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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Happy Valley is that rare thing on British television: an excellent revival

From Sally Wainwright's fantastic writing to its peerless cast, Happy Valley is a quietly powerful gem.

British television, whose tsars seem not to care much for planning ahead, has a pretty bad track record when it comes to the recommissioning of hits. So it was with slightly sweaty palms and a mild sense of doom that I sat down to watch the first part of the second series of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley (Tuesdays, 9pm, BBC1). I knew it would be OK: Wainwright, at her zenith as a writer, couldn’t turn out dross if she tried. But, still. Could it ever match the sombre brilliance of its first outing? How would the series maintain its astonishing sense of jeopardy with Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) safely behind bars?

As it turns out, Wainwright has given Royce the rapist a proxy in the form of Frances Drummond (Shirley Henderson), a creepy woman who visits him in prison and appears to be in love with him. Perhaps he is going to move her around his old stamping grounds from afar, or perhaps she, off her own bat, is going to exact “revenge” on his behalf on Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), the police officer who finally caught him. Either way, it’s not going to be pretty.

Even without this connection to what went before, the new series would still be a triumph. Happy Valley’s intricate plots and subplots aren’t the only reason for its success. Wainwright’s tendency to melodrama – as well as the sinister Frances, the new series comes with a crazed perfume saleswoman called Vicky (Amelia Bullmore), who is blackmailing an ex-lover who just happens to be a detective in Catherine’s nick – is always tempered by the unity of her vision, by the way she somehow tethers everything, no matter how wild or extreme, to humdrum reality. Happy Valley comes with an exceptionally vivid sense of place; unnervingly naturalistic dialogue; humour that’s coal black; and an almost 19th-century sense of the endless filigree connections that exist between people who grew up together in a small town. Lots of TV shows do some of these things some of the time. But very few do them all, all of the time.

Among the many human frailties Wainwright seems instinctively to understand is the often pitiful nature of our longing for love. How feeble it makes us, and how stupid. The first episode of the new series was fat with revelation: Catherine discovered a decaying body; DC John Wadsworth (Kevin Doyle, in wonderfully shifty form) discovered that Vicky had compromising pictures of him; Royce discovered, courtesy of a terrified chaplain, that his mother had died.

But however much heat these scenes gave off, they weren’t half so quietly powerful as the moment when Catherine’s sister, Clare (Siobhan Finneran), a recovering junkie, bumped into Neil Ackroyd (Con O’Neill), a boy she’d known at school. She was pleased to see him, and he was, apparently, pleased to see her, but even as she glowed, having asked him round for tea, you felt uneasy. The invitation was too easily given, and too easily accepted, and she talked of him too enthusiastically afterwards, as if she was a teenager again. Clare’s vulnerability and her girlish selfishness are inseparable, and they make her silly sometimes – and yet Wainwright knows better than to spell this out. She never tells. She only ever shows. My hunch is that some of her characters come with backstories she knows she’ll never reveal to us, the viewers. But she makes them up all the same, chasing authenticity.

The casting is peerless. These are supremely talented actors and, thanks to Wainwright, no one has to work to make a dud line sound convincing. But Lancashire still stands out, blazing over the cobbles in her high-vis jacket and bulky stab vest, folding herself into a plastic chair for a fag and a shaggy-dog story. Her performance is so committed, so generous, so utterly lacking in vanity. When she wandered down a hilly backstreet to tell a couple of junkie prostitutes to look after themselves – there’s a weirdo on the loose – I couldn’t get over the low-key tenderness she put into her voice. In her hand was a bag of sandwiches, which she duly handed out. Impossible to believe, I thought, that this had come courtesy of props: that she hadn’t just dashed, on the spur of the moment, into Tesco herself. 

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 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle