Review: Windowpane

A comic book which looks like nothing else on shelves at the moment.

Windowpane is likely to be the best looking book you will hold this year. The comic, from new indie publisher Breakdown Press, is rather unassuming when closed. Stapled spines, soft covers, and a relatively standard size mean that you may expect it to be a standard small-press piece: nice black-and-white art, printed relatively cheaply, and then bound with a smarter cover.

In fact, the book acts as a showcase, of sorts, for a style of printing called risograph which, according to the printers, "sits in the realm somewhere between screen print and offset lithography, but with a unique aesthetic." It's not that rare, and a few other books have been printed with the same technique – Philippa Rice's Soppy, for instance – but Windowpane is the first to feel like it was drawn specifically for it.

The effect really has to be seen to be understood, but it leads to a book which looks like nothing else on shelves at the moment. Each page is more the sort of print which one would pick up from an art fair in East London than a part of a book. Printing a whole book with the technique is almost certainly not an idea which scales up – in other words, even if Joe Kessler's work makes it to the mainstream, don't bet on anything looking quite as good as this.

Windowpane is an anthology, of sorts, with Kessler providing all the art and most of the words (the exception being a 12 page collaboration with Kenyan writer Reuben Mwaura). The stories within largely share a dreamlike quality. A couple walk through an eternally burning landscape, getting closer and closer to the fire itself, where they find a flaming stag; a man, spurned by his lover, flees in his car and and hits a bull; an ambassador's conversation with his queen takes an unexpected turn.

All are illustrated in variants of Kessler's simple style, which uses thick blocks of colours and basic linework to varying effect. Some of the simplicity is apparently the result of the printing process; a "behind-the-curtain" peek is offered in one of the stories, where the alignment crosses have been left on-page. From that, it is easy to see how tricky it would be to do anything too intricate unless it were in monochrome – and doing that would not be playing to the book's strengths.

These aren't thrilling tales; Kessler certainly knows which side of the art/commerce divide he wants to come down on, and isn't afraid of being opaque. Some of the pieces feel like they exist as little more than a frame to hang the artwork from (not that that's necessarily a bad thing; the one-pager "Kawanishi's Greenhouse" is the best-looking single-page in the book), but others succeed in being deeper. The best two, the aforementioned collaboration with Reuben Mwaura and an extremely formalist piece about deaths from a prairie fire, use Kessler's style, colouring and, yes, the risograph printing to tell a story which oughtn't be told any other way.

Windowpane is a difficult book, and almost certainly unsuitable as someone's first – or even tenth – comic. But put a little bit of effort into it, and it gives back a lot more.

Windowpane is published by Breakdown Press, £7.00 plus shipping.

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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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