From Gold Pollen and other stories: Masters of Alternative Manga vol. 1, written and drawn by Seicchi Hayashi. Edited by Ryan Holmberg. PictureBox, 2013.
This week saw the closing of PictureBox, Inc., what I’ve considered for a while to be comics’ strongest publisher—and the best, most daring and even the most sensible publisher I’m aware of for any kind of printed matter.
Though writers and artists are generally ill-advised to see themselves as offering a service, publishers are much more likely to do so. And yet PictureBox managed to provide a service in a way that seemed basically to be an accident, enriching the English-speaking world of art, comics, and printed objects out of genuine interest, via a self-employed and truly made-from-scratch profession. That might be largely because PictureBox was in the small press game early as a one-man show—the company was, in essence, Dan Nadel—and thus seemed in its entirety an expression of his curatorial tastes. A part of this, too, are of course the artists he published and the editors and designers and other contractors he employed—a group of people that, like Nadel’s tastes, has only seemed to grow broader and more eclectic over a little more than a decade.
The works Nadel published always felt extremely urgent, and current, even when they could be elusive—and I wish I had more of them in front of me here to scan from in order to demonstrate some proof. The clearest connection I can draw might be to the efforts of Sammy Harkham, tremendous as both a cartoonist and the editor of the anthology Kramer’s Ergot (both Sammy and Kramer’s would eventually be published by PictureBox). The company managed to capture and sustain some of what this anthology’s middle issues illuminated and further implied—a sense of energy and excitement, drawing on a sense that the works and personas it disseminated could not and ought not to be contained, that they both necessitated and were fueled by a broader sense of engagement.
PictureBox signifies to me a long-running examples of a publisher as a kind of artist, in which every book was marked by the same creative and curatorial hand. This meant, I think, that Nadel must have needed to find each work he put out interesting or entertaining, and that sense of the books’ needing to exist was, thankfully, contagious. Never was a book from PictureBox boring or conservative, and only a handful of them seemed remotely safe—the sort of problem that’s forced many other publishers to ossify. This company’s design and packaging sense fit each work’s material far more than it sought to evoke or perpetuate a house style. All the while—from my perspective, at least—they managed to subvert an identity of a boutique publisher, affording lavish but always appropriate packaging while managing to keep price-points uncommonly and surprisingly low. This reflects what seemed the general ethos of the company—of disseminating work that is strongly energetic, never dull or cold or insular, further enlivened by a limber sense of humor and what seemed to me, both toward the readers and the artists published, a sense of empathy.
And yet, Nadel’s efforts were always criticial instead of charitable—I never saw a book from Picturebox that seemed to be throwing an artist a bone in the hopes that they’d someday develop or seeking to please an audience—audiences, who can only ever be imagined. Nor did the company appear to be built around tentpole titles, or planned best-sellers—these things might be hoped for, but the business, from my perspective, seemed to be about creating splendid art objects for the people who’d want to read them—perhaps most of all the publisher himself.
And in that respect the business seems to have been a complete success—the Gary Panter monograph alone is—rather, happens to be—a service to humanity, a book that’s sly and reverent and so deeply appealing. There’s their edition of Storeyville, too, and more newly Pompeii,—and C.F.’s Powr Mastrs, and the book by Blutch from earlier this year. I could go on, but it would only be to state the obvious, or to recite a catalogue, which I would never do complete. The sum of it is that Nadel managed to put out works ten or twenty years or fifty years old, packaging and contextualizing them for a potential audience, one brighter and broader than comics have rarely known—and making and distributing publications that would draw people by nature largely of their individual virtues. These were books ahead of their time, enlivened by what always seemed from this reader’s perspective to be a vivid sort of energy put into their creation, the kind of spark that is thankfully contagious. I’ve given PictureBox books to my friends and to my mentors—they’re books worth showing to those who might never find them otherwise, and to pass them on as gifts has seemed to reflect their spirit—of putting good work into the hands of people who are intelligent and free-thinking, and making it a good experience—not always true of works that are challenging—for any of them to receive it.
The interests that enlivened PictureBox are unlikely to flicker and die—Nadel’s a man who’s put together exhibitions, who has long been involved in art and its examination, through writing, through presentation, curation, and critique. All the same, both comics and publishing look a good bit bleaker for PictureBox’s absence. it’s a company that showed, as the long-living product and expression of a unique set of cares and passions and personal facilities, the only good reason for making or spreading art. And it’s for that last part, for that welcome bit of illumination, that we all know exactly who to thank.