“I can’t believe we don’t have white hair,” says Sam Arthur, co-founder of Nobrow Press, a young graphic-novel publisher based in Shoreditch, east London. “Every time we do a job and the printer calls, they say ‘you can’t do this’, and say they’ll take no fines for anything going wrong.”
Nobrow started life in 2008 as a 52-page biannual magazine, set up by Arthur and Alex Spiro specifically for the local illustrator community. The original proposition was to give a group of illustrators a set of colours (anywhere from two to five), a theme and a double-page spread, and let them do as they pleased. Nobrow would then publish a densely printed anthology of the results.
The first issue, Gods and Monsters, was published in May 2009 in a limited- edition run of 3,000, with 24 artists (including Arthur and Spiro) playing around with two colours; black and blue. Almost three years and five editions of Nobrow later, and the brand has expanded to publish everything from hardbacks and paperbacks, wrapping paper and Sellotape, graphic novels and comics. The one tie that binds is a commitment to quality printing and an investment in brave illustration projects.
From its base on Great Eastern Street, fronted by a retail space selling Nobrow titles alongside the boys’ favourite books, comics and a selection of Japanese kaiju action figures, Nobrow has become known for its commitment to spot-colour litho printing. It’s an old-fashioned CMYK-free process, in which tone is achieved through the careful layering of a minimal amount of Pantone spot colours; Nobrow is one of the few publishers who use the technique almost exclusively, much to their printers’ chagrin. With only 300 per cent ink coverage usually allowed by most printers (three layers of solid ink; no halftone) – and that’s at a push – Nobrow often sends over books nearing 450 per cent. “Basically our books are just sodden with ink,” says 29-year-old Spiro. “You can smell it.”
With a small screen-printer in the basement at Great Eastern Street used for low edition, low-fi print runs, Nobrow uses larger presses in Hackney and south London for the bigger jobs. The boys have also harnessed the skills of Belgian and Italian printers.
Avid comic book readers and animation junkies, both Spiro and Arthur are Central St Martins alumni. Originally set up for the enjoyment of their art school peers and the illustration community, Nobrow’s readership has quickly grown to become multi-faceted. With children’s volumes such as The Wolf’s Whistle by Bjørn Rune Lie and wordless concertina books like Rise and Fall by Micah Lidberg, the boys have broken the mould of what the humble “comic” can do. “It’s about a relationship breaking down,” says Spiro of Everything We Miss, a graphic novel that managed to jerk a tear out of Monocle. “It’s a very adult subject, but beautifully drawn. It’s almost heartbreaking.”
“We talk a lot about the manufacturing process, the technical, the visual, but in the end, each one of our books is a narrative, it’s a story,” agrees Arthur. “That narrative is first and foremost.”
Despite moving in to increasingly broad readership territory, Nobrow is keen not to alienate any end of the market. Partly explaining the company’s name (it’s neither highbrow nor lowbrow), Nobrow is pitched right in the middle of those looking for pretty pictures and wanting a good yarn. Fundamentally it’s for people who love printed matter at a time when, seemingly, the whole publishing industry is going against them.
“Publishing companies can either choose to continue down the road of cut- price paperbacks and three-for-one deals,” says Spiro. “Or they can justify the price hike and the fact you might not be able to walk away from a bookshop with 15 books in your bag, maybe just five,” he says, before continuing, “but you’ll really love those five books.”