Autumn graphic novels

Five of the best.

Slowly but surely, comics and graphic novels are being accepted as the art they have the potential to be. The release schedule for this autumn shows as eclectic a mix of titles as you'd expect in any other medium. Although they can only ever be personal picks, here are the five I'm looking out for (click on any page to see it full-size):

The Hive

Charles Burns's seminal coming of age/mutating STD story, Black Hole, took ten years to come out over the course of 12 issues, but boy was it worth it. For his new story, he's copying the Franco-Belgian model of 60-odd page comic albums; the first volume, X'ed Out, came out in 2010, and was something like Tintin meets David Lynch.

Given it was just the first of three, however, it did rather end with the reader still in the dark. The Hive, the second of the trilogy, ought to bring the story further to the centre. But whether or not it does, the beauty of Burns's art – X'ed Out was his first work in full colour, and this is his second – is reason enough to give it a go.

Building Stories

Chris Ware is a strong contender for greatest living graphic novelist. But his last full-length work, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, came out in 2000, and the world has been eagerly awaiting something new. Ware has kept himself busy in that time – a groundbreaking digital comic for McSweeneys, and several editions of his serial Acme Novelty Library – but Building Stories makes its welcome appearance in October.

Hitting the headlines for its format as much as anything, the book – if that's the right description – ships as an enormous box, with fourteen books, pamphlets, sheets and posters of varying sizes contained within. There is no recommended reading order, and Ware makes the most of the various formats he has to work with, from broadsheet newspapers to hardback children's books (the page below, for instance, is slightly bigger than the Telegraph). All are presented in his trademark hyper-detailed style, and the work is sure to take your breath away.

Saga, volume one

Brian K Vaughan is one of the best loved writers of genre comics. Making his name with Y: the Last Man, a high-concept serial which explored a world in which every animal with a Y chromosome had died except for one man and his monkey, Vaughan has spent the last few years writing for television, honing his skill in the writers' room for Lost. Saga marks his return to comics, and also a maturing of his writing.

The series is almost unwieldy in its scope, but it never forgets the human story at its core: that of a couple, from either side of a war between two feuding races, and their quest to give their daughter a life which seems almost impossible. Ostensibly a space-opera, the series connects on a far more emotional level than many examples of the genre.

Hilda and the Bird Parade

Luke Pearson's follow-up to 2011's Hilda and the Midnight Giant sees him return to Hilda, his delightful all-ages creation (all-ages being comics-speak for "suitable for children, but really you should read it even if you are an adult, because it's great" – think Pixar or the Simpsons). The stories – of which this is the third, but just as strong an entry point as either of the first two – have a deliberate Scandinavian twinge, focusing on that same unquestioning acceptance of the supernatural that gives stories like Tove Jansson's Moomins their unmistakeable feeling.

In this book, Hilda and her single mother have moved from the fjords to the city of Trolberg, and Hilda is struggling to fit in. But when she saves a raven from being killed by her new friends, she finds out he can talk. Together, they embark on an adventure through her new home.

Goddamn This War!

Jacques Tardi's It Was the War of the Trenches took altogether too long to make it into English. One chapter made it into Art Spiegelman's Raw magazine – most famous for being the site of the original serialisation of Spiegelman's own groundbreaking work Maus – while another two were published in the 1990s by Drawn and Quarterly magazine. But when it Fantagraphics finally published it in full in 2010, Anglophonic audiences were able for the first time to experience an incredibly powerful exploration of the horror of the First World War.

Goddam This War! is more spiritual successor than actual sequel, but it is easily the equal of It Was the War…. Eschewing the latter's splintered storytelling for a simpler, chronological tale, told through the first person narration of an unnamed soldier, it's an accessible look at one of the masters of French comics tackling the subject which he writes about like no other. Plus, it's presented in Tardi's beautiful pen-ink-and-watercolour.

Browsing for graphic novels in a shop in Washington DC (Photograph: Getty Images)

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times