COMICS LOSES ONE OF ITS MAJOR VISIONARIES: BYRON PREISSBY JIM STERANKO
Around noon on July 9, 2005, writer-editor-developer-publisher Byron Preiss was involved in a fatal auto accident as he drove to his synagogue in Long Island, New York-and American popular culture lost one of its most productive and visionary champions.
For more than three decades, he spearheaded a multiplicity of mediaforms, from comics and ebooks to electronic games and CD-ROMs, that fused words and images like few other individuals would achieve in the entertainment arts. As an author, he generated dozens of books, from hard science and history volumes to profusely-illustrated children’s literature. As a packager, he produced a stream of quality fiction and nonfiction titles for almost every primary publishing house, including HarperCollins, Penguin Putnam, Simon & Schuster, Random House, Rizzoli, Scholastic, and Oxford University Press, in addition to developing projects with numerous institutions, including Microsoft, Forbes/American Heritage, Fox Interactive, Comedy Central, MSNBC, Imax, Scientific American, the Grand Ole Opry, and Yahoo!.
Born in Brooklyn in 1953, he subsequently attended the University of Pennsylvania and the Stanford Film School Masters Program. I met him in1969 at a Manhattan convention, a tall, handsome kid who radiated enthusiasm like a human atomic reactor. He recounted his publishing dream so convincingly that I agreed to create some art for his first venture, a fan calendar, just to give the project a jump start.
Neither of us realized that our connection was the beginning of a friendship that would grow, ferment, agitate, evolve, bluster, and ultimately endure for the next 35 years.
One of our earliest projects involved an anti-drug comicbook that he conceived for near-illiterate grade school students (he was teaching at a Philadelphia elementary facility at the time). On a zero budget, we produced THE BLOCK, the tale of two inner-city brothers who choose to walk different paths, which was distributed citywide and met with exceptional success with both educators and students (some classes colored the panels, others read it aloud, and one even transformed the story into a rock opera). Preiss promoted it from New York City to Atlanta, achieving solid student acceptance and continual praise from all who saw and used it, right up to the majors at Sesame Street. The comic premiered in the summer of 1970, a year before the much-heralded Spider-Man and Green Lantern-Green Arrow drug mags.
Over the next few years, we spoke often about the future of comics, discussion which became the architectural foundation of his initial 1974 publishing venture, Byron Preiss Visual Publications (and recently ibooks), and a series of books that were the first to use the terms “visual novel” and “graphic novel”). My hardboiled detective thriller RED TIDE was one of his offerings. Preiss was the first to regularly and continuously publish adult, book-length comic-panel novels by the field’s top creators. His recent effort, Joe Kubert’s Nazi concentration camp epic YOSSEL stands as positive tribute to Preiss’ unyielding vision and belief in the form, as does his 2005 Harvey Awards win for Best American Edition of Foreign Material for BLACKSAD 2. Byron Preiss was also a business partner and friend of Komikwerks, LLC.
The company eventually published an extensive range of material, including many authored by Preiss, including:
1973 The Electric Company Joke Book
1973 The Silent “E”‘s from Outer Space
1976 One Year Affair
1977 Weird Heroes (several volumes of pulp-related stories illustrated by top comics artists)
1977 Son of Sherlock Holmes
1979 The Beach Boys
1981 The Art of Leo and Diane Dillon
1981 The Dinosaurs
1982 The First Crazy Word Book
1983 Not in Webster’s Dictionary
1984 The Bat Family
1985 The Planets
1987 Paul Revere and the Boston Tea Party
1987 The Universe
1990 First Contact: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence-with Ben Bova
1991 The Ultimate Dracula
1991 The Ultimate Frankenstein
1991 The Ultimate Werewolf
1992 The Vampire State Building
1993 The Ultimate Zombie, The
1993 The Ultimate Witch
1994 Instant American History
1995 The Ultimate Alien
1996 Best Children’s Books in the World, THe
1997 The Rhino History of Rock ‘N Roll: the ’70s with Eric Lefcowitz
1999 Are We Alone in the Cosmos?
2000 The New Dinosaurs
2003 The Ultimate Dragon
2003 The Ultimate Frankenstein
2003 The Little Blue Brontosaurus
Always on the leading edge of trends, he moved into interactive books, CD-ROMs, virtual comics, and online entertainment, generating a volume of product, including many Marvel-related items.
Often working under severe licensing, financial, deadline, and distribution constraints, Preiss had an uncanny knack of believing in his product and his collaborative talent. He had a hands-on approach to every stage of production, a staggering juggling feat that blossomed into an operation so large it filled two floors of a mid-Manhattan skyscraper.
Nonetheless, hardly a week went by that we didn’t connect in person or on the phone, often recalling the early days when I’d crash at his apartment for a couple days and we’d strategize our futures at all-night skull sessions at the Silver Star Diner on 3rd Avenue. Somewhere along the way, we became brothers.
We worked together constantly on a myriad of projects, many of which were highly experimental in nature, not to mention risky-and, in this case, the risk was with his money. But he loved to break new ground, even if it took a few layers of skin off his hide. I still recall his shock when I insisted I’d only work on THE ILLUSTRATED HARLAN ELLISON if the story was printed in 3D (he purchased thousands of glasses and had them bound into the volume) or the Captain America book cover I wanted produced without any type because my painted figure of Cap said it all in any language (the volume had a phenomenal 90% sell-through) or the Wild Cards series title I recommended be run in gloss varnish and upside down (it could only be read when angled toward the light, but was a knockout visual surprise).
He backed them all and many others, some of which required him to go toe-to-toe with printers, publishers, and distributors. Preiss took a sensible, even-keel approach to his proceedings, but I like to think I taught him a few things about fighting dirty to get the job done. We broke a few rules along the way and perhaps set a couple precedents, too.
He married and had two beautiful daughters, who became the pride of his life. And somewhere along the way, I became part of the family (I always thought I’d adopted him, which only proves how clever he was at making me believe that certain things were my ideas).
Preiss was a subtle, but seminal force in contemporary popular culture and specifically in the evolution of narrative illustration. His vision will continue to inspire all those who knew him-and those who found something special in his work.
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