming out in the Spring instead. And you know, PictureBox has always supposed to have been a general visual book publisher, so now things are balancing out better. These last few months have had an equal amount of general titles and comics. I'm always hoping that the comics people will follow PictureBox into the art/design stuff and, vice versa, since it's all (to my mind) the same sensibility. But I want to control everything, so that's my own little neurosis.


SPURGEON: How worried are you about a recession hitting your publishing business? What kind of decisions are you considering or perhaps have already made in light of these hard times and their potential continuation for months and even years?

NADEL: Well, I've cut costs considerably, including moving offices and, you heard it here first, closing the store. The store was always just the front of the office, and more a lark than a real earner, so with the office move, so goes the store into oblivion. It was fun! I, like many other publishers am just playing it close to the vest right now and waiting to see how the holiday sales are.

SPURGEON: What one comic have you read and enjoyed in the last few months that might not match up with your image as a hardcore art comics publisher? What book or other piece of art outside of comics have you recently enjoyed that would fit your stereotype perfectly?

NADEL: Non-stereotypical: I really enjoyed Punisher War Journal by Fraction and Chaykin. I think Chaykin is using Photoshop as a tool in an awesome, inspiring way. I even went to the Chaykin panel at San Diego. Then I went to his table and tried to give him some PictureBox books. He declined to take them. That was awesome. First time I felt like a loser fanboy in about 20 years. Felt good, actually. In fact, I'm trying to get Fraction to interview Chaykin for Comics Comics. So, Matt, get on it!

Stereotypical: Ummmmm, I drove to Philadelphia to see the Peter Saul retrospective and it blew my mind. He is one of our greatest living painters.


SPURGEON: How did the Gary Panter book do? I know that your distributor had some questions about how cheaply you offered it, but that it was still a risk for your company. Did it meet expectations in terms of the sales and critical reaction?

NADEL: Hah, my distributor actually wanted it that cheap -- it's the opposite -- I wanted it to be more expensive. It's done fine. It's not a blockbuster, but it's fine. As for critical response... well, I was hoping for more thoughtful essay-type reviews on it. I don't think anyone reckoned with the expansiveness of Gary's vision, or with the text in the books themselves. Here's the thing: Gary is perhaps the broadest, most diverse and most natural artist to have passed through comics. Period. I'm not sure anyone else has mastered as many visual mediums as he has. And more to the point, he's done so by explicitly making work about (a) being a man in these times, (b) America as a culture, and (c) his own (and our collective) visual history. I'm eager to see someone really dig into his work. I think I provided enough of a road map. I hope I did. So... I'm still waiting for a broader response. It might be a long wait.

SPURGEON: Without turning it into a laundry list of forthcoming projects, is there one or two that you particularly hope people don't miss? Is there one that you haven't talked about yet that you're particularly enthused to be publishing?

NADEL: Well, I'm very excited to be curating a series of exhibitions at Benjamin Trigano Gallery in L.A., including a solo show by Yuichi Yokoyama. I'm also finishing a book on and for the painter Donald Baechler and starting something for a massive group show of contemporary art at an Italian museum. And there's a Syd Mead book that I'm very excited about, and a retrospective book with John Kricfalusi. There are some other little gems as well, but you said no laundry list, so there it is


* photo of Dan Nadel by Whit Spurgeon, from HeroesCon 2008
* Dick Briefer panel from Art Out Of Time
* Comics Comics #4
* spread from Powr Mastrs Vol. 4
* from Goddess of War Vol. 1
* from Gary Panter
* a Cold Heat poster



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