Dan Nadel is art director and editor of PictureBox, Inc., which has published some of the most exciting, innovative, and unique comics and art books of the past decade. Comics artists who have been published by PictureBox include Paper Rad, Ben Jones, C.F., Mat Brinkman, Frank Santoro, Gary Panter, Lauren Weinstein, Charles Burns, and Brian Chippendale, to name what PictureBox manages to make seem a paltry few; among the many other artists published by PictureBox are Brian Belott, Trinie Dalton, Michel Gondry, Wilco, and Black Dice. Nadel also edited The Ganzfeld, an annual multimedia collection of design, illustration, comics, and essays; in October 2008, it released its final issue.
Nadel's comics anthology Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969 is a singular account of work from the earliest period of comics history – starting shortly after Hogan's Alley became the first widely successful comic strip – through the point just before the underground comics boom of the 1960s re-invented much of the medium. Separated into five distinct but somewhat symbiotic sections, this is far from a strictly historical or chronological account of the development of the medium over the past century; rather, it is an introduction to a variety of early comics artists, long since largely overlooked, and their respective abilities and experiments, which Nadel briefly discusses in introductory sections but mostly leaves for the reader to peruse and pour over. His second book in the series, Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940-1980, will be released May 1, 2010.
This was my first interview and I do hope that you will forgive me my neophytic mistakes and tendencies; what follows is in part an uneasy collision of Nadel's expertise in the subject and my inexpert grasp of comics history, of Nadel's affable demeanor and my overeagerness to make the best of the opportunity. Fortunately, Nadel took my nascent interviewing abilities and the lacunae of my knowledge of the subject in generous stride, and I remain confident that, though my contributions to the conversation may prove lacking, Nadel's responses to them are never less than illuminating.
All words in bold link to their respectively appropriate pages.
Benjamin Gottlieb: I’m interested in how you think of what you’ve done with Art Out of Time and what you do with PictureBox, and if you see them as working in tandem.
Dan Nadel: I would say that, four years ago or so, when everything was a little bit newer, it seemed like they were really working in tandem – partly because PictureBox was less of a business and more inert: I made fewer books. So, my day-to-day was based around Art Out of Time and working on a handful of books – one with Paper Rad, one with Marc Bell – and a lot of what I was doing was looking at things that have been marginalized or working with artists who were interested in working that way or in things that had been overlooked and figuring out how best to think about and then publish them. So I did see the activities as being very alike.
Now, because there’s been so much more business to attend to everyday, I have less time to think about it and it’s more like now my sensibility as a publisher and an historian inform each other according to the artists. The sequel to Art Out of Time, which is coming out in May, is called Art in Time, and it’s about adventure comics, exclusively, and that was very much an outgrowth of working with Christopher [Forgues] and Frank Santoro and [Brian] Chippendale and Gary Panter and being increasingly interested in detective novels and science fiction and stuff like that – stuff that I’ve come to actually as an adult rather than as a kid, and it comes from being interested in what the artists I’m publishing were reading and discovering. So Art in Time is very much informed by that; it’s less of an archaeology project and more of an exercise in… sensibility, I guess.
BG: One thing that strikes me about that is this strong connection to genre. Comics are so rooted in genre –
DN: Well, comic books are rooted in the superhero genre. But comic strips are not. It’s just that it’s a financial model that has grown and kind of overtaken comics, which is based around superheroes – but the medium itself began as a really multifaceted, multi-genre place, in the same way that film did. When comic strips started, they had everything from adventure stories to slice of life stuff to crime procedurals to fantasy to reportage. Really, everything you could imagine was happening from around 1895 to 1920 or so – just a million different kinds of comics being made. Just like there are today. Today is actually much more reflective of the beginning of comics than any other time.
BG: Why do you think that is?
DN: Because people came back around to thinking of it as a medium rather than as a set of restrictive genres; the financial model changed enough to allow certain artists to sell a hundred thousand copies of a memoir comic book. These things have been successful – Crumb’s adaptation of Genesis is successful; Maus is successful – so it’s very much an outgrowth of that, of the mere possibility that these things would be saleable. And a generation – two generations of cartoonists now – kind of came up having seen the underground and realized that, once again, comics are a malleable, pliable medium.
BG: Art Out of Time ends with – it ends in 1969 – the birth of the underground comic book movement. A lot of the comics that came out then that didn’t rely on the same economic structure that demanded these genre conventions still took a lot from genre – they still took a lot from, as you say in the book, the comics that they often read when they were kids – and they pervert them somehow, they sort of play with them. Why do you think that, when comics started to take this still-saleable route away from genre, it still had these connections to genre forms?
DN: I don’t know what you mean.
BG: That, with people like Crumb, he was still very much interested in genre conventions and in exploiting them and perverting them and twisting them in different directions.
DN: Well, Crumb was interested in using the formal techniques of, say, Little Lulu comics, but he was just as interested in Mutt and Jeff and things like that. I think that what started to happen was you had a lot of people – people like Justin Green or Bill Griffith, who came out of art school, or Art Spiegelman, who was more self-taught – who were less interested in their recollection of comics as a kid and more interested in seeing comics as a new medium. Justin Green did an autobiographical comic called Binky Brown that explores Catholicism and sexuality and Griffith was doing observational comic strips and Spiegelman was doing a lot of formally inventive strips that were just about the mechanics of the medium itself.
I think that with the counterculture comes a kind of counter-thinking. So, yeah, a lot of cartoonists were making their own versions of the horror comics they grew up with, or the funny animal comics they grew up with, but a chunk – I mean, a small group – were making comics that they were basically inventing out of whole cloth.
BG: Do you have any sense why they were drawn to comics?
DN: Yeah: comics are a great, easy medium, in the sense that they’re accessible. Particularly in the 60s. Think about the 60s – a huge counterculture publishing boom; underground comics were selling thousands of copies. So, in the same way that somebody would want to make rock n’ rock – because everybody else was making it and there was a demand for it and an audience for it and it was part of the zeitgeist – somebody might be drawn to making drawings or to having narrative inclinations; but if you were in the fine art world at that point, you wouldn’t know where to go: narrative was discouraged, image-making was discouraged. And you sort of had to do something, and comics are drawing and writing, and it’s not out of reach. So it makes sense to me as something that someone would go after.
BG: The most recent work that you include in Art Out of Time is by Rory Hayes, who came about during the beginning of countercultural comics. And when you look at his work, it really just seems as if he has put his id to paper. And you can’t really find aesthetic forbears with him, where you can with, say, Crumb.
DN: Not in comics, no.
BG: Right; not in comics. And Crumb referred to Hayes once – I think this was in The Ten-Cent Plague, or maybe Art Out of Time, actually – as “a great American primitive.”* If there was this capacious room for people to come in and essentially recreate the form and create their own forms, do you know why would Hayes have been considered a primitive, even though this should have ostensibly been “his” place, in a sense?
DN: Yes: comics culture has always been focused on bypassing modernist ideas about drawing. Comics culture is rooted in this idea of realistic drawing or “good” drawing that’s based in a kind of mid-19th century ideal and ignores the last hundred years of art history, basically. So, given that, Hayes would never be accepted: it’s flat; it’s scratchy; it does away with foreground and background; it does away with all the pictorial conventions of academic drawing or quality illustration of the first half of the 20th century. That’s why: there’s no trace of good drawing there – good drawing according to a sort of 19th century standard. By a lot of people’s standards now – certainly people who are looking at it from an art perspective – he was a much more interesting draw-er than most of the people who comics people considered great drawers. He wasn’t interested in a perfectly delineated arm or finger. That wasn’t his priority.
BG: You were talking about the approachability of comics and how that brought many people in the 60s to work in comics. When you look at Hogan’s Alley and Hogan’s Alley being really the first hugely successfully comic strip, what do you think it was that made it so successful and approachable?
DN: Oh, I don’t know. I think Outcault tapped into something that had a kind of immigrant and working-class humor. It’s hard to say. The character of the Yellow Kid was what really did it, less the substance of the strip. And how a character becomes iconic is tricky business.
BG: One thing that’s notable about him is that he rarely speaks. This was in The Ten-Cent Plague – that one of the reasons that he was successful as a figure and that Hogan’s Alley was successful as a strip was that you didn’t necessarily have to know English very well in order to appreciate it, and so it appealed to a lot of immigrants. Comics are treated as this prototypically American form, and yet when you look at the first successful comic strip and then the other successful comic strips that emulated Hogan’s Alley, they were geared, in some sense, more toward American immigrant communities and not “mainstream” America. An argument – I’m not sure how strong this argument would be, but an argument nonetheless – could be made that comics’ beginnings were essentially a part of the American immigrant experience.
DN: Yeah, I don’t know how true that is. You’re talking about one strip in particular, and it certainly did have that appeal. But it’s the fact that the Yellow Kid caught on and became a kind of merchandising bonanza that is really what drove the growth of comics; it’s not so much that it had this kind of cultural appeal. Other comics that were successful were strips like Little Nemo in Slumberland or Hairsbreadth Harry, which were very much rooted in a sort of Victorian fantasy. And these newspapers were for rich and poor; and the people that helped drive them, ultimately, were the prosperous classes. So I don’t know if that really has traction.
BG: Well, let me jump to another part of Hogan’s Alley that drew me in, then. The Yellow Kid rarely speaks, and when he does it’s usually in one brief spurt; you don’t see him in conversation. And when he does speak it’s in this very strange vernacular that you sort of have to almost decode. There are many comics – Krazy Kat is an example of this, and another one that I had been unaware of until I read Art Out of Time is Nize Baby – which have these very particular, strange patois that I wouldn’t know how to place–
DN: Well, Nize Baby is Yiddish.
BG: It’s Yiddish?
BG: Well, it seems to me that a lot of this playful use of language has vanished from contemporary comics.
DN: Again, it’s hard, because you’re pulling out kind of strange things. The Yellow Kid spoke this sort of immigrant patois that was reflective of downtown New York at the time and it was attuned to how people were speaking; Milton Gross and Nize Baby – that came out of his being immersed in Yiddish culture; and Harriman was a Creole who moved up North and worked in New York and was focused on what he was hearing on the street and combining it with what he grew up with.
I wouldn’t say it’s something that’s disappeared from comics because if you’re looking for something with sort of interesting language rhythm you can look at Paper Rad or any number of artists; it’s just that things aren’t as localized and there aren’t those kinds of dialects in America anymore. Or, at least, artists aren’t coming out of those communities and making comics, I should say. So I don’t think it’s a function of the medium so much as a function of – it’s up to the artists to document their own experiences. The only thing that’s really changed broadly is that culturally there’s less emphasis on playful, nonsense language, like there was then. There’s not the same nonsense poetry and play with verse as there was then. So, no, I don’t think it’s particular to comics, really.
BG: Do you see more contemporary comics – both from what PictureBox and The Ganzfeld has produced to Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics – as part of a continuum that began with a lot of the comics that you discuss in Art Out of Time?
DN: Well, there are a million different branches coming off of a few different trunks. I don’t think that there’s a way to do a linear continuum anymore because there’s too many influences occurring in too many times, but I think there’s a certain – particularly amongst people doing non-superhero comics – a certain overlapping area of shared languages, in terms of how people are dealing with space or time or figures. But it’s pretty diffuse, especially these days. I think that things have certainly split off from superhero comics pretty radically. But within non-superhero comics I think there are a million different influences floating around. Some people can share Crumb and some can’t; some people can share Moebius and some can’t. It’s too diffuse now to pinpoint a single continuum.
BG: If not a single continuum, at least, do you think that – as with people like Rory Hayes in the 60s – comics are still a place for people to come in and completely fabricate their own worlds?
DN: Absolutely. A hundred percent. Especially now.
BG: Are there people you like or people you follow who are doing that now?
DN: I think Ben Jones completely reshaped the medium. I think CF is doing that and I think Mat Brinkman did it and I think that Chris Ware did it when he came in – and Dan Clowes. These are guys who added whole vocabularies to comics to suit their needs. Clowes invented formal devices to add layers of content onto his stories. Chris Ware did the same and also brought in a radically new sense of color and light and emotional warmth to comics that really hadn’t been there before; and he had to figure out new ways of drawing to do that, new ways of production and new ways of connecting panels to one another. These are very difficult feats. So, yeah, I think it’s actually happening with increased frequency right now because there are so many great cartoonists working.
BG: It seems that within maybe the last decade of the 20th century a lot of comics and graphic novels started to come out that focused their content on what it is like to be an outsider, in some sense. As far as I know, a lot of the underground comics beforehand didn’t focus as much on that even though it was an essential undercurrent of it.
DN: Crumb built his persona as an outsider. So did Justin Green and [Kim] Deitch and Spain [Rodriguez].
BG: But those seem to me more like delights in outsiderdom while Clowes and Ware seem to focus more on the daily grind of feeling like an outsider and feeling like you don’t connect. And I’m wondering how much of that might have to do with maybe a growing stability of comics as being seen as an artistic medium with many different possibilities for self-expression. And so a lot of the underground comics used the medium for self-expression, but of a slightly deviant, perverse sort where they were exploring integral parts of their particular selves – whereas Clowes and Ware seem to explore what it’s like to simply live in the world and live these sort of quotidian lives.
DN: I don’t know. A lot of what Harvey Pekar did was very much about that. I guess I don’t see Clowes and Ware as writing about a kind of everyday, quotidian experience.
BG: What do you see them as writing about?
DN: I see Clowes writing really dense narratives about whatever the subject is that he’s writing about. But I never thought of him as chronicling being an outsider. And Ware I’ve always thought is about relationships between people and emotional being. I don’t think of either of them as being outsiders, in that sense, in the kind of Catcher in the Rye sense.
BG: Yeah, I didn’t mean it in the Catcher in the Rye sense. I meant in the sense that, for one reason or another, people who read comics are treated as geeks; it’s a common joke in movies or TV shows that the geek character likes comics and video games, or something along those lines.
DN: Our culture is dominated by geek culture, so if it’s a joke now, it’s a kind of jealous joke. But, by the same token, I also just don’t really care. It’s like, we all have our cross to bear. So what? You read comics and you got made fun of? Tough shit, you know? It could be worse. It’s a mature enough medium and we’re all human beings and we’re moving along.
BG: Do you feel that the maturity of the medium–
DN: To me, the medium has been mature the entire time. There’s a certain amount of cultural acceptance of it now – in that it gets reviewed in The New York Times and things like that – but since the beginning it’s produced really substantial work. It’s just that culture has now caught up with it. And that certainly affects the medium: it means that now there are grants available and you can make a living out of it and you can sell a lot of books and you can teach at a university, and all of that goes toward helping the medium – having any amount of institutional support is going to help. People say that it’s going to adversely affect it because it’s not underground anymore or whatever but that's just a bunch of baloney. It’s up to the artist.
BG: Why do you think it is that it has received this wider critical acceptance now?
DN: We’re a visual culture now, much more so than we ever have been. I think that, superficially, the fact that there have been so many successful comic book films has helped. I think that a generation had to kind of rise and overthrow the Boomer generation to allow for a supposed low culture to be accepted, and that the crumbling of the high-low divide that people in their thirties – and sort of now in their forties – really worked hard for has happened. The push was begun by Boomers like Spiegelman and Crumb and then the momentum just carried through. It’s a generational thing, to my mind. Somebody as esteemed and sophisticated as Dave Eggers – a figure like that, forty years ago, would never have been interested in comics. I think that that’s a really good example of the cultural shift. Nobody’s interested in this high-low divide anymore; everybody knows it’s sort of bullshit.
BG: A parallel that you can draw that has obvious limitations – but that you can also go into for a very long time – is in looking at the two major media that evolved in the 20th century: one is comics and the other would be film. One observation I had when I first read Art Out of Time was that the first comic in the book is The Explorigator, in which the main characters travel to the moon, and that recalls how in early film there was an interest similarly in exploring foreign territory – you can find an uneasy similarity to that in something like George Méliès’ film Le voyage dans la lune. It seems that in the early stages of comics and film there were far more adventure stories, about going somewhere else and doing other things. Do you think this had anything to do with – or do you think it’s specious to say this – exploring a new medium, in some sense?
DN: You mean, moon as metaphor for a new medium?
BG: Well, that many comics and films at the time were about exploring new, bizarre, previously unexplored terrain.
DN: I guess I probably wouldn’t go there because I don’t think these guys were thinking in that sort of metaphorical context. Exploring other worlds was very much a thing then, like with Jules Verne. I don’t think they were thinking on that level.
BG: In terms of not thinking on that level… Inevitably, whenever a medium is canonized and brought into the fold, people try to find these links to other artists who are already within the canon. This past weekend I saw the movie Crumb, and there’s a critic who tries to tie Crumb to certain artistic forebears. Since it seems fairly reasonable to say that Crumb probably didn’t see himself as a descendent of Bruegel, do you not see these extrapolations as fair?
DN: I think they’re perfectly fair, as long as they’re not ascribing intention to the artist. That’s what curators and historians do. When I grouped all those comics together in Art Out of Time, it was an extrapolation. It’s totally fair and it should be done. That’s the beauty of criticism and history.
Yeah, Crumb would chuckle or something at that kind of thing; but no artist wants to be put in a box, and who can blame them? But I think it’s good and necessary that we start looking at all these things in some sort of larger context, whatever the context may be.
BG: And with the increasing canonization of new comics, and old comics, is this something then that you see as something progressive and good?
DN: I wouldn’t give it one value or another; it all depends on the situation. It depends entirely on what and who and how and when. At least there’s a conversation. And that’s good. A conversation is good.
*It was in Art Out of Time; my apologies to Mr. Nadel.