Comic Ethnographies: Graphic Narratives and Social Justice Research

Top: Panel from ‘Dunkirk Jungle’ by Edmund Trueman and Alejandra Pajares. Bottom: Panel from ‘What is Coming’ by James Walker and Ella Joyce.

Recently I took part in an online discussion for ‘Comic Ethnographies: Graphic Narratives and Social Justice Research’. The event was organised by the Centre for the Study of Inequality, Culture and Difference. I was joined by researchers, writers and comic artists who have used the comic format to explore and present questions of social justice and community action.  

My talk was called ‘A Tale of Two Comics’ and explored the different approaches to two comic series I have edited and produced. The first, Dawn of the Unread, celebrates Nottingham’s literary history. The social problem it addressed was the gradual lowering of literacy levels across the UK and the value of libraries and bookshops as hubs of civic action.  

The comics were published on the 8th of each month in 2014 to coincide with the launch of National Libraries’ Day and ran for sixteen issues. A comic is a complex creative production line with many roles required to assemble the completed digitised version. It’s a bit like setting off 16 rows of dominoes at overlapping times and watching them slowly fold into each other. In addition to the comic was a reading flash mob, a smartphone app, a literacy pack for schools, various talks at festivals, placements for over 200 students, a book, and using the project as a case study for Nottingham’s successful bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature. There was more but it’s exhausting just trying to remember everything we did. When the comics were finished, I spent a year staring out of the window.   

Whatever People Say I Am is a series of online comics challenging stereotypes. It was created in response to our very fragmented times whereby dominant narratives such as Brexit, Covid, and Trump have split communities in two. People are no longer complex and contradictory individuals but either with you or against you. To compound matters, these supposed divisions have been amplified by social media. The grammar of digital communication encourages us to scroll rather than dwell and so there is a danger of simplifying complex social issues. The aim of this project was to put a face to statistics. To create a space for refugees, migrants, the retired, and dementia suffers to share their view of the world and explain what it means to be them. To accommodate this, the comics ran to 20 pages long, whereas Dawn of the Unread were limited to eight pages.

The comics take roughly two years to produce. They are drawn from extensive research and focus groups, with many of the participants involved in the co-creation of the comics. If Dawn of the Unread was about speed, Whatever is firmly about delayed gratification. I much prefer this way of producing comics because you get to know your subject intensely and this leads to long lasting relationships.  Writing has always been about community building for me. Researching storylines is an excuse to stop and chat with people and get to know them better.  

The other panelists discussing their work included Hugh Goldring and Nicole Burton of Petroglyph Studios. Based in Ottawa, Canada, they have been adapting scholarship into comics since 2014. Their comics cover a broad range of social issues ranging from policing to refugees. Their most recent publication is Wonder Drug: LSD in the Land of the Living Skies, a history of psychedelic psychotherapy in midcentury Saskatchewan. You can see their work here

Edmund Trueman of Junk Comix has been creating and self-publishing underground comics for the last decade with a keen interest in the refugee crisis and the squatting movement. In 2021 he co-created the comic Dunkirk Jungle with Alejandra Pajares, based on interviews with residents of the Dunkirk refugee camp. In 2022 his first long-form graphic novel was published –Postcards from Congo.  

Alejandra Pajares has conducted anthropological research on urban conflict and gender in Turkish Kurdistan, and identity formation at Greek and French refugee camps. Alejandra is currently collecting people’s stories on the effects of gentrification in Barcelona.  

You can watch a recording of Comic Ethnographies on YouTube here.

Further Reading

Comic exploring student experiences of lockdown

The latest comic in our Whatever People Say I Am series explores student experiences during lockdown. This video includes some of the interviews that helped identify themes for the comic.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a comic about student experiences during lockdown. The idea was to create a space that would provide a creative outlet for students and as a means of building community during a difficult period of their lives. This is important to me, particularly in academia, where too often research does not involve the people it purports to represent.

This was done in a variety of ways, but I’ll focus on one for now. I contacted Catherine Adams who runs a third year PR and Journalism course and provided her students with a client brief to work on as part of their assessment. For this, they created a one-minute promotional video and interviewed a student during lockdown. The original intention of the interviews was to have them appear in a block of flats on a page in the comic. You would see the drawing of inhabitants and then click on the still to generate the vox pops. But this didn’t work out for a variety of reasons.

The interviews served an important purpose still in that they helped identify key themes students were experiencing during lockdown which then helped inform the narrative of the comic. There were lots of other focus groups and interviews with students, but more of that another time.

I wanted to do something with the original interviews as these were important first-hand accounts of the pandemic. But the overall quality wasn’t good enough. This is because the interviews had been shot in different ratios, and in different styles – some included music and others included subtitles. This meant I couldn’t edit them together into one short video as it looked disjointed. Instead, I found some pictures of old TVs and ipads on Pexels and put the clips inside of them. This helped differentiate between the varying content styles and gave the video better production values. Now instead of looking like something cobbled together it looked like each clip had been filmed for a specific picture (see below). I then included shots from the comic to break up each interview and to demonstrate how the viewpoint had informed the narrative.

Image by Anete Lusina at Pexels,

I’m really happy with the end result, particularly as all of the students who helped produce the interviews now have a tangible outlet for their work and have a more meaningful presence in the project.

Watching these interviews again, I’ve noticed lots of new details that I didn’t pick up on at the time, such as the nervousness of the Cypriot student and her inaccurate view that most students are asymptomatic. There is no scientific evidence that a student is asymptomatic but perhaps it was reassuring to think this during the pandemic because stories of younger people suffering side effects was rarely discussed. For example, the first findings from the world’s largest study on long covid (NIHR) has found that up to one in seven children and young people who had COVID-19 may have symptoms linked to the virus 15 weeks later. Lead author Professor Sir Terence Stephenson, from UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, said: ‘There is consistent evidence that some teenagers will have persisting symptoms after testing positive for SARS-CoV-2. Our study supports this evidence, with headaches and unusual tiredness the most common complaints.’

The comic exploring student experiences of lockdown is called Degrees of Isolation, a title suggested by David Belbin. The artwork is by Lauren Morey, an NTU Creative Writing graduate who worked on it during the final year of her degree. It is currently with Paul Fillingham who will be designing the cover and giving it the necessary digital makeover so that it can be read on our website. It should be available in December 2022. 

Cost of Living crisis: Libraries as warm banks

When Dawn of the Unread was created nearly a decade ago, one of our main questions was whether libraries could become a focal point of communities again. Rather than being just book storage facilities, we argued libraries had the potential to bring people together, to act as a hub for knowledge exchange, and to help generate the kinds of conversations that would equip citizens with confidence and access to communities.

I was originally sceptical of libraries as one stop centres, particularly as somewhere to pay your council tax, as this trivialised their purpose and brought negative associations. However, I changed my view when I saw people queuing up to use computers at City Library and listening into storytelling sessions. By having multiple purposes, libraries are able to connect with communities that may otherwise not come into contact with books.

One thing I mocked in the opening issue of Dawn of the Unread was the perception of libraries as inhabited by ‘oldies’ and serving no other function than to keep them warm. Who would have thought that a decade on, a reason for keeping libraries open would be exactly this – as warm banks.

As the cost of living crisis intensifies, families are forced to make impossible decisions between whether to eat or put on the heating. The fact that libraries can now help with one of these issues may be one of the reasons that kept Basford Library, the Radford Lenton Library and Aspley Library open after the council planned to close them to save £233,000.

The Broadmarsh Centre has finally been flattened yet Central Library, the fulcrum of this recently renovated area, has sat stagnant for too long. One thing holding this up, according to the Nottingham Post, is the £10m required to fit-it out. However, I wonder if this delay is also down to how much it will cost to heat and light such a large building. All of which makes it more important than ever to keep the other libraries open – for now.

Unfortunately, the question of whether a library can be a focal point of the community seems to be the least important function at present. The current economic climate means the ambitions, at least in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, are purely physiological, to provide shelter and warmth.  

Further reading

  • How to find your nearest ‘warm room’, as community spaces pop up across the country
  • Martin Lewis backs guide for libraries wanting to become winter ‘warm banks’
  • Art galleries and libraries to become ‘warm banks’ as energy bills hit £3,500
  • 3 libraries proposed to close as wait continues for central library to open in Nottingham
  • Prevent the closure of the libraries in Aspley, Basford, and Radford
  • Save Nottingham Libraries

Literary Leicester: Graham Joyce 

Graham Joyce press picture. Design by James Walker.

The following article is a rough outline of a talk I gave at Literary Leicester on how writers inspire us to make a difference. My chosen writer was Graham Joyce.

Graham Joyce was born in Keresley, Coventry on 22 October 1954. But Leicester was his adopted home.

I first encountered Graham at The Writing Industries Conference in 2010 where he delivered the keynote speech, warning writers that the days of a hefty advance for their novels were over. Anyone serious about becoming a professional writer needed to diversify their output. Digital technology and social media were transforming the literary landscape. Best get involved than be left behind.

Graham was good to his word. He helped develop storylines for computer games, scripted the short film Black Dust, and cowrote song lyrics with Emilie Simon. He was eclectic with genre, writing horror, ghost stories and a form of speculative fiction which defied classification. Some see this as magical realism; I prefer to think of his words plucked straight out of the hedgerow. He described his work as having ‘the flavour of dreams’ but his novels are also grounded in family, relationships, and an infectious zest for life.

Despite his reservations about the financial rewards of novelists, he was incredibly successful. As well as winning the World Fantasy Award in 2003 for The Facts of Life, and collecting an O’ Henry Award in 2009 for the short story An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen, he was the winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel five times. If he was a football team, his dominance of the genre would make him a Man City. A Pep Guardiola. Graham would appreciate this metaphor, but not the team. He was a Coventry City fan, occasionally writing for fanzines. He also played in net for the England Writer’s Football Team which he detailed in Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular.

Talk at Literary Leicester on 26 March. Photo: Aly Stoneman

So, why was he such a successful writer?

To answer this, you need to look at his life. He grew up in a mining village, worked at Butlins in Skegness, and spent ten years as a youth worker in Leicester where he believed the three R’s would get anyone back on track: Respect, recognition, responsibility. Each of these jobs and environments required an ability to connect with people. It’s this humanity which greets you on the page.

Graham was very much a writer who you could enjoy a pint with. He loved the energy of people and enjoyed sharing tales. He had courage and charisma about him. It’s this that led him to start an arts magazine in Leicester in 1980 with Sue Townsend who published a short diary entry about a certain ‘Nigel’ Mole. It was this that led him to quit his job as a Youth Worker in 1988 and drive to Lesbos with his girlfriend Sue, later to be his wife. They lived on a shack on the beach with no water or electric. But what he did have was the freedom to think and the time to write. One year later, his first novel, Dreamscape, was accepted for publication. Aspiring writers out there take note…   

Graham was awarded a PhD by publication from Nottingham Trent University where he taught creative writing from 1996 up until his death. As fate would have it, I now teach parttime at NTU and occupy his former office.

In 2013 I began work on Dawn of the Unread, an online graphic novel series celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. Graham was one of the commissioned writers but soon afterwards was diagnosed with lymphoma and unable to complete the work. He passed away on 9 September 2014.

The following year I was in Leicester with Lydia Towsey who I had commissioned to host some writing workshops. During the break I popped outside for a fag and got chatting to a young woman and her mother about the project. When I explained that Dawn of the Unread was a celebration of dead writers and aimed to bring them back to life by encouraging people to read their books, the young girl, then seventeen, said, ‘My dad was a writer, his name was Graham Joyce, have you heard of him?’

To cut a rather lovely and long story short, it turned out that Ella Joyce – the seventeen year-old women I was talking to – was about to start a Foundation in Art. I asked to see an example of her work and was absolutely blown away. I gave Ella her first commission and she illustrated the ‘Shelves’ comic in Dawn of the Unread.

I know that Graham would love the symmetry and peculiarity of this story. But he would also appreciate that youth had been given an opportunity. The commission gave his daughter respect, recognition, responsibility. We have since gone on to collaborate on Whatever People Say I Am, a series of comics challenging stereotypes.     

Ella’s artwork in Dawn of the Unread issue 14.

I’ve not read all of Graham’s nineteen or so novels. And this is deliberate. Books are precious. You can’t binge watch them like the latest series on Netflix. They need time to settle. I treat myself every three years or so to a new one. This year I will be reading The Year of the Ladybird.

In the last blog published on his website, Graham writes about the Anglo Saxon heritage of Wistow and how Charles Ist once galloped past here seeking refuge in Leicester. As he courts ghosts of the past, the Sence gently bubbles away on its way to meet the River Soar. He talks about his own mortality and ‘the shocking clarity that cancer brings’ only to discover later that a missile has randomly downed a plane in Ukraine and killed 300 people. This has more resonance today, given the current political climate. He then asks, ‘why anyone would want to die?’

It’s at this point a dragonfly whispers in his ear, ‘I have inhabited this earth for 3 million years old and I can’t answer these mysteries. Just cherish it all.’

And then his old friend, the heron, appears, and asks: ‘Why can’t our job here on earth be simply to inspire each other?’

Let’s make this our mantra today. To inspire each other as Graham Joyce and other writers have inspired us.

Literary Leicester is an arts council funded festival that ran from Wednesday 25 March to Saturday 26 March. The above talk was given during the festival closing event, Mi Duck: Writers Changing Leicester

International Women’s Day: Comic to imagine a future that’s ‘safe’ for women

Changing Minds comic: Words James Walker. Artwork Kim Thompson.

In 2020, during lockdown, I wrote a script for a comic called ‘Changing Minds’ which aimed to raise awareness of everyday misogyny. The script was based on research by language and criminology experts Louise Mullany (University of Nottingham) and Loretta Trickett (Nottingham Trent university).

Their Nottingham Misogyny Hate Crime work has recently influenced police and government policy, including the Upskirting Bill. In 2016, Nottinghamshire Police became the first force in the UK to make misogyny a recognised hate crime. The researchers hoped that this would become a national policy but on 28 February, MPs voted to scrap a proposal to make misogyny a hate crime in England and Wales as part of new public order laws.

For ‘Changing Minds’, Mullany and Trickett conducted a survey, focus group and interviews with 679 participants. The participants were asked about their experiences of harassment in Nottingham between April 2016 – March 2018. Their findings included:

  • 94% of respondents had either experienced or witnessed street harassment.
  • 75% of people who experienced street harassment reported that it had a longterm impact on them.
  • Only 7% of victims reported the incident to the police.
  • 94% of people considered street harassment to be a social problem

My job was to take this data and condense the findings into three pages of a comic. The narrative also had to contain a positive message to men to ‘call out’ offensive behaviour; include a diverse range of women; demonstrate how women experience misogyny in a wide variety of settings. This was quite a lot to fit into three pages, but constraint is the essence of creativity.

Changing Minds comic: Words James Walker. Artwork Kim Thompson.

My solution was to take one statistic from the report and use it as a framing device for each page. This meant that pages could ‘stand alone’ (and be printed out separately) while also providing context for the narrative. Given the density of the research, this helped to split the story into three parts and create a narrative arc.

The reason we were approached to create the story is because of our current project Whatever People Say I Am. This is a series of online comics challenging myths around identity. We haven’t included it on our website because the comic is too small at three pages. In terms of commissioning an artist, I spoke to Steve Larder who suggested Kim Thompson.

I mention this today, on International Women’s Day, as I’ve just given a talk with Loretta Trickett about a forthcoming comic we’re working on which will revisits some of these issues to imagine a world that’s safe for women. To do this, we’re asking women to come forward and share their experiences and ideas as this research will inform the narrative. One person this morning mentioned how her running route is determined by how well lit an area is and if there are other people around rather than a route that’s more aesthetically pleasing. Another person said she used to share her running route through an app until she realised this made her routines knowable to strangers. It’s these type of everyday anxieties we want to address in the comic.

Our intended publication date is the end of June. If you would like to get involved, please get in contact.


  • BBC. 28 February. Crime bill: MPs reject proposal to make misogyny a hate crime
  • Kim Thompson New Art Exchange Takeover
  • A comic strip to fight misogyny hate crime
  • A comic strip to fight misogyny hate crime
  • Changing Minds Report: The real impact of street harassment
  • Changing Minds educational resources