Friday, 10 October 2014

Awesome Comics Makers: UNITE!

A couple of happy bits of follow-up to last week's series of posts on Comics and Literacy...

You remember how I said it would be great to try and build a network of comics clubs around the country, allowing educators and parents to share ideas and resources, and young comics makers to share their work? Well Hannah Sackett thought so too! And what's even better, she's actually doing something about it: she's begun by setting up Comics Clubs Unite! To quote Hannah:

I have set up this site to see if children’s comic clubs around the British Isles are interested in joining together to create a website where they can share ideas and comics made by children.
My current idea is to keep the site All Ages (I work with 7-11 year olds) and for comic clubs to take turns each month to post their comics (and reviews). There would also be space for worksheets, ideas for club activities, etc.
Which sounds fantastic, and I think could grow into a hugely marvellous thing. If you run a school or library comics club already - or if you're interested in starting one - please give Hannah a shout using the contact form on Comics Clubs Unite. And if you're a creator, or publisher who'd be up for helping out - perhaps contributing worksheets or ideas for activities - again, please get in touch! Hannah is @DrHComics on twitter, or by all means give me a shout and I'll pass it on.

ALSO: remember how I was talking about great comics creators who do workshops in schools? And one of the names I mentioned was Laura Howell - brilliantly talented cartoonist, historic feminist icon (she should be, anyway - first female cartoonist to work on The Beano in its 70+ year history!) and creator of one of my favourite comics of 2013. Anyway, I was just notified about a very cool-sounding competition launched by Staedtler Teachers Club, whereby you can win the opportunity for Laura to come and teach some comics workshops at your school!

Laura Howell: so good at drawing comics she can do it WITHOUT EVEN LOOKING

Here are a few words from Laura:
 “If I could go back in time and tell my ten-year-old self that I would one day be a professional comic artist, I doubt she would have believed me. But I hope I can convince talented young artists that if they never let go of their dreams, one day they might achieve it – I'm proof!”
Find full details and learn how to enter the competition here!

ALSO, speaking of Laura Howell and comics workshops: I am going to be doing some comics workshops with Laura Howell? MAN that was a segue. We'll be teaming up with the fantastic Louie Stowell to run some Write And Draw Your Own Comics workshops at the Cartoon Museum in London on October 26th, to celebrate the release of Usborne's excellent new book by that name, which Louie wrote and Laura and I drew some bits and bobs for. Come along, we are planning some really quite ridiculously fun things.

More information and booking details here!

Friday, 3 October 2014

Comics and Literacy, part 5: Where Do We Go From Here?


Welcome to the fifth and final part of my weeklong series of posts on comics and literacy. To sum up what we've covered so far: I believe that comics offer incredible opportunities for engaging children with reading and for developing their literacy skills, and I believe that we in this country have neglected and undervalued those opportunities to our mutual massive cost. We've covered:

  1. Why reading comics matters
  2. Why MAKING comics matters, too
  3. Things that educators and parents can do, right now, to encourage this
  4. Some excellent comics for children, to get you started.

I wanted to wrap things up by talking a bit about what I think we can do next. I think there's a growing awareness in this country of the important role comics have to play, and definitely a lot of progress is being made. But I still see there being a few puzzle-pieces missing; ideas and institutions that, if we could figure out a way to put into place, could bring about hugely positive changes.

So. Where do we go from here?

Here are a few ideas.

I talked a bit in Wednesday's post about how teachers and librarians might consider starting up a comics club, to give a space and a time in the week for interested kids to simply read comics, and talk about comics, and maybe have a go at making some comics. I think a really cool thing would be to then try and take this further and give people a means of linking up and sharing their work and ideas. FOR EXAMPLE, for the sake of argument: you could make it a national club, free to sign up for, and every week there'd be some set challenge or activity on the theme of writing or creating characters or drawing samurai alligators or whatever it may be, that all the geographically diverse members could have a go at and then share and display their work; people's entries could then be displayed on the club's website, with maybe some Professional Comics Types offering some feedback and helpful criticism. A Comics Club, along the lines of something like the Young Poets Network* or Code Club, but for comics. Wouldn't that be cool? 

*huge thanks to Kate Sayer of the Story Museum for cluing me in about the YPN, it sounds fantastic and I think offers a really useful example here.

The other nice benefit of having the website / mailing list aspect of it, apart from providing a point of connection between lots of individual school and library clubs, is that it would allow kids to join up and be a part of it who... maybe aren't natural club-joiners? Bedroom comics geniuses across the land would have a way to be a part of something and to share their work and discover like-minded creators, without necessarily having to dive straight in with the whole potentially terrifying "talking to humans in real life about something you're passionate about" thing. Giving people that chance to dip their toes into a wider world, and allowing them to ease in and discover it on their own terms.

I may just be thinking of Young Me here. I digress.

Artwork from The Awesomest Comic, (c) 2014 by Eliza Day

2) A CENTRAL RESOURCE of child-friendly comics

I talked about this a bit in yesterday's post, the difficulty facing parents and educators in knowing where to start with children's comics, of finding good and suitable material. My ceaselessly amazing colleague Sarah McIntyre has talked about this before, about how great it would be to have a central resource - a database / website full of information about child-friendly comics - ideally, with the ability for users to write and share their own reviews of books. 

Basically, we just want to make it as easy as possible for parents and teachers and librarians and all those people who are not fortunate enough to already be Giant Comics Nerds to discover the good stuff, and to feel confident to start sharing it with their kids. And, even better, for kids to find it for themselves.

Good things are happening on this front already - a comment on Wednesday's post from Zoe Toft of Playing By The Book brings the following news:

Just to let you know that Melanie (Library Mice) and I are compiling a new booklist for the Federation of Children's Book Groups focusing on comics and graphic novels- it will be ready April 2015, and then free to any one who wants it eg schools, clubs, individuals.
...which sounds fantastic, and is a really positive development. Let's do more!

Artwork from The Awesomest Comic, (c) 2014 by Erin Snape

3) A similar CENTRAL RESOURCE of comics creators who do workshops!

Again, something that both Sarah and I have talked about before. It would be brilliant to tie this into the aforementioned website / database of kid-friendly comics, to also provide information on creators who visit schools and libraries to do workshops. (While we're on the subject, please refer to this excellent post of Sarah's that gives tons of invaluable advice to schools and libraries about how to host a successful author visit, and includes a huge list of creators who offer workshops.)

Essentially, I’d like a lot of the kind of things I’ve been trying to talk about in this week's posts to be maintained and updated as a central resource, easily accessible to educators and parents – lists of great, age-appropriate comics, lists of comics practitioners who do workshops, details of upcoming courses and events across the country. I think A Website could very handily contain all this, but whose website? The website of a body that does not quite exist yet, and which I shall for the purposes of this flight of fantasy refer to as The Comics Agency.

The Comics Agency. The Comics Advisory Board. The Awesome Ninja Comics Squad. Call it what you like, the basic idea is just of having a dedicated body - a dedicated place on the internet, and ideally a dedicated place in the actual real world, too - devoted solely to sharing information and ideas and resources and best practice and constantly spreading the message that, basically, everybody should be reading comics, because they are NIFTY. There are non-profit organisations in the US doing excellent work in this kind of area - Reading With Pictures and Comic Book Classroom - and I'd love to see something similar happen over here.

Artwork from The Awesomest Comic, (c) 2014 by Hector Day


Once you've got those pieces of the puzzle in place, once you've built that framework: then, I think you could start to really have some fun. Have some fun and also, potentially, do some amazing things. How about setting up a scheme where people are easily able to chip in to donate graphic novels or comic subscriptions to under-resourced schools, for starters? Or how about this: we figure out how much it would cost to buy one awesome comic for EVERY SINGLE CHILD IN THIS COUNTRY. And then we run a kickstarter for exactly that much money.

Let's go back for a second to where this series of posts started, thinking about the Read On, Get On campaign. We began with the demonstrable fact that learning to read changes children's lives for the better, and the firm conviction that comics can, have been and should be a huge part of how children learn to read. If we're not making use of this amazing asset, this incredibly cool and powerful tool in the literacy toolbox, then frankly we're failing generations of children. And we've been doing that for a while now. And I think it's time we started doing better.

POSTSCRIPT: I'm pretty much reaching 'put up or shut up' point here. I think secretly my motivation in writing this monstrous weeklong series of posts was to basically talk myself into stopping talking, and actually starting to do something about all this stuff. THINGS are underway, and PLANS are being formed. If you would like to hear more about THINGS and PLANS, or get involved in the discussion, or sign up to join the Awesome Ninja Comics Squad, then in the first instance please either leave a message here or give me a shout on twitter - you can find me at @neillcameron, or throw in ideas using the #ComicsAndLiteracy hashtag. Let's see what we can do.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Comics and Literacy, part 4: Comics For 7-Year-Olds

A problem I hear a lot from teachers, librarians and parents - and I think it's getting better, but definitely still there - is of wanting to give comics to their kids but not knowing where to start: which titles are out there, which are suitable, which are good. To try and address this, about a year ago I made a list of Comics For 6-Year-Olds based completely subjectively on the particular favourites of one particular 6-Year-Old. Anyway, pretty much all the titles listed there are still much-loved round these parts, but since said 6-Year-Old is now a 7-Year-Old (and since the last year has seen the release of lots of REALLY AMAZING new children's comics) it seemed a sensible time to bring you some recommendations of... COMICS FOR 7-YEAR-OLDS!

1) Star Cat 
by James Turner
(David Fickling Books)

When we were up doing workshops at the Edinburgh Book Festival I grabbed the opportunity to, basically, completely blag an advance copy of James Turner's collected Star Cat book, as I had a sneaking the suspicion that the boy would rather enjoy it. And, wow, my god. I handed it over and that was that, basically we didn't hear a peep out of him for the rest of the day. Or indeed the next day. To the point where I was actually getting a little worried.

And that's the thing, Turner really gives you a gift here, an incredibly rich and densely-packed world to get lost in, with jokes piled upon jokes piled upon jokes, coming at you from all angles and across multiple dimensions at once. There's wordplay and cleverness and mind-bending concepts, but also sheer utter ridiculousness and robots and spaceships and vampires and, basically, just everything that is great in life.

Oh and hey, it's out TODAY! Go buy it!

Available from: David Fickling Books | Page 45 | Amazon

2) Dungeon Fun 
by Colin Bell and Neil Slorance
(DoGooder Comics)

I touched above on a reason I love some of these particular comics so much, which is the sheer amount of UNINTERRUPTED FREE TIME they have granted me. That's the huge, towering difference of the last year - when I made last year's list, they were all comics that we read together - which was wonderful and I wouldn't miss it for the world and we still do plenty of - but this year we're at the point where the boy is perfectly happy just grabbing one of these comics and reading it on his own. Like, for hours.

Case in point: Dungeon Fun, the hilarious and emotionally rich and ridiculously charming fantasy adventure from Colin Bell and Neil Slorance. I gave issue 1 to the boy last year and we read it together and he liked it pretty well. Cut to this summer, I gave him issue 2, and he grabbed it and read it cover to cover. And then flipped back to the start and read it cover to cover, again. And then flipped back to the start and read it cover to cover, AGAIN.

And seriously, this went on for days.

If I seem a bit evangelical these days about the power comics have to engage kids with reading: perhaps you can start to see why.

Available from:

3) Corpse Talk
by Adam Murphy (with Lisa Murphy)
(David Fickling Books)

Speaking of engaging kids with reading, let us turn to Corpse Talk, Adam Murphy's brilliantly funny and richly informative collection of historical undead comic strip interviews. Or, as I will perhaps always think of it: "the comic that kept the boy quiet from Lancaster until well past Gretna Green". This is another wonderfully dense book, full of countless treasures, letting developing readers spend hours lost in beautifully-illustrated tales of Emmeline Pankhurst, Genghis Khan and William Wallace. (They pulled out his intestines on a stick and roasted them in front of him, you know. As far as my son is concerned this is the GREATEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED.)


Available from: The Phoenix | Page 45 | Amazon

4) Adventure Time
by Ryan Penagos, Shelli Paroline, Braden Lamb & Mike Holmes

I won't go on too much about this one, as the information that 'kids like Adventure Time' is perhaps not particularly startling to anyone. I do think it's interesting that the couple of times I've tried the TV show out on the boy it's pretty much left him completely cold, but he really enjoyed the comic. As well he might! It's very funny, and beautfully illustrated. (It feels glacially, excruciatingly paced to me, but that may just be my years at the coalface of 3-page weekly episodes talking, and I'll grant you that while the journey may be bafflingly long, it's EXTREMELY ENTERTAINING along the way.)

Available from: Page 45 | Forbidden Planet | Amazon

5) Gary's Garden 
by Gary Northfield
(David Fickling Books)

Whatever the opposite of 'glacially paced' is, it is Gary Northfield's superlative-exhaustingly wonderful Gary's Garden strips, which in perfectly-formed 1-4 page instalments cover an astonishing range of tonal and stylistic ground, from daft hilarity to thrilling (but still quite daft) adventure to profound insightfulness to heartbreak, and all the way back round again to daft. Is it possible for something to be "daftly hearbreaking"? Is anyone else in the world besides Gary Northfield even capable of such a thing?

It's a pretty great comic, is what I'm saying.

Available from: The Phoenix | Page 45 | Amazon

6) Moose Kid Comics
By Various, edited by Jamie Smart

This is an extraordinary comic, a declaration of war on mediocrity and a statement of deadly serious, hilarious intent. The range of creators featured is staggering and gives the comic an astonishing, diverse visual richness that belies its mere 36 pages. If I had to pick a highlight from the boy's perspective it'd be Jess Bradley's CECIL P WOMBAT: EXPERT ON EVERYTHING, based solely on the amount it got quoted at me for weeks after his reading it ("How Dare you!")

I'm lucky enough to have a print copy - and really, I mean incredibly lucky; it's a wonderful thing and for days we barely even saw the boy, just his legs poking out from under this massive copy of MOOSE KID - but fortunately you can read the whole thing for free online so seriously, go do THAT.

Available from:

7) The Phoenix
By Various
(David Fickling Comics)

Look, I realise the Phoenix has been pretty well represented on this list already, but like I say, it's a subjective list. (Also, I think it's a pretty inarguable fact that this year they have put out a bunch of genuinely incredible books of children's comics, to an extent that is already warping the publishing landscape in this country in hugely positive ways). Anyway, I'm going to steer right into that subjectivity skid and recommend the weekly comic itself. Obviously. It's been a huge part of the boy's childhood since before he could read, and seeing him come into his own and become a confident reader and only come to love the comic more and more has been, honestly, more wonderful than I can realistically hope to express without sounding like a GIANT SAP.

If I had to pick particular favourites, I'd mention Laura Ellen Anderson's endlessly wonderful Evil Emperor Penguin and Jess Bradley's dementedly hilarious Squid Bits, both of which are the source of endless amusement frequently-quoted dialogue round these parts in any given week.

Available from:

Okay! That's yer lot. As I say, an entirely subjective list that represents nothing beyond the particular favourites of one particular 7-year-old. There are several GLARING OMISSIONS, most notably:

...Jame Smart's Bunny Vs Monkey, and its solely because we haven't gotten to them yet; in that particularly case BvM is one of the boy's very favourite things in the world, hence my saving the book up to be a Christmas present.

For some hopefully slightly more objective, or at least wider-ranging recommendations of children's comics, check out some of the following places:

Also, if you're a teacher or librarian - I believe comics retailers like Gosh and Page 45 can offer a service where they will recommend and supply age-appropriate titles, so why not give them a shout?

Anyway, there you go: awesome comics for kids.


Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Comics and Literacy, part 3: Things You Can Do

Fig 1: artwork from The Awesomest Comic. Why not make your OWN comic? You can even put elephants in it if you want.

So! To recap: so far in this weeklong series of posts, we are all agreed that:

1) reading comics is an incredibly powerful tool for developing children’s literacy skills, and that
2) making comics is EVEN BETTER.

(If we are NOT agreed, please go back and read those posts again until we are agreed. It's okay, I can wait.)

So today I'd like to suggest some concrete proposals for Things You Can Do to help support those objectives, to get us nearer to my arbitrary but entirely achievable goal of 2 MILLION NEW COMICS CREATORS!*

*Seriously. Totally achievable.

Firstly, a disclaimer: in these attempts to answer the crucial question of "How Do We Get More Comics To More Children?" you'll notice that I'm focusing mostly on the roles that can be played by schools and libraries and parents, rather than suggesting anything specifically regarding the retail sector. This is not because I don't think there are great ideas for things to be done there - and again, I will be talking about that a bit in a supplemental post - it's just that I, personally, have no way of putting those ideas into action. For example: I would love to create a brand new weekly children's comic that was printed on newsprint and cost 50p a copy and was available by the tills in every branch of Tesco across the land. But there are so many issues there, so many things that are beyond my personal resources and abilities to do anything about right now. So I wanted to concentrate in these posts on what I can do - what we can do, right now: parents, educators, librarians, cartoonists; everyone who cares about these issues.

So, what can we do?

1) Start a Comics Club!

If you're a teacher, why not start a comics club at your school? If you're a librarian, why not start one in your library? If you're 11, why not just go ahead and start one yourself, who needs those dumb grown-ups anyway? Over the past couple of years I've met several people who've done this, and heard some amazingly positive stories. It's a way of encouraging library use, and of giving a constructive outlet to the energies of creative, imaginative kids. I don't think this takes much in terms of resources; just give the kids a time and a place where they can meet, and talk about comics, and read comics, and work on their own comics.

If you HAVE done this in your school already, I'd love to hear from you to compare notes - please get in touch either in the comments here, or give me a shout on twitter! I think there's an opportunity to do something really exciting here, using social media to build up a network-of-networks, sharing ideas and resources and best practice.

2) Organise your own Comics Festival!

This ties in with the last point really nicely; if you have started up a comics club, or if you've been using comics as part of a school project, why not give your young creators something to work towards by organising a festival, an event where they can swap and sell and share and celebrate their work? This gives you a chance to get them thinking about all kinds of other areas beyond the actual storytelling and making-of-the-thing: promotion, marketing, publishing and entrepeneurship! And, believe me, some kids will go NUTS for that side of things.  

And hey, you can make really big posters and splash lots of paint around and all that fun stuff!

Look, here are some pictures by Sarah McIntyre that make this point far more effectively than these thousand words I'm writing:

And seriously, do go and read Sarah's brilliant post on this subject, from which I nicked those pictures- it's full of enthusiasm and inspiration and really great ideas.

3) Comics Workshops

Photo from Maggies' Day comics workshops at the Story Museum, used with permission.

A great way of getting started with either of the above, or just generally as a way of introducing comics, is to invite a comics creator to come visit your school or library and work with the kids. 

Now look, I do workshops, so it's hard for me to wax lyrical about the benefits of these without sounding horribly self-aggrandising. But I do think they can be a fantastic way of getting kids energised about writing and drawing, and I've had some really lovely feedback from places I've visited confirming that yes, it really does seem to work. So in this case I'm going to attempt to suck up my natural self-deprecation and say, yes, this is a totally awesome thing that you should definitely do. So that it does not entirely just seem like an advert for myself, though, I'll give you a List of Awesome Comics Creators Who Do Workshops (and are Not Me). sound fair? Excellent. Refer to further down this post for just that.

4) Set up a Comics Library

(Photos by Richard Bruton, courtesy of the Forbidden Planet blog)

The best way to get kids fired up and excited about reading and writing and drawing comics, of course, is to give them a bunch of awesome comics to read. Lots of school libraries will have a comics section, of course, but it can be very hard for teachers and librarians who are not themselves avid comics nuts to know where to start, or to know what material is appropriate for what age range. It is possible, though, and we can all look to the amazing library Richard Bruton set up in his school in Yorkshire as an example of what can be achieved - and if you have any doubts, go and ask Richard about what engagement and borrowing levels have been like with that library. It's really inspiring stuff, and frankly I dream of every school having access to such wonders.

You could even make comics ON your library, too, if you like. That seems to work pretty well.

There's a few ideas to get us started, anyway. And now, some Resources To Help You Do Those Things!


There are lots of great books on writing and drawing and making comics, of course, and lots of great resources available for free online, too. (I've collated links to a few such things in this always-handy blog post, for example). A lot of those resources tend to be suitable for slightly older kids, though. Happily, books for younger readers offering help and advice on How To Make Your Own Comics turn out to be very much like buses, in that you wait ages for one and then three come along all at once. To wit:

How To Make Awesome Comics
by me
(David Fickling Books)

Clearly the best book in the history of the universe, and one that every right-thinking human should read. I won't give you the hard-sell here, please refer to previous posts for that.

(One thing I'd just like to just be clear about, here: I'm not banging on about all this stuff in an attempt to sell my book, although I can appreciate how it may totally look like that. It's actually more that I made the book because I think this stuff is so important.)

Available from: The Phoenix | Amazon | Page 45

Write and Draw Your Own Comics
by Louie Stowell and various 

A fantastic manual on all aspects of comics-making by Louie Stowell and various amazing artists including Jess Bradley, Laura Howell and, um, me again. SORRY. Includes stickers! (I'd be more specific but I haven't actually seen a copy yet. But going by this fantastic review from Read It Daddy, it sounds PRETTY GREAT.)

Available from: Amazon | Lots of other places I'm sure!

Let's Make Comics!
By Robin Etherington and Zak Simmonds-Hurn
(Oxford University Press)

One for even slightly younger kids, I believe, from the powerhouse team of one-half-of-the-Etherington-Brothers and the amazingly talented Zak Simmonds-Hurn.

Available from: Amazon

There you go, that should get you started!


Here is a quick, and no doubt highly incomplete, list of creators I know who visit schools and libraries and provide comics workshops. I've indicated where people are based, but of course people are able to travel; it's just as an indicator. Please contact each creator to enquire as to availability and rates.

Gary Northfield, shaping the minds of the nation's youth at the Cartoon Museum


Sarah McIntyre (Cakes in Space, Oliver and the Seawigs, Vern & Lettuce)
(please note, Sarah is booked up through the rest of 2014, at the very least)

Gary Northfield (Teenytinysaurs, Gary's Garden, Derek the Sheep)

Karen Rubins (The Phoenix)


The Etherington Brothers (Monkey Nuts, Long Gone Don, Baggage)


Adam Murphy (Corpse Talk, The Phoenix)


Laura Howell (The Beano, The DFC)


Daniel Clifford & Lee Robinson (Art Heroes) I say, that's just a few names - there's loads more great creators out there doing workshops, I just had to start somewhere. I'd like to try and maintain a fuller version of this list somewhere. I'm going to come back to that in Friday's post, in fact.


  • Here are direct links to some template comics pages, which can come in very handy when getting kids started:




Anyway. As I think I mentioned earlier, the very best way to get kids excited about reading and writing and making comics is to give them some awesome comics to read. Which brings us to...


Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Comics and Literacy, part 2: The (New) Golden Age of Children's Comics

Fig 1: "Those Days Are Passed Now, And In The Past They Must Remain..."

In yesterday’s post I talked about about how important a role comics can play in developing children’s literacy skills and engagement with reading, and how this is absolutely as true today as it was in the oft-mentioned-by-old-people Lost Golden Age of Comics, when it was all fields around here and you couldn’t swing a cat for hitting Tammys and Whizzers and Valiants left right and centre.

I also outlined how there are certain problems stopping comics today from connecting with the widest possible audience of children; problems of ACCESSIBILITY and AFFORDABILITY.

Anyway, today, I’m going to begin proposing some solutions to those problems. Some answers to the central, crucial, all-important question:

How Do We Get More Comics To More Children?

There are several strands to this, several avenues - the newsstands and the supermarkets, digital distribution and the huge, centrally important role I think can be played by Good Old-Fashioned Actual Bookshops. I'm going to try and address all those things, possibly in a Supplemental to this series of posts. But for reasons of space and clarity, right now I'm going to focus on one particular solution, because it's the one I'm currently most excited about and it's one you possibly may not have previously thought of. How do we get more comics to more children?

Child Labour.

Wait, hear me out.

We get children making comics for each other! I’ve said this before and no doubt will again, but I genuinely believe that if there’s one thing that’s even better for developing children’s literacy than reading comics, it’s making comics. Engaging with stories, thinking up characters and jokes, learning to draw while you’re learning to write while you’re learning to read and none of it even seeming like learning because you're too busy having fun.

Comics is a uniquely engageable medium at this age range - for all the reasons of ease of imitability and low barriers to entry that I've talked about before, it truly is the Have-A-Go Artform. I'm sure there are 9-year-olds out there who've composed their own sonatas and written their own novels and coded their own epic shoot-'em-ups, but for a lot of kids such prospects are going to seem hopelessly daunting. But they can have a go at drawing comics, right now. It's just DRAWING.

And the best part is – you get a bunch of kids making comics, you then have a bunch of new comics for other kids to read! This was one of the big take-aways for me from the comics-making course I taught at the Story Museum this summer. I worked with an amazing bunch of kids and helped them to make and publish an issue of their own brand-new comic, The Awesomest Comic.

I hoped it would be a fun and rewarding experience for them, and something nice for them and their parents to take home. What I was perhaps not expecting was that the end result would hang together and stand alone so well just as a comic for kids; and for kids who weren't in any way involved in the making of it. It turns out that children are TOTALLY INTO reading comics made by other children. They’re not getting hung up on a lack of anatomical drawing skill or hankering after some high-end colouring techniques and complex gradients. They’re too busy laughing their heads off because someone drew a cheese-obsessed clam giving himself a head injury. (For example.)

Charlie the Cheese-Hunting Clam, (c)2014 by Alister Marsden

If you’re encouraging children to make and share their own comics, there are some very basic things that are desirable to achieve a Basic Degree of Legibility, but they’re pretty straightforward and can be taught in 5 minutes. In fact, let’s do so right now:

And, honestly, that's about it. Obviously there's a huge amount to share and learn about the art of making comics, and I'll be coming back to that later in the week, but in terms of hitting that Basic Degree of Legibility to let kids get off and running sharing their work with others, that's enough to get on with.

Because that's the thing -  it's now possible for kids to share their own creations much more easily than it was Back In The Mesozoic Era When We Were Young; digital printing and school reprographics departments and, y’know, THE INTERNET make such things eminently achievable, and lots of enterprising young persons are already doing so. I’ve mentioned Zoom Rockman and Jordan Vigay and their amazing comics before on the blog. Here’s another:

Pink Fluffy Ketchup Covered Flower Ponies #1! A brand new comics, to be released at Thought Bubble this November, by 15 young creators who're part of Team Ketchup - a "Children's comic review group, aged 10-15, about to embark on creating our own comics & helping people to comic jam".

Isn’t that cool? Imagine if there was a club doing something like that in every school. Imagine if in every school across the country, kids were being encouraged to make their own comics and then share them with their friends and with the rest of the school; to collaborate and compete and let their imaginations generally run riot. Imagine if libraries and after-school clubs and youth groups got in on the act, and imagine if there were some easy ways for all those kids making all those comics to share those comics with readers and with each other.

There's your Golden Age of Children's Comics, right there.

(Clockwise from top left: The Awesomest Comic by Various Artists, The Green Egg by Oscar Wooley, The Red Crow by Jordan Vigay, Pink Fluffy Ketchup Powered Flower Ponies by Team Ketchup, The Zoom by Zoom Rockman, The Twang by... umm, this fantastic kid who was at a school workshop I did the other day but whose name I totally failed to get a note of. I'M SORRY! Your comics were awesome!)

Because look. Here’s the thing. In the 1950s, the Eagle was doing 2 million copies a week. 2 million comics readers. And that - and the decades of abundance that followed, are still held up as the ideal, what we should be aiming to get back to. And I don't think we can, not in that top-down one-publisher-many-readers way, not with the newsstands the way they are now and with pricing and distribution models and all that other slightly dull stuff I talked about yesterday. So maybe we stop judging ourselves against that. Maybe we find some new and more exciting goals for ourselves, for where we are NOW.

2 million comics readers? Pfff. Whatever. You can keep it, 1950s.

Let's make 2 million comics creators.

TOMORROW: How We Do That, Exactly

Monday, 29 September 2014

Comics and Literacy, part 1: Why Reading Comics Matters

(Fig. 1: some comics, which are awesome)

Booktrust and Save The Children recently launched their Read On, Get On campaign; spreading awareness of a crisis in literacy rates, aiming at a target of every child leaving primary school to be able to read well by 2025, and calling on politicians of all parties and indeed the general public to do all they can to support this crucial goal.
I – obviously – applaud this initiative, and support its aims entirely. It's prompted a lot of discussion amongst the kind of people I follow on twitter, and I wanted to try and organise here in some semi-coherent fashion my thoughts on the role comics have to play in all this. Because I think comics can be a huge part of the solution to falling literacy rates. And indeed, I think their disappearance in the last 20-30 years from their previously central space in children’s lives in this country may well be a part of the reason for that crisis.

I'll kick things off in the traditional way when examining social problems: by sounding like an old man and moaning about how much better things were In My Day. (There'll only be a bit of this, I promise.) The role comics played in the childhood of many of my generation, and even more so the further you go back, was huge – and in hindsight, crucial. Comics were everywhere, and often free – stacks of them lying in ‘rainy day’ chests at school, at clubs, at mates’ houses, in dentist’s waiting rooms. There’d be a bunch to choose from and even if they didn’t have any of your favourites, what the heck, they were still comics right? And there was always a fresh crop to be had every week anyway, from every newsagent and corner shop in the land, at prices realistically within the realm of pocket money while still maybe even leaving enough change for a bag of Skips.

I'm honestly not just going to wallow in nostalgia here, mourning for some lost Golden Age of Kids’ Comics. I just wanted to outline a few of the key aspects of that situation, to highlight the differences between where we were and where we are now. Namely:
  • RANGE. This barely needs stating, right? We all know this? There used to be a huge range of children’s comics widely available across the country, and now there is The Beano. I’m simplifying slightly, but not much. A wider range is out there, of course. There are many, many people making genuinely great comics at the moment, but I think it is fair to say they simply are not on the cultural map of the vast majority of the population. They’re not in WH Smiths, or your corner shop, or really any place a kid is likely to be going on a weekly or more regular basis.
  • AFFORDABILITY. Most comics, these days, are not easily within the Pocket Money Affordability Range. And there are reasons for this, sure, in terms of printing methods and rising production values and distribution models and what have you. But the end result is: comics that you are not going to be able to buy a couple of and still afford a bag of Skips.
  • (Do they still make Skips?)
  • (Am I just not giving my kid enough pocket money?)
  • Anyway, these two factors in part explain and contribute to the main difference, which is:
  • ACCESSIBILITY. Comics used to be around - very easy to encounter and get in the habit of reading, without having to particularly set out to do so. And now, by and large, they're not. They were the water in which we swam, and now they are a remote legendary spring on a mountainside somewhere. They're still there, but only for the seekers and the kids whose parents can afford nice houses up on top of the mountain. The majority, sadly, probably aren't going to make the trip.

So, how did we get here? And does it matter? Do comics still have any relevancy to children, anyway? Haven’t we ended up in this reduced state because kids simply stopped caring about comics, moving onto video games and minecrafts and blah blah whatever we’re all supposed to be worried is ruining kids this week?

Firstly, let's just demolish any hint of a pretense that 'do kids still like comics?' is even a question. I could throw any amount of anecdotal evidence at you from myself and other comics creators who work with schools and libraries and children's literary festivals, anecdotal evidence that would border on "evangelical". Or alternatively, you could just look at the extraordinary sales figures of children's comics and graphic novels in other parts of the world. Children still like comics, to the best of my knowledge, in Japan and Europe and India and every other damn place. Raina Telgemeier sells 7 gajillion copies of every new comic she makes in the US. So let's just knock that on the head. Children still like comics. They love comics, when they get a chance to actually read some. So how did we reach this point where that's no longer happening in this country?

How We Got Here

There are essays and opinion pieces and twelve-volume histories to be written on that point, and I don’t want this to descend into negativity and accusations and recriminations. But I do think it's worth taking a second to address it here, as part of demolishing the aforementioned 'do kids still like comics?' not-even-a-question. Personally, I think there’s a couple of factors that help explain it:

  1. a resource drain from both the UK and the field of children’s comics, as both creators and publishers chased after new markets and artistic legitimacy by competing to show who could make the most ‘mature’ works. (‘Mature’ in this sense meaning, broadly speaking: stories about Batman dealing with erectile dysfunction)
  2. the increased focus of the remaining newsstand UK titles on expending resources and budget on the bit of plastic stuck to the front of the comic, rather than what’s inside the comic. 
Again, don’t want to get too negative here. Free gifts are awesome! Who doesn't like free gifts? And demonstrably, you will sell more issues of a particular comic if you stick a plastic laser gun and a bag of sweets to the front. But those free gifts aren’t really free, are they? They cost money somewhere along the line. And ultimately, if they come at the expense of making actual jokes and stories and awesome comics that engage kids' imaginations – well, yeah, maybe you’ll sell more issues of that particular comic. But I would argue that you are unlikely to make a generation of kids fall in love with reading.

I was giving a talk to teachers and librarians recently on this subject and I put together a few slides as a visual aid. They're abbreviated and simplistic, and no doubt horribly unfair, but hey. It made me laugh?

A (Somewhat Abbreviated) History of British Children's Comics



(Cover images blurred to protect the innocent. And also, because, honestly, I'm not trying to be a COMPLETE ass here. I just needed a punchline?)

So there you go, that's (my biased, arbitrary, possibly communist opinion on) How We Got Here. To turn to the second question:

Does It Matter? 

Yes, it matters.

There we go, that was easy. But seriously, it really does.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, about why we’re all doing this – those of us that make comics, and love comics, and try to spread the word of comics. Is it just because we loved them as kids, and want to see the medium continue? Because if that’s all it is, just a nostalgic self-absorbed desire to recreate our own childhoods, then frankly we should just call the whole thing off and all go home and eat a bag of Skips. It’d be cheaper and just much less hassle all round. But it’s not that. Comics matter, for all the reasons that reading matters. Learning to read makes a tangible, measurable difference to children’s lives and prospects, in terms of economic outcomes and quality of life. And comics are – have been, can be, will be again – a huge part of learning to read. Of reading for pleasure; of coming to love reading; making it not something that is enforced from above, a Discipline That Must Be Mastered, but something so exciting and cool and mind-blowingly awesome that it has to be torn out of kids’ hands when it’s time to go to bed.

And if any part of you is wondering if this is still true, if children still have that response to comics, then let me put your mind to rest right now: they do. They absolutely do. Comics perform a fantastic dual purpose:

  • providing kids with a visual narrative that they can follow and engage with while their verbal literacy skills are still developing, thus encouraging the development of those skills
  • offering unique opportunities for exciting subject matter that can hook kids imaginations, lending itself to strong visuals. Robots! Dinosaurs! Mutant rabbits with laser nunchuks! COMICS.
When kids actually get to see comics, when they are given exciting stories and phenomenal artwork and funny jokes about beavers doing a radioactive poo, they flip out. They dive in with both feet and get lost and fall for comics so hard that it alternately makes me inspired and delighted and, actually, angry.

Angry because I’ve seen, first hand and over and over again, just how much enjoyment and hilarity and genuine learning and TANGIBLE INCREASES IN READING DEVELOPMENT kids get from comics like Corpse Talk, or Dungeon Fun, or Moose Kid, or Star Cat. And because I know, all too well, that those comics are not a part of the lives of the vast majority of children, right now. They’re not in the corner shop, they’re not in big rainy day trunks at school, they’re not in the dentist’s waiting room. They are, to generalise wildly, the province of a privileged few: those with parents who can afford them and have even heard of them in the first place. All of which immediately limits your reach down dramatically to a pretty small circle of ‘in the know’ people. And whilst I love those people to bits and indeed am one of them, I think we can all agree it’s not enough. We need to break past that circle, to explode the art form outwards and back to where it should be; an available, accessible, affordable part of the lives of all children.

I'll be posting more on this subject every day this week, including some actual ideas and concrete proposals on how we actually, y'know, DO that. But first, tomorrow: the BEST way comics can help develop children's literacy, which I haven't even mentioned yet.



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