Can comics journalism bootstrap its way to success?

For British comics week, we'll be looking at a pair of creators from a different tradition each day. Today: Karrie Fransman and Tom Humberstone

"Comics" are often mistaken for a genre. (Giles Coren got in a bit of a kerfuffle the other week for doing this, for instance) Of course, they aren't; they are a medium, and like most other media, can be used to communicate nearly anything.

That's not to say that comics don't have a slightly lop-sided focus. The most popular are overwhelmingly genre fiction (seven of this week's top ten NYT best-selling hardback "graphic books" are, for instance, with Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother, Chris Ware's Building Stories and a Mad Magazine best-of rounding out the list); and a bizarrely large chunk of those are still superhero books.

Writer Warren Ellis famously called that dominance "absurd", writing in 2000 that:

It's like every bookstore in the planet having ninety percent of its shelves filled by nurse novels. Imagine that. You want a new novel, but you have to wade through three hundred new books about romances in the wards before you can get at any other genre. A medium where the relationship of fiction about nurses outweighs mainstream literary fiction by a ratio of one hundred to one. Superhero comics are like bloody creeping fungus, and they smother everything else.

(Incidentally, how terrible is it that we are actually living through Ellis' nightmarish scenario, except that instead of "nurse novels", it's "shit erotica"?)

But that piece was written 12 years ago, and in the meantime, there's been big changes. Comics have spread out to cover other genres and none, and some of the biggest ones in the last decade would, were they prose pieces, make it out of the genre-fiction ghetto altogether and be awarded the title of "literature".

But comics are at heart just words and pictures; and there's nothing about "words and pictures" which means fiction. Pretty much anything which can be done in another medium can be done by comics – including my own job.

Delightfully, graphic reportage has a small but growing place in the ecosystem. There's always been a relatively strong undercurrent of autobiography and memoir work in the canon – Bechdel's aforementioned Are you my mother for one – but the difference is the number of cartoonists who approach the topic, not as biographers or diarists, but as journalists first and foremost.

The undisputed king of journalistic comics is Maltese-American reporter Joe Sacco, whose collection of journalism (called Journalism, natch) we reviewed in October. But in Britain, the field is wide open.

Karrie Fransman and Tom Humberstone are two of Britain's top young comics journalists, and have both written for the New Statesman before. They both take a rather different tack to Sacco, who, despite writing from the land of Hunter S. Thompson and "New Journalism", fears the accusations of subjectivity that he believes comes with comics – a concern I have discussed before:

In the introduction to his new collection, Journalism, comics journalist Joe Sacco addresses the dissenters "who would naysay the legitimacy of comics as an effective means of journalism". He responds to the criticism that since drawings are "by their very nature subjective", the can never aspire to represent the objective truth – that which, his detractors claim "is what journalism is all about".

Fransman, by contrast, approaches her pieces more like short feature articles. There is reporting, to be sure – her piece on "shock comedy" for the magazine involved interviews with comedians and psychologists, and couldn't have been done without a fact-finding trip to the Edinburgh festival – but it is also firmly in the realm of opinion. The same is true of her piece on graduate unemployment for the Guardian.

Humberstone draws a weekly cartoon for the New Statesman, In the Frame, short half-pagers which alternate between reporting and opinion, but also does longer pieces. One, on the 2012 Olympics, was directly responsible for that weekly gig, and it's easy to see why. Over the course of ten pages, Humberstone lays out the unease which many in London were feeling over the corporate behemoth that was squatting over our city. It's hard to remember now – after the Opening Ceremony arrived and swung public opinion quite literally overnight – but re-reading it brings it all flooding back.

The number of outlets for graphic journalism is still small. While some papers squeeze it in when they can, for the most part the cartoonists have to bootstrap their own platform. Some of this comes from the British comics scene's fondness for anthologies – ink+PAPER and Solipsistic Pop (edited by one Tom Humberstone) both provide space for the occasional journalistic piece for instance – and some comes just from hard graft. But hopefully it will grow, because when it's done right, there's nothing quite like it.

A panel from Fransman's work for the New Statesman.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era