ENGAGING AND EDUCATING THROUGH COMICS: AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVE GIBBONS
WATCHMEN ARTIST AND UK COMICS LAUREATE LAUNCHES GRAPHIC TEXT SERIES WITH OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
It’s difficult to think of a singular talent more influential to the form of comics today than Dave Gibbons. As both an artist and a writer, his bibliography reads like a treasure map through comics history, with big fat Xs on titles like 2000 A.D., Dr. Who, Judge Dredd, Batman, Superman, Hellblazer — and, oh yeah, this little ditty in the ’80s called Watchmen.
But as if his work wasn’t enough of a contribution to the craft, Gibbons has spent the last two years serving as the UK’s first-ever Comics Laureate, a post which sees him advocating for the status of comics as an art form, a storytelling medium, and perhaps most importantly, an educational tool. Gibbons has long been a proponent of the power of comic books and graphic texts in improving children’s literacy, and since being appointed as Laureate he’s used the platform to extend his reach in the field, working directly with teachers and librarians to assemble graphic reading lists and encouraging students to crack open a book and get lost in their own imaginations.
Taking this mission a step even further, Gibbons recently partnered with the Oxford University Press (yes, that Oxford) to develop a series of graphic texts for primary school classrooms. Serving as editor on the books, which are part of OUP’s Project X reading and literacy curriculum, Gibbons worked with a large team of writers and artists from all over the world to give an illustrated spin to classic works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry — as well as creating all-new graphic textbooks designed to engage the minds of young readers while improving their comprehension skills and raising reading standards.
This week I had the pleasure of speaking with Gibbons about Project X, his time as Comics Laureate, and why he feels it’s vital to introduce children to the simple pleasure of reading a good book.
IP: Let’s start off by talking about your position as the UK’s first Comics Laureate. How did you come to this role?
Dave: A friend of mine, a school librarian called Paul Register, he started a thing over here called the Excelsior Awards, which were awards for the most popular graphic novels in school libraries. He got Stan Lee to endorse it, and he had some success with that. And I’d done a talk at a consortium of schools that [Paul] organized and I like the idea of going into schools and enthusing about comics to try to improve literacy, and more than anything to help children enjoy reading. So he talked me into becoming the Comics Laureate, which sounds rather grand. It’s obviously got no official backing; it’s not like being made the Poet Laureate or something like that where it’s got backing from the central government. But it’s quite an amusing title, and it got a lot of interest from the media and I did a lot of TV and some newspaper interviews, and some radio interviews as well, and it certainly got the idea of comics being used in literacy out there. It’s been quite successful. I’ve only got a few more months to go; I have to hang up my gown in February of next year, so we’re going to have a big handover in October at the Lakes Comic Art festival to the new incumbent of the role, which of course at the moment is top secret and I think will be a good surprise.
What has the experience been like for you?
It’s been quite a positive experience. I have to be honest, in some ways it’s been like trying to unlock a door that wasn’t really locked. I’ve been to a few meetings of school librarians and teachers, and the response has been very, very positive. A lot of the librarians do already encourage graphic novels and comics in their school libraries, and the teachers are very well aware of how much children like to read comics. The main thrust of it has been to actually come up with reading lists that are age and ability-related so that they can give the right kinds of comics and graphic novels to their children. But it has been very positive, and I’ve greatly enjoyed talking to the librarians and school teachers. My stepdaughter happens to be a teacher, and although she’s not a mainline comics fan and she looks at what I do with a slight bit of amusement, she absolutely loves these books that the Oxford University Press has done.
Comics have long carried a bit of a stigma as “junk art” or even subversive material. Has that been a challenge in your efforts as an advocate for the craft?
Well as I say, the doors are very open to comics nowadays. Certainly when I was growing up, particularly in England, American comic books were looked upon along with rock and roll as real junk culture. I could tell you a long horror story about the school I went to where they actually raided people’s desks and lockers and confiscated comics and actually burnt them. And then thirty years after that my son went to the same school and when they found out that his dad did comics the actually invited me into the school and they were very excited about the things I had to say and the librarian wanted recommendations for graphic novels and comics. And maybe twenty years after that I was invited back to the school when they opened a new art facility, and I notice now that in the school’s prospectus I’m one of their featured old pupils. So comics have gone from being a thing that should be ripped out and burned to something which is pretty cool even to the academic establishment.
So tell us about Project X. How did this program come to be?
The Oxford University Press had got wind of the Comics Laureate thing and they approached me. They’d already published lots of illustrated story books for schools and they knew from their research that comics were now very popular and were sort of mainstream culture, and they wanted to use their expertise at aiming books at specific abilities and age groups to actually get a line of graphic novels out there. They had on hand some very good and experienced children’s writers and some very good and experienced children’s artists, but they didn’t quite know about the art of comics. So that was where I came in to educate them in how you actually told stories in comics and what the conventions of comics were, what made them read easily, what made them read more difficulty — the aesthetics of the whole form, and they seemed to grasp those quite quickly. There were a lot of elementary problems to overcome, like leaving enough room for the word balloons and having the characters appear in the right order so that their balloons read logically, but once we got past things like that I was absolutely amazed at the freshness of what they brought to this form, and I’m really, really proud at the way they’ve turned out — and I’m not just saying that. That’s not just puffery. I really do think that they’re very well done books, that they have a great impact, that they’re interesting to read, that they’re emotionally involving, and certainly the feedback we’ve had so far would seem to support that.
I know most of our readers don’t have to be sold on the power of comics, but for the uninitiated, why would you say graphic texts are such an effective way to engage and educate kids?
Well I think we increasingly live in a very visual society and kids are used to getting their messages not only through words and speech but through images as well. I mean you only have to look at the use of the Internet to see that there’s this huge increase in the importance of the graphic element of education and entertainment. [Comics] do involve kids as well; you actually have to do the synthesis, you actually have to perform the closure and make the inference of how one picture relates to the next picture, and how the words resonate with the pictures and the way in which you get different information and the way in which what you see in the picture can modify what you read in the words — and vice versa. So they’re a very immersive form of reading, and also, because they chop text up into shorter lumps — you know, on average a comics balloon has twenty, twenty-five words — there are no intimidating grey blocks of close-typed text that you have to decode, which particularly for those who have difficulty with reading is a challenge.
You have many collaborators on this project. How did you select the teams of artists and writers?
I didn’t personally select them; this was up to the editorial people at OUP. As I say, they’re very used to dealing with illustrators and writers, and I think a lot of the artists were recruited from overseas, so there really is a wonderful range of styles and a wonderful freshness to what these artists have done. And sometimes the challenge has been to add pictures to a text which is already well-known in an illustrated form; I think particularly of Alice in Wonderland and the Jabberwocky and the Wind in the Willow stuff where there are pretty established pictorial looks for them, and the artists have managed to come up with their own fresh take on things.
As someone who has made comics your entire life, what new challenges has this project presented?
I don’t know that they’re necessarily challenges, but the Chinese say that to teach is to learn twice, and I think I’ve had to be quite analytical and go back to first principles of comics storytelling and just exactly what the medium is and how it works. That’s been quite good for me to actually have to put what I know more or less instinctively now into some sort of logical set of instructions. That was quite a rewarding thing to do.
Beyond the incredible educational value, what do you hope kids take away from these books?
One of the NUT [National Union of Teachers] conferences I did was about reading for pleasure, and I think that’s what you’d want young people to think, that reading is a pleasure. Certainly it’s been a pleasure for me all my life, and I think whether it’s straightforward text or text with pictures or text told in comic strip style, there is a very personal, private, intimate joy of reading where you open a book and disappear into a world and close the book and come back into the real world — and then dive in again and reenter that world of the imagination. So I think that’s what we’re trying to do. And particularly things like poetry or some of the classics have gotten kind of a bad reputation over the years as being difficult and being intellectual, and I think it’s great just to show that, at all levels, reading is just a very pleasurable pastime.
What about for you? What have you learned during your time as Comics Laureate?
There is a great interest in comics, there is a great interest in the printed books still, despite all the stuff that’s available online. I think teachers and librarians are open-minded about things now days, and that there’s just culture — that the ideas of “high culture” and “low culture” I’m glad to say are kind of fading away.