Nobrow Press have always set the bar high, in their UK-based inception aiming to develop a Fantagraphics-like publisher for the British market, but when they went international last year, opening an office in New York, it was clear that the American readers were also taking a shine to their fine art comics. They push the boundaries on format and seem to continually devise new things that comics can “do”, and this Spring and Summer season seems to be setting a new high for Nobrow.
April saw the release of the silver-etched hardback Neurocomic, by Dr. Matteo Farinella and Dr. Hana Ros, and this June Worse Things Happen At Sea, an accordion-like “leporello” arrives by Kellie Strom. The books couldn’t be more different in format and expression, but they show two poles of the spectrum that Nobrow are unfolding at a rather exuberant rate.
Neurocomic is just plain weird. And I mean that in the best possible way. When you pick it up, it looks like a high end first edition worthy of the library of a Victorian scholar, and its gorgeous cover design looks at first like a web of vines or roots, but proves to be an ornate rendering of nerves and cells. The endpapers are even more of a thing of beauty–an entire wood made up of branching, star-like neurons and receptors of some kind (I clearly need to read this book since I know nothing about the brain, not even enough to describe the art accurately).
The book is a psychological and anatomical Alice in Wonderland where a central male figure with a cartoonishly large head and very amusing facial expressions encounters a “force” pulling him into a cheerful-looking young woman’s brain on a sunny day. Thereafter he finds himself in a “dense forest” of the mind, or the brain, to be more exact. Here his tutorials begin, because if he ever wants to escape, he must map the brain with the aid of significant neuroscientists throughout history who he encounters. So, yes, this book is purposefully educative, but its also surreal and highly entertaining as “neurotransmitters” become personified as svelt young women and strange creatures prowl in the wood. It reminds me of the strangeness and wonder of Melies early film A Trip To The Moon–there’s the same sense of uncharted territory where anything can happen. The artwork and lettering is winning, jumping in and out of panel grids and illustrative full-page spreads, and it’s a substantial read, unmistakeably a graphic novel in proportions.
Worse Things Happen At Sea hints at its wild sense of humor in the title, and Nobrow describes this “leporello” format as “a series of illustrated books, aimed to push the boundaries of print and illustration. Some are educational, all are beautiful”. These are large accordion-like fold out “books” slipped inside a cover “case” that enables it to be viewed as a book, is suggested as a mantel display (which is reverse sideable), or framed as a “print”. And this is all those things. But this work by Danish-born international artist Kellie Strom not only consists of 40 panels (20 on each “side”) painstakingly rendered in faux engraving, full-color style, but somehow is wildly funny. I’m taking a risk by saying that, because maybe I just have a particularly dark sense of humor, but the subject matter is Kaiju-like attacks on ocean vessels that do, as the title suggests, get “worse and worse”.
The panels are roughly chronological (I think) in progression, with one side more “modern” featuring steam shifts and finally early aircraft, while the “first” side crosses through times and cultures. These illustrations are fantastically inspiring for fans of strange creatures and nautical tales. We have all manner of gigantic beasts writhing and thrashing out of the ocean and ships poised mid-destruction. I think I found it funny because things did get worse and worse, and if you say, “Oh no!” at the first panel, its hard not to marvel at Strom’s ingenuity as the panels morph into each other. It’s a superior work of draftsmanship and imagination. And in full color, too, its hard to resist.
I believe the common parlance for both these books is a “shut up and take my money” to Nobrow. Nobrow books have always been alluring but they’ve definitely ramped things up a notch on the “wonder” scale, things that make you stop and stare” and also a tremendous platform for artists to show off their work to great effect to an international audience.