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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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.