British Comics Week: Small press, big talent

For British comics week, we'll be looking at a pair of creators from a different tradition each day. Today: Michael Leader introduces Philippa Rice and Luke Pearson.

The British comics community offers up such an embarrassment of riches that, when December comes around, the preceding year stands staring back at you in the form of a fearsome, beautiful pile. A pile of personal stories and imaginative fantasies from a wonderful array of artists – and with every week, every convention, every trip to your favourite comic shop, it grows.

Somewhere near the top of that fearsome pile – a recent addition – is Soppy, an unassuming little minicomic that collects a series of autobiographical doodles by Philippa Rice. It’s a real winter warmer of a comic, right down to the red ‘n black colour scheme that captures the cosy scenes depicted within - sketches of a young couple cohabiting, co-existing and both creating in their shared space.

But the book becomes all the more poignant once you realise just who these two characters are. For Philippa, Soppy is a mere side project, a bunch of sketchbook extracts originally destined for Tumblr; her primary project, ongoing now for four years, is My Cardboard Life, the webcomic that ranks among the UK’s most popular online strips. Her flatmate is Luke Pearson, who has in the last three years taken the comics biz by storm with books such as Everything We Miss and, most popularly, the series of all-ages graphical albums starring the inquisitive, adventurous heroine Hilda.

Between them they cover the full span of what comics and comic artists have to offer. Their work has appeared both online and in print, whether it be self-published or under the banner of publishers such as Blank Slate and NoBrow. They’ve provided design and illustration work for video games, festivals, magazines and Penguin Classics, and they have contributed to anthologies such as Solipsistic Pop, Paper Science and the award-winning Nelson. And there's nary a comic market or convention that doesn't see one of them in attendance - Luke often shyly smiling behind his stall, Philippa always beaming behind her immaculate spread of comics and hand-crafted curiosities.

Yet in many ways My Cardboard Life and the Hilda books couldn’t be further apart. Pearson - once called "sickeningly young and talented", now merely "sickeningly talented" as he approaches his (gasp) mid-20s - is one of the country’s top illustrators, and rocketed out of the art-school gates with tremendous confidence and ambition. His books with NoBrow, as well as his cover designs for Solipsistic Pop and a recent edition of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, are beautiful art objects, individual testaments to the printed form.

Rice’s webcomics, meanwhile, are cheeky, crafty creations cobbled together from bits of scrap. Each installment of My Cardboard Life is a stationery cupboard brought to digital life, featuring colourful characters such as Cardboard Colin, Paper Pauline, Doctor Band-Aid and Sylvia Foil. Don’t be fooled, though, their cute demeanour covers up some remarkably caustic humour, especially as Pauline indulges in her favourite pastime of hazing Colin, delivering passive-aggressive jibes and put-downs with the sort of smile that could give you a nasty paper-cut.

While Rice proves to be an incredibly resourceful (in the literal sense) artist when it comes to characterisation, the most distinctive, and endlessly surprising aspect of her comics is her sense of humour, her ability to feint in the direction of twee simplicity, before suckerpunching the reader right in the funny bone.

After over 700 My Cardboard Life comics, Rice still keeps things interesting for herself and her readers by throwing stylistic curveballs, incorporating skills learned from her degree in animation to insert GIF-powered movement into her strips, or sometimes using the Internet to its fullest to stage round-the-web treasure hunts, following characters as they bounce from website to website, taking in social media networks like Flickr, Youtube and MySpace, before returning to the comic’s home. Meanwhile, longer, standalone narrative pieces - the fantasy story St. Colin and the Dragon and the sci-fi saga Recyclost - have edged out the gag strip formula to periodically take over the My Cardboard Life site.

In stark contrast to Rice's cross-platform, multimedia eclecticism, the majority of Pearson's work appears in sumptuous, hardcover print. His much-acclaimed, and now British Comic Award-winning Hilda series, which kicked off in 2010 with Hildafolk, celebrates the childlike ideals of freedom, adventure and imagination, and has earned Pearson comparisons to Moomins creator Tove Jansson and Hayao Miyazaki, the director behind anime classics like My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away.

Rendered with pleasant, earthy colours and the inviting, detailed patterning of a familiar jumper, the first two Hilda books tell tales of its lead character exploring the forests surrounding her house and encountering various mythical beings and fantastical creatures. The recently-released third volume, Hilda and the Bird Parade, moves Hilda to a bustling city, and makes much of the rural/urban dichotomy - highlighting how adventure in the countryside is more dangerous in a built-up town - and finds Hilda struggling to adjust to her new home.

But Pearson is wary of being known just for all-ages whimsy. His graphic novel Everything We Miss and his more recent, shorter pieces for anthologies and publications betray a melancholy streak and an altogether darker worldview. Everything We Miss is full of surreal, magical flourishes that seek to explore inexplicable social situations: mysterious forces possess lovers, making them mutter catty comments to each other, while life itself seems to conspire against people’s happiness.

In a recent strip for the Guardian, Are You Going To Do Something?, Pearson’s outlook is even more damning, as external forces are replaced by our own apathy. A young couple are so wrapped up in their own problems that they ignore the real issues on their doorstep. "Oh god," one of them says, as his inability to sleep in the comfort of their own bed is juxtaposed with a tramp wrapped up in a nearby alleyway for the night, "I forgot to put the bins out".

The bait-and-switch at the heart of Are You Going To Do Something? is not dissimilar to Rice’s twist-laden sense of humour, but while Pearson’s comics can be disarming in their sentiments, Rice’s are rarely sentimental - even the undermining title of Soppy suggests a reluctance to embrace the simple cuteness of it all.

This lack of sentiment is best seen in Rice’s Longboy, a terrifying comic that is also one of her best. A longboy is a cuddly creature, a sort of cross between a dolphin and a draught excluder, that Rice initially crocheted in her spare time, then turned into a fictional animal prized for its skin. In the comic, two men go searching for longboys in the wild, but before long their playful banter and easy manner start to darken as their hunt turns into a harvest. This rug pull is not only a macabre, nightmarish twist, it serves up a grim sermon on hypocrisy, animal cruelty and the fur trade. Once again, Rice’s humour wins out - only this time, the consequences are much more horrific.

Such is the prolific output of the UK comics community that, in just a few short years, both Rice and Pearson have already produced masses of unique, distinctive and ambitious work. With Pearson’s pursuit of physical formats and Rice’s fondness for collage, their styles couldn’t be more distinct - but in books like Hildafolk, Everything We Miss, Longboy and Soppy, they take pride of place, sitting side by side in my comics pile.

The cover to Philippa Rice's "Looking Out" (L) and a Luke Pearson self-portrait (R).

Michael Leader is a chocolate digestive-powered writer living in South London. He regularly gets excited about films, comics and video games, sometimes writes about them for Den of Geek, Little White Lies, IdeasTap and GrolschFilmWorks, and sometimes tweets about them as @nevskyp.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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