Find him here – website
Header art by Sander Ettema
ZL – Hi, thanx for agreeing to talk to us!
NB – No worries at all. Though I’m more used to asking the questions, so this is definitely an odd experience. I wrote much of this before reading Ryan Carey’s interview you’ve already posted. If people want less rambling – or more concrete – ideas, I’d say definitely go to your chat with him.
ZL – Hah, I’m sure you’re equally as cogent!
Let’s start with a bit of an introduction, can you tell us your name, where you live and on what site(s) and how long you have been reviewing?
NB – I’m Nick, from the UK and currently living in Spain. I’ve been writing about comics since about 2018-19, although I did do some zines in my teens which featured comics on the back cover (not by me, but by some very generous folk who were self publishing around that time). I actually write about arts and culture more broadly for a range of places, though about comics specifically I contribute to The Comics Journal and SOLRAD on a relatively regular basis.
When relevant, I also write about comics for The Quietus. Additionally, I’ve done some work on comics in the academic sphere. I was a student assistant for a comics conference in Amsterdam in 2018, had an article about Martin Vaughn James’s The Cage published by the FRAME Journal of Literary Studies and have also contributed two definitions to the forthcoming Key Terms in Comics Studies, published by Palgrave this autumn and edited by three great comics scholars: Erin La Cour, Simon Grennan and Rik Spanjers.
ZL – When and where did you publish your first review?
NB – I believe that my first published review was of Sander Ettema’s Friends in Many Places for Daniel Elkin’s old Your Chicken Enemy site. I’ve discussed Ettema’s work in a couple of contexts now and brought him on board to do the art for a magazine I recently published Focus. When I say “brought on board”, I mean he very kindly offered his time and attention and talent and risograph skills to make the cover better than I’d wished for. I massively appreciate the time and energy he spent on that. I really like the themes of isolation and bodily confusion that crop up in his strange character designs and impressionistic, wild worlds. Was great to have that review up, also because it was my first interaction with Elkin, who is now my editor at SOLRAD. Elkin is someone I enjoy getting feedback from, he always tightens up my pieces. Nothing is more valuable to a writer than a considerate and precise editor.
ZL – Now, I’m always pleased and surprised to hear anyone say this in small press circles! There’s generally an idea that floats around in small press and self publishing that editors are the enemy of good work. So, do you consider that as something that matches your opinion of what you want to read or are there times where you’re sat there thinking ‘Argh, if only someone could have spoken to them about … this would be better/achieve more?’ and has publishing something yourself changed or made you double down on that opinion?
NB – I guess there’s a difference with artistic work and non-fiction writing. They serve very different purposes. The main point of nonfiction writing is to make a point of fact or opinion very clear and – usually – persuasive. Artistic work in the broadest sense doesn’t have this as a limitation. I guess it’s hard for an editor to always edit with the artist’s intent in mind? But for everything and everybody, as far as my experience tells me feedback from knowledgeable people is always beneficial. In terms of written work, I think it’s usually obvious when writers haven’t had an editor or put their work through a self-editing process.
Whether I double down on an opinion or not depends, I hope, on the strength of an argument. A perhaps relevant case in point: I reviewed Zoe Thorogood’s recent book for TCJ, one of its themes is disability, specifically blindness. One of my points was that I read this as a metaphor rather than something aiming to be documentary or real life-inspired, and I subsequently found this “theme” underdeveloped. A later review in SOLRAD, by a writer who I understand to have lived experience with disability, which I don’t, countered my point and said that the fact that the way blindness is dealt with in the book is much closer to how people with disabilities experience them, i.e. it’s not their one defining factor; or shouldn’t be, of course. Not much to do with editing, but I definitely learnt a bit about “how I read” from that interaction.
One (by which I mean me) needs to learn to take constructive criticism and feedback, even if it’s not directed directly at you – otherwise you risk becoming like Frank Miller’s online fanbase.
ZL – What kind of work do you review and what would you say are your two or three biggest comfort spots for work when reviewing?
NB – I guess a speciality of mine is reviewing indie European work for American platforms.
Mostly, I review work if it’s an artist I think deserves some attention or if there’s something in there that I think can be teased out and that will make for an interesting piece. I really subscribe to the idea that a review (of anything!) should be interesting in and of itself. Perhaps because of my recent schooling, during reviews I tend to veer off to theories or wider social contexts or concerns that I think a work is interacting with – or part of. I’m not an artist, and I’m not sure if artists would like my reviews. Primarily, I am a reader, and my writing about stuff is a way to engage in the discourse with other readers about the times we’re living in and how the art that is being made and surrounds us corresponds with these realities. My big hope would be that good writing about comics brings more people into the fold without gentrifying it. That’s also why I’m very keen to do long form reviews of zines and other non mainstream formats, and also fill up my end of year selections with zines and bilingual anthologies and what not.
ZL – Very interesting, but I’m not sure I’d agree.
As someone that’s done some reviewing and someone who’s had reviews of his own work, I have to say that I think reviews of the kind of work Solrad is covering definitely matter to the creators, it’s often the only time they’ll get any kind of engagement and feedback on what they’re doing.
Certainly your review of the second season of Colossive Cartography that included my own zine made me assured that I’d communicated exactly what I wanted to communicate and in the way I’d hoped to. For something that’s never going to sell lots and make me rich, it’s gratifying to know that the effort mattered and that the work was understood.
I’ve also similarly received feedback on some of the reviews that I’ve done and people are always grateful to see someone reading out of them what they have put in, if that makes sense.
NB – That’s very nice for you to say, and I’ve definitely experienced other artists liking when I’ve said positive things about their stuff, and even when I’ve offered light criticism. I definitely don’t want to sound dismissive or rude. For me it’s about finding a balance between not wanting to write for artists (being a brown nose) and also not feeling arrogant enough to think I have anything to offer artists, because I don’t! At most I only have skills other writers may find useful. That’s why I centre the reading community in my thought process. If I ever get round to making a zine or comic in the future, I guess that would change and those worlds would start getting more fused.
ZL – Just to go back to your first statement, because my knowledge of interesting European creators is pretty poor, what countries/scenes do you see as being vital and interesting in Europe at the moment, as a critic that is. By which I mean, critics of the avant garde are often there to search out work that’s trying new things or doing old things in original ways maybe and I wonder if there are any scenes or countries where you can feel the shock of the new more than others right now?
NB – There’s way too much! One thing with Europe is the language barriers. This makes selling across borders difficult, and thus an artist’s market is limited to their domestic one. Apart from France and Belgium, I don’t think there’s many, if any, other EU countries which take comics very seriously, or where they’re seen as something normal to read.
Spain of course has a really fascinating and diverse scene. To the best of my knowledge, it’s the only European country to have a country-specific anthology out in English: Spanish Fever. However, that book is actually a bit unrepresentative. For one thing, it misses out the tradition of gross-out, sexed up comix from Spain that started under and boomed immediately after the Franco regime. There’s also a huge amount of vocally feminist and queer theory inspired female and LGBTQ+ artists coming up these days as well. If you want to dip into as many contemporary Spanish artists at once, I’d recommend getting hold of copies of Genie Espinosa’s Raras, Tmeo, Fracaso Total and Auto Bulling.
I’ll also draw some attention to some work from my previous home, the Netherlands. Kutlul is a Rotterdam-Berlin comix anthology zine well worth everyone’s time. Aline is a large format, glossy art-comics anthology. It has featured headline contributors such as Wasco and Typex and also a bunch of emerging Dutch talent. Exciting.
Scandinavia always has loads going on, too. I guess a lot of people are already aware of Tommi Musturi’s ongoing Future series. I recently got my hands on the latest copy of RADBRÆKKET, haven’t dug into it yet but looks really promising, despite the language barrier.
If anyone has any leads to a copy of that, hit me up. Funnily enough, a lot of these are available in Spanish, French, Dutch, German, whatever, but not English. I think the UK’s metaphorical distance from the continent’s cultural influence has a lot to do with that.
There’s a few EU based publishers putting out translated work. Europe Comics are probably the biggest, although their typical style isn’t my thing. Centrala has really gained pace recently, they have some exciting things coming out in various languages. I think they split their time between translating into Polish and English.
This answer could be as long as a book. To keep it short I’ll finish by shouting out Stripburger, a crazy affordable comics magazine and a stalwart of the Eastern European scene.
ZL – Describe your approach to a review.
NB – I do try and summarise a plot without including spoilers. Though it is hard to properly analyse something if you can’t fully delve into the conclusion. In the most part I’m interested in a work’s effect and context. One can definitely negatively criticise something while liking it. You can also just totally rip work apart if it deserves it, or if a negative voice on a particular artist or book deserves to be heard. In the main, however, I’m not too interested in “I like this” or “I don’t like this” criticism. So what? Tell me what’s going on with the thing, and why.
ZL – What would you say are the key things a creator should do or think about when asking for reviews of their work?
NB – One issue with comics is that because the scene is so small it’s hard to have distance with work and artists. I’ve rarely been assigned things to read; it’s almost always been me pitching, and that creates a weird relationship with the work if I’m having to get hold of it beforehand. From bigger publishers it’s fine because you’re dealing with PR people, for smaller things I purchase them if they look interesting and then I’ll sometimes reach out to an artist if I’ve really liked what they’ve done or if our paths cross serendipitously. One reason for this approach is because I don’t expect small press and indie artists to send me stuff for free. I know covering the costs of this sort of thing is a struggle and as I said before, I’m primarily a reader, and being a fan of the medium means that I think I should financially support artists when I can buy giving them some of my money sometimes. This approach also means that I don’t actually review stuff too often because my budget and space for comics is perennially limited.
Do feel free to get in touch with editors at sites from Broken Frontier or TCJ or SOLRAD, et al. They might distribute your work to someone relevant, or include it in a summary review column. Asking to have a snippet of your work “premiered” on such sites is a good way to go. Unless you’re talking about getting coverage in The Guardian or the New Yorker, I’m a bit suspicious of the idea that it’s that important or necessary to get your work reviewed – certainly so if you’re interested in material gains (this also relates to what we’ve already discussed in terms of the point of getting reviewed). (My hunch is that it’s more important to the audience than to the artists. The reviews I see getting the most traction are of works from artists who already have profiles. Although for sure reviews can give you some cultural capital.) Having said that, I do know one guy who makes mini zines who sold a handful after I briefly reviewed his work in the Quietus one time.
It’s a tricky subject. My thoughts right now are: just let whatever you’re doing grow organically. If someone like me wants to review your work, then great, hopefully they say something nice about it.
It seems to me that sending work to other artists is a more useful way to spend your time and money. Comics is dominated by its practitioners.
Send it to stores which stock work similar to yours, or of artists which you really like. Nothing has been more important in my discovery of artists than the stores I have visited. I should also mention comics fairs and conventions, so there it is.
If I was writing for more mainstream publications I would probably have more useful things to say about this. Probably because of my own work situation and my developing politics, I find the hustler mentality increasingly depraved. Cultivate community rather than irregular spotlights, it’ll do you better in the long term, I think. I think that’s what the Fieldmouse Press project is about, and essentially what Fantagraphics/Comics Journal did through the ‘80s. It’s a good tactic.
ZL – I think that’s all interesting, particularly the idea of sharing work with other artists. I know in some of the groups I hang around on, since the pandemic hit there’s been increased talk about the 80’s and 90’s and how mini-comix makers used to share work with each other. I know I’m certainly obsessed with the idea of doing something close to an old fashioned APA (if you don’t know what that is, it stands for Amatuer Press Association and basically it was a group of people who all regularly produced work to a subject and schedule and there was a central mailer that collated work from all contributors every month or quarter and then sent out a publication collecting all of those submissions.) I’ve seen a number of such groups spring up doing similar things. Which is a bit off target to what I’m going to ask next, but I think relevant nonetheless. I don’t know enough of your past to know whether Focus is your first move into publishing, but I was wondering whether you see that as an extension of creating that community you talk about and of your own critical work?
NB – Focus indeed came out of this sort of mentality, although was born out of me realising that lots of people were working around the same topic as me (‘sound’), and during the first quarantine I had the time and the money to put something together. As I mentioned, I did zines (music fanzines) back in my teens. Since then I’ve been involved in various projects, some paper based but mostly digital, as a contributor and/or editor. One reason Focus happened was because I really wanted to do a print project again. I’m going to try to publish something again in the future, though it’ll definitely be small format. Posting A4 stuff gets pricey.
How this feeds into my work or thinking etc. is a bit vague to me; right now it’s all one big soup of activity. If you’ll allow me to get theoretical for a minute: there’s an article by Anna Poletti on Arts Everywhere that’s part of a series about the “polity of literature” Six Contracting Theses on Literature in the Polity of Literature. That and the other articles in the series which I’ve read do really interesting thought work in terms of drawing out what exactly community in terms of literature means (in this case, literature can refer to anything that can be ‘read’ in the broadest sense of that term). And also the political potential of such groups/communities.
I think the fact that we’re constantly labouring and being exploited by the digital platforms we habitually use is something that we’re starting to collectively understand. But this is very hard to recognise when you’re on them, and this awareness is always pushed to some space in our consciousness that we don’t often pay attention to by the exact platforms that we use, in the way in which they manufacture consent for their own existence and ways of functioning. There is no such relationship with paper. In a recent interview, Adam Curtis was talking about how the internet has failed to liberate us because the algorithms which currently organise it as a social space constantly push us to nostalgia, and acting only through the prism of things that have already happened. I hesitatingly make the suggestion that paper is a space in which we are still able to imagine futures which are different from the past.
I’m now thinking about the Colossive Cartographies project which you contributed to. There are far more ways to present or reimagine the world in that very simple use of paper (not forgetting it is far less surveilled) than is available to a majority of people using the internet in the present moment.
ZL – Can you tell us about the review you’re most proud of and why that is?
NB – Overall, I’m pretty happy with my work for SOLRAD. Am also very thankful they keep inviting me back. I’m still quite chuffed with my review of Yoshiharu Tsuge’s The Man Without Talent. It was such a great book and it was a pleasure to write about it. I hope my review captured the spirit of Tsuge’s work. Not that it needed much encouragement, everyone was all over it last year regardless of what I had to say about it.
ZL – Lastly, can you tell us where to find your reviews please!
NB – Talking about being a hustler… You can find my portfolio (!) over on my site: https://nicholascburman.com/. I also have a newsletter you can sign up to where I talk about newly published writings of mine, comics oriented and otherwise. Initially it was a bimonthly thing, although right now it’s a little more regular, about one every 1-1.5 months.
ZL – Thanx so much for your time!
NB – And thank you!
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