Comics review: Marc Ellerby's Ellerbisms

A comic strip that began life with few pretensions.

Ellerbisms began life with few pretensions. It was to be a diary comic like so many others: a page of a Moleskine a day, illustrated with something which happened to Marc Ellerby in the last twenty-four hours. These are the bread-and-butter of the indie cartoonist's world, and, along with gag strips, make up the majority of webcomics (once you exclude the furries, at least). But, as Ellerby says:

Then I met a Swedish girl called Anna and it stopped being so sporadic (and boring).

What you end up reading is a chronicle of a relationship, messy bits included, written as it happened. To this end, Ellerby has also added a new prologue and epilogue, as well as adding a few pages in near the beginning to elaborate on the context of some of the strips. This is a good idea; those early strips, already the weakest part of the book, occasionally make reference to events which Ellerby simply didn't get round to illustrating in real time, and the extra content helps the story hold together as one coherent piece.

New artwork next to old does serve to emphasise how much better a cartoonist Ellerby is now than he was when he started. But thanks to his decision to excise the first few months of Ellerbisms strips, and turn the book from "the complete collection" to "the complete Marc and Anna", there's little of the genuinely amateurish stuff left in. His very first strip remains as a nostalgic title page, and it's a nice scene in its own right; but if the first twenty pages were like it, readers might never hit the good stuff.

Which would be a shame. Like Joff Winterhart's Costa-nominated Days of the Bagnold Summer, Ellerbisms' short episodes, frequently just a page each, build up a detailed, touching portrait of the young couple (whereas Bagnold Summer's episodic nature was an affectation, this is the real deal). We see them fighting over nothing, singing and preparing, and their holidays, working days, and days out in the park. The end, when it comes, isn't surprising, because we have come to know the pair so well that the writing was on the wall. But it is saddening nonetheless.

Not that Ellerbisms is a mopey book. It wears its page-a-day heritage on its sleeve, and the pages of silliness and gags are frequently laugh-out-loud funny. But without that emotional core, it would feel like so many other good but ephemeral webcomics.

Ellerby has also worked hard to make Ellerbisms worth reading as a book, rather than just mooching off the still-available free archives. As well as the aforementioned extra content – and removed content, because what's not collected is as important as what is – it's also packaged together with production values (including delicious rounded corners, a hat-tip to the Moleskine heritage) that well exceed what was necessary to get it out the door. It's all part of Ellerby's – and diary-comics co-conspirator Adam Cadwell's – audacious self-publishing venture, Great Beast.

The two are publishing high quality editions of their complete diary comics – Cadwell's The Everyday is available in hardback, nigh-on unheard of for a self-published webcomic – as well as their other works, like Cadwell's six-part Blood Blokes, about hipster vampires, and Ellerby's Chloe Noonan: Monster Hunter, a sort of Buffy-without-powers. If it works, it will let them cut out the middleman, and may just make publishing these sort of comics, if not quite profitable, then at least break-even. If it doesn't, it will have been an expensive experiment.

No matter what the quality of the physical objects produced, Great Beast will live or die on the skill of its artists. While Chloe Noonan has failed to find the commercial success it deserves, leading to a reboot being planned, it shows that Ellerby has the chops to make something fun and accessible. Hopefully it will find the audience it deserves, and give Ellerby a ticket to riches. But Ellerbisms is proof that he can do much more than just that.

What you end up reading is a chronicle of a relationship. 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.

Photo: Getty
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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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