One of the most commonly asked question I get from independent creators is “Do you know anyone at NoBrow?” I suppose it comes from having reviewed some of their great books as preview copies over the last couple of years. Stand outs like the Hilda series (from The Flying Eye imprint) created by Luke Pearson, Audobon: On the Wings of the World by Fabien Grolleau and Jeremie Royer, Curveball by Jeremy Sorese, The Spectators by Victor Hussenot, the Fantasy Sports series by Sam Bosma and more have been some of my favourite reads since I started writing for downthetubes.
In fact, there are few companies that can boast such consistent output both in quality and the sheer number of books released, but NoBrow, with offices in both London’s East End and now, New York, have an eye for originality, design and most especially in telling a story. Their books come in a number of formats and they also have the ever-expanding imprint Flying Eye Books which offers comics and illustrated books for younger readers.
Based in the arty East End village that is London Fields, NoBrow are a breeding ground for established and new talent and will attack your eyeballs with the gorgeousness of their books. Artistic expression is given unfettered flight and nurtured into books that never fail to blow my hat off. You can tell that they have a nurturing and hands on style of editorship.
NoBrow was founded by Sam Arthur and Alex Spiro in London in 2008 and expanded to an office in Manhattan in September 2013. Since then, they have also developed into a mainstay of worldwide publishing with an established brand and style.
“Publish books that deserve to be printed…”
I recently got to have a lengthy talk with Sam about how he and Alex started NoBrow. (The full audio content of this 50-something minute interview will be released as part of the Awesome Comics Podcasts in the coming weeks – have a listen to current episodes here).
So this is the origin story. Hope you enjoy it. After leaving St Martins College of Art, Sam worked in the television and advertising industry in London. He is keen to point out that the creative industries, especially in our capital, are interlinked in a way that doesn’t seem to occur elsewhere. They seem to flourish across medium from photography, to art to television and so onto comics.
Arthur grew up on a diet of Tintin and Asterix after living in French speaking Belgium for a chunk of his early life and then followed up in his education with some of his father’s Eagle comics. He was a fan of illustration, graffiti and comics from a formative age, but never a huge Marvel and DC Comics fan. Later, when he saw the graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware, he described as having his “mind blown” with what can be achieved on a comics page and the possibilities this approach could have from both a sales point of view and creatively.
But Sam and his business partner Alex (who now heads up the American wing of the company) had a plan. A long held plan to start a publishing house that could cater to experimentation, unconventional art styles and storytelling.
After small beginnings, they grew the business until realisation hit them that something bigger was happening when they has their first stand at the word-famous French Angoulême festival. They’d arrived with what they thought was a healthy catalogue of books to sell for the four-day Festival – but by the Friday afternoon, only a day and a half into the long weekend, their table was bare. After a solid scolding by one of the organisers, frantic phone calls were made back to London for more stock and the rest as they say is history.
When pressed on whose books he has really enjoyed discovering and subsequently published, Sam doesn’t play favourites but is keen to talk about the steam train of productivity that ‘Hilda’ by Luke Pearson has become.
The Hilda series describes the adventures of a beret wearing schoolgirl who goes on nail-bitingly exciting adventures that would make the Moomins reach for some heavy painkillers. With a light-speed pace and clever and eye-catching design, every single book has had this forty something reader rushing through it to see if Hilda comes out unscathed!
Starting small it has grown into five (and soon to be six) books, toys and now, into a Netflix animated television series, that premieres on Netflix in 2018. Sam told me that this has been a much sought after project and that they have been especially choosy in who got to make it. He is overjoyed with the production company now on the project – Silvergate Media, the makers of Octonauts, in collaboration with Mercury Filmworks. Luke, the creator, has also been a vital part of this creative process and has written the scripts on a couple of the episodes himself.
However, nothing is always a sales darling, and we all accept that you can’t always have a book that is both critically acclaimed and be a sales success at the same time. I went full out fanboy along with Sam, talking about some of NoBrow’s books that I’ve loved personally, and he was open enough to say that often the more esoteric attempts haven’t always made the most money. But what is important to him is that NoBrow are willing to take that chance on some of the books they produce.
Sam also chatted openly about the differing markets in London and New York. Often books sell very differently on both sides of theAtlantic and the way that they are delivered through bookshops and comics festivals and conventions can sometimes be a challenge to understand.
So, how does NoBrow sniff out new creators?
It’s fair to say that they get numerous submissions, to the point where Sam freely admits that if he replied personally to every submission they received, that would be all that he would have time to do at work. He does however attend a lot of degree shows and lectures at a number of university courses as well as meeting with new creators or keeping an eye out for them online It’s hard to imagine how he fits it all in!
Talking to him however, I am struck at what a passionate ambassador he is for the medium. He talked to me about getting Chris Ware himself to create a print for the company and how that was a life goal ticked off in the process.
Sam is also keen to point out that all the books they produce stem from a creative team effort. Their books are beautiful and well produced because of a team of dedicated designers and editors who collaborate on these books as true passion projects.
While preparing for my meeting with Sam, I looked up a few articles that have been written on this quality publishing house. One that popped up a number of times was a quote from Rob Clough who reported on NoBrow in The Comics Journal a couple of years ago, claiming it was a company “where design and colour are often more important than line and narrative”. What utter tosh! Read a book like their recently released Audobon: On the Wings of the World by Fabien Grolleau and Jeremie Royer or Geis: A Matter of Life and Death by Alexis Deacon and tell me that these books lack narrative. These are all books about character and are full of individuality. Each and every comic has a feeling that you are holding a piece of full on comics art, an artifact with real mood and feel of its own and something that has real artistic significance.
(Yes, this is the scene of my fanboy breakdown in front of Victor Hussenot a year ago! After telling him how much I loved his work for ten minutes he admitted he couldn’t speak any English!)
This gathering has become a juggernaut of enterprise and energy and is primed again for this summer. There is a whole team of people working on it and Sam is still heavily involved in its organisation and in picking guests to attend. Sam is keen to push forward on embracing ELCAF as a family event, with art workshops for kids alongside the stalls selling comics and art.
Are they ‘anti’ mainstream? That would be hard to imagine, since their books sell in big numbers. But they do definitely experiment in style and content.
An alternative to what is on the shelf? Often I would have to agree with this assumption. They certainly have a defined public voice. Never seemingly boasting about their continued success, but consistently putting out comics for all ages and keeping the costs down.
Books coming up in the next few months include a personal favourite of mine and now in the third volume of Sam Bosma‘s Ignatz Award-winning ‘Fantasy Sports’ series, entitled The Green King. It’s an excellent series that mixes a frenetic manga style with some gorgeously detailed European clean line work. This time around the heroes have to compete in the world of golf. I’m sure if the previous volumes are anything to go with this won’t be your average game of golf!
Also look out for a full colour edition of Pantheon: The True Story of the Egyptian Deities by Hamish Steele. A comic telling of Egyptian gods (with a few added lasers ), I had a read through some of the pages and it look hilarious.
When someone says that comics are on their way out, I often quote NoBrow as an example of why they most definitely are not – and especially books like the Hilda series and Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez Gomez as just some of the big reasons that they are here to stay. In my experience these and many of NoBrow’s other books are always the ones that turn people’s heads back to the illustrated page.
With an eye to detail, brain-meltingly original content and a realisation that comics can cover the gambit of subjects and emotions seems to be, to this humble writer anyway, the reason that these books are such a success. Blend into this the enthusiasm of all involved from the artists, to the editors, to the designers and right up to the managing directors and you have a company that is showing others both in the UK and beyond how to operate.
This is the frontline of comics.
• My full interview with NoBrow co-founder Sam Arthur will be released as part of the Awesome Comics Podcasts in coming weeks – have a listen to current episodes here (please note, some strong adult language throughout)
Many thanks for reading and many thanks to the mighty Emma O’Donovan for inviting me along.