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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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