"Nobrow is old news": the Power Dynamic of Open Secrets

"Nobrow is old news": the Power Dynamic of Open Secrets

"Nobrow is old news," begins a since-deleted tweet by Robin McConnell of Inkstuds fame, now Executive Director of VanCAF, "and nowhere near as bad as boom which is even older news."

The news in question was not just one thing about Nobrow coming to light but an entire range of unacceptable business practices, including low rates, lack of payment, and a pattern of attempts to assert control over artists in terms of what other projects they took on for other publishers or events. You can read the inciting thread on Lucy Haslam's twitter starting here, where you can see a reasonable desire to understand ELCAF's funding spiral into open questioning of Nobrow business practices given that Nobrow offers no financial support of any kind to ELCAF.

Here are a few of the first-person accounts from the thread from creators who agreed to be quoted.

"I was asked for last minute comics in NB8 and when I asked about payment, they said sorry no payment." - Zack Soto

"I agreed to do Swan Lake in 2011 for a £500 advance, which my agent at the time took 25% of, and since then probably made less that £150 total in royalties." - Ping Zhu

Disa Wallander also shared an e-mail in reply to her mention of entering a contest to be published by Cape. "I'm sorry to put things this way," writes the Nobrow respondent, "but I want to make it clear that you either work with us or Cape."

There is more to be seen of this in Haslam's mentions alone, with other examples and details being shared across Twitter both publicly and privately. It was easy to see that this was in some sense an "open secret" given that a few of these examples date back to the early 2010's while an artist as prominent as Derf Backderf popped up in the thread to express his surprise and disappointment.

The cherry on top of this burgeoning scandal was a bookseller tweeting a screenshot of an e-mail sent by Alexander Latsis (a.k.a. Alex Spiro), majority shareholder of Nobrow, to his co-founder and a couple of other people, in which he refers to creators as Nobrow's "quarry" and bemoans Nobrow's mistakenly lax attitude towards other small publishers. "In the interests of protecting our market, we should be wary of small and well-intentioned 'artists collectives'" is a choice snippet. He then lists a few of the organizations in question, suggesting that they're getting all of their ideas from Nobrow magazine "or our general activities."

The e-mail had apparently been shared around for some time. Although I was one of the "open secret" traffickers who has had a side-eye on Nobrow for about two or three years, I had no idea about this e-mail. When I expressed my dismay at seeing this e-mail, artist Simon Hanselmann jumped in my mentions to point out that he discussed it (and the relevant portion was even printed!) in The Comics Journal #304, in which I myself have a long article. Although Gary Groth asks Hanslemann if the comic in question is about Nobrow, Hanselmann refuses to actually say whether it is or not. The thread in my mentions more-or-less devolved from there, and essentially amounted to Hanselmann non-committaly holding both my and another critic's feet to the fire for not extrapolating what this three-year-old comic was about based on limited information.

Let's take a quick second to keep two things in mind. First, this started with questions about ELCAF: I encourage creators to keep asking them. Second, Nobrow's words and actions match up in a really unique lockstep of unacceptability. Usually people who harbor bad faith aims -- whether they know it or not -- are smart enough to either carry them out with a degree of subtlety or at least keep the whispers behind the scenes. Nobrow was neither smart nor competent enough to manage this: the emperor has never been wearing any clothes. Creators must now hold them to task for it. There's not really an open question as to whether or not you should continue doing work for this organization.

Nobrow has since issued a statement in response to these claims. I'll leave that for others to discuss the merits of.

The Function of Open Secrets

Despite the obviously bad practices, the "open secret" of Nobrow's parasitic relationship with the community was still very much a secret to a lot of folks.

Why?

Simply put, it's an issue of power and of lack thereof within the industry. The way Nobrow has been exposed over the last few days is indicative of another, more general "open secret" within comics, and that is that the kinds of anxieties that drive people to be quiet about things like Nobrow are at the root of how everybody in comics does or does not talk about unfavorable material relationships in comics. There are two main modes of this silence.

One is fearful. It is the silence of those who have the least amount of power: the individual working artists. It is too much to ask any one working artist to speak up about these kinds of issues because they will have justified fears about being blacklisted. Too much of the present discussion is limited to justification in terms of being young or new to the industry. The fact of the matter is that if you are a working artist with any degree of experience who depends on the income of having a constant slate of projects, you will be very unlikely to respond brusquely to an "it's them or us!" e-mail from some sycophantic publisher who has your next paycheck, however small. Where youth and experience certainly does enter the equation is in terms of being able to hedge your opportunities in encounters such as those. It helps to know that other publishers will not behave so inappropriately.

The other kind of silence is one in service to power in the industry, whether or not it means to be. At its best, it is a useful idiocy. It is exemplified by someone like McConnell, as quoted at the beginning of this piece, glibly saying "Nobrow is old news." I do not see a way to read this message as anything but a condescension to hundreds of working artists who did not know about this.

Perhaps more importantly, it is an attack on the hundreds of artists who did know but were not in a position to speak up for fear of reprisal. Everybody in a position of power in the industry -- and yes, Executive Director of a festival that charges these same workings artists tens of thousands of dollars to have the opportunity to spend tourist dollars and maybe also make some money is a position of power -- that says "this is old news" who was not publicly doing something about this "old news" is being disingenuous on two levels.

First, there is their aforementioned passivity. Why go through the trouble of simply stating "hey, this is old news," if you've never publicly done anything about it? It seems like it only serves to point out that very fact: that you knew, had the platform to say something, and didn't.

But that is exactly the point. By publicly calling out the fact that you knew and did nothing, your action serves to reaffirm your status as part of the comics glitterati. From a position of power, public announcements of "old news" or "open secrets" are simply an expression of your institutional knowledge, a sign for all that you are, in fact, "in-the-know" enough to hold some sway over an industry that tends to insist on being pathetically crooked.

The "open secret" talk serves another purpose by mutilating the discourse about a series of specific issues to be either vaguely about some kind of general malpractice or limiting it to a single anecdote which is retreaded to become more of a curiosity than a pressing issue of exploitation that needs addressing. Reading something like “Nobrow is old news” is a perfect example of this: what about Nobrow? That they’re “bad?” Bad how? For whom? The issue becomes framed by the most knowledgeable as something too amorphous to be rectifiable.

It was not an open secret that Soto received no payment for NB8. It was not an open secret that Wallander received a passive-aggressive e-mail discouraging her from doing anything with another organization. And so on. Trafficking in open secrets means obfuscating specific instances of malfeasance: the exact kinds of repeated malfeasance that working communities can organize around to collectively set standards for treatment with respect to employers and clients. Thus the primary mode in which comics currently communicates about these issues is expressly anti-collective, anti-union, and thus, anti-labor.

It is in the interests of those in power to continue talking about issues this way when the issues finally come to light, but working artists have an opportunity to build coalitions around these malfeasances and transform open secrets into real grievances that drive organizing principles.

One more thing: A big shout out to Lucy Haslam without whom none of us would be having this conversation right now. She stuck her neck out by facilitating a place for people to publicly share their experiences with Nobrow.

Austin Lanari

About Austin Lanari

Call me a bedbug to my face.