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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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times