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PictureBox may be the only comic book publisher to win a Grammy Award, as Dan Nadel helped design the packaging for Wilco’s 2004 album A Ghost is Born. What might be more remarkable is that despite such a high-profile achievement, it isn’t likely to be how the small yet innovative comics house will be remembered when it closes at the end of year. Instead, at least in comics circles, PictureBox will be remembered for somehow capturing and releasing a mercurial yet eye-catching merger of music and imagery that manifested as graphic novels, art books and magazines.
For all intents and purposes, PictureBox is Nadel. He’s an accomplished editor, designer, publisher and curator of “visual culture,” as he describes it. “Each project comes from my own tastes and relationships, and are rooted in what I believe in,” he wrote on the PictureBox website. “Since it’s just me running this thing, you’re pretty much seeing me through those books and this site.” Looking through the PictureBox catalog proves that to be true. It’s like walking into the house of the kid down the street who had a collection of comics you never heard of but instantly wished you had. Where did he find these people, these mad geniuses? Maybe if I read everything, I’ll understand.
I think PictureBox first crossed my radar when I followed a link to the blog for Comics Comics magazine, edited by Nadel, Timothy Hodler and Frank Santoro. I don’t remember the article, but there was just something unique about it. As I explored the site, it felt like an informal group blog with different contributors responding to each other or riffing off of others’ topics, and it had the precision and coordination of a proper outlet. They could be flippant and outright funny, and then produce an interview with Ed Piskor about finding new audiences without the help of a major publisher or a consideration on whether Alan Moore’s writing is too formally rigid. I can’t recall whether it was truly different than what anyone else was doing at the time, but thinking back, it certainly feels like it (the magazine and blog were also nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Comics-Related Periodical/Journalism two years in a row). Comics Comics did what it did so well that the folks at Fantagraphics asked them to relaunch the then-embarrassing website for The Comics Journal. The new TCJ site has been a vast improvement and the individual contributors remain as potent as ever, but I don’t know if the chemistry and playfulness of Comics Comics quite transitioned over.
The Eisners also took notice to two other PictureBox publications: Japanese experimental aritst Yuichi Yokoyama has had four of his books published in North America through PictureBox, and the first, New Engineering, didn’t go unnoticed. The first story, “Book,” was nominated for Best Short Story, and the entire publication was nominated for Best U.S. Edition of International Material-Japan for the 2008 Eisner Awards. While it is an anthology, all of the stories explore form more than plot or characters. The first half examines the choreography of combat, while the second half observes progress, as architecture encroaches on undeveloped land and man-made mimicry of nature is built up on top of the original. Each story isn’t so much a narrative as an experience in seeing how far Yokoyama can push against comics.
The final Eisner nominee is Sammy Harkham’s Everything Together: Collected Stories, which received a nod last year for Best Graphic Album-Reprint; it also won the prestigious LA Times Book Prize for Graphic Novel/Comics. Harkham is an LA local (and that most rare of breeds, a native, even if he did spend much of his teen years in Australia) who helps run the well-liked indie book store Family and the equally eclectic movie theater Cinefamily, so it seems fitting that he should get such recognition here. Everything Together is a collection of short stories by Harkham. The tragic “Poor Sailor” is the centerpiece. Originally a minicomic and later appearing in Kramers Ergot #4, the story follows a man who, driven either by wanderlust or materialism, leaves his wife to try to provide for her at sea. The other major story is “Somersaulting,” about that eternal empty space of teenage time, summer. PictureBox also had the honor of publishing the last Kramers Ergot, Harkham’s acclaimed anthology series that really helped shape the alt-comix scene.
PictureBox consistently published books that turned heads. I can still remember seeing the cover of Renée French’s H Day in person for the first time. For some reason, her artwork really settles into my eyeballs in person, as opposed to looking at it online. It’s beautiful, haunting, and a little bit terrifying in the way a dream can feel unsettling and tense as it shifts into a nightmare. The wordless graphic novel is partly autobiographical, as she explores her struggles with migraines, and is paired with a concurrent narrative of an invading swarm of black ants. The work in this book earned her a nomination for Outstanding Artist at the 2011 Ignatz Awards.
I suppose that might be PictureBox’s greatest hits. Or they are to me, if I were to make a PictureBox mix tape of comics. But that’s really just a sampling, an introduction. There are also must-haves like Blutch’s So Long, Silver Screen, C.F.’s Powr Mastrs, Matthew Thurber’s 1-800-MICE, and so much more. Bizarre, unpredictable, immediate transmissions straight from the artist’s brain.
Hearing that PictureBox will no longer publish new material feels like a big loss, but I was relieved to see that it wasn’t due to financial problems. According to The Comics Reporter‘s coverage, “PictureBox was a viable concern right up to the end, and could have been continued at its current level of success in perpetuity.” However, it does seem that while it had success, there was a ceiling. Nadel told Publishers Weekly, “I couldn’t really grow the company in any significant way and I couldn’t shrink it either. I’d really done all I could do.”
I’m sorry to see them go but if it has to happen, 70-some books of amazing, mind-altering comics, magazines and more sounds like a fine legacy to me.