#MondayBlogs The Literary Art of Cracking Comics at Lowdham Book Festival

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Matt Green, Jonathan Rigby, Sally Jane Thompson and James Walker (L-R)

John ‘Brick’ Clark was the artist in our Slavomir Rawicz comic. His passion for the medium is infectious and so I was delighted when he asked me to chair a panel discussion for Nottingham Does Comics. Here’s what he had to say.

Lowdham Book Festival recently hosted an extraordinary panel session of Nottingham Does Comics, extraordinary for featuring three guests plainly steeped in comics culture and a facilitator hungry to learn more about ‘The Literary Art of Cracking Comics’, the subject for discussion. James Walker of Dawn of the Unread was armed with all the right simple questions a public warming to the medium might ask of a creator (Sally Jane Thompson), a retailer (Jonathan Rigby from Page 45) and an academic (Dr. Matt Green from the University of Nottingham).

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The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips had Page 45 oozing with compliments. 

Too often comics buffs gloss over basic questions like, ‘Which should I read first, the words or pictures?’ and yet therein lie the keys to a full appreciation of a literary form that, despite producing works of manifest sophistication tackling adult themes, is invariably and wrongly dismissed as strictly for the kids. Steeped in prose literature, James readily admitted he is immediately drawn to the linear form of the text before retreating back up the page to give the images due consideration. And why not, the panel suggested, if it works for you. There are no hard and fast rules. The medium has the power to control the eye and prioritise, and if any one page or panel doesn’t, that also is intentional in the best of works.

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Is it a comic? Is it a graphic novel? Artwork taken from Chasemagnett.wordpress.com

Prompted by James, the panel went further back to basics and clarified the terms – ‘comics’ is the art form, ‘comic’ or ‘comic book’ is the frequently serialized floppy magazine format, while ‘graphic novel’ is the uncomfortable term applied by the media to the spine-backed book format, encompassing autobiography, investigative journalism, historical works and everything factual, from academic treatises to comics cook books. Finally, ‘comix’ is the underground’s way of saying ‘Children Keep Out’. It’s good to know, but I would add ‘comics strip’ (a single line sequence) and ‘comics block’ (several tiers of the same, most frequently seen as a half page in an otherwise prose magazine or newspaper).

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Jens Harder: Alpha

Peppered with references to modern masterpieces like From Hell (scripted by Alan Moore, illustrated by Eddie Campbell), the discussion explored how writers and illustrators co-operate together. Sally made the point that writers tend to be protective of their words while illustrators are ever looking to bin as many as possible, aware that images can often speak the same louder or more sensitively. In the case of skilled writer-illustrators like Jens Harder (Alpha), it is evident the creative process leans towards the visual, paring down the prose to poetry, making every word count. For an auteur like the maestro Shaun Tan, words just get in the way of his mastery of visual poetry, exemplified in his wonderful The Arrival, about the great American immigration bubble.

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Ghost World

While everybody acknowledged similarities between comics and film (or maybe storyboarding is a closer comparison), the panel believed cross-fertilisation rarely worked in either’s favour. If Hollywood is presently filling off-shore accounts on the back of Marvel and DC, their industry is not doing our industry a great service. Jonathan considered Ghost World (based on Daniel Clowes’ sensitive account of adolescent angst) the best of the bunch, though Matt mentioned the excellent American Splendour, acknowledging the movie is more about its curmudgeon author, Harvey Pekar, than an adaption of Pekar’s actual memoire.

brides storyAway from the silver screen, Sally enthused about A Bride’s Story, a sumptuous historical romance by Japanese manga artist, Kaoru Mori. (Manga just means comics, only from Japan, just as bande dessinee are Franco-Belgian comics and manhua are Chinese comics. Manga and manhua are properly read right to left from back of the book, but many have now been flipped for the English-reading public, not always successfully.) Of Mori’s work, Sally said, “It is masterfully drawn and an absolute pleasure to read, but also beautifully composed, with an eye for smooth reading and clarity, despite her lavish attention to everyday details. She is willing to take time out of a larger story to dwell on a moment, so we experience it fully rather than hurrying from plot point to plot point. It’s soothing and uplifting, and an absolute comics masterclass.’ Plus, of course, Mori’s work gives the lie to suggestions that comics are a man-and-boy-thing.

makingFor some in the audience, the creative potential of specialist colourists and letterers to enhance a work maybe came as some surprise. Letters might just be code, but the look of the words can go way beyond standard fonts to imbue the text with significance and meaning. Jonathan referenced Brecht Evens’ hand lettering in his blindingly colourful The Making Of, and I would single out the mastery of the anarchic font employed in Wilfrid Lupano and Jeremie Moreau’s stinging anti-racist take on The Hartlepool Monkey. As to colourists and what they can achieve, our man from Page 45 positively oozed over the work of Elizabeth Breitweiser, specifically in the L.A. movie satire The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Sumptuous, flowing and precise for a 1940’s homage, there are pages where Elizabeth suddenly throws us a curve ball and renders a sequence in the block colours of a demented Mondrian.

Right now comics are such a rapidly evolving medium that an hour’s slot was never going to do justice to all the questions the audience needed answering. Though the turnout was small, it was evident the audience was excited and stimulated by what they heard. One couple cornered me with notebooks in hand and asked for the above recommendations again. Another member’s departing words were, “If I wasn’t already into comics, I’d be hammering down the door of Page 45 with an open cheque book!,” an appreciation that belied their age and escalating passion.

Nottingham Does Comics was at Lowdham Book Festival on Saturday 25 June (3.30-4.30pm) The panel was chaired by James Walker with Sally Jane Thompson, Jonathan Rigby and Matt Green. 

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#MondayBlogs Reading Capital in Nottingham

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Photo: John Hutnyk

There are many ways to read a book. I always read first thing in the morning and last thing at night as both represent quiet periods. I aim for an hour but this depends on how captivating the story is. If the weather is good I walk into work and listen to D.H Lawrence novels on Audible. If the weather is bad I get the bus and attempt to read but this is becoming increasingly difficult since buses started talking to us, reminding us to pick up bags or to join NCT’s Facebook page, then there’s the digital schizophrenics – the people who appear to be talking to the whole bus but are in fact wired up to their phones and holding a personal conversation. The trip only takes 5 minutes which is never enough time to finish a chapter, so I tend to read articles on my phone.

In the summer evenings I like to read at the end of my garden in a makeshift hammock that collapses if you lay in it for more than an hour, as if forcing me to do something more productive with my time. Then there’s the bath which functions like a form of solitary confinement and can go on for hours. The trick is not to drop the book in the water when you top up the hot with your toes, and to get out when your fingertips are so shrivelled up it’s like you’ve aged forty years.

I’m in a bookgroup that meets up every month, meaning I get to read on occasion for pleasure. This is rare as a lot of my reading is either related to journalism, education or a forthcoming digital project. We choose a different pub each time and sit down and have a meal. It’s an international bookgroup so I often encounter authors and books I’ve not heard of before as well as varying cultural perspectives.

When I was a founding director of Nottingham City of Literature I created the bookgroup challenge, hoping to create a city-wide read of Pat Barker novels for her recent appearance at the Nottingham Playhouse. The idea was that this would become an annual event, and bookgroups would be consulted on who they would like to see visit Nottingham next. City of Literature has recently appointed their first exec director in Sandy Mahal. She’s got an impressive CV and a background in libraries, so I’m confident she will build on this legacy and do wonderful things.

Here at Dawn of the Unread our desire to see younger people read has been strongly focussed around outcomes, mainly in improving literacy levels. Our manifesto positioned illiteracy as a form of child poverty and so we’ve attempted to create a thirst for reading by presenting 8 page comics exploring literary figures as well as guiding reading through a bespoke App and occasionally visiting schools.

Last week I got talking to a builder in his early thirties from Wales. He’s been a drug addict, in and out of prison during his twenties, and has just started to repair relations with his daughter now he’s finally got his shit together. He left school at 14 and can’t read or write. He said his daughter keeps offering to read to him but he’s too embarrassed. I explained to him the importance of reading with our children, if nothing more than to create a bond, and that in allowing his daughter to teach him to read it would help her grow in confidence, offering warmth to her father who she’s seen destroy himself for too long. He wasn’t having any of it. Too much time has passed. He’d got by without reading and writing so why bother now. But I’m not giving up that easily on him. I’ll just have to find him more jobs to do around the house so we can continue the conversation.

I’ve just joined what is possibly the most important bookgroup of my life. It’s a ten week reading of Karl Marx’s Capital vol 1 at the Nottingham Contemporary (20 Jul 2016 – 28 Sep) with Professor John Hutnyk. He’s been hosting these annual readings around the world and now it’s our turn. I’ve joined for three reasons: Firstly, I’ve quoted Marx often but I’ve not really read from the original sources. I feel like a fraud and this needs to stop. Secondly, the sessions last for three hours and include a two hour lecture from Professor Hutnyk. I want to learn how he takes complex ideas and makes them more accessible – the lecture then feeds into a one hour discussion. Finally, I feel like I’m economically illiterate. The last few years has seen expense scandals, banks fined up to 252billion in fines for mis-selling products and services, the introduction of zero hours contracts and the growth of temp agencies, insecurity at work due to restructuring and cuts, the impact of Brexit (my son was made redundant a few days after the referendum when the company he worked for had a contract cancelled) as well as the culture of free bred through the internet. The realisation that ‘everything that is solid melts’ is becoming an all too familiar reality as our phones become digital wallets and our financial transactions become more easily monitored. Technology may also offer convenience but it also removes labour. The unexpected item in the bagging area is staff as countless jobs are lost to self-service machines. Even Waitrose have got in on the act! The situation has got so bad that unassessed universal credit is the most practical way to deal with unemployment. There’s no need to justify being on the dole any more. It’s become a rite of passage.

I want to know why the world is in such a mess and if there are any alternative means of living. I’m certainly not a communist but neither do I believe in capitalism in its current manifestation. I just want to understand economics and how we can possibly get through this mess.

The bookgroup is comprised mainly of PhD students from University of Nottingham, but people have travelled from around the country for it. I counted thirty one of us on the first session and this includes artists, members of unions and political parties, casual staff, and my favourite, an unemployed woman who joined the group because it seemed to offer a good use of her time.

In the spirit of Marx I’ve offered up a regular post on the LeftLion website to share our journey. If a different person writes up their responses for each session we can create a dialogue that will stand as testament to how a varied group of people feel about issues directly affecting their lives. Obviously the group comes with limitations – it would take a very forward thinking boss to give someone three hours off work a week to contemplate how alienated individuals feel through labour – but it is a mixed bunch all the same.

We’ve got to plough through 100 pages a week of this beast of a book and it’s going to be a hard slog. I’d never do it on my own which is why bookgroups are so important. I need fellow travellers to help me through the dialectics, comrades whose facial expressions convey that they are as equally confused as me, and the reassurance that at least 31 people in the world are prepared to read something which takes them out of the comfort zone.

Sign up and join us for a ten-week course (20 Jul 2016 – 28 Sep 2016) on Karl Marx’s Capital Volume 1 Reading and writing with Professor John Hutnyk, in collaboration with Spokesman Books. The sessions take place on a Wednesday (11-2pm) at the Nottingham Contemporary

#MondayBlogs: Disaster Drawn and the art of Joe Sacco

Chute_Billboard_900x324In Disaster Drawn (2016) Hillary Chute puts forward a convincing and comprehensive argument that comics as a medium are perfectly positioned to document the horror and trauma of war, while bearing witness to spaces that have previously gone unreported due to censorship – there are, for example, no photographers allowed into the torture chamber – or because many stories of ordinary lives have simply been ignored for a variety of reasons.

The book is full of illustrations to help contextualise points, with some insightful textual analysis to help the reader better understand how meaning is created in a comic through style, use of gutter, etc. The book also creates a genealogy of key developments in war reporting, with case studies of the likes of Callot, Goya, Nakazawa, Spiegelman and Sacco so that we can see how different artists have influenced each other over the centuries.

I reviewed the book for the next issue of the Spokesman Journal, where I focussed primarily on the work of Hiroshima survivor Keiji Nakazawa’s eyewitness account Ore Wa Mita (I Saw It) which would spawn “atomic bomb manga”. But in this blog I’d like to share Chute’s observations of Joe Sacco, whose work is predominantly associated with the Balkans and Middle East.

I first came across Sacco’s work after watching Michael Moore’s superb documentary Bowling for Columbine (2002). In this, Moore made the observation that on the day of the infamous Columbine High School massacre (April 20, 1999) there were more bombs dropped in Kosovo than at any other point during the war. The point of Moore’s observation was that Marilyn Manson was demonised in the press as the reason for the killings, whereas Moore wonders if it may have had anything to do with a large defence manufacturer in Littleton being one of the main employers in the area: We are all products of our environment. This raised the issue of how the media tend to simplify the complexity of atrocious human acts to conform to prevailing narratives. All of which led me to Joe Sacco.

Sacco trained as and identifies as a journalist and is credited as creating ‘comics journalism’ as we know it today. This style is largely influenced by the New Journalism of the 1960s which moved away from reporting as an “objective act covering raw data” and instead allowed the scene itself to flourish, warts and all. Sacco has made it clear he does not believe in ‘objective journalism’ but this doesn’t mean that he isn’t governed by ethical standards. His skill, according to New York Times journalist David Rieff, is his ability to “evoke reality in lived details”.

Rieff explains that Sacco’s comics, such as the Bosnian inspired Safe Area Goražde (2000), is “the one that those of us who covered the fighting actually experienced day by day, rather than the one we mostly reported on”. Sacco is effectively recording the kind of voices and stories that would otherwise be overlooked and therefore is offsetting the “institutional narrativizations of history across (and enforced by) conventional genres and disciplines”.

Sacco visited Goražde, a largely Muslim enclave in Bosnian Serb territory, four times in 1995/6 purely because it was completely ignored by the media. In the comic he writes “It’s suffering was the sole preserve of those who experienced it” and to ensure those who “had been cut off from the camera” are as visual as possible, he has drawn detailed portraits of witnesses directly facing readers.  You can’t escape their faces. Art has rendered them solid. Goražde, along with Srebrenica, was one of six enclaves deemed safe by the UN in 1993. But clearly this was not the case.

Likewise, Sacco believes that “landscape is character”. He does this by constructing double page spreads of street scenes crammed with life and details. The eye inevitably misses something; every time you return to these pages you notice something or someone new. Revealing information that had been ignored by mainstream media has made Sacco’s work a vital voice in any discourse on war. His approach was validated when Palestine (1996) was reviewed in the New York Review of Books.

Hillary Chute argues argues that Sacco employs a photorealistic approach as a means of ensuring people written out of history are not forgotten. She observes that this is in stark contrast to the work of Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980) which uses sketchy lines “in order to signal his abdication of aesthetic mastery as appropriate to representing the Holocaust”.

dis drawnAs a literary journalist of ten years or so, I’m fascinated by Sacco’s approach and how he thinks about narrative. His work, such as Footnotes in Gaza (2009) “presents itself as a counter to official documentation, visualizing history based on oral testimony, and meticulously archiving previously unarchived voices”. Dawn of the Unread II will be giving voice to people written out of history: To ordinary lives that don’t quite fit into convenient metanarratives. Joe Sacco has been vital in helping me think about how to approach this subject – both through the art and the content of stories.

Hillary L Chute (2016) Disaster Drawn. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. £25.95 HB

#MondayBlogs: How to use Storify

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Storify is one of the most creative and intuitive platforms on the web for creating written content. So, as the official Storify Editors for Dawn of the Unread, we thought we would share some useful info with you over here on the blog!

If you’re thinking about using Storify, or maybe you’ve never even heard of it but are intrigued, this is the place for you.

So, lets start off by answering the question that many of you may be asking: What is Storify? Storify is an online tool that you can use (for free) to write your own content whilst including a range of other media from the Internet to enhance it. For instance you can use tweets, pictures from Instagram, YouTube videos, and links to other websites and blogs from right inside Storify. The ethos behind Storify is the web is awash with content and so this is an aggregation tool that allows you to drag existing content into one place. If this still doesn’t make much sense, watch the video below.

Here’s a quick look at what you’ll see when you start a draft. The right hand side is where you’ll get all your media.

Along with the vast amount of multimedia you can use, what we particularly like about Storify is how easy it is to redorder your text and media by simply dragging it to where you’d like. Probably the most useful feature, and one of our favourite, is that once you publish your story, you are abe to notify people on Twitter, using either the standard tweet given to you or a personalised version. This draws people to your Storify page – talk about quick and easy marketing! Our top tip is this: try and drag in tweets from a wide variety of users. Somebody with a couple of hundred followers is far more likely to retweet and share their inclusion on Storify than someone with a million followers who will probably be too busy to take much notice.

What we will say however, is that you need to be specific when you’re searching for content from social media and websites. For example, if you want to include a video from YouTube, you are very unlikely to get what you’re looking by simply typing in part of the title (or sometimes even the actual title), so we would advise you to go and find the URL and paste that into the YouTube search bar in Storify.

It’s worth mentioning that we all have different levels of engagement with social media, so try to find out if the people you are targeting are dippers, skimmers or divers. A dipper is typically someone who checks their FB page now and then. A skimmer is someone who checks over content, leaves comments on forums and enjoys casual involvement when it suits them. A diver is a webmaster or someone who creates a forum. They are passionate and devoted to their social media presence. Taking the time to find the right kind of audience as well as the right kind of people to engage with your project could dramatically increase visitors to your website and save you a lot of time.

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Screenshot of some of the Storify pages we created.

After having honed our Storify skills, here are our top tips if you’re thinking of using Storify:

  1. Make sure you have a Twitter account – you wont be able to find tweets to include, or notify people it you don’t have it.
  2. Embrace the freedom you have. Storify is about creating interesting articles full of content. Unlike other traditional forms of press, which have huge blocks of text, Storify lets you break up information with other forms of media.
  3. If you know a particularly source you want to use, for example tweets from a particular person, take note of who they are. If you already know their handle it will save you time (though don’t be afraid to search a general topic – you can find some interesting things).

Storify Editors

Before joining Dawn of the Unread as part of a placement module at Nottingham Trent University, we had not really used Storify before, and therefore had to learn the ropes pretty quickly. We were to create professional, entertaining and informative posts (and like to think we have succeeded). Although our role was initially to create content for each of the 16 issues of Dawn of the Unread, we were given the freedom to write about our own ideas inspired by the project, giving us the chance to talk about what we are passionate about. Some our favourite posts that we wrote are on censorship and local literary achievements in Nottingham.

We are really enjoying writing for Dawn of the Unread, and hope it shows. Here’s a link to the Storify page, you should go take a look

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#MondayBlogs: Superman vs Muhammad Ali

At the moment it feels like there’s some kind of celebrity Reckoning with Muhammad Ali taking his place alongside Prince, Victoria Wood, David Bowie, Terry Wogan, et al. But there’s a lot simpler explanation: we’re witnessing the deaths of the first generation of stars from the Golden Age of Television. Now that we live in an era of 24/7 television broadcast across 1000’s of channels, they’ll be breaking news of a ‘celeb’ dying every second once the Reality TV Generation start to kick it.

But Muhammad Ali was a proper celebrity. A courageous, charismatic, outspoken individual whose tongue was as powerful as his fists. We have two links with Ali in our comic. The first is with Brian Clough, the equally charismatic and outspoken football manager. Clough features in Issue 5: Booked where he becomes fused with Lord Byron to become Byron Clough – a hybrid with more rattle than a Brewers Fayre.

In 1970 Clough was manager of ‘them lot’ down the A52, but he was also gaining a reputation for his verve and wit as a TV football pundit. The ever so quotable Clough was compared with Ali, and so the boxer recorded a special message for Old Big ‘Ead which you can see above. Clough’s response? ‘I want to fight him.’

A more explicit link with Muhammad Ali came in Issue 9: Bendigo versus Nottingham. Here, Al Needham, the writer of the issue – and someone also renowned for his gobbiness – explains how a comic featuring the boxer inspired the narrative of his story. The below extract was originally published as an embedded essay within the comic.

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“The Lord Mayor of Nottingham is reading a DC comic published in the spring of 1978, where some alien mentalist started on planet Earth and said that if their planet’s champion battered ours in a fight, he would blow it up. Superman offered to sort it out, but Ali chelped off at Superman and said that he wasn’t from round here, so they agreed to have a preliminary scrap on Horrible Alien’s home planet – which had a red sun, so Superman wouldn’t be able to throw trains around and that.

Ali proceeded to give Superman a right panning, but the youth from Krypton managed to stay upright for ages until the ref stopped the fight on a technical knockout. Ali then went on to mash up the alien champion in four rounds, so they got a mard-on and decided to destroy Earth anyway. Luckily, Superman – disguised as Ali’s trainer – got his powers back and gave them a proper seeing-to, which is why you’re reading this today.

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The ‘stars’ in the above screenshot are links to embedded content. The two council bods are reading Superman Vs Muhammad Ali. Writer: Al Needham. Artist: Rikki Marr.

On the cover, we see a ton of famous people of the era at ringside, including the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Columbo, Donny and Marie Osmond, Wonder Woman, the Jackson Five, John Wayne, Andy Warhol, Kurt Vonnegut, Racquel Welch, Richie Cunningham, Jimmy Carter, Batman and Pele. We didn’t have time to do our own cover, but it would have featured Brian Clough, Jesse Boot, Su Pollard, Lord Byron, DH Lawrence, Robin Hood, Arthur Seaton, Alvin Stardust, the 1978 Nottingham Forest squad, Paper Lace, the Fat Slags, and assorted randoms about town who we owed a favour. And the Fish Man.”

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