The Nib: An Outstanding Series

At the Ignatz Awards this year, The Nib’s print magazine won the prestigious award for Outstanding Series, and both the Death issue (published September 2018) and the Family issue (published January 2019) were individually nominated in the category Outstanding Anthology. They were both strong contenders for the prize, as they offered a wide range of interesting approaches to their different abstract-noun themes, and rigorous and adept editing.

I read these two issues back to back to get a sense of what makes The Nib in print so commendable, and came away with a good understanding of why it won Outstanding Series.

I have read The Nib online through an RSS feed for years and consider myself a fan to the extent that I kickstarted the print edition. I even recently joined their membership program, The Inkwell, after First Look Media cut their funding. Despite all that, however, I did not expect to enjoy the print magazine very much. I normally find the visual layout of magazines exhausting. I get anxious wondering: did I see everything I was supposed to see on that page? Did I read things in the correct order? Why are there so many fonts? And anthologies in book form generally leave me unsatisfied, as they often collect snippets of things in disjointed ways. I kind of expected my experience with the print The Nib to mush these two reading scenarios together for me in an unenjoyable way. I mean, I’ve subscribed to the magazine since day 1, but hadn’t actually opened the physical covers of any of the issues until I told WWAC I’d write about them.

When I did, I wasn’t surprised to see a wide range of art and narrative styles from the contributors and wasn’t surprised to see those contributors dealing with tough, big, timely issues. I already expected that from reading The Nib online. What did surprise me was how deeply engaging and satisfying it felt to read the paper issue cover to cover, which I can only assume is largely due to Editor in Chief Matt Bors, with his team of Deputy Editor Eleri Harris, Associate Editor Matt Lubchansky, and Contributing Editors Sarah Mirk and Andy Warner.

I began with their first issue, Death. It contains an impressive range of conceptual approaches to the topic and also art styles, as expected, and of course, there are some I prefer to others. Many information-heavy contributions employed a talking-head style with a six-panel grid I associate with journalistic comics, while more overtly persuasive pieces and personal memoirs used greater variety in their page layouts. I appreciated this range.

a colorful page with talking heads faces a page with sepia-toned illustrations and captions
Pages 52 and 53 of the Death issue, by Andy Warner, demonstrate the six-panel page layout in two different styles.

I was surprised by how secular this issue felt overall. Death is treated scientifically, psychologically, and socio-economically in nuanced ways, but only offhand references to religions appear. Since religion so directly shapes how many people think about death, I expected to see it approached more overtly.

In this issue, the contribution that has stuck with me the most has been “It’s Our Funeral,” a two page spread in which Whit Taylor explains that her great uncle’s mortuary played a vital role in the segregated south: “Black-owned business, 100% black clientele.” She writes that “what emerged was a profile of a man who felt compelled to provide a necessary service to his community rather than just make a profit.” The art and writing are both clear and engaging, and the topic is one that I previously had known nothing about.

When I read the Family issue next, I was not shocked at all to see that The Nib’s approach to family issues is explicitly and progressively political.

While the range of art and narrative styles were still broad, I was particularly struck by the range of ways contributors rendered data visualizations. This issue has a lot of charts, statistics, graphs, and annotated maps and they are not all equally easy to parse. I can’t say I enjoyed all the ways graphs were portrayed in comics form, but overall the information was interesting and its delivery engaging.

I was once again drawn to the bite-sized nature of the two-page spreads, three of which stood out for me. “The Nib Interview with Alison Bechdel” by Nicole Georges spotlights an author whose work I admire, “The Morning Routine” by Joe Decie depicts a scene of a busy family I can identify with, and “Modern Family” by Keith Knight tells a fun and self-aware story about how families are depicted in media.

In this issue, though, the Features section boasted standouts that showed the range of political engagement of the contributions. “Support the Matriarchy: Newly Elected Women Are Challenging the Outdated Norm That Parenting and Politics Don’t Mix” by Eleri Harris both resonated for me as a working mom and demonstrated the timely and overtly political side of The Nib. On the flipside, another feature, “Twins for a Day: A Set of Identical Brothers Ambivalently Attends the World’s Largest Annual Gathering for Twins” by Mathew and Jake New is almost entirely apolitical, yet still tells an interesting and introspective personal story, illuminating a cultural practice I had never heard of before.

Both issues include short comics on a given topic, interviews, features, and “strips.” They also each offer a glimpse into “the archive” in which a historical political cartoon in the issue’s theme is reprinted with a blurb by a scholar. These are page spreads nestled in the middle of the issues, which serve as context for the way the issue’s theme has been important to our culture, and thus a subject of cartoonists, for a long time.

Thus, while the contents of the print issues of The Nib are largely what you would expect from reading The Nib online, it is the work of the editorial team which elevates those contributions into prize-worthy anthologies. First of all, the disjointed quality of many anthologies is avoided because each page of The Nib is well designed and interesting on its own. In fact, leading up to the Features section, each page and/or spread stands alone so that the reader is visually presented with the whole of a contribution at once.

Furthermore, theming each issue sets it apart from many magazines. The themes are broad (after Death and Family, The Nib’s next two issues are Scams and Empire) but their breadth is acknowledged and explored, which unifies the contents so one issue of the magazine feels more like a satisfyingly-collaged whole than a jumble of fragments. Now that I’ve read these two, I’m perversely glad I waited to pick them up since I can now read the next two issues right away.

Emily Lauer

Emily Lauer

Emily Lauer lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter and dog. She teaches writing and literature at Suffolk County Community College where she studies comics, kids' books, adaptations and visual culture. She is a former Pubwatch Editor for WWAC, and frankly, there is a lot more gray in her hair than there was when this profile picture was taken.