EDITOR’S NOTE: PictureBox, one of the best visual art publishers in existence, soon won’t be. Dan Nadel, the man behind PictureBox, announced this week that come the end of the year, the Brooklyn-based outfit — as a publisher of new titles — will be no more.
“This was not an easy decision, but the company is no longer feasible for me as a thoroughgoing venture,” wrote Nadel, who over nearly a decade helped shine a publishing spotlight on a gallery of top comics talent.
From photography to prose, the independent PictureBox tended to publish less than a dozen creations a year, but founder/director Nadel did so, he wrote on his site, “because I love the things I love and I want to champion them. I tend toward outliers and I’m obsessed with the history of visual culture writ large and small.”
In his farewell statement, Nadel said: “I want to thank all the artists and writers I’ve worked with over the years.”
Comic Riffs asked one of these writer-artists, Frank Santoro (”Storeyville,” the excellent new “Pompeii”), to write an appreciation of PictureBox. The Pittsburgh-based Santoro — whose dossier includes fine-art gigs (he has worked for Francesco Clemente, the Matthew Marks Gallery, Dorothea Rockburne and American Fine Arts Gallery) — shares his thoughts:
Comic books have had a hard time getting into the museum. As an artist, I’ve wrestled with that reality. This division between “high art” and “low art” was beaten into me both in art school and at the comic-book shop. My fine-art teachers told me to give up drawing comic books because they were trash, while my friends at the comic-book store would make fun of me for wanting to be accepted by the powers that be at the museum.
Dan Nadel wasn’t the first person I’d met who understood this problem. He was, however, the first publisher I knew personally who was actively doing something to help solve it. When I met him in 2003, he was publishing “The Ganzfeld.” I actually liked that work so much that I wrote him a fan letter; it turned out he was a fan of my book “Storeyville,” and we hit it off. “The Ganzfeld” was one of those rare anthology-type art books that had vision, taste and uniqueness. Nadel put art, design and comics all on the same level — and expressed that in “The Ganzfeld” — in a way I hadn’t seen before.
When Nadel began PictureBox in 2004, he pretty much split his focus equally among music, art and comics. His books found comfortable homes in record stores, museum bookstores and comic-book shops. He
was also one of the few publishers who could set up at any type of book fair or convention. I think that is what most impressed me as a fan of PictureBox: The company’s catalog blurred the traditional dividing lines between these categories. For example, many of the comic-book artists PictureBox published were also musicians, like Brian Chippendale and Gary Panter. Also, many of the photography books that PictureBox published, like Cheryl Dunn’s “Some Kinda Vocation,” documented artists (like Margaret Killgallen and Ed Templeton) who broke down barriers between recognizable disciplines.
When I met Dan, comic books were beginning to be more widely accepted by the museum crowd. Yet the comics that broke through then were “literary comics,” like the works of Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware. The museums were still ignoring what are often called “art comics”: messy, expressionistic and sometimes experimental works that often don’t have a clear narrative. Those were exactly the comics that Dan and PictureBox chose to champion. All these divisions will need annotated sidebars in future museum retrospective catalogs to be fully explained and understood. The divisions are probably already meaningless — similar to the fights between Abstract Expressionists and Pop artists — but 10 years ago, these fights within comics were very real. PictureBox stepped into the breach at that moment and became one of the most important publishers of art comics in the world.
The not-ready-for-prime-time players that made up the PictureBox roster, though, needed a baseball bat to smash their way into the academy. So, Nadel, Timothy Hodler and myself decided to start a magazine in 2006 to do just that. It was called Comics Comics. Nadel had already authored a book on “unknown comics visionaries” from the distant and recent past (”Art Out of Time”) that was a big hit and that had shaken up the established canon of “who’s who” in comics. Meaning the stage was set to introduce a generation of “new” and “weird” comics into the public arena. Comics Comics acted as a bridge to the work PictureBox published by arguing that these new “art comics” were carrying on a tradition of experimentation with genre the same way many of the artists showcased in “Art Out of Time” had done.
For example, the work of Ben Jones was widely derided in comics circles when his book “B.J. and Da Dogs” was published by Nadel in 2005. Would any other publisher at the time even consider publishing it? Probably not. Nadel must have seen something others didn’t. Ben Jones is now the creative director of the Fox’s Saturday night programming block ADHD.
PictureBox’s books were also astoundingly beautiful objects in their own right. Nadel’s sense of design, and his decision to use great designers (like Jessi Rymill and Norman Hathaway), elevated many of the cartoonists he published so that they could be treated as art with a capital “A.” PictureBox was one of the driving forces behind the renaissance in graphic-novel design. The golden age of comic-book packaging that we are living in is in no small part influenced by Nadel’s choice of how to present his publications. PictureBox’s books made everybody else in comics step up their design game. It’s hard to remember how poorly designed and how cheaply made most comic books and graphic novels were until PictureBox came along. The game has changed that much in a decade.
So, it is with a heavy heart that say goodbye to such an influential book publisher. Life gets in the way sometimes. Nadel, who is a father now, told the site the Comics Reporter that he is choosing insulation from the ups and downs of publishing by taking a job at ARTBOOK/DAP. I like to think that he’s closing shop because everybody else caught up to what Nadel and company were doing. Nowadays, there is Koyama Press, Secret Acres and Breakdown Press, among others who may have never come into existence in the first place if it wasn’t for Nadel’s example.
For me, it’s like watching the coach of your favorite sports team retire after winning their third straight championship. You want your favorite team to never change and to keep winning forever, but you know that it’s probably better for the coach to exit the stage a champion.
Hopefully, Nadel will move over to the “broadcast booth” and we can listen to his expert analysis of the new generation and the history of the game. I know I’ll be eagerly awaiting his next play.