Speak UpA Former Division of UnderConsideration
The Archives, August 2002 – April 2009
advertise @ underconsideration
---Click here for full archive list or browse below
Nozone IX : EMPIRE

I grew up with comic books. But I could only take so much of the spandex and operatic lore. Bored with the heroes and titans from Marvel and DC fanfare, I steered into the likes of R. Crumb, Gilbert Hernandez, Alan Moore, and Frank Miller. At first glance, I characterized Nozone as just another comic book with edge and anger. Although, that’s too kind a label, too simple a category.

Click to Enlarge

I first learned about Nozone through AIGA’s Fresh Dialogues. They profiled its creator Nicholas Blechman, along with his work on the New York Times. Through his atelier Knickerbocker, Blechman takes on design and illustration projects when not busy with Nozone. Not satisfied with looking at Nozone’s cover artwork and merely reading about its contents, I tracked down a copy of the newest issue—Empire.

Nozone IX: Empire contains so much visual texture and verbal angst that it moves beyond comparisons with Mad magazine or Cracked. Like the polemical artwork Blechman directed for the New York Times op-ed and art-ed pages, Nozone’s contributors have something to say. They’re not just entertaining you, or looking for a laugh. They’re trying to get your attention. Sometimes they’re yelling—Art Chantry’s brutal images of technology. On other pages, raw drawings accompany politicians’ testimonials, like Paul Sahre’s rendition of Condoleeza Rice, “We need a common enemy to unite us.”

Click to Enlarge

And there are rare instances of amusement, like Christoph Niemann’s Real Empires of Evil where he parodies nationality and flags. (Niemann was also a Fresh Dialogue 1 member.)

Empire looks, feels, and reads much like a collage. It’s visual and verbal styles are so varied, yet united for a common purpose. On their own, these bits and pieces of art, design, and illustration would fail to provide the afterthought possible with Empire’s collected publication.  It’s 1+1=3. The sum of the whole is greater than the parts.

Days after putting Empire on my bookshelf, whether I turned on the evening news, scanned the newspaper headlines, or overheard political discussion on the bus, each instance reminded me of the conflict facing our nation. Empire heightened my awareness. I wondered Why Nozone had to exist as a book? Aren’t there other means for it to reach people? I asked myself Would there be a follow up to Empire? Perhaps closer to the next election, or after its results are counted? I caught up with Nozone’s chief architect to gain some insight into its creation and answer some of my own questions.

Q & A with Nicholas Blechman

Q: What advantages do you see in making Nozone into a book instead of a website, poster campaign, street graphic, or direct mail? Why continue to make a printed publication, and what other media have you considered for spreading Nozone messages?

A: Nozone has never been purely message driven.  It’s always been about making an aesthetic object while delivering political content. It has never been about the most expedient or practical way to raise consciousness. Books have a historic quality, they get registered in the Library of Congress, collect dust on shelves, circulate slowly between readers. They don’t get torn off walls, or wheat-pasted over, or thrown out with the junk mail, or become an ephemeral blip on someone’s internet search.

I briefly considered an online version of Nozone, largely because of the huge costs involved in printing, publishing, shipping, and distributing a magazine. But I’ve stuck with this format because I’ve always loved books and comics, and now with Princeton Architectural Press’ support (and they’ve been indeed very supportive)  I don’t have to worry about the economics of it all.

Q: After seeing so much work through Nozone and the New York Times, do you place priority on the aesthetic or the idea?

A: It’s a good question because art directors and editors are often caught between the two, and I think one of the great problems with design education is that it does not place enough emphasis on content. At the New York Times, it was always about the idea. Illustrations were killed on the basis of message, not aesthetics. Editors couldn’t care less whether a drawing was cross-hatched or abstract typography. In fact I was shocked at how easy it was to publish David Carson on the Op-Ed page. It LOOKED radical, but was actually quite harmless.

Q: How would you characterize Nozone? Reactionary or inquisitive? Tell us about its current demeanor/mood and how it’s evolved over the years.

A: Reactionary means conservative, and one could hardly describe Nozone as a propaganda tool of the far right. Inquisitive is too passive an adjective to describe Nozone. I think the magazine has become more polemic and politically charged over time. Empire feels like our most targeted and focused issue to date. It’s reacting to something real, and resonates with readers in ways I hadn’t expected. It’s as if Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz are conspiring to make Nozone a success by continually fucking up in Iraq. For all I knew the war would be over by the time Empire hit the shelves.

Q: Nozone’s had a diverse range of themes: the idea of nature, destruction, utopia, poverty, extremism, work, and now empire. Talk about some unused themes. Why were they shelved?

A: Jettisoned themes include: SAFETY (and by implication its opposite, Danger), OUTER SPACE (as a way of looking back at earth), and of course some sort of APOCALYPSE or END OF THE WORLD theme for a final issue. I’ve even thought of a themeless issue.

Themes are just vehicles through which we politicize, framing devices to express ourselves. It’s difficult finding a theme that sticks, that hasn’t been overused, that inspires contributors. SAFETY seemed too academic, OUTER SPACE too fluffy, APOCALYPSE too obvious. Originally Nozone, (the name is a pun on the state of the environment), was to focus solely on ecological issues. But after two issues, it became clearly too narrow.

Q: Michael Bierut suggested in his Design Observer article that the best way to get into the public’s mind is through the public marketplace. He contrasted the Air America posters to Nozone IX. Do you believe that effective messages must take the form of commercial communication? Is the public more receptive to product plus ideal instead of Nozone IX, which appears to be just ideal?

A: Karl Marx inspired revolutions with just a book. He didn’t have a product; he just had theory. He had a target audience, and therefore a market, but it was not commercial. Nozone exists within the marketplace, circulates commercially in chain stores such as B&N [Barnes & Noble], but is independent, and needs that independence to maintain its integrity.

There are few venues for political, graphic-commentary in the “marketplace” Bierut mentions. The Times Op-Ed page, long a bastion for illustrators to visually vent  has been somewhat neutered. The New Yorker engages in political commentary, and there is the Daily Show, and maybe Saturday Night Live… but what is a designer to do who has something to say? Start a radio company? Audition for TV?

Q: Tell us why you feel designers, illustrators, or cartoonists should be more expressive and outspoken when it comes to their individual voice. Why is something like Nozone an ideal forum for that voice?

A: Designers are citizens too, they are an intergral part of our society, and thus have the responsibility to participate in ways that benefit us. Of course designers need to earn a living, but maybe they  should also use their skills in ways to improve the quality of life, rather than contribute to our cultural landfill with meaningless packaging. I see Nozone as a kind of  salons-des-refusé, a space where designers can operate outside the confines of the marketplace, and hopefully influence it in positive ways.

Q: Settling on a theme. Amassing diverse creative talent. Editing the material together. Building the book. Getting it published. Finding readership. Nozone is a lot of work, and with each issue, you’ve endured a lot to make your vision a reality. Why continue doing it? And which is more rewarding, seeing the final product or knowing that you’ve created this “seed” that evokes questions? Why do it?

A: Of course seeing the final work is satisfying, but here is a real need for political outcry considering the turmoil of the past few years and I see Nozone as filling a counter cultural void, as offering an alternative voice in the publishing and political landscape. Perhaps the real inspiration and fuel for Nozone is indignation at the policies and attitudes of the Bush administration, and a genuine anxiety for our future.

Q: With the theme of Empire, I feel like you’ve only scratched the surface, and I’m left with a “to be continued” caption hovering over Nozone IX. What will it take to motivate a Nozone X, and what are some themes you’re considering?

A: I am pondering a future issue, and it really hinges upon finding a theme that can sustain us through the ordeal of editing and compiling a new issue.  It also depends to a large degree on the outcome of the 2004 election.

Book Information
Empire: Nozone IX by Nicholas Blechman
Paperback: 168 pages
Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press (March 2004)
ISBN: 156898457X
Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON May.22.2004 BY Jason A. Tselentis
Feluxe Socksmell’s comment is:

thanks jason.

great read.

great book.

nice to hear it has found a space in BN. cant wait to see the next...even if Kerry is elected, the mess Bush has created is going to last quite a while so I see further exploration a neccessity.

On May.24.2004 at 12:40 PM
Armin’s comment is:

This is a great comprehensive piece Jason. Highly enjoyable.

Books have a historic quality, they get registered in the Library of Congress, collect dust on shelves, circulate slowly between readers.

After reading Bierut's review of Empire it would seem tough to make a case for a book. Specially when compared to a high-visibility campign in Grand Central Station. However, a book is inherently important, simply because of the history and legacy books have as being vehicles of change. So, even if Empire's 10,000 copies' reach is limited its existence alone is important. To those that care of course…

It’s reacting to something real, and resonates with readers in ways I hadn’t expected. It’s as if Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz are conspiring to make Nozone a success by continually fucking up in Iraq.


> The New Yorker engages in political commentary, and there is the Daily Show, and maybe Saturday Night Live…

Is the effect of SNL and TDS diminished because they are "funny"? It may seem like a dumb question, but I'm guessing when people are watching these shows they go “Look, the war in Iraq is funny"… shit, I don't know what my point is. Just thinking out loud I guess.

On May.25.2004 at 02:05 PM
Jason’s comment is:

Yes, elements of EMPIRE are humorous, whether lampooning Bush or Rumsfeld. I've always found humor to be a serious endeavor. It functions as relief—even therapy—during times of unrest and anxiety.

American patriotism, obesity, emotionality, self-centeredness: these are the crucial issues. It would be easy for America, in the present climate of hostility, to fail to respond to constructive criticism, or worse: to start acting like the overwhelming superpower it is, making decisions and throwing its weight around without regard for the concerns of what it perceives as an already hostile world. —Salman Rushdie 2002 Feb 8

Laughing aside, there is some real angst present in EMPIRE too. Each artist, designer, illustrator, or photographer crafts a message in reaction to criticisms and problems of our world. Who runs the show? Who runs the nations? Who runs us? These are all questions that aim to alter our perspective. Historically, advertising and propaganda during the WWI-era Criel Commission had very different aims. They used psychological mechanisms to motivate support for the war. Then with WWII, you had posters and advertisements that stimulated women to leave the home and work in factories. But I don't see EMPIRE as functioning the same way. It's more a collection of editorial remarks—similar to something we do here at Speak Up.

I feel Bierut was critical of EMPIRE's function. It serves a purpose that's vastly different from the examples I cited during WWI & II or even the Air America posters Bierut hails. EMPIRE pushes ideals and issues in front of people with only the aim of knocking on your brain. Yes, EMPIRE calls attention to problems, but Bierut (to me) wonders why can't it do more? He feels ideal plus product equals salesmanship. The question still lingering is whether or not you can sell ideals, and if consumers are more receptive when they have a product to latch onto.

During WWI and WWII, you had propaganda and advertising with an objective: let's get people behind the war or let's get women into the factories. To me, EMPIRE has a communication objective too. It's one that alerts people of alternate points of view. Do we need to purchase a widget in order to digest that point of view any better? Probably not. In our society buying more won't solve things, but it has boosted our economy in the past during times of war and unrest. Maybe "good salesmanship" is something we need right now in order to raise morale—or at the very least, escape from reality. But for those needing a dose of reality, look to EMPIRE. It reminds us of the issues, faults, wrongdoings, and sins happening around us and outside our borders.

On May.25.2004 at 02:46 PM
Feluxe Socksmell’s comment is:

It may seem like a dumb question, but when people watch (The daily Show) they go “Look, the war in Iraq is funny"

Well, apparently Armin doesnt watch that show. Que Pasa, Armin? Its actually quite scarier than real reporting. See Karen Hughes the other night? BTW- youre from Chicago, Armin. Ever heard of the Onion? (thats TDS's model)

Oh. You probably watch Univison. My bad, amigo.

On May.25.2004 at 04:52 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Felix — offensive stereotype aside — I do watch thess shows. And I do find them important, defiant and smart. My point was, which I admittedly didn't get to in that post, is that by sprinkling humor via Horatio Sanz (who I'm sure also watches Univision only) on war, politics and business might not be very effective. The "Average Joe" (and truly pardon my own stereotyping here) might not get it as a joke. Doesn't the prisoner abuse scandal seem like a SNL skit gone awry?

On May.25.2004 at 05:07 PM
Feluxe Socksmell’s comment is:

i hear ya.

i watch the daily show

and C-Span. the nightly

news just never

seems to go beyond

the sound bites.


this out from Bond St here in NYC. Now that something for pause.

I felt really weird making light of it but people

tend to tune out if otherwise....

On May.25.2004 at 08:10 PM