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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit