By Greg Zinman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 11, 2006
Rock music and comic book ninjas: Welcome to the world of author-publisher Dan Nadel. The 29-year-old is a native of the District and won a Grammy last year for his work co-designing the packaging for Wilco's "A Ghost Is Born." He also teaches the history of illustration at the New School in New York and edits "The Ganzfeld," a compendium of avant-garde comics that has four editions to date. He also publishes coffee-table books by bands, fine artists and cartoonists through his "visual culture" company, PictureBox Inc.
In between doing all of that, he's managed to compile a book of his own: "Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969" (Abrams, $40), which unearths 29 barely known masters of the medium, reprinting their strips in full and analyzing their work and its impact. Nadel will sign copies of the book Saturday from 5 to 7 p.m. at Big Planet Comics (4908 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda, 301-654-6856).
Last week we reached Nadel, who now lives in New York, where he was prepping a talk for the annual art festival at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art.
Tell us about getting into comics.
I just kind of fell into it. I grew up in Chevy Chase, and I remember going to Palisades pool in the summer. My parents would stop by Talbot's, a convenience store on River Road, to get me comics for the car ride. I was a huge superhero fan: I loved Captain America, the Avengers, X-Men, a pretty hardcore comics junkie, really. When I was older, I worked at Big Planet Comics in Bethesda for a couple of years.
And then you became interested in the avant-garde stuff?
It happened because Joel [Pollack] at Big Planet suggested that I read "Maus" when I was 12. He pushed it on me, and then my mom took me to see Art Spiegelman talk at the Bethesda Jewish Congregation. There were about 10 people there: This was pre-Pulitzer, you know. He talked about the history of comics, and he held up the cover of "Zap No. 1," and so now I knew about this guy [R.] Crumb.
I went out and found the volume of "American Splendor" that Crumb did the cover for, and I convinced my dad to buy me a couple issues of "Head Comix," which I was too young to buy -- he didn't know what was in them, but I did! Then I spent all of my bar mitzvah money mail-ordering underground comics, forging a signature that said I was 18, and fell in love with "Love and Rockets," "Eightball" and Harvey Pekar.
How did you end up in publishing?
I did a year of graduate school, studying philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and I decided I just didn't want to get a PhD, so I moved to New York to do research work for authors. I had this idea that I could just "do research," be some sort of professional student or something. A friend of my mom's knew Francois Mouly at Raw, so I ended up interning for Francois and Spiegelman, and they taught me a lot about books and the business of publishing.
I started "The Ganzfeld" with some friends, and I've kept it going, funded by grants from the NEA. The first book I did was "The Wilco Book" last year, and everything has kind of sped up from there.
Your books are more like art or design books than graphic novels -- pretty different from the standard presentation for comics.
It's the way I think. I like for books to be a full experience. . . . I want the paper, the cover, foldouts, whatever, to contribute getting across the artist's worldview to the reader. Comics are part of visual culture, and making these books into beautiful things deepens the experience. I think books, even in our age of digital culture, are an under-exploited resource. There are still more and more ways to explore the way a book can work.
What do you think about the boundary between fine art and comics? How do art-world types react to your comics?
Why should there be a boundary? Is there one? I thought that whole discussion was over. On the other hand, look at "Art School Confidential." Now, I love Dan Clowes's work, but that film is very reactionary -- it's suspicious of the art world, and a false look at what the art world is. It's a kind of reverse snobbery. Personally, I don't see any boundaries. I'm just hoping to make the work I publish palatable.
But comics no longer needs to see it itself as an underdog. . . . It's a medium among others, and it's a medium capable of holding anything, any kind of work.
Let's talk about "Art Out of Time." Where did you find these guys?
I was kind of obsessed with fanzines from the '60s and '70s, like "Graphic Story Monthly," "Nemo" and "The World of Comics," where people were just writing about their collections and rediscovering old artists.
Some were just pure chance: Norman Jennett, for example, I found on the back of [a Sunday comics page] I was looking at while doing research in Ohio. And it sort of raises the question of, how much other great stuff is out there, still totally undiscovered?
What do you hope to accomplish by showcasing these creators' work?
That the underground didn't just start in 1968. The medium's anarchic, free-for-all sensibility goes back 100 years.
I'm trying to slightly broaden the general narrative of comics history, which is often told in terms of popular characters and commercial success. There's a huge amount of innovation and success that didn't correspond to the recognized history.
You work with comic book artists, fine artists and rock bands. What's the common aesthetic, if there is one?
Half of it is just what I'm interested in. The aesthetic is me. I want to work with artists with unique visions of the world, who are inimitable, who are completely their own. For that reason, I'm not going to be providing competition for Fantagraphics or other major comics publishers.
I'm working on a book with Sonic Youth, another with Julie Doucet, and another with Gary Panter. Oh, and there's "Cold Heat," my first foray into publishing a monthly comic. It's about an 18-year old female ninja and covers sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and globalization.
Sounds like you're pretty busy.
I'm putting out, like, six or seven books a year now. My God, there's so much to do!
What do you do for fun?
Hmmm. I like hanging out with my friends? [Laughs.] Really, though, in a way what I do is a lot of fun. My projects are with people who are my friends, so when I go out to galleries or museums or parties, which is the kind of stuff I like to do for fun, I'm socializing and talking about stuff that I want to do, or that I'm working on.