Dan Nadel is a local comics guy who broke into the big time. He’s become one of the best-known proponents of the idea of comics as art. Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940 – 1980 (Abrams ComicArts, $40) is his second book on lesser-known artists, following o Art Out Of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969. In this interview, Nadel talks about learning about comics as a clerk at Big Planet Comics and the various ways he’s promoted his interest in comic art, including starting a magazine, a website and a publishing house. If I can editorialize for a moment, this is a great time to enjoy comic art, partly due to efforts like this book. On Saturday, June 26 at 6 p.m., Nadel will be speaking at Politics and Prose (5015 Connecticut Ave. NW) and you can go challenge his choices of artists for the book, or just nod your head in agreement with each slide.
Washington City Paper: When (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?
Dan Nadel: 1976.
WCP: Why aren’t you in Washington now? What neighborhood or area did you live in when you were here?
DN: I grew up in Chevy Chase and when I graduated from Washington University, in St. Louis, all my buddies were going to NYC. I knew I wanted to be in some kind of publishing, so off I went.
WCP: You worked at Big Planet Comics—-can we say that was a formative time period for you? When did you work there?
DN: Yes, it was really important. I was there from 1992 to 1994. I loved it and learned a ton about comics and illustration and rock ‘n’ roll. At the time owner Joel Pollack had a truly awesome collection of rock and soul mixtapes.
WCP: Many of the stories in Art in Time, such as those of Mort Meskin and Jesse Marsh, seem to be by favorites of Pollack. Did he influence your tastes?
DN: Joel, as well as Greg Bennett, taught me very early on about the importance of looking at the roots of comic-book drawing. Whether it was N.C. Wyeth or Burne Hogarth, they were always gently insistent that I know my stuff on an aesthetic level. Looking back on it, theirs was a pretty unusual and hugely influential outlook. Also, Greg turned me onto contemporary French and Spanish comics which gave me a much broader outlook than I might otherwise have had. What can I say—-Big Planet was my “other” education and I’m forever grateful for my time there.
WCP: Was Art Out of Time, your anthology of “naive” or “outsider”cartoonists successful in reaching a wider audience than comic fans? Did Abrams approach you for this second book? Is there a third being considered?
DN: Art Out of Time seems successful, yes (It’s sold out from the publisher – WCP). It wasn’t so much about naive or outsider cartoonists—-more like shining a light on overlooked corners of comics history. With one exception, everyone in that book (and the current one) enjoyed huge circulation and a wide (if temporary) potential readership. It’s just the they were too unusual to fit within a fairly constrained narrative of comics. The second book came out of informal discussions with Abrams, as Art Out of Time showed signs of selling well. And at the moment, a third is not something I’m planning on.
WCP: These two books can be used as an alternative “art history” or a history of commercial illustration. Is that a role you intended or would like to see for them?
DN: Yes, that’s intentional. I think the current historical narratives are just too conservative, so I’d like to think these books are doing something to change that.
WCP: Do you personally feel strongly that under-recognized cartoonists deserve their place in history? Are these books satisfying to you in more than one sense—-emotionally, intellectually, financially of course, historically?
DN: Yes, I do feel strongly that these artists deserve a seat at the table. But more importantly I’d like to see a more fluid and inclusive approach to the history in the first place. One based less on the industry (i.e. sales and genre popularity) and more on distinctive and innovative visions. The books have certainly been satisfying—-I enjoy the research process and getting the work out there. It barely feels like work sometimes.
WCP: Did you have any problem with reproduction rights issues? Some artists such as Bill Everett, John Stanley, Marsh, Meskin, Pete Morisi and others did their most noted work on licensed properties. Some of them are relatively famous in fact. Did you feel that you may have had to use their ‘lesser’ works, even though your book is attempting to show their less-known work. Or to ask this in another way, is some of this work less known for a good reason, or rather is it just an accident of fate and publishing history?
DN: It’s both. Large companies like Marvel, DC and Archie could take a more “curatorial” approach to their library of properties by putting together compelling books showcasing artists and themes and thus garner a more sophisticated, maybe even broader audience. Instead they tend to focus on rather expensive complete editions that focus on aging fans’ love of a particular set of characters. So if you’re someone really interested in Bill Everett, say, the only way to see some of the best work is to pick through a $60 hardcover containing plenty of other artists. So that’s one factor. The other is that with so many comic books published and so few working historians and critics, tons of stuff was/is bound to slip through the cracks.
WCP: Abrams is known for its fine art books. Do you have any input as to how the comics will be reproduced or what the book will look like?
DN: Well, Abrams now has a comics line called Abrams ComicArts, so they’re invested in the medium. For both books I worked closely with my frequent design collaborator, Helene Silverman, and together we decided how the comics would be reproduced (i.e. as tangible things to be experienced, warts and all—-no hoo doo allowed).
WCP: Do you think writers are getting shortchanged due to the focus on the graphic side? Could you do a book like this about writers?
DN: Well in Art in Time many of the artists were writing their own stories. So no, I don’t think they get shortchanged.
WCP: After doing these books, who are your favorite artists? Did you find them changing over the course of both books?
DN: Yes, my taste changes with every project—-these days I suppose the artists I remain most fascinated by are Herbert Crowley, Harry Tuthill, Jesse Marsh, Sam Glanzman and H.G. Peter… but even that can change.
WCP: Can you describe your publishing company, PictureBox, and what type of works it publishes?
DN: We release graphic novels, books about design and illustration, art books, as well as collaborations with bands. It’s basically a clearing house for various ideas about visual culture. Online I sell old books and new, and I try to do as much history as I can… PictureBox is a way of thinking about the world that I hope comes across in bits and pieces in all of my projects.
WCP: What work are you best-known for?
DN: I suppose PictureBox is a work unto itself, so that would be the one.
WCP: What work are you most proud of?
DN: Gary Panter, which I edited and researched—-its a 700-page definitive account of his life and art.
WCP: What would you like to do or work on in the future?
DN: Right now I would like to write a longer prose work about a particular cartoonist but in the immediate future I’m about to begin a major art book on someone great, but I can’t say who.
WCP: What do you do when you’re in a rut or have writer’s block?
DN: I just try to chill out and read and that usually brings be back around.
WCP: What do you think will be the future of your field? How many more books on semi-obscure cartoonists are possible?
DN: Well, conceptually there are tons more possible, but I’m out of gas a bit on that end of things. My future most likely lies in the present—-a combo of publishing, writing, and editing.
WCP: What’s your favorite thing about DC?
WCP: Least favorite?
DN: The death of all the good used bookstores I grew up with.
WCP: What monument or museum do you like to return to, or to take people to when you visit?
DN: The basement of the Hirshhorn has a killer contemporary art collection. I used to love going there. But mostly I like hanging out at my parent’s house, playing with the dog and chatting with the parentals. I take plenty of people there.
WCP: Wrapping up, can you tell us a bit about the idea behind your Comics Comics magazine and the subsequent website?
DN: Comics Comics, which I co-edit with Tim Hodler and Frank Santoro, is a forum for critical and historical writing about comics—-the idea is to gather our best colleagues around us and present a sophisticated and diverse vision of the medium. We avoid news or issues or anything like that—-we just write about what interests us. In the end I guess we hope to build it up even further.