Behind the scenes of Tom Humberstone's "In the Frame" comic

A look at the process that produces the NS's weekly observational comic.

Happy New Year!

To kick off 2013, I thought I'd do a quick post that I've been meaning to sit down and write for some time now. It's been a busy couple of months. As I've mentioned before on my blog, I started working on a regular, weekly comic strip for the New Statesman called In The Frame about ten weeks ago. I've been planning to blog about the comics as they come out with a few comments about each one (a sort of director's commentary if you will) - partly for those interested about what I was wanting to accomplish with the weekly strips, and partly for myself to look back on.

Comic journalism has always been something I've had a huge interest in. Back in 2008, I was convinced that I needed to get involved in more reportage which led me to team up with my friend and journalist Dan Hancox on the US Presidential primary road-trip blog (which we later collected as a book) My Fellow Americans. My sketching ability has improved a huge amount since then but one of the things that's so satisfying about looking back at the blog is how the memories and experiences come flooding back in a way that I just don't get from photos. Since that trip, I've produced a few comics for Cartoon Movement - the impressive online hub of comics journalism. One series about the student tuition fee protests of 2010 with Anne Holiday, one sketch comic about the Occupy movement at LSX, and one last year about the London Olympics.

I'm now in the wonderful position to be able to report and comment on anything that happens in the week and have it published in a magazine I admire. While I'm still in the early stages of trying out various techniques and approaches - from straight reporting to opinion pieces - I think I'm starting to find my feet and I'm hoping to attempt some more ambitious reports throughout this year.

Here then, is a quick catch up with a few words about each of the nine strips that have been published so far and a slightly more in-depth process piece for the first one. I plan to blog every Friday about the latest comic when it has gone online over at the New Statesman. Click on the title of each comic to be directed to the NS website where you can find a larger image.

It occurs to me, with each comic being published in the NS on Thursday, followed by the comic going online on the Friday, that In The Frame is arguably a regular, weekly webcomic. Bookmark this blog or the NS In The Frame home to keep up-to-date!

1. And Finally...

The march for A Future That Works, organised by the TUC, took place on Saturday October 20. I arrived late - missing the start of the march and arriving towards the end as it reached Hyde Park Corner for the rally in the afternoon. Here the protestors were treated to music and guest speakers. This was where Ed Milliband faced boos for saying Labour would still introduce some cuts - at an anti-cuts march - were he elected. It was also the official point at which the protest ended. I've not really attended this part of a protest before - usually finding myself joining another march or sit-in or action along the way.

As I met up with some friends we discussed the march, and it became clear that any thoughts I or any of my friends had about the protest were not simple or succinct enough for a short half-page comic... It was a success in a lot of ways. A lot of people attended - reportedly 130,000 - but not quite the numbers of earlier in the year when a similar March For The Alternative took place. It was peaceful. No splinter groups or direct action protests went on to break any property or provoke riot police involvement. There was nothing that would later act as the key iconic photo for all the newspapers to use. And that's a success of sorts. For anyone out there who is angry with the Government's austerity measures, for those who feel disenfranchised and unable to do anything - the idea of protesting and speaking up at demonstrations like this are a good thing. But there are probably a lot of people who feel frightened or put off by the prospect of being kettled or arrested or hurt at such events because all they see on TV is the same aggressive footage. So having a peaceful, well attended demo is important to show that doesn't have to be the case.

But without that mainstream media coverage (due to the lack of exciting footage) that key demographic are unlikely to ever see anything about it. So was the march a success? What did it achieve? Did it need to achieve anything? Was it simply enough to voice continued frustration with the government?

These were not simple or easy to define observations/questions for a half page comic but I decided to persevere and see if I could compress these thoughts into something more economical. Here are my notes and thumbnails:

I then pencilled and inked the comic, opting to add the text (using my own font) on computer in case there were changes further along in the editorial process. I knew I wanted an open feel to this comic, to give a sense of being at the protest, so opted early on to avoid using panels. Sidenote: I'm never entirely happy with the results when I scan my inks in and seem to change the way I do it every single time I do a new comic...

I wanted an autumnal colour scheme but wasn't entirely sure of it so chose to colour each part of the comic on a separate layer in black and then adjusted the opacity of each element until I had a balance I was happy with. I also coloured areas of the linework lighter shades where appropriate and dropped the text in:

At this point, I filled three layers with three colours I wanted to use and set them at various opacities of screen, multiply, and overlay until I had something that was approaching the look I was after. This method gave the full image a sort instant colour scheme that felt reasonably balanced. I then adjusted the levels, added textures and tidied up some areas until I arrived at the final image you see at the top.

2. Metaman

I decided to use a traditional 64 colour comic palette (similar to the one I used for my chapter in Nelson) for this one as it felt appropriate to the content. A couple of eagle-eyed readers spotted the "Whatever Happened to the Journalism of Tomorrow?" nod towards the seminal Alan Moore Superman story which was gratifying.

As for the content... I find it interesting that these iconic comic characters get reported on as if what happens to them is a news story, yet if a literary or film character had something similarly eventful happen to them in the course of a story, the book or film would just be reviewed. These regurgitated PR pieces are often the only press comics receive and they're really just spoilers for long-running soap-operas dressed up as "news". It would be much more preferable to see mainstream press coverage take the form of regular reviews or interviews with creators. Which is not to say such things aren't happening - they are, increasingly so in fact - but I'm still amazed these non-events get so many column inches. This one was particularly galling to see due to the storyline itself.

3. Friendly Bacteria

I returned to the same colouring method I used for And Finally... here - colouring everything in grey shades before choosing a colour scheme to overlay and playing with gradients to give a sense of a city at night.

I spent a long time deciding whether I needed to add the context of my attempted mugging at the beginning or not. I'm still not sure it was required for the rest of the comic but I wanted to make sure that it was clear this was a real conversation and not one I had made up to make a specific point.

This was actually one of the first comics for the NS that I drew and we kept it in the bank for a week when I was overworked. Looking at it now, it's clear that it reads as a statement of intention. I'm using the half page to relay a conversation I had regarding the news that has funny bits in it, that has sub-text, that has something approaching amateur reporting, and has a leisurely pacing. These are all things that I hadn't seen much of in regular, topical comics in mainstream media. I wanted to make sure that I approached this job with my own voice and aesthetic - I didn't want readers to expect the same old comics journalism they were used to.

4. I'm an Elected Government Official... I Shouldn't Even be Here!

Of all my comics so far, this was probably the one that was commenting on the least interesting news story. And yet for many, it's their favourite In The Frame yet. It's also the one that most closely resembles the gag strip format of panel: set up, panel: set up, panel: punchline. Which probably says all we need to say about my previous comments regarding bringing my own voice/aesthetic to the party (the weekly, newspaper comic party).

I loosened up my drawing style and went much more cartoony than I usually do which was fun and something I'm already doing more of now. I really enjoyed colouring this and, had I more time to produce these comics, probably would have lost myself doing the jungle panels. A couple of people have said I was being too easy on Dorries in this comic. I can see what they're saying, but I think if I'd made it too damning or judgemental, a lot of the humour of the last panel would have been lost.

5. Damnation of Memory

I'd just spent a week in Leeds as artist in residence for the Thought Bubble Festival. In the preceding weeks I'd been visiting an asylum seekers centre in Bradford to teach families in the process of claiming asylum how to draw comics. It was truly rewarding and I'm looking forward to producing a comic on this subject later in the year. When I was in the area the Savile story was everywhere. Anything he touched was now being removed or erased or renamed. In terms of being sensitive to the people whose lives have been ruined by him this is obviously a good thing. But I also felt it was coming from a place of hiding guilt and embarrassment. It reminded me of the Roman custom of Damnatio Memoriae (Damnation of Memory) - which involved pretending that disgraced or shamed Romans never existed.

Were I to come back to this comic and do it again, I probably would have drawn the erased parts of the image as part of the original artwork itself rather than rely on the colouring to do that part of the job. Live and learn.

6. High Stakes Procrastination

I was really happy with how this comic came out. It was a bit of a struggle to get this one finished in time as I'd been focusing on the conflict in the Middle East with a view to visiting the occupation at SOAS university and interviewing a few people about it all. I'd felt that the past couple of weeks had relied too heavily on comment and observation from myself and wanted to have a bit more from other people this week. But, when the conflict ended with Palestine being offered statehood, it was back to the drawing board. The SOAS occupation was over, and it was pretty likely the New Statesman would have enough coverage about this major world news event anyway.

Luckily, when the Energy Bill was leaked I was able to get some reaction from Friends of the Earth and this piece sort of wrote itself in the space of a morning. It's simply too easy to get angry about the failure of Governments to do anything about climate change.

7. Dickensian Rolling News

The NS had a packed week so I was asked to contribute a comic that could run the following week in case they had too much content to fit the magazine.

My brain was just not complying. I needed something topical - but not too topical. Something about the run-up to Christmas? But what would that be without being too cynical or obvious? I was tempted to do something about internet arguments and trolling, to the point that I was seriously considering some terrible idea about fantasy trolls complaining about the internet. Yes, I was that desperate. It took a couple of friends to look at me with a you-need-to-take-a-long-hard-look-at-yourself stare to make me realise I should sleep on it.

In the morning, there were news stories about snow popping up everywhere and it reminded me of previous years where there was almost constant rolling coverage of people having antics in the snow. Which led to this. In the end, it ran the week it was supposed to.

8. Tall Order

When I arrived at the Starbucks protest as a casual observer, I had lots of conflicting thoughts about the usefulness and success of UK Uncut. There's been a lot of opinion pieces with those same thoughts appearing on blogs since then but at the time I was certain that this would be what my piece would end up being about. As it was, I chose to highlight the more colourful things that happened to me while I was there as I thought it neatly illustrated the mental checklist of pros and cons regarding direct action protests which was playing out in my head all day.

As with the I'm an Elected Government Official... comic, I went with a more cartoony drawing style again.

9. Journey to Mars

Robin Ince and Brian Cox were co-editing the Christmas issue of the NS, with an impressive line-up including Alan Moore, Phill Jupitus, Josie Long and many more besides. So it was particularly lovely to get an email from Robin asking me to illustrate a two-page comic about the scientific achievements of 2012. I was honoured to be asked but concerned that my knowledge of the scientific year would pale in comparison to theirs and with such a tight deadline, I asked whether Robin would want to write it. To my relief he said yes and supplied the script you see above. It was a lovely piece and one that was a huge amount of fun to draw despite the challenge of fitting so much text into the composition.

I was told to avoid too much text around the fold in the page and given the dimensions of the gutter to watch out for so chose to use this space to draw a tree of knowledge from which the branches would form the panel boundaries on the right hand side of the page. I wanted the left hand side to read top to bottom as one interconnected image so the first panel was in the clouds of the second panel and the second panel was part of the smoke of the third panel. I think this all worked well in the end but in the printed version, much of the tree is lost in the gutter (which is of course, why it was there) so I hope it was clear to the readers which way the comic was meant to be read. Minor things-that-bother-the-artist-but-hopefully-no-one-else-notices-until-they-are-pointed-out-in-a-blog niggles aside, I was chuffed with how the comic turned out and even more chuffed to see my name listed on the cover with all the other contributors.

And there we are! A possibly over-indulgent look at the first nine In The Frame comics. If you've made it this far, congratulations. I'll be blogging about this week's comic on Friday and the magazine is out tomorrow if you fancy getting a look at it early.

This article first appeared on Tom Humberstone's blog here and is crossposted with his permission.

A detail from Tom Humberstone's "Damnation of Memory".

Tom Humberstone is an award-winning comic artist. "In the Frame" appears regularly in the Observations section of the New Statesman. See more of his work at www.tomhumberstone.com.

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.