Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Comics Loses One of Its Major Visionaries: Byron Preiss

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 (graduating magne cum laude) and received his master’s degree from the Stanford Film School. I met him in1969 at a Manhattan convention, a tall, handsome kid with perfect teeth and thick, black hair 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 his budding career 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. He was my best friend and confidant for more than half my lifetime—and his presence had a profound impact on me, professionally and personally.

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. Preiss was also a business partner of Komikwerks, LLC.

The company eventually published an extensive range of material, including many authored and co-authored by Preiss, such as:

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 Dragonworld
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

Additionally, he edited hundreds of others.

Always on the leading edge of trends, he moved into interactive books, CD-ROMs, virtual comics, and online entertainment, generating a staggering volume of product, including many Marvel-related items. His audiobook The Words of Gandhi snared a Grammy Award in 1985.

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 eventually 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. During the next few decades, we alternated between practical jokes and serious soul searching. And 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 volumes) or the Captain America book cover I wanted produced without any type because, I explained, my painted figure of Cap said it all in every language (the volume had a phenomenal 89% sell-through) or the Wild Cards series title I recommended be run upside down in gloss varnish (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, cool, controlled 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. Unlike many publishers who only talk the talk, Preiss walked the walk.

Although our evenings ultimately migrated to the Friar’s Club, his dedication to the work—to the comics form and its creators—not only remained steadfast, but relentless. He cited me as his mentor for graphic design and narrative technique, and, in similar fashion, passed the torch along to others by discovering new talent and giving them the opportunity to breakout with showcase projects, in addition to supporting his favorite vets with ongoing assignments. He redefined the term loyalty.

His recent line of celebrity-created children’s books includes contributions from Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, LeAnn Rimes, Stephen Ambrose, Carl Reiner, Jane Goodall, Philip Caputo, Jay Leno, and Stan Lee. Several months ago, I pitched a fantasy series in a revolutionary, new format to him and immediately received the green light. Now, that light has dimmed.

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, yet 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.

He is survived by his wife, Sandi, and daughters Karah and Blaire.

-- Jim Steranko