As the publishing world changes and evolves to deal with the challenges of the 21st century, a new London-based comics publisher named NoBrow is looking forward by looking away from digital publishing in favor of high-end book printing techniques. Using a biannual eponymous anthology as its core, the two determined book-lovers who co-founded NoBrow have pushed it to become a bastion for UK graphic novels and alternative comics in the United Kingdom.
Originally only available as an import or through sub-distribution from other publishers at conventions—they created quite a stir at last year’s Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival—NoBrow is coming to America with a newly signed exclusive distribution agreement with Consortium Sales and Distribution that will bring their offerings more widely to American audiences and booksellers.
Nobrow are kicking off their new-found U.S. distribution deal with Luke Pearson’s Hilda and the Midnight Giant, the first in a series following young girl growing up in a supernatural Northern European setting. The graphic novella Birchfield Close by Jon McNaught treats comics as poetry in its portrayal of the idea of hometowns in the modern world. Nobrow is also bringing forth the sixth installment of its titular anthology series, subtitled "The Double," featuring work by Kevin Huizenga, Michael DeForge, Matthew Forsythe and others.
“Sam Arthur and I started NoBrow with the aim of promoting graphic art and art comics in what was frankly quite a barren UK scene at the time,” co-founder Alex Spiro explains. “Random House’s Jonathan Cape was publishing very pretty English editions of your staple Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly 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 vigor. We wanted to do just that, because we felt there was a font of talent out there waiting to be released.”
Started in November 2008 in the midst of the global financial crisis, the foundation of NoBrow as a comics publisher was a risky bet. In addition, the duo’s decision to focus on high-end limited edition print runs flies in the face of the seemingly digital publishing revolution—but it was just that reason that prompted them to go this route.
“As we were in essence a brand new print publisher in an increasingly digital publishing landscape, our books had to be different somehow,” Spiro tells PW. “It wouldn't be enough to champion new artists and content, the books themselves had to stand out, to 'deserve to be printed', to be beautiful objects as well as housing great content.”
Not limiting themselves to just UK talent, NoBrow has played host to such works as Forming by Adventure Time storyboard artist Jesse Moynihan and the English-language debut of French artist Blexbolex with Abecederia and Dog Crime. At the center of NoBrow’s publishing is its eponymous magazine. Produced in editions of 3,000 per issue starting with 2009’s NoBrow 1: Gods and Monsters, this biannual publication carries a directed theme which invited artists must adhere to for inclusion.
“The artists are asked to respond to an overarching theme and color palette, but essentially the rest is up to them,” explains Spiro. “This obviously means that we have to vet the artists and comic authors very carefully before inviting them, and we do. The approach was inspired by early art school experiences where a class would be asked to create work based on a theme or sentence, one was 'tell a lie', for example. These were ultimately very open briefs, but they still gave the students enough direction to hone in on a central concept for their piece and give it a narrative dimension.”
Containing illustrations and comics, the NoBrow anthology has become a showcase and an informal try-out issue for creators the publisher is considering for a standalone book.
“The magazines are crucial for us because in many cases they are where we will first start a working relationship with an artist. We won't approach someone we have never encountered before with an entire comic book project. Well we may,” Spiro backs up,” but it is less likely than us approaching them first via the magazine. It provides the perfect introduction for them to what we do and the perfect platform for us to see how we work together.”
To date NoBrow has published over 30 books and plans to do 16 to 18 more in the next 12 months. On NoBrow’s website, the company explains that its aim is “to place a renewed focus on quality in print,” and that’s led them to use more elaborate techniques to stand out on shelves. In addition to using spot colors for their off-set printing process to have more “unadulterated” colors than what standard book printing allows, the publisher and the comic creators take on book publishing as a craft and a business that’s led them to some methods most publishers would consider archaic.
“For example with Ada, the artist Atak painstakingly created the color separations one by one, painting the halftone in ink, dot by dot, to create a sort of hand made halftone,” explains Spiro. On the publishing side, Nobrow had the book printed straight from plates made from those separations, with no computers involved in the printing.
“It would be impossible for us to use this process for every book,” Spiro admits,” but the methods we use most frequently are not dissimilar for this one. The result with Ada was one of the most beautifully colorful books we have ever had the joy to publish.”
Although NoBrow doesn’t rule out digital editions of their books in the future, they see themselves as a print publisher and despite naysayers they see a rich future for printed books.
“I think print publishing's future is in lavishing attention on the quality of the book as object, so that the vehicle for the narratives and art does justice to the content by being an object of desire itself,” Spiro tells PW Comics World. “For example, I find it hard to imagine the complete demise of Taschen or Phaidon, or another like company, in the near future. Those books are beautiful works of art, especially tomes like Walton Ford's Pancha Tantra. I may very well be wrong— only time will tell—but that is what I feel to be the case.”