Though an accomplished writer and editor, Byron Preiss will primarily be remembered as an innovative publisher, one unafraid of exploring new formats and technologies, ever expanding on the words-and-pictures vernacular of the comic-book medium into new frontiers of graphic storytelling. Preiss began his celebrated association with Jim Steranko in the early '70s, when they created "The Block," a cautionary anti-drug comic produced for school children across the United States. With the founding of Byron Preiss Visual Publications, the pair would collaborate on the "pulp-slash-comic" paperback series, "Weird Heroes," and, of course, "Fiction Illustrated," where "Chandler: Red Tide" first appeared. Over the ensuing decades, Preiss would helm a multitude of books, both as publisher and packager for other imprints.
After Preiss's unexpected death in 2005, Steranko would write in his Comicon.com tribute, "Preiss was a subtle, yet seminal force in contemporary popular culture and specifically in the evolution of narrative illustration." The following was excerpted from an unpublished Byron Preiss interview conducted by Jon B. Cooke.
BYRON: The third book was our piece de resistance. It was a magnum opus by Jim Steranko, and it was meant to be the first visual private eye novel. I used to go to the bus station at New York City bus station on 42nd Street every week to pick up the next set of pages. Jim did some of the most brilliant work ever done in the medium. It was continuity with a rhythm of two panels a page, text underneath. Jim had designed it, in true Steranko fashion, so every page would have an equal number of lines of text. So not only did he have to write to the rhythm of the book he established, but each text block had to work with each panel to the exact same length! It was as always, for Jim, a very high-standard set, and he pulled it off magnificently. We sold it in France, they published it as Red Tide; it was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review section, and Joe Gores, leading mystery writer of the time, wrote an introduction for it. We were just beside ourselves.
CBA [Jon B. Cooke]: Why was it renamed Red Tide in France?
BYRON: That * was * the name of the story, but they liked that better than calling it Chandler. I think maybe they didn't think it was right to have a character with the same name as an author. But in those days, that was the time, 1975-'76, when the French new wave of comics began to have an enormous impact on the New York and California comics scene.
CBA: Metal Hurlant?
BYRON: Metal Hurlant was about to debut in New York as Heavy Metal, but had already been seen by us as Metal Hurlant. Moebius was beginning to have the impact that he would have on Joe Kubert, Bill Stout, and a number of other people. The idea that you could do magnificent, illustrated, full-color books on glossy paper for adults, and not have to sell it to kids at all, was brand new. We did a fourth volume of Fiction Illustrated, Son of Sherlock Holmes, which Ralph Reese magnificently illustrated. Then Norman left Pyramid Books to start his own company, called Baronet Books.
In an interesting sequence of events, Norman decided to publish science-fiction and agreed to let me publish some comics. At that point, Norman became friendly with Will Eisner. Will had a company called Poorhouse Press. So Norman and Will did an extremely successful bar guide and some paperbacks. Will said, "Would you let me try doing this novel in comics form?" It was A Contract With God, which Norman did publish. That was all Norman. If Norman hadn't put up the money and taken the risk to get that into bookstores, I don't know when it would have happened.
CBA: You were "witness at the creation" in a lot of ways. Since we're Americans and since we always like our superlatives -- numbers ones and firsts and things like that - what, in your opinion, was the first graphic novel?
BYRON: The caves of Lascoux. The prehistoric paintings in France. In modern form, obviously Lynn Ward's woodcut illustrated books, Steranko's Chandler.
CBA: Did you feel you were on the cusp of a visual revolution?
BYRON: I was really excited, and the people I was working with were really excited. Neal said to me one day, "Why are you doing things nobody wants?" That caused me to have great pause. I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Comics work just fine the way it is. Why are you adding type, adding this and adding that?" I said, "I think it's interesting to experiment, to see if we can push the envelope of how we use this medium." I think we were both right. You have a perfect medium, so do you really need to add a concert orchestra to jazz? On the other hand, what do you get when you try to push the envelope and do different things? Is it possible to do orchestral jazz? Well, then you have Rhapsody in Blue. I should live long enough to do anything that is one-billionth as good as Rhapsody in Blue! But, the fact is, I'm very proud of the few productions we did. Specifically, when Norman allowed us to do graphic novels at Baronet, the first two were The Illustrated Roger Zelazny and The Illustrated Harlan Ellison. In the Zelazny book, Michael Golden, coming into his own in those days, did a story with us called "The Furies," which he penciled brilliantly, and which Gray Morrow rendered. What we did was create a vertical storytelling sequence that worked. You can actually read "The Furies" like you would read a newspaper, in sequential, vertical columns. And it works. And it tells, in a continuity, in a narrative fashion, in a sequential fashion (which is critical for comics), a great story. Not to mention that the Zelazny story is great. Those pages, I think, are important. Nobody else has ever written about them since, but * I * think they're important. In The Illustrated Harlan Ellison, Bill Stout went a step further, and, because he both broke it down * and * illustrated it, did a better job than we did, and created a quintessential integration of text and illustration called "Shattered Like a Glass Goblin," based on Harlan's story.