The Nib has established itself as a national treasure online, but its quarterly print edition, which launched recently and is available through a monthly membership payment (with issues available through Topatoco or in England through Stack) is furthering its special place by putting the work in the form it deserves to be in. There is something about these printed issues that make the work more visceral by being a tactile experience and make the lines and colors more alive as something you face for real, in your own space, rather than on a screen.
And with its structure of a single topic per issue, it offers a cohesive presentation that might just be the thing that brings the fantastic work within the covers to the attention of readers beyond the world of comics. In a landscape that has embraced podcasts, The Nib magazine seems like a logical adaptation of that idea to the print medium, and it does so pretty brilliantly. In an unexpected way, its approach to informing and analyzing through story-telling reminds me of the best examples of podcasting.
In its first two issues, The Nib focused its comics around the topics of death and family, but very often in each, these circled back to politics. That’s unavoidable, as politics creeps into our personal lives further and further sometimes by its very nature, but also by the manipulation of those who would use such overreach as a means of control.
In this third issue, The Nib cuts to the chase and presents its Empire issue, which most often comes down to politics and how that affects personal lives. In some instances, this means a cartoonist’s personal soul-searching, as with Sofie Dam’s comeuppance on a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands where she is schooled about the colonial history there at the hands of her own country by having to face firsthand the saturation of markers of Danish power and violence.
But sometimes it manifests as honest concern about where a former empire is headed. Victoria Lomasko looks at her native Russia and its reaction to economic distress, giving the despairing impression that Russians feel trapped and incapable of saving itself. Later cartoonist Eleri Harris illustrates her interview with Masha Gessen about why Russians are on a path that they don’t sway from.
The United States is also subject of such concern, specifically the literal crumbling of America. Andy Warner and Ellen T. Crenshaw point out something Obama and Trump have in common — they both recognize that the country’s infrastructure is imploding around us and made campaign promises to fix that. But here we are, with infrastructure spending down at a time when more than $2 trillion is required to fix all the problems. It’s a pathetic existence for a country that once prided itself on these efforts. Warner and Crenshaw’s piece is a fact-packed examination of a major U.S. government failing, with excellent documentation that places the failure in the hands of fiscally-repressive Republicans and their short-sighted, small-brained president’s volatile decision-making process, but also makes room for the Democrats’ hesitation to give Trump a political victory with half-assed proposals. Meanwhile, other countries have made us look ridiculous in this area and the country disintegrates around us.
As you would expect, the American Empire is a continual focus here, and Puerto Rico is part of two fascinating entries. Rosa Colon offers an account of Puerto Rico’s transition to a civilian government and the immediate corporate interests that conspired to seize control of the island through the sugar industry. Ben Passmore recounts working on an island farm there and uses the experience to examine the island’s post-Maria existence, its relationship with its U.S. Navy occupation past, and its current struggle with gentrification.
Malaka Gharib and Trinidad Escobar take a period of American occupation in the Philippines starting in the late 19th Century and utilize it as a springboard to an unlikely relic of colonization — the popularization of pimiento cheese, which itself hearkens to the time of Spanish rule prior to American control. It’s a masterful analysis of not only the innocuous little ways that the political creeps into the personal and how the monuments of control and oppression aren’t always the obvious ones, but also how cultures cross-pollinate under all kinds of circumstances and stands out as the best offering in the issue, getting across big ideas in a simple and clear way through unexpected subject matter told through personal aspects of history.
Nero O’Reilly uncovers an obscure story from history about the revolution of the Guna people in Panama in 1925. It’s an interesting and actually upbeat tale of people taking on empires, as Panama repressed the Guna as part of their efforts to please the Americans by pushing western culture on indigenous people.
Hussein Adel looks back to the Gulf War to tell the story of Iraqi soldier Adil Dawood. Drafted to fight in the war and abandon his education, Dawood tells of a situation where people were forced to fight despite their terror. Refusing to lend a romantic view of life as a soldier, Dawood instead offers a grim, often hellish view of violence and fury that offers no glory, just blood and death and hopelessness.
There are entries where the cartoonists render the idea of empire beyond traditional parameters. Vreni Stollberger looks at the rise of YouTube, partially from an insider’s point of view, which is helpful for those of us on the outside with little desire to come in, but still, like to understand how things work. It falls a little short in examining just how much YouTube has transformed our culture and an entire generation, but admittedly she’d need a hell of a lot more pages to do that effectively.
In the case of Whit Taylor’s smart look at the TV show The Bachelor, while it focuses on an entertainment empire, it’s with the intent of cataloging the characteristics that empire sells and how those are reflective of what we consider the American Empire, making the escapist reality TV show a conduit for those ideas. Taylor is really looking at social propaganda here.
Andrew Greenstone’s brief recounting of the history of Dr. Bronner’s soap provides at least some quirk to the general idea of business empires, though in this case, the propaganda aspect didn’t stick as much as the soap itself. And I will say that as much as I appreciate the very crucial political focus of The Nib, I really appreciate when contributors are willing and capable of taking a different approach in choosing their subject matter, as Stollberger, Taylor, and Greenstone do.
I don’t mention everything that appears in the issue, but it’s crammed with great work, one-pagers and gags and historical tidbits, all realized by a diverse gathering of some of the best cartoonists working today. It’s still an evolving project, and the importance of the what is being covered on these pages should issue a challenge to the cartoonists talented enough to be a part of it to extend themselves.
I think the best pieces are the ones that are able to personalize huge issues and happenings within personal contexts that portray the effects rather than explain them. I’d love to see more pieces that offer less literal rundowns of events and more examinations of the topical connections, possibly even in metaphorical terms, using unexpected subject matter in ways that a reader might not have considered.
These are approaches that some of the most artful podcasts take, with This American Life being the obvious gold standard, though it’s not hard to name plenty of excellent efforts that have followed. I don’t think it’s absurd to compare what The Nib has already accomplished — and the possibilities of where it is headed — to an audio medium that is currently perfecting the practice of storytelling as a method for reporting, analyzing, and understanding the human condition and its political overtones. The Nib is part of a revolution in communication that is taking place right now just might make a difference in the world.
John Seven is a journalist and children’s book writer living in North Adams, Massachusetts. His books include ‘A Rule Is To Break: A Child’s Guide To Anarchy,’ ‘Happy Punks 1-2-3,’ ‘Frankie Liked To Sing,’ and others. Find out about all his things at johnseven.me.