Let's take a look at the most recent editions of NoBrow's titular flagship anthology. The anthologies were some of NoBrow's earliest publications and the first five volumes didn't actually have any comics as such, just illustrations (some of which had a narrative content). Now the anthology is split 50/50 in terms of comics and illustration, making it highly unusual in today's comics scene. The anthology can be seen as a celebration of the NoBrow aesthetic: elegance, simplicity of design and vividness of color. For many of the pieces, the most immediate impact comes from that use of color rather than the line of each artist or even the narrative. The effect is not a slick one, as the comics maintain a certain warmth and even welcoming quality despite the brightness of each individual page. NoBrow is old-school in that each volume has a particular theme the artists must work around. Each issue has an interesting mix of North American, British and European cartoonists, all of whom fit the NoBrow aesthetic in one way or another. There's also a sense of whimsy to be found in many of the pieces, if not outright (dry) humor. Most every piece tends to be four pages, with a few exceptions, and it's clear that the artists brought their A-games in order to participate.
The best of the three issues reviewed here is NoBrow #7, themed "Brave New World." Editors and publishers of NoBrow Alex Spiro and Sam Arthur put together a killer line-up, and they delivered. Beginning with a doomed bicycle rider as drawn by Joost Swarte, most of the pieces edge up against science-fiction and distopian fiction. Tom Gauld opens up with the ABCs of utopia ("jetpacks", "xenopets") and follows that with the ABCs of "Our Dreadful Future", including "kill-bots" and "zeppelin attacks". It's typically dry and witty Gauld. Joe Lambert's piece of course centers on children, and it's one of his best stories to date. It concerns a group of children worrying about mortality and meeting a rich next-door neighbor. They get into all sorts of shenanigans and the end of the story reveals that this was a flashback to the three friends in the future, reminiscing about how their bond started. Lambert's line is always superb, but here he's really getting at gesture and dialogue that really captures the experience of children.
Eleanor Davis goes backward, as a group trying to reenact Adam and Eve before the fall is slowly whittled down to a single couple. Davis has always worked well using color as a primary narrative tool, and her use of pastels mimics the effect of reading this as a series of cave drawings. Luke Pearson dabbles in a ghost story that involves jumping back and forth in time. Jillian Tamaki's story is about a woman who starts to shrink and simply carries all the way through her being absorbed in a story that's strangely moving. Ethan Rilly's story of a misanthropist working in a mining colony is fantastic, getting at both the alienation of the main character and just how incredibly intolerable he is to others. I could read a book about this character. Richard Short's highly cartoony strip using his usual cast of characters is typically amusing, philosophical and harrowing.
Michael DeForge's "Leather Space Man" strips are show-stoppers, introducing this alien being as a kind of documentary subject, one given over to eyewitness accounts of women trying to sleep with him. DeForge's use of red and black only adds to the intensity of the story. Domitille Collardey's story is another standout, a gorgeous and heart-rending story about an alchemist who systemically closes himself off from the world and his ex-lover through his talents. Anders Nilsen's "Poseidon" is the anchor story of Rage of Poseidon from Drawn & Quarterly, and its use of silhouette makes it a nice match for the kind of figure work on display in this volume. The only artist whose work I was not familiar with that I thought stood out was Andrew Rae; his "Space Cadet" used a panel-to-panel correspondence across pages to match the adventures of a little kid finding a page of pornography in the woods to a spaceman finding a relic on an abandoned planet. It's a cute concept, cleverly executed.
Luke Pearson's piece on anxiety leading to physical illness was fascinating and funny, and was one of the best stories in NoBrow #8, "Hysteria". I found most of the stories in this issue to be lightweight and forgettable, though there were a few other exceptions. Zack Soto's story about a mecha-hero protecting a moon base from monsters was cleverly designed (action in big pictures at the top of the page, drama and dialogue in small panels at the bottom) and used soft colors to take the edge away from the story's action. Jose Domino's story about a man trying to get away from noise was so insistent that its final punchline landed despite being predictable. Matteo Farinella takes a look at the antiquated medical definition of hysteria, one where a "wandering womb" dresses up in a suit and starts hanging out in a park. It's a pointed tale that has a certain Jim Woodring quality in terms of its character design (the walking uterus is genuinely creepy-looking).
Marc Torices' "Broker", about a cold man with a high-powered financial job, uses a few tricks from the Chris Ware playbook in terms of design and color to relate his ultimate physical breakdown, likely due from guilt that was simply filed away in his brain. It's a smart story that's packed with information and is perfectly paced. Philippa Rice's "Crisis" added a bit of crude energy missing from much of the anthology, relating a story about a young woman in a grocery store trying to impress a bagboy. Finally, I thought the Dilraj Mann/Laura Halliwell story about a young woman trying to reconnect with a high school friend who had moved up in terms of her peer group was one of the sharpest-looking stories in the edition, especially in terms of its character design. The device of a gang of girls pretending to faint in order to gain attention was clever and sad at the same time, especially when the protagonist gets double-crossed but eventually becomes stronger for the experience.
NoBrow #9, "It's So Quiet", is certainly a bounceback from #8. Lambert returns is the loudest silent story I've ever read. Once again featuring kids, one of them starts ranting and raving, with the points of the word balloons appearing but not the actual balloons. He's initially embarrassed by his loquaciousness when someone plays it back to him, literally peeling the mouth off his face, but he later uses that phone recording to hijack yet another conversation. Jon McNaught kicks off the anthology with a story about a statue of St Francis of Assisi making a journey from garden store to garden, a mute witness to nature and fellow stone inhabitant of a lonely man's yard. Jim Stoten's atomic viewpoint story pulls the camera deeper and deeper into an image, revealing a smaller image and repeating this process ad infinitum until it all loops back to the beginning. It's a rapid-fire series of occasionally trippy and cartoony images. Will Morris' modern update of an old British ballad about an engaged man being tempted by a mermaid is extremely clever in terms of its design and execution; it's funny and sad all at once. Bianca Bagnarelli is an emerging talent from Italy whose work is reminiscent of Eleanor Davis' her "Say Hi For Me" follows a child's journey from the bustle of the city to the awesome hush of the rural winter.
Kirsten Rothbart's "Dead End" is less a story than an anecdote of a young woman who wears a bear costume for a living and her rock 'n roll dreams that she refuses to relinquish. Disa Wallender's "A Sneeze Within A Sneeze" is disgusting and hilarious, as a woman sneezes a miniature version of herself made out of snot into existence, only to be sucked up by her creation. The use of colored pencil gives this strip a rough edge that's unusual in an anthology whose edges are usually a bit smoother. Arne Bellstorf's "Silent Night" uses charcoal and gray and small panels to tell the story of a woman looking to kill herself, possibly as a reaction to the world at large. It is remarkably restrained in its storytelling, even as it makes clever visual connections (the pattern on her pants is that of static on a TV set, representing how alone she is). Mikkel Sommer's "The Silent Visitor" is about a woman welcoming an alien visitor, and at first it's all about knowing glances and seduction. In the second half of the story, it turns all of that on its head in hilarious fashion when the alien meets her dog. Hellen Jo's "Are You There, Lucifer? It's Me, Cindy" has Jo drawing a teenage girl (what she does best, of course) cutting herself ritually over a pentagram, crossing her arms petulantly when it doesn't seem to work, then spasm and glassily look off when she discovers that it indeed has, but not in the way she wanted. The blood-spattered message in the final panel is a funny and grim send-off.
I haven't touched on the illustration side of the anthology in this review and don't have much to say about them other than that some of them have a narrative quality and in some ways encapsulate the feel of the theme better than some of the comics. I thought the illustrations in #8 were better overall than most of the comics, for example. Just as the original Drawn & Quarterly anthology combined the best of Canadian, American and European cartooning, so does NoBrow express the state of a particular aesthetic in comics in a manner that no other anthology nor publisher in comics does at the moment. It's a cooler, more refined aesthetic, but one that allows for humor and even some genre tropes.