Dan Nadel has always had a yen for design and comics, both
historic and contemporary. Through his independent publishing
company PictureBox he has married these
two passions. In an age when indie publishing is all the rage and
comics have earned high cultural status, Nadel is firmly in the
vanguard, presenting fresh work by practitioners young and old,
from the long established (Gary Panter) to the newly emerging
(C.F., Paper Rad). How does he manage to succeed in an increasingly
competitive market? And what standards drive his mission to make
the world a better place for art and artists? We caught up with
Nadel between deadlines, just long enough to get the skinny on his
present and future plans.
Heller: Starting a publishing house from
scratch—particularly one like PictureBox that's devoted to
visuals—is no easy feat. But in the age of “designer as
entrepreneur” this has become a new model for practice. How did it
all start for you?
Spreads from The Wilco Book.
Nadel: I started PictureBox with a partner,
Peter Buchanan-Smith, to package books for publishers in 2002. It
went by the name Monday Morning at the time, and we began by
self-publishing the annual book of visual culture, The
Ganzfeld. After a couple projects for Abrams we published
The Wilco Book (2004) on our own, as no publisher offered
a satisfactory deal for it and we'd had some experience in
publishing with The Ganzfeld. The Wilco Book was
a major success for us and convinced me that, insanely enough, I
could perhaps make a go of it as a publisher. At that point, Peter
left to pursue his own career and I stayed on solo with the able
assistance of editor/designer Jessi Rymill and, later, her partner,
Carl Williamson. After a bunch of years of freelance writing and
curating, The Ganzfeld and The Wilco Book really
convinced me that the best way for me to be creatively satisfied
was to maintain full control from concept to execution to shipping
to sales. I love the control and work with a variety of artists and
musicians who also value control and trust me to act in their best
Heller: I remember when you basically came off the
boat—from Queens—freshly minted, wanting to do something in the
design world, yet not being a designer yourself. You were already
publishing The Ganzfeld. What was involved in making it a
credible journal? Did you have editorial experience?
Illustrations from The Ganzfeld, issues 5 (top) and 4.
Nadel: Yes, that boat docked at your office. I
began The Ganzfeld with two college friends: Patrick Smith
and Timothy Hodler, both awesome, creative people. I didn't have
any editorial experience, but was somehow convinced that didn't
matter. That, of course, wasn't true—it did matter—but I guess I've
somewhat arrogantly always trusted and pursued my (for lack of a
less pretentious term) vision. To me, the most important things for
a young publication are vision, taste and uniqueness. I like to
think I had both in trying to make a publication that drew on art,
illustration, design and history that I felt no one else was
looking at. To me, it's about pursuing the unknown and mysterious
and bringing those finds into the light. That's the fun part and, I
think, the part that most excites an audience; rather than
reaffirming someone's taste, you're expanding and sometimes
Heller: What resources did it take to start the
Cover of The Ganzfeld, issue 5.
Nadel: I got a loan for The Ganzfeld
and then was able to put together a group of investors for The
Wilco Book, which generated enough income—and thus,
credit—that it was fairly simple for me to go on and get a
substantial small business loan.
It takes money and luck, to a certain extent. It also takes a
sort of retarded single-mindedness. That is, I sometimes think I
move it along by force of will. There are rational, factual factors
at work, of course, but then there's the sheer psychological
strength or delusion required to build a world around oneself—to
make something out of nothing. It's a kind of mellow mania. I'm
quite sure you relate. Also, and this is something I learned from
you, as well as Steven Guarnaccia, I think it's been crucial that
I'd informally studied the history of visual book publishing via
writing about it and exploring my early mentor's ideas and
collections. I went into it understanding that there were
precedents for this kind of activity, and having at least a dim
understanding of what made those earlier enterprises interesting,
successful or problematic. I still spend a lot of time doing
Heller: How did you find your content?
Nadel: Same as today: approaching someone whose
work I admire and think could make an interesting print project.
It's not enough that I like the work—it has to work on the
Heller: You're working with some major figures in
comics: Gary Panter, for one, and Karl Wirsum of the Hairy Who. How
did you attract them to your venture?
Cover of Frank Santoro's Storeyville.
Nadel: I think what's attractive to some of the
“older” people I work with is that I'm a history buff and like to
think that I have an understanding of their visual heritage. A lot
of it is conversation and understanding, and the fact that I'm
mostly trying to explicate and chronicle, rather than sell. That
is, the stakes are low, so perhaps I slip by that way.
Heller: Many of your picture books and comic books are
done with relatively new and untried artists. How do you decide
whom you will publish?
Nadel: It's a combination of thinking that an
artist can make a unique and important statement in print and
determining whether or not there's an audience for that statement.
I'm most interested by artists who seem like natural book makers on
their own—people who can think in terms of books.
Heller: What did you see in Ashod Simonian and Brian
Belott that made you want to make the investment?
Nadel: Well, I think Ashod has really
documented a culture I love: indie rock. And he's done so in
unabashedly beautiful photographs. I love the spirit of his work,
too: positive, whimsical and open. It's the kind of book I really
enjoy doing because it captures a moment and culture in a way
nothing else really can. Twenty years from now it'll be a wonderful
time capsule. As for Brian, his gallery approached me to do a book
with him. I was already a fan: The breadth of his work is simply
mind-blowing. He's the ultimate paper-obsessed artist, combining a
pitch perfect eye for found objects with an unerring sense of
composition and color. I think Brian is simply one of the best fine
artists in the world. Beyond that, he makes tons of one-off artist
books himself, so he came to the table understanding pacing, design
and everything else it takes to make a compelling book. I also
think there's an audience craving immersive and experiential books
Images from Real Fun by Ashod Simonian (top); and Wipe That
Clock Off Your Face by Brian Belott (above).
Heller: Do your authors receive advances, royalties,
Nadel: It depends on the book. If it's a
collection of older work, there's no advance, but if it's being
created from the ground up, there's some kind of advance. And then
I simply split the profits 50-50 with the artist once I've recouped
The cover of BJ and Frank Santoro's Cold Heat.
Heller: How do you finance the finances? Is it out of
pocket? Do you have backers, partners, etc.?
Nadel: None of this is out of my pocket. That's
kind of a rule for me. I like to keep the business and personal
realms separate in that respect. It is more conducive to clear,
level-headed thinking. Sometimes a gallery will fund all or part of
a book, other times I get investors, and, as noted, I have a loan
with which I completely finance about 50 percent of the books. They
sell, and then the money comes back, tail wagging and eager to be
spent again! So out it goes. And back it comes. And so on. And
also, more seriously, I've just launched a fairly extensive online
retail space through which I sell PictureBox products and books by
artists I work with. I hope to offset a fair amount of my monthly
costs with the site. So far it's going very well.
Heller: So the market for graphic books and graphic
novels has increased in recent years. Why do you think this is the
moment in history when you, along with other indie publishers, can
actually make a go out of this?
Images from Cheryl Dunn's Some Kind of Vocation.
Nadel: As a lot of people have commented, we're
living in a very visual culture. It's images all the time, and yet
I think people are hungry for material experience, as opposed to
screen-time only. So, the dominance of visuals kind of dovetails
with a hunger for handmade, or at least handheld, personal
experiences of art.
Heller: You are up against some formidable competitors,
such as Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly... How do you fare
against their stable? Indeed, do you see them as
Nadel: Well, I'm a very different company than
those guys. Both are more or less comic book publishers. I'm split
pretty equally between music, art and comics. So, I don't see them
as competition. Even in comics we publish very different kinds of
materials. Those guys are my pals and colleagues more than anything
else. I have a huge amount of respect for them both... they're
hugely important cultural forces.
Heller: OK, so you've got your finger on a pulse here.
What is next for PictureBox? And what is next for this
Images from New Engineering by Yuichi Yokoyama.
Nadel: I've just released four graphic
novels—an onslaught, really—by Brian Chippendale, C.F., Frank
Santoro (a reissue, with an introduction by Chris Ware, of his
seminal graphic novel Storeyville), and Yuichi Yokoyama
(my first foray into manga). It's a bit out of balance in
terms of other sorts of books, but they are all kinda synced up to
I've also just publishing a wonderful photography book by Cheryl
Dunn called Some Kinda Vocation, which documents life, art
and liberty in urban America. I'm very proud of that one. Cheryl is
a tremendously talented and important photographer, both as
image-maker and chronicler. April '08 sees the release of Gary
Panter, a two-volume, 690-page monograph that makes the case for
Gary as one of the great visual artists of the last 40 years—I'm
persuaded! Some future 2008–2009 releases include books from Sonic
Youth, EYE (of the Boredoms), and even a book about the 1970s
airbrush illustration and design of Charlie White III, Dave
Willardson and Peter Palombi, among others. It's a good and busy
Heller: That certainly is an onslaught...
Nadel: Oh yeah, and in January I'm opening a
little retail space in Gowanus, Brooklyn, designed by Helene
Silverman and Gary Panter. Come see us.
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