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.

Marcelo Krasilcic
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“I don’t want to burst into tears on stage”: The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt

The cult chamber pop curmudgeon on the process of writing a song for every year of his life – and how he avoided soul-searching.

Stephin Merritt has a stye. Sitting in a hushed greenroom at London’s Barbican, he presses a hot mug of tea against his left eye and winces.

An enormous Steinway grand piano shimmers by the wall, reflecting the room’s sparse glow from an electric candle and mirror framed in fairy lights.

“Have you ever had one?” asks the 52-year-old musician, after bowing in his chair in greeting (to avoid germ contact).

No, I reply.

“Don’t.”

Set against the grandeur of his surroundings, it’s a fitting introduction to The Magnetic Fields frontman and cult chamber pop curmudgeon.

Medical complaints are just one theme in his painfully personal new album, 50 Song Memoir. It’s an epic, genre-bending variety show with a song for each year of his life, performed in two halves. The 1992 track “Weird Diseases” cites an ear condition that confines him to a soundproofed shelter from his band onstage – and means he covers his ears when applauded by the Barbican audience later that evening.

Waiting for his soundcheck in his signature brown flatcap, a beige and turquoise argyle jumper and fawn trousers (he only wears brown – it’s hard to get dirty, and matches his eyes, hair and beloved late chihuahua Irving), he’s about to perform the last show in The Magnetic Fields’ first tour in five years.

“I hate touring,” he tells me in his baritone drawl, his head cupped in one hand. “I can’t wait to get home.”

Before he returns to Hudson, New York, he’s taking a week’s holiday in London, which he first visited at 15. As he wrote in the song for 1980, “London By Jetpack”, its blossoming New Romantic scene passed him by.

“I was here at the right time, but I was not in the right places to experience it,” he sighs. “So I was doing touristy things and going to Madame Tussauds. Eating English pizza. I bought a Sherlock Holmes hat and London trenchcoat for my costume, I guess which was fun.”

Merritt went to high school in Boston, where he founded the revolving gaggle of musicians that make up The Magnetic Fields in 1989. The album 50 Song Memoir is their 11th. It’s an eccentric, dizzying journey from Merritt’s nomadic childhood of cults and communes with his bohemian mother, via a cockroach-infested ménage à trois and the 9/11 aftermath, to writing a silent movie score for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

But it has the regular stuff too. Break-ups, unrequited love, absent fathers and all too present ex-boyfriends. In scope and ambition, it’s similar to The Magnetic Fields’ most famous work, 69 Love Songs (what it says on the tin), but it’s the first time Merritt has written a first-person, autobiographical album.

We hear bitterness and mockery in equal measure about his beatnik upbringing (“My mama ain’t no nudist/Except around the pool/She’s a Tibetan Buddhist/Like Catholic only cool”), dark musings on the AIDS crisis (“We expected nuclear war/What should we take precautions for?”), and the final song, 2015’s “Somebody’s Fetish” – like a filthier version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” – acts as Merritt’s self-deprecating justification for finding love (“Nothing’s too strange for somebody’s palate/Some spank the maid and some wank the valet”).


Stephin Merritt. Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic

Like the Stephen Sondheim of New York’s underground scene, or a rock ‘n’ roll Noël Coward, Merritt’s acerbic observations and camp brand of miserablisim have established him as an extraordinary lyricist over a quarter century of music-making.

Throughout the 25 albums he’s made with different bands and as a solo artist, Merritt’s words are brought to life by theatrical scores and an experimental use of instruments – but nowhere more celebrated than with The Magnetic Fields.

“I keep wondering if this album has been so well-reviewed partly because people think it would be boorish to question bearing my soul,” he says. “Because reviewing it is like reviewing a person.”

Although 50 Song Memoir seems like a highly revealing “audio-biography”, Merritt insists: “I am against soul-searching in general. I don’t believe in souls in the first place – and if I did, I don’t know how one would search them.”

He points out that these songs are more likely to provoke laughter than tears. The “psychoanalysing” by critics annoys him. “I have to perform these things and I do not want to burst into tears on stage,” he says, his eyes widening. “I don’t want to stand on stage humiliating myself and the audience.”

Merritt recalls crying while performing The Magnetic Fields’ classic ballad “The Book of Love” at the funeral of a friend who died suddenly. “That is the last time I will ever do that,” he smiles drily.

The 50 Song Memoir show is more of a revue, with wry narration by Merritt between each song, and band members playing everything from the omnichord to a saw. The singer himself sits in his pastel-hued soundproof booth, surrounded by 16 dolls houses and other trinkets from his own home – Hooty, his stuffed owl, little wooden animals, quirky instruments and “some of my lunchbox collection”. It makes him feel “weirdly” at home.


Before releasing these songs, Merritt contacted every person he names to run the lyrics by them – including his mother, who burst into tears when he played the music for her in his studio.

“What I’m saying about her is not necessarily criticism on her terms,” he says. “So she should not feel insulted, and I said that. She agreed and said in fact [she didn’t] feel insulted.”

You get the impression Merritt enjoyed the mechanics of writing 50 Song Memoir more than the emotional vulnerability. It pieces together lyrics and music he had written back in the Eighties and never released, and even a guitar solo he wrote at the age of 11. It features 100 instruments, many from his own collection. He also notes the challenge of finding rhymes for so many proper nouns. “I usually let the rhymes lead the narrative,” he says, calling them, “the automatic plot generator”.

Merritt mostly wrote this album at a couple of bars in his neighbourhood, filling around five notebooks overall. He buys expensive pads – to try and guard against losing them – which look as different from each other as possible, “in the hope I will be able to find a song or a thread more easily with visual help: ‘this was the piece of music I wrote in the flowery notebook with a robot on the cover’”.

A useful system for when he returns at the age of 100 to fulfil his vague ambition of adding another 50 songs to the piece (“I have quite a while to decide.”)

It’s soundcheck time. After admiring my rucksack (it’s brown), Merritt says goodbye without getting up, apologising again for his stye.

Never mind, perhaps we’ll hear about it in a song in 50 years’ time?

He gives a rare chuckle. “48, actually.”

The Magnetic Fields performed both halves of 50 Song Memoir at the Barbican. Listen to Stephin Merritt discussing the show on the Barbican podcast here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.