A Week in Culture: Dan Nadel, Publisher, Part 2
November 23, 2010 | by Dan Nadel
This is the second installment of Nadel’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.
I realize this journal is meant to be cultural, but I swear, a ton of my daily doings are more like the “business” of culture. Or like being the janitor of the business. Or something. That’s what I did for most of the day until I went to Penn Station to pick up Brian and Christopher. A couple sandwiches later, we were en route to a bookstore in Williamsburg, where the guys did a stock signing. This is when authors sign a stack of books so customers will, hopefully, buy them faster.
Then it was dinner with Gary Panter, his wife, Helene Silverman (designer of many of my books), and their daughter, Olive. The two dudes love Gary as a spiritual north star of sorts, and Gary has, after thirty-five years, finally found artistic progeny he can be proud of. It’s a lovefest.
Stray thought: The problem (or, flipped, the pleasure) of being involved with a funky little subculture like comic books is that you have to deal with a level of absurdity so high that it’s like the gods are constantly fucking with you just for kicks. In other words, ninety percent of the “serious” books on the topic have introductions by TV stars or are filled with absurd claims of greatness. Rarely are comics left alone to be a medium unto itself.
I really admire good publicists. This week, oddly, I’m just a pale imitation of one, but it’s hard to both hustle these books and the authors and also, y’know, think about them, too. Or, uh, think about anything else at all.
Morning finds the guys asleep on my living-room floor. They’re both kinda tall, so they take up an absurd amount of space in the room. Over coffee and tea we have a friendly nerdfest in the morning discussing something Dan Clowes recently said to the effect of reconciling himself to the reality of comics history. Which is to say, understanding that there are few thoroughly “great” works or artists to be found, as in film or literature. There aren’t many Jim Thompsons or Philip Dicks to “rediscover” and tout as transcending their genres. Instead, we pick through the bins for a great storytelling device or wonky approach to drawing, or some freakishly good art-text combo by a hack, picking our pleasures and fascinations within a single comic book or even just an eight-page story.
You have to understand that for most of its history, the medium has existed in pretty rough commercial conditions (division of labor between writer and artist; unscrupulous publishers; no institutional support, et cetera) and has allowed fascinating work to emerge despite itself. We talk about it because forward-thinking cartoonists like these guys are hard-pressed to find antecedents past Clowes, Chester Brown, or Crumb, so they have to make their own history and their own unique path forward. And, also, I think, at least for me, I have to reckon with the real situation of a medium to which I’ve dedicated a good chunk of my professional life (self-promotion alert: I’ve written two books on the subject: Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries 1900–1969, and Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, both for Abrams).
Speaking of choosing forbearers, I packed Christopher off to go see Panter for the afternoon while Brian was interviewed for a magazine at my place. Then we went off to DAP (my bookstore distributor) to film a little conversation about the books and look at yet more tomes (Chris Burden, Paul McCarthy, Jack Smith—more art-life combo guys), before heading over to The Strand for the main event.
I was, I’ll admit, hugely relieved when the second-floor event space began filling up, and then finally overflowed, with people. These books were both years in the making, and it’s so important to me that they find audiences beyond their underground origins. I wanted a crowd. I got one, and the publisher, publicist, and editor parts of me are all, for once, simultaneously happy.
And now for something completely different—more or less. Brian and Christopher hopped in a cab to JFK to wing their way for the Western chunk of their (mini) book tour, and I got to … well, I have no idea what I did all day, though it must have been busy enough to be blurry. The end of day was memorable, as I tripped up to the Society of Illustrators, which lives in its own carriage house on the Upper East Side. It’s a grand old house for what was once a men’s club founded in 1901, and through which most of the great illustrators and cartoonists of the early to mid-twentieth century passed: still-revered artists like Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell, and also long-gone names like James Montgomery Flagg and Charles Dana Gibson. There are wonderful paintings for magazines, books, and advertisements from an era when illustration was both “realist” and a popular way for the culture to interpret itself in print. It’s a neat place, filled with history.
But I really went to see a discussion about National Lampoon in honor of the publication of Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who Made the National Lampoon Insanely Great, a new visual book on the magazine by one of its signature artists, Rick Meyerowitz. Present was Meyerowitz himself, who gave a wry and informative slideshow, and three of the Lampoon’s very best cartoonists, Sam Gross, Ed Subitzky, and Stan Mack. Meyerowitz’s book is something of a two-pronged rescue mission: First to republish artists he feels have been unjustly consigned to obscurity, such as Subitzky (the creator of very funny, minimalist comic-strip psychodramas—yes, I know that’s seems like an oxymoron, but it works, trust me), as well as the late Charles Rodriques (he of the gnarled ink line and beautifully composed gag-cartoon splatter), and, second, if unstated, is to restore some appropriate amount (not too appropriate, given the irreverence of the subject itself) of dignity to the National Lampoon, which is now a brand name so debased that you pretty much have to start a conversation about it with, “No, not that ‘National Lampoon’… well, sort of, but, um, it was this great magazine once… No, really.”
Before all the shitty movies and bad Web sites and such, it was a place for sophisticated and pretty extreme counterculture to live. The first issue was released in 1970, and it enjoyed a stellar run for about half a decade, indirectly or directly leading the original SNL, Animal House, and other high (very high, apparently) areas of late 1970s comedy. It came from a duo of Harvard (from whence much of our TV satire still comes) boys, Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, and was anchored in a sense of rage against nearly everything. The articles were often long and thorough exercises in trenchant satire by guys like George W. S. Trow and Michael O’Donoghue, and the artwork was executed by pros seeking refuge from the strictures of the mainstream but not so interested in going underground either.
So you get the infamous Sam Gross suite of tampon cartoons next to O’Donoghue’s The Vietnamese Baby Book, next to Shary Fleniken’s sexy, inquisitive comic strip, “Trots and Bonnie,” next to Kenney’s “Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diaries.” It’s easy to enumerate all the virtues, but really the stuff is just fucking funny. Not funny in collegiate Onion way, or in a winking Late Night way, but deeply funny because it recognizes absurdity and gives it the finger. It’s funny because it doesn’t see any contradiction between high-minded satire and piss jokes. It’s a ton of different intellectual and artistic cultures comingling under the umbrella of satire. And it worked pretty damn well. As a hippy might say, “all is one” there. In person and on the page, Meyerowitz is funny and acerbic, and thankfully not nostalgic, which is in keeping with the magazine itself. He writes as a survivor, too, since the brilliant anger and smarts that drove a lot of these guys also consumed them; like the rest of the Boomer counterculture, the Lampoon left behind the bodies of some its best. Anyhow, it’s a hell of a thing. After the talk, these four wise and funny Jewish men sat at a table, and a dutiful fan, I got my book signed and then headed back to Brooklyn.
I guess my week is over. Now I can get back to not remembering.
Dan Nadel is the proprietor of the Grammy-winning publishing house PictureBox and the author of Art Out of Time: Unknown Comic Visionaries, 1900–1969 and Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940–1980 (both Abrams).