A Thing of Beauty: Spiro Talks Nobrow Press - Part 1

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Founded in 2008 as an independent publisher spotlighting the very best of the graphic arts, Nobrow Press have provided a showcase for sequential storytellers with uniquely distinctive approaches to the comics medium. In the first of a two-part interview, Broken Frontier spoke to Nobrow's Alex Spiro about the company's philosophy and place in the market, the beautiful physical presentation of their products and their 17x23 imprint...

BROKEN FRONTIER: Nobrow Press have been with us now for nearly three years as a showcase for the graphic arts. Guide us through your genesis; as a company how would you describe your publishing philosophy and how would you define your specific niche in the world of comics?

ALEX SPIRO: We started with the aim to promote graphic art and art comics in what was frankly quite a barren UK scene at the time. Jonathan Cape was publishing English editions of your staple Fantagraphics and D&Q big seller titles, and there's no denying they were great, but very few publishers were championing home grown artists/creators' own material with very much vigour (an obvious nod and tip of the hat must go to Blank Slate and SelfMadeHero of course, who have done a lot to this end as well).

Also, given that we were a company that started both in the midst of the financial crisis (Nov 2008) and that we were in essence a brand new print publisher in an increasingly digital publishing landscape, our books had to be somehow different. It wouldn't be enough to champion new artists and content, the books themselves had to stand out, to 'deserve to be printed'.

We strove to produce books with consideration for their inherent qualities as objects, and to produce them to ethical production standards (our books are printed in Europe on sustainable paper) that we felt were necessary for any publisher moving forward into the precarious future of print. We acknowledged that people wanted books not merely for their didactic or recreational content, but also to own those books as objects.

BF: Your comics are certainly already renowned for that rather unique graphic design sense. There’s an aesthetic to them that seems to emphasise the beauty of them as individual, physical objects. Would that be a fair reflection of your approach to the presentation of your titles, particularly the Nobrow Small Press range?

SPIRO: Yes certainly, coming from art school and particularly graphic design and animation led backgrounds, we were keen to have a very distinctive house style and to a large extent this meant lavishing every trick in the book on them to make them beautiful objects that people would want to own and collect as well as enjoy reading. We print the vast majority of our books using spot colours and in this respect we are in a very, very small minority, there are only a handful of publishers worldwide who do this as a matter of course.

Our printing methods make our library quite distinctive visually, as the colours you see are pure, unadulterated pantone colours rather than CMYK. I guess the colours very often will be the first thing people remark about Nobrow books and rightly so, we put a lot of effort into getting them right.

Of course we also hand print some books, you mentioned Nobrow Small Press, this is our screen printing arm where we produce books in editions of under 100 copies [see Bela Lugosi, right, an example of Nobrow's Small Press publishing]. The Small Press has taken a bit of a back seat of late, even though it is operational. Frankly we have less time to devote to printing books ourselves since we have expanded our library and activities. But when we started Nobrow it was indispensable.

At that time we couldn't afford to print litho books regularly, so we printed books by hand to expand our library quickly and at minimal cost. All we needed was ink, paper, some equipment and our hands. The aesthetic of those early books still survives in our spot colour litho process, so it was a formative part of the business for us.

BF: Your “17x23” series of comics provide creators with a platform for their individual styles in complete 24-page stories. These are wonderfully diverse titles ranging from Luke Pearson’s all-ages fantasy Hildafolk, to Robert Hunter’s eerie The New Ghost, through to the psychological drama of Mikel Sommer’s Obsolete. What were you hoping to achieve with this format and what do you have in store for us in the future from this series?

SPIRO: Yes the aim with 17x23 was to give artists that we thought had a lot of potential a platform that was manageable as a first time project. 24 pages seemed exactly that and the format (17 x 23 cm) was big enough to make a statement but also still affordable in terms of printing costs for us. As many of the artists were being published for the first time in this series and it was both important for them to have attainable goals and for us to be able to take the risk without it being financially debilitating, that's why the format is the name of the series, it was crucial to its success.


A selection of titles from Nobrow's 17x23 series

I suppose the idea started because I was hearing from some of my friends working with other publishers that they were making demands of 100-plus pages from them on a first time project and I thought: "This is crazy! These guys are fresh out of college, how can they be expected to deliver, in one go, what took Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes ten years to achieve incrementally?"

I always liked the fact that, for example, The Acme Novelty Library built up over a series of issues into what we now know as Jimmy Corrigan The Smartest Kid on Earth. You could really see the development of Ware's work over the series, not only artistically but also as a storyteller, and even though 17x23 was never to be a serialised project, I liked the idea of forcing artists to tackle a smaller project successfully (as Ware had) before embarking on more invested, long term projects.

So far, in many respects, it has been successful: Luke Pearson was first published in the series for his Hildafolk 17x23 [see right] and now, barely a year on, he is authoring his own graphic novels for us and receiving widespread critical and public acclaim for his work! In the near future, 17 x 23 will become more of an anthology, like the early issues of D&Q, with four or five artists participating in each issue.

Contributors will have upwards of 10 pages each so they'll still have the chance to develop plot lines over a significant number of pages even if they don't have their own comic book at the end of it. Unfortunately, in spite of the willingness of indie shops to stock the series, many larger bookshops have issues with floppy (saddle-stitched) books. If a book has a spine, it's automatically taken more seriously - I think it's silly, but then I don't make the rules!

BF:One of the interesting aspects of many of the comics in your catalogue is the proportion of them that are wordless. Ben Newman’s Ouroboros is a good example of a “silent” comic that has that deceptive simplicity in appearance and yet is extremely sophisticated in technique. Is this lack of dialogue something you actively encourage or look for, or is it simply indicative of the graphic design backgrounds of the creators Nobrow attracts/is attracted to?

SPIRO: Ourobouros [see right] is a great comic, there's no doubt about it, it was honestly more of the artist's prerogative in this case, Ben Newman wanted to do it, and loving so many wordless or near wordless comics ourselves (Woodring, early Jason, etc.), we were loathe to object! It worked extremely well in his case, so we were glad we gave him that level of autonomy. It also helps that these books can be sold in any market, any country, it's almost like the Tower of Babel never fell... Having said that, we also encourage artists to use whatever tools they feel are necessary to achieve their goals for a project, if words are a part of it, then that's what it will be.

Join us tomorrow for the second part of our interview with Alex when we'll be talking about Nobrow's anthology A Graphic Cosmogony, their latest releases and their plans going into 2012. For more on Nobrow's output check out their website here and their online store here.

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  • Bart Croonenborghs

    Bart Croonenborghs Aug 18, 2011 at 10:25am

    music to my ears 'produce them to ethical production standards (our books are printed in Europe on sustainable paper)' and have just ordered Everything We Miss by Luke Pearson

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Aug 18, 2011 at 11:05am

    Beautiful product and fantastic creators. I love Nobrow's output with a passion.

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