Scene of the Crime: back in print at last

The NS comics review

Scene of the Crime
Ed Brubaker (W), Michael Lark (P/I), Sean Phillips (I), James Sinclair (C)
Image, 112pp, £18.99

Scene of the Crime has been long out-of-print, an uncomfortably common state of affairs for comics. Sometimes, that happens for understandable reasons: Alan Moore's Miracleman is unlikely to ever see the light of day because no-body is quite sure who owns the rights, but everyone is happy to sue everyone else over attempts to reprint it; Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's Flex Mentallo was off the shelves for years due to unpleasantries involving Charles Atlas, whom the main character is a parody of. But many more become unavailable simply because the various collected edition departments of the major publishers seem to be unable to keep track of their backlists. These aren't minor books, either; when a comic published just three years ago, in the process of being adapted into a major Hollywood movie, is unavailable and selling for ten times cover price on Amazon, something's wrong.

So, rejoice! that Image have secured a reprint of Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark's 1999 crime thriller, after more than a decade of unavailability. The book is one of three Brubaker – now returning to creator-owned comics off the back of an extraordinarily well-received eight-year run on Marvel's Captain America – credits with launching his career, and also represents his first collaboration with Sean Phillips, who inks Lark's artwork for the last three of the four issues.

The book tells the story of Jack Herriman, a Californian private eye, who takes a simple missing person case as a favour to an old family friend which, inevitably, turns out to not be so simple after all. Herriman finds himself embroiled in a family feud stretching back through the decades, and bumping heads with a hippy-throwback cult with a dark side.

The plot ticks along at a fair rate, and when the various threads floating around come together with a pleasing, if slightly over-foreshadowed, congruity, you'll find yourself just a few pages ahead of the protagonist.

The same isn't quite so true of Herriman's backstory, which betrays the book's roots. Brubaker drip-feeds information about him: we find out he lives with his uncle, a famous crime scene photographer, and aunt; we learn about his hero-cop-father's untimely end; we meet his ex-girlfriend, and they discuss his junkie past. But while these revelations fit thematically with the main plot, and bring Herriman closer to the family he's investigating, they are dripped out with little logic.

The reason seems to be the expectation, until relatively late in the creative process, that Scene of the Crime was to be an ongoing series; it even had a sequel-baiting subtitle, "A Little Piece of Goodnight". And as Brubaker reveals in the behind-the-scenes essay at the end (which upgrades the book from "hardcover" to "deluxe hardcover", apparently), even when it launched, the plan was that it would be a series of mini-series… "but that never happened".

The end result is a strange sort of character overdevelopment. It's not particularly problematic, but it weakens an otherwise strong stand-alone story.

Brubaker himself, looking back on his early work with the benefit of time, identifies one other glaring flaw, which is the sheer number of words on every page. It reads as though he didn't quite trust his artist to get across Herriman's turmoil – or that he was too caught up in writing hard-boiled P.I. inner monologues to remember that it's a comic, and things need to be played differently.

It's a shame, because Lark – who was frankly the senior member of the partnership at the time – pulls off his role with flourish. In collaborative comics it's always tricky to precisely apportion praise and blame, but some things – particularly an entire strand of plot revolving around mistaken identity, always tricky to do in a visual medium – were definitely his to make or break, and he succeeded every time.

Although Sean Phillips' name is on the cover with equal billing to Lark and Brubaker, his role was comparatively minor. Inking Lark – and not even for the entire book – was a job he was always perfectly capable of doing, and, judging by both the making-of pages in the backmatter and the lack of a noticeable difference from Lark inking himself, a job he carried out in a professional but workmanlike manner. It's pretty clear Image decided to big up his role to ride Scene of the Crime on the coat-tails of the later Brubaker-Phillips books.

Which is rather the elephant in the room. Since Scene of the Crime, Brubaker and Phillips have gone on to revolutionise crime comics with their creator-owned series Criminal (the second deluxe edition of which came out last April). Scene of the Crime is a perfectly good book, and contains moments of greatness, but there's little reason to read it now that its natural successor is available. By surpassing it so thoroughly, Brubaker and Phillips have consigned their (sort-of) first collaboration to the realm of "for completists only". That's a shame, because Scene of the Crime is a far better book than that label makes it sound; but given what it's naturally being compared to, it could never be anything but.

Photograph: Sean Phillips/Image Comics

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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