Editor Kochman Talks Abrams' ComicArts Imprint

Art book publisher Harry N. Abrams has announced a new imprint titled ComicArts, offering titles on comics art history and graphic novels, which will debut in early 2009. Although Abrams has periodically published similar books in the past, including Mark Evanier's "Kirby: King of Comics" and the critically acclaimed webcomic "Mom's Cancer" by Brian Fies, the new line suggests an increased focus on the art of comics. CBR News spoke with Executive Editor Charles Kochman about the beginnings of ComicArts, and the first few books that will appear under the imprint.

Kochman told CBR that by publishing comics art books including "Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics" by Les Daniels and "Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman," and more recently "Nat Turner" by Kyle Baker, "M" by Jon J Muth, and "Tall Tales" with Al Jaffee, Abrams had essentially established the groundwork for an imprint without intending to. "We were publishing these books, they were advancing very well and gaining critical attention, so along with CEO and President Michael Jacobs and Abrams Publisher Steve Tager, we began exploring the best way to take these titles and formulize a program that made sense for them," the editor told CBR News. "This imprint lets us continue publishing the kinds of books that we were publishing, only now build upon those titles with a focused platform, allowing us to publish similar comics-related books with a more concerted effort-putting the necessary resources behind it in publicity, marketing, sales, and editorial."

Prior to joining Abrams in 2005, Kochman spent twelve years as an editor in DC Comics' licensed publishing department, where he was responsible for titles such as Roger Stern's "The Death and Life of Superman" novelization; "Spy vs. Spy: The Complete Casebook," based on the popular "MAD Magazine" strip by Antonio Prohias; and a six-year run with Alex Ross and Paul Dini collaborating on their annual oversized tabloids which began with "Superman: Peace On Earth" and ended with the Chip Kidd hardcover overview of Ross's career, "Mythology."

"I came over to Abrams to broaden my editorial initiatives by first identifying a triumvirate of seminal comics artists," Kochman explained. "To me, those are Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner. I think you can pretty much draw a through-line from those three and show how most subsequent comics artists working have been influenced by all or one of them."

Kochman was also able to add several notable graphic novels to the publisher's list. "My first acquisition when I came to Abrams was 'Mom's Cancer' by Brian Fries, which had been a webcomic, and then shortly after that I signed up on our Amulet Books list Jeff Kinney's 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid,' which was also a Web comic, and obviously a huge bestseller.

"My interest in editing comics and graphic novels is not because I wish to jump on any publishing bandwagon," he continued. "It's something I really have a passion for. And the nice thing about working at Abrams is that I am able to share that passion. And as the premiere publisher of fine art and illustrated books, we're not making a distinction between these great artists who just happen to work in the medium of comics. We're saying they are great artists no different than Rockwell or Degas or Monet. Kirby and Kurtzman belong comfortably on the same shelf side by side those others, without having to qualify why they are there."

This passion leads Kochman to strive for "definitive" books on the most influential comic artists. "If we're publishing 'Kirby: King of Comics,' I didn't want it to be just any book on Jack Kirby. I wanted it to be the book on Jack Kirby. Mark Evanier was the only one who could write it," the editor said. Indeed, Evanier is Kirby's official biographer and a former assistant to the legendary artist. "Only Mark could do that book, and not just the writing, which is spectacular, but co-ordinate the permissions needed from the Kirby estate, from DC, and from Marvel, and balance all of the pieces together in a way that does justice to Kirby."

Similarly, upcoming ComicArts title "The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics" is written by authors with unparalleled knowledge of their subject: Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle. "Denis is not only the leading authority on Kurtzman, but as the representative of the Kurtzman estate, he had access to material that nobody else has ever seen before," Kochman explained, emphasizing that the art and other ephemera will be photographed "as objects, taking a page from the Chip Kidd playbook," allowing readers to see the physical medium upon which Kurtzman's illustrations appear. "The published versions of much of this art has been reprinted and is readily available. However, we are reproducing this art the way it actually looks, showing aspects of the originals in ways that can only be seen if you happen to own the original or see it on display in a museum."

Kochman described "Erotic Comics 2: A Graphic History from the Liberated '70s to the Internet," the first title to debut under the ComicArts imprint, as "the second half of a definitive look at the subject." Written by Tim Pilcher and Gene Kannenberg, Jr. with an introduction by Alan Moore, "Erotic Comics 2" will explore the art of European artists such as Milo Manera and Tom of Finland, as well as American movements in the '70s and Hentai.

Another saucy book to emerge in the early days of ComicArts is "Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman's Co-Creator Joe Shuster," which was compiled by Craig Yoe and has an introduction by none other than Stan Lee. "I know from working at DC--and I was there for the death of Superman--that any time you touch Superman, the world notices," Kochman said. "We've all grown up with him, so he belongs to everyone."

That said, what was the public outcry when Shuster, hard up for work after trying to reclaim the rights to Superman, began to illustrate S&M materials using the likenesses of his beloved creations? The drawings, which appeared in a magazine called "Nights of Horror," were sold under-the-counter in Times Square sex shops, did not bear Shuster's name but instead were sometimes signed JOSH (JO from Joseph and SH from Shuster). "They are undoubtedly the work of Joe Shuster, but nobody connected the dots at the time to say this looks like Superman, or Lois Lane, or Jimmy Olsen, or Lex Luthor," Kochman said. "The material was banned by the U.S. Supreme Court, and although the publisher and the printer both went to jail, nobody came after Shuster because somehow they never made the connection to Superman or to Shuster as the artist.

"The story gets even more involved and sensational: Also involved were a group of neo-Nazi thugs called the Brooklyn Thrill Killers, who whipped innocent women and set fire to vagrants and murdered them. These kids were interviewed by [anti-comics crusader Dr. Frederic] Wertham when 'Nights of Horror' magazines were cited as inspiration for their crimes," Kochman said. "The whole story and the art are revealed here by Craig Yoe for the first time. This is going be an amazing book. If you like Lois Lane, wait until you see someone who appears to be her whipping a man who looks very much like Clark Kent!"

Another title shipping in April, "Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?" is a new original graphic novel by "Mom's Cancer" writer/artist Brian Fies which "represents the best of what we are able to do at Abrams in terms of production, design, and editorial," Kochman said. "We are also building authors--I didn't want to just publish 'Mom's Cancer,' I wanted to publish Brian Fies and build him as an author." The new book, which Kochman described as being "about the relationship between a father and a son and the promise of the future," takes place during the time period of the 1939 New York World's Fair on through the 1975 Apollo moon mission, and "explores our conception of what we thought the future would be on a personal and macro level." Four adventures of Commander Cap Crater, illustrated in era-appropriate styles and printed on different paper, will be interspersed throughout the work and reflect on events in the main story.

In addition to these first few titles from the ComicArts catalogue, which will be published in March and April, June sees the release of "The Art of Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death" by Todd Hignite and designed by Jordan Crane. "In addition to identifying the legends, we also want to do books on contemporary artists, artists who are alive and still creating and influential, so they are involved in selecting the work, authorizing the book and providing material and guidance to ensure the complete package is as strong as it can be," Kochman said. "Jaime could not have been more generous, and even provided us with a great new image for the cover."

"The TOON Treasury of Funny Comic Books for Kids," edited by Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman, leads the ComicArtsFall 2009 list, alongside "Dread & Superficiality: Woody Allen as a Comic Strip," a collection of artist Stuart Hample's syndicated newspaper comic strips from the 1970s and early '80s featuring the acclaimed comedian and director. "These vintage comic strips are from the 'Annie Hall'-era when everybody was talking about Woody Allen," Kochman said. "We had access to all the original art, which we had photographed. We're reproducing all the Wite-Out and blue pencil and marginal notes and yellowing tape, capturing the process of what the creation of this material is like."

The editor added that Allen himself is participating in the project. "He selected the strips for the book," Kochman confirmed, "and worked with Stu on the introduction. I think he is pleased. This was an aspect of his career that most people no longer talk about, but in its time was very successful."

Toward the beginning of the imprint's second year, ComicArts will publish "Carter Family Comics" by Frank Young and David Lasky, an original graphic novel about the mid-century country music group. "It's going to be really, really wonderful." Kochman said. "There are other titles in the works, and they will be announced as soon we are able to. I think readers will be pleased with our approach to publishing this material and the variety of books we will be doing."

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