SPX Spotlight 2013: NBM Publishing and Science A Discovery in Comics

Welcome to another entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

Sometimes I feel like NBM publishing gets overlooked a bit when folks start talking about the larger indie publishers. That's a big mistake, because they quietly publish some of the best graphic novels out there, ranging from translation work from Europe to being the home of Rick Geary to much, much more.

At SPX, NBM always brings a nice sampling of their catalog, focusing on things that are new and a few evergreen works, such as the Dungeon Series (a few reviews of which you can find here). Some of the books you might find there this year include Persia Blues (a story mixing fantasy and reality and set in the crux of Iran-USA relations), Zombillenium (about a theme park that only caters to monsters), and the Initiates (in which a wine maker and a comics maker change jobs). They should also have more of P. Craig Russell's adaptations of everything from opera to Oscar Wilde, which are so gorgeous it hurts.

NBM's feature book this year is Science A Discover in Comics, by Margreet de Heer, who will be at SPX along with the publisher. They provided me with a review copy, and I can't recommend this one highly enough, both for younger readers and adults who enjoy overviews of expansive subjects.

The first thing that comes to mind when seeing a book like this are the "Cartoon History..." series of books. Unfortunately, while I like them, they get mired down in Larry Gonick's politics, which really hurts them as a work of literature. It's one thing to provide a viewpoint, but Gonick hammers it home from cover to cover, and even if you agree with him, it gets on your nerves after awhile.

de Heer deftly avoids this pitfall, preferring to stick within the facts and let them tell the story (such as the difficulty women had breaking into science while also recognizing those who did). When there is authorial intrusion, it's more to comment on how modern some of the ancient ideas were or to note that while we often know the Western scientists who "discovered" things, they frequently were already know by folks in China, the Middle East, and other places centuries before they hit Europe.

Structurally, the book does have similarities to Gonick's work. Two avatars talk back and forth, including an interesting opening discussing the controversial place science has in the world today. The tone is light-hearted from the start, and that carries through the entire book, with her two characters alternating between amusing notes, factual asides, and interaction with the characters they discuss.

The jokes don't interfere with the serious amount of history de Heer gives the reader, even when a character breaks the fourth (fifth?) wall and narrates their own story. There is a ton of information in this book, making it the equal of any prose overview on the subject. I really appreciate that de Heer takes pains not to overwhelm her readers, breaking things up into a logical progression that combines a general timeline with sections on specific disciplines that form out of the slow and steady march of scientific information.

If there's a note of commentary that de Heer wants the reader to come away with, it's that the rigid way we approach science today might not be the best method. She critiques current teaching styles and never fails to note when a scientist was active in multiple disciplines. The most striking example of this is when we get to Leonardo, who painted, invented war machines, experimented, and kept a variety of patrons happy. When asked about whether he'd rather live in the modern world, he dismisses it by noting he'd have been pressured to specialize.

de Heer's art style reminds me a bit of Kate Beaton, with characters who are a bit flat but clearly look like who they are meant to represent. They're more refined, however, and de Heer's background work is far better than that of the popular web comic creator. That's important, because she often has to depict the science that her characters invented/perfected, and we need to know what the machines or ideas looked like or else this would be a nonfiction essay instead of a nonfiction comic. She does a lot to vary the pages, including splashes, diagrams, timelines that wander across two pages, and more. It's extremely well-done and would help any reader who might have difficulty with the text to understand the meaning of the book, if not the entire contents.

Science A Discover in Comics is a great non-fiction work, and I recommend it to anyone. de Heer also wrote a similar book on philosophy, and I hope to be able to grab that at SPX when I attend. Based on the quality of this book, I can assure you it will be an excellent pick-up as well, if you prefer thought questions to empirical facts.

When you go to SPX in just a few days, don't overlook NBM as you go through the many, many tables this year. They're worth your time, attention, and money, no matter what books you pick up. This is a publisher that you need to experience, if you haven't yet. If you have, go see what's new. You won't be disappointed.

Performing an experiment of your own and can't make SPX? You can find NBM on the web here, and can buy directly from the publisher.