Showing by Doing: Marking Four Decades of NBM with Terry Nantier

It was forty-one years ago this year that NBM began publishing. From the start, Terry Nantier envisioned a company that would publish European and American graphic novels. The company was ahead of the curve from the start in many ways. In the 1980s they were publishing archival reprints of Terry and the Pirates and translating Corto Maltese. The company has published some of Europe’s great artists, including Trondheim and Larcenet, Blain and Kerascoet, Bilal and Revel. They’ve been publishing The Louvre collection, including this year’s The Cross Eyed Mutt by Davodeau. The company has published a lot of Americans over the years, perhaps most notably Rick Geary, but also some of the best work of P. Craig Russell, not to mention Ted Rall, Neil Kleid, Rob Vollmar and Pablo Callejo, and the debut of Brooke Allen.

Last year the company shuttered its Eurotica imprint, laid off some people due to
growing pains at Papercutz, which has become bigger than NBM, and re-released a couple books to mark the anniversary. In other words it was a fairly low-key event, but that’s in keeping with Nantier’s personality and approach. He’d rather focus on the release of Satania, Portugal, Billie Holiday, and others, and focus on the next project coming out.

This interview was conducted in the fall of 2017.

Congrats on forty years of publishing. Does it feel like forty?

In some ways it does. [laughs] It’s been a lot of fun and we had a lot of challenges to overcome. It was very slow in the beginning. It didn’t become my full time occupation for eight or nine years in when we were finally able to get distribution into the general trade, which was really the main thrust of this company all along. Trying to get comics out there to a general audience. It didn’t happen instantly. The real success of graphic novels happened in the last fifteen, twenty years. That’s when the real substantial growth happened. It’s been really exciting to see all that happen and to be a part of that.

When you started out you were doing mostly European books, is that right?

The very first few years, yes. One of the first was Enki Bilal, the first Bilal collected here in the United States. That was in the late '70s. I never had the intention of doing nothing but Europeans. We published a collection of Gene Day’s work called Future Day in 1979. He’s a Canadian artist both in superhero comics but also in indie comics as they existed back then. We collected those indie comics stories of his. We’ve been mixed all along.

It was in the 1980s that things started to take off, as you said, and NBM started publishing Corto Maltese and collecting Terry and the Pirates.

We started publishing Terry and the Pirates about ’82 or so and that our first real substantial success. We created this library. We were the first to do real library-worthy editions of a classic comic strip and that worked very very well. I’m very proud of that. We pioneered in quite a number of ways.

How do you think things have changed?

Well, they’ve changed for the most part positively. There was a real growth of acceptance for graphic novels that started with Maus, but there was a period after, a lull where you almost got the impression that the literati were viewing Maus as possibly the exception that confirms the rule in their minds. Which was obviously unfortunately. When a lot of others comics came out, Persepolis and others, a lot of exceptional work was just more and more proof that comics were a lot more than people understood them to be and could be a lot more. We also had generations of young readers coming in that didn’t need to be convinced of this. Unfortunately my generation, the baby boom generation, accepted this only to a certain degree, but not a really substantial one. It was really Gen X that started accepting this. This is a tremendous achievement for comics, that had been really downtrodden for so long and looked down on. Just seeing that, but within that a further acceptance of European comics doing a lot in that regard to develop and further this mode of expression and this art form. It’s tremendous vindication for the vision I had all along.

I’ve been doing some cleaning and I honestly did not realize how many books you’ve published that I own. Trondheim, Blain, Larcenet, Kerascoet. Kerascoet especially has really taken off here in an interesting way.

That is one of the better successes coming from Europe. We’re very proud of bringing out Satania, which we have very high hopes for and are already getting tremendous reviews. It’s a bit controversial – like Beautiful Darkness – but we had a lot of success with Beauty and Miss Don’t Touch Me. They have a much more universal language and I think what’s positive too is there’s been a universalization, if you will, an acceptance of different styles which wasn’t there before. Not just manga but a lot of European styles, cartoony and more realistic styles, are more widely accepted because they’re more widely seen. A lot of American authors were influenced by them and brought them over and you could see it in their style which in turn led the general audience to be a lot more accepting of European styles of art.

The language of American comics has expanded and now includes a lot of these European styles.

Moebius was instrumental when he got brought over here but artists like Hugo Pratt and others such as Trondheim and more indie styles, if you will, from Europe were taken over and subsumed by and inspired American artists such as Paul Pope and many others. We got a great quote from Frank Miller when we first brought out Corto Maltese, that he was greatly influenced by Hugo Pratt in his style. You can see it. Heavy Metal was instrumental in that. It really blew the minds of so many american artists. That definitely provided something for them to assimilate and emulate.

Along the way you’ve also published a lot of Americans. You’ve published some of P. Craig Russell’s best work, for example.

Thank you. The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde is a pet project of his and we were very happy to bring that out. At the time when we started in the '90s with that, it was the children’s side for NBM and we were the first to be doing children’s graphic novels in that sense presented more like picture books. Our relationship with Rick Geary goes back to the late eighties. The whole Treasury of Murder series has over two dozen volumes now in various forms. That’s quite a library.

And then comics like Richard Moore’s Boneyard, Brooke Allen’s A Home for Mr. Easter. Also Brandon Graham. We discovered some good talent. I’m very proud of being the first publisher of Brooke Allen. I could see right away that she was tremendously talented. She did that as a senior project for college so in a sense she was precocious. At that age for her to be coming fully formed with that level of energy and what she was doing in such a personal style was just amazing.

This year you did shut down the Eurotica imprint.

We had to. It was a hold out. Others like Fantagraphics pulled out of Eros comics years ago. We held on and maybe a little longer than we should have. Print was becoming very hard on this kind of endeavor but then we were seeing a jump in ebook sales – until Amazon started pulling a bunch of them and started enacting policies which were similar to Apple that refuses anything controversial in that regard. That was the kiss of death.

Not to knock any of the creators you published there, but I think the really notable book you published through the imprint was completing and collecting Omaha the Cat Dancer. Are you still going to publish that?

We’re stopping publishing that and we’re relinquishing the rights back to the one author now left. We’re winding down pretty quickly on that. I don’t know what their plans are. There are reprints happening that are incredibly discreet like Manara and Crepax. The way they’re doing them now is they’re packaging them as if to hide the fact that they are adult, which I find really disturbing, frankly. It’s just puritanical and I don’t want to do that. To me that’s not right. I’m not arguing with Fantagraphics and Dark Horse. All the more power to them. It’s wonderful material. We did a lot of stuff that was beautifully erotic – and some stuff that was purely pornographic, but very beautifully done and had no pretense beyond that. But a lot of the things that we published were very beautifully erotic. I just find it sad that you have to hide them in covers that don’t show what it is really about. It’s unfortunate that it has to be done that way.

There were some firings that happened after TCAF. Was that related to shuttering Eurotica?

Papercutz had to do some layoffs and reorganize as we had over-expanded, but NBM is doing well, thank you, especially this fall with the strong line-up we have. Satania is going back to press after just one month!

I was going to say that Eurotica may be shutting down, but Papercutz has been doing well.

Yes. Papercutz is not an imprint, though. It is a separate company. It’s bigger than NBM at this point and has been for years. That’s certainly also a pioneer in a lot of ways and doing well.

Papercutz is like NBM is a lot of ways, in that it has an aesthetic which comes from publishing European work and publishing American work and combining those styles.

It’s a reflection of my background. When I was a teen I was very fortunate to be living in Paris in the 1970s. That was an explosive creative period in France, in particular, and Belgium to some degree for comics. A lot of it was René Goscinny and Pilote Magazine and then artists left and some created their own magazines. There was just an explosion of creativity and people doing all new types of comics, much more sophisticated stories, much more sophisticated art and the whole market just exploding with it. And seeing a complete turnaround of the attitude that had been prevalent up to that point which is that comics are for dummies. Because people had that attitude. People think Europe has always been positive towards comics. That’s not true. It was only in the '70s that that really turned around drastically and the attitude became a lot more positive. The creativity was just amazing. Heavy Metal provided a certain portion of that revolution that was going on. To me a lot of that revolution was based in not just magazines but graphic novels themselves enabling a new development in comics. We didn’t have that in the states at the time, so I saw an opportunity.

You’re rereleasing some books this fall for the anniversary.

The anniversary has turned out to be an opportunity for us to bring back some of our best. Streak of Chalk was our first book in our ComicsLit imprint that we had for years. We stopped it because it just wasn’t necessary any more. We’re known for literary comics, we don’t need to have a separate imprint. At the time, in the early '90s, it was sort of pioneering. We weren’t the first to be doing it, but we were taking recent creations from Europe that were pushing the envelope. They weren’t in the classic European 48 page format but were longer and fully painted with sophisticated storytelling that was going to the next level, if you will. We brought that here to further the revolution in comics and graphic novels here in the United States. Streak of Chalk did very well and we reprinted that a number of times and got tremendous critical praise. We’re very happy to bring it back. Prado is one of the great Spanish artists and it remains Prado’s magnum opus as far as I’m concerned.

The Mercenary was quite revolutionary when it came out in the early '80s in Europe. It was the first oil painted graphic novel. Even its author Vicente Segrelles admits to being a complete folly to have to put in so much work into each book. Because it worked so well and it amazed people so much, he was able to sell quickly a lot of different language rights across Europe and it worked for him even as each book would take him a very long time to finish. The result is a visual feast. The stories are very carefully woven as far as these kinds of technologies that he’s inserting in this world and how believable that can be. He expands on this in the back matter that we have in each volume of the full reprint we’re doing. He explains his method and how he was concocting all of this back in those days, which is quite fascinating in and of itself. We have beautiful quarter bound editions of this going on. Admittedly a bit of an exception for us because it’s been a few years since we’ve done anything in genre. We’ve stuck to literary works. And if we were doing genre it was more parody like Dungeon. But that was a huge success for us in the '80s and '90s.

We can put these new books side by side with the old ones and the production value is very different today.

We had challenges back in the '80s and '90s. That meant doing paperbacks and the prices needed to be below ten dollars. That was a huge challenge for Corto Maltese in particular, where we had very tight budgets to translate so many pages. It was new back then to be doing these 100-page books, even if they were paperbacks, and still keep it at a price that people would consider. There really was a lot of price resistance for a long time with graphic novels. That was very limiting to us. It wasn’t easy. In the last ten, fifteen years there’s acceptance of much more expensive graphic novels. Hardcover is fine and three hundred to five hundred pages is fine. That’s pretty recent. It’s a great evolution because we didn’t have that for the longest time. When we started Dungeon we could not do full-size graphic novels. It was clear that the 48-page format that is so prevalent in Europe just wouldn’t work here – and it still doesn’t. We had to put two books together but then we couldn’t be in the large format because it wouldn’t fit in the standard general bookstore shelves so we had to publish them at 6” x 9”. A fair number of books like the early Louvre collection we had to do in that format. We had to publish Isaac the Pirate by Christophe Blain in that size. Generally it worked out pretty well, but it was unfortunate that we were forced to do that and not be able to do the full size graphic novels that we’re able to do right now.

I suppose that for all the changes in computers and scanning, today Corto Maltese can come out in oversize thirty dollar paperbacks, and you couldn’t do that thirty years ago.

Not at all. [laughs]

But the company has changed over the years and you’ve changed what you focus on.

People will see that we’re doing a lot more nonfiction and that’s increasingly going to be the case. There’s a lot of great nonfiction being done in Europe. There’s some great biographies being done and we’re publishing quite a few of them. There’s nonfiction beyond that that we’ll be bringing more out.

We’ll continue to bring out important fiction as well. In the next month we have Portugal by Pedrosa, which is just a magnum opus. It’s such a simple story which he takes his time to tell but it really is transporting because he’s so observant and he translates whatever he is telling into comics in such a masterful way. It’s truly remarkable. I’m very proud to bring that out. We look for works like that. We’ve also launched a couple of American authors recently. Jon Nielsen with Look, which is a funny robot story with existential issues. TJ Kirsch with Pride of the Decent Man is getting a lot of very good reviews and good response. He very quietly tells a very poignant story. A lot of the narration is through the art, which I firmly believe in. I think there’s too much over-writing done in comics. In my view, at a very basic level, comics need to tell its story through the art and really the text to complement that – not the other way around.

You’ve been publishing a lot of comics biographies in recent years. What’s behind that? Are you just coming across a lot of good graphic biographies?

Just seeing another opportunity. There are a lot of good works like that in Europe. Some of them are of people that aren’t really that important here, but we publish those that do resonate here. It’s also a means of further expanding the reach of comics. It’s a form of expression, it’s not a genre. People are trying to make it a genre and it’s not, that’s the whole point. Comics can do any number of things. Comics can educate just like Will Eisner was doing decades ago and be purely that or it can tell fictional stories. It can be any number of things in between. Being able to see these books get adopted into classes and into school libraries is a tremendous opportunity for comics once again to expand its reach.

A lot of the biographies you’ve published, and I’m thinking about Billie Holliday and Glenn Gould in particular, are not strictly biographies. The creators use comics as a way to explore these individuals and their work.

That’s true. There’s a lot of experimentation in some of them. Glenn Gould is very interesting because the artist really took her time to figure out how to express in the art what Glenn Gould was doing on the piano. That’s a tremendous challenge. I think it’s a very interesting take on what Glenn Gould was trying to do in that regard. Billie Holliday is Munoz and Sampayo and their take on Billie Holliday. It’s not a full birth to death every important aspect of Billie Holliday’s life book; it’s a take on her and her art. An impression. And thus is both a biography and a coffee table book. That’s how we presented it. It’s great to be able to do that. Some of the other biographies are more straight forward, telling the full life story of the person in different ways stressing different things. Sometimes people agree with that and sometimes they don’t. We’re getting some controversy over the Sartre book that a lot of people thought was jumping around too much and not being explicitly organized as a biography should be. I disagree with those assessments, but that is part of the challenge in telling a person’s story.

Is there anything that you’ve really wanted to do but haven’t been able to for one reason or another? Anything you still want to do?

Not really. Whatever I want to do I try to pursue in the best possible way, if there’s a real opportunity. I mean, there’s a lot of French comics that I’d love to publish because I like them personally, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll resonate here. Spirou is a huge name in the European comics scene – historically and presently – but will it translate here? No, not really. [laughs] There’s a lot of things like Lucky Luke and others that won’t translate here and that’s just the way it is. That’s a bit of a regret, but what can you do? You bring out what people can appreciate and understand.

Related to that, you’re one of many people who has published Lewis Trondheim, who remains a huge figure in comics, but he’s never really caught on in North America.

That’s true. Dungeon could have done better than it did.

And I think Dungeon has been his most successful book here.

By far. It’s done well, I can’t complain, but it’s not selling hundreds of thousands of copies, which I think it really deserves. European comics in general have not gotten huge numbers here. Now there’s more publishers doing it and there’s more visibility so maybe we’ll get to a breakout hit. The Kerascoets are doing very well. Penelope Bagieu is doing some nice numbers, but she’s here in the states, so that helps. Maybe there’ll be more of that and we’ll see some substantial bestsellers coming from Europe. I certainly hope so. There’s the potential for it. But overall it’s still relatively medium numbers. But the grand majority of graphic novels published are achieving that so there’s only so many that can become bestsellers.

I could ask about your plans for the next forty years, but your plans for the company have shifted over the years.

We keep tweaking and we have to. When I first started NBM I had this general vision of publishing anything that was good here for the US market in whatever genre. As competition grew it became clear that we had to really focus on what NBM stood for and create a more focused identity for NBM. We’ve been concentrating on that in the last number of years, speaking to certain things that are really our strengths and what we’re known for, such as literary comics, and nonfiction.

How would you define the company’s identity now?

Literary comics, fiction and nonfiction, including beautiful ‘objet’s d’art’ type graphic novels.

Last year Fantagraphics marked their 40-year anniversary by publishing a book titled We Told You So. Does part of you want to say, so did I!

Yeah, NBM told you so as well but not militantly through a Comics Journal like Gary had to harangue people, God love him! I mean they really kicked ass, it was great to watch, both by speaking out and what they published. For us it was just showing by doing.