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. 

Joining up the dots…

In this guest blog, Izaak Bosman explains why he’s been fannying about on his laptop doing arty stuff to get you lot reading.  

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Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

There is a spectre haunting the city of Nottingham – the spectre of Dawn of the Unread. I find this phenomena fascinating, especially as a literature student who grew up in and around the town itself. But before I began studying at the University of Sheffield last September, I had largely neglected my local literary heritage. D. H. Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe, Alison Moore and Mary Howitt were names I recognised, of course, but not writers I had read myself. This has gradually begun to change, as I have since started to recompense for my negligence of Nottingham’s finest.

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Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

And so I welcomed the opportunity to get involved with the project itself, as I was commissioned to devise a series of digital artefacts by James to help promote local literature and its corresponding establishments. In essence, I was commissioned to create a set of spoof advertisements centred on the Pop Art of the 1960s. Collages, in effect, compiled from old cartoons, commercial posters, and other assorted items. In creating the images, then, I followed a methodical process. I began by creating a polka dot backdrop layer, playing with the hue to create different colour pallets, before imposing characters I had cropped out of advertisements or artworks onto it. Then I added the text. Speech bubbles and captions added literary twists as businesspersons spoke with the Nottingham dialect and schoolchildren looked up to D. H. Lawrence as though he were a superhero. These punchlines replaced outrageously sexist remarks, as women went from being hung up about hair and makeup to being far more interested in their personal book collections. Satirising convention, then, was essential to the creation process.

Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

I suppose there are parallels between the digital artefacts and the Dawn of the Unread project itself. Both are reminiscent of bygone days, and both seek to explore the past from a modern perspective. This reimagining makes literature accessible, relatable even. And that is the way it should be.

dotu on computer
Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.


DOTU Round logo

Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

Spoofing sexist adverts to promote reading

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Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

For 12 years I was the literature editor of LeftLion magazine. It was an incredible experience, particularly the editorial meetings where it was compulsory for everyone to smoke and swear. The LeftLion attitude back then was not to take yourself too seriously, prod and poke at anyone who thought they were summat, and to find unique ways of saying stuff that had been said many times before. In local dialect this meant being chelpy.

It’s probably because of this that I’ve enjoyed creating these spoof adverts with help from a very talented English student called Izaak Bosman. A lot of the adverts below appeared in women’s magazines, many from a period in history when the only purpose of a woman was to look pretty, get a man, and do as she was told. You could say that we’re subverting meaning, that these appropriated adverts represent semiotic warfare, but the truth is we just like fannying about on a computer and this is more fun than tweeting me me me me me.

We’ve all been in relationships where it suddenly ends and you have to start sharing out the possessions…which is why I’ve always insisted on keeping my books on my bookshelf so that none of them get pinched. To this day I am still fuming that an ex kept my first edition copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin when we went our separate ways. The cover, its place on the bookshelf are so vivid I have nightmares still to this day. So the advert above is for all of those with a broken heart (and a stolen book).

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Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

You want a man to kiss you? Get the right lipstick! But from our perspective the only thing that will put you both ‘on the same page’ is reading the same book. This advert was also an opportunity to promote Five Leaves Bookshop. At every opportunity Dawn of the Unread has tried to promote and support other organisations.

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Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.
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Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.
what is she reading
Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

We added the ‘what is she reading’ to this one. I can’t remember what ‘she’ should have been doing. It was probably something like ‘But what is she cooking?’

we can read
Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

“We Can Do It!” is one of the most iconic adverts in history. It first appeared as an American wartime propaganda poster produced by J. Howard Miller in 1943 for Westinghouse Electric as an inspirational image to boost worker morale. The little brain on the lapel relates to one of the four tasks we set readers on our App and coincided with the launch.

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Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

If you google ‘woman reading’ you’ll find millions of paintings. I particularly like this one by Charles Edward Hallé (1846–1914), an English painter of history scenes, genre scenes, and portraits. Expect many variations on this in the future…

DOTU Round logo

Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

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.

“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. From issue 9 Bendigo v Nottingham.

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.”

DOTU Round logo

Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.


Sixteen Issues Later…

Sixteen months and sixteen issues later and it’s all over. I don’t know whether to cry or scream for joy. Some sleep might be a good idea. Ironically it has taken us till this point to figure out the identity of our front covers which is why only the last two are identical in format. We may dip back into the technological void and remedy this at some point but for now, here’s all of the covers with a bit of blurb explaining the process.


Issue 16 Paul picked up from the previous cover and branded this the same. This time he lobbed in our Guardian award, too, which we would make more noise about if we had the time. I love the way the title is given a kind of superhero status and the colours look glorious on an iPad. There is no living image of George Africanus and so I had to give artist Conor Boyle a general guide as to what would work. My only concern is Africanus’s eyes should be brown and I don’t want to be accused of distorting his roots by making them green. But for now they stay.


Issue 15 When Gary Erskine sent through his roughs for this comic he’d used a backdrop of a bridge from Newcastle to reference one of the titles held by Margaret Cavendish’s husband William. But this may have confused readers picking up a literary comic based around Nottingham and so I sent through various images of local locations with my preference being the Writers’ Studio (I was the Chair for three years). Therefore this had to be the cover. But this was a difficult decision given the comic is centred around a ROLLER GRRRL mirroring Margaret Cavendish’s life. Again, Paul added some colour but in constant consultation with Gary who used minimal spot colours in the comic. This was also the issue where Paul found the identity for our comics and at some point will go back and change them all so that they follow this format (Dawn of the Unread logo, credits)


Issue 14 Considering this is teenager Ella Joyce’s first commission I was blown away when this artwork came in. Like Corrina Rothwell she has an exceptional eye for colour. Stanley Middleton wrote 44 books, roughly one a year, and this is represented by the years flowing above his head.


Issue 13 has the distinctive colour palette and fun drawings you expect from Corrina Rothwell. My only input here was it had to have a spider’s web somewhere to refer to the title – which was decided a few hours before publication. I love the textures Corrina uses for Mary Howitt’s face, and the greyness works well too.


Issue 12 Carol Swain sent through her artwork in the post on A5 paper which left me petrified in case it got damaged. Paul quickly scanned it in and then took elements out to create his own front cover. The title refers to a famous quote which appears on the opening page of Sillitoe’s debut novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Carol was commissioned because her rough crayoning style captures the gritty realism of Sillitoe’s work and so Paul made this more prominent in the background. My only input was insisting Ray Gosling, Blakey and the Brains man appeared somewhere as I knew locals would enjoy these references.


Issue 11 Steve Larder went for a simple cover. The communist icon refers to Geoffrey Trease’s Bows Against the Barons, which was a kind of Marxist interpretation of the Hood legend. There’s just enough information to make you wonder what’s inside the book although I think I would have preferred Steve’s drawing of Geoffrey Trease pulling back a bow as the cover, mainly because I love the way he draws faces with their pointy noses.


Issue 10 Aly and Amanda Tribble probably had the most dialogue when working together and discussed every detail, stage and process of the comic. I love the silhouette bringing Nottingham’s most famous couple together in one image. I was also delighted that Amanda drew a more masculine looking Ms Hood rather than some big breasted stick insect in pink tights.


Issue 9 We had lots of discussions about what Bendigo should be smashing for this cover but the iconic lions in front of the Council House did the trick. It may also be read as a nod to Al Needham’s former role as editor of LeftLion magazine. My favourite bit is the stag in boxing gloves at the bottom of the page, mocking Nottingham’s crest. This was our second issue to come with an age warning due to swearing and fighting.


Issue 8 Although this cover was drawn by Toni (or Tony) Radev, Paul decided to add a bit of colour as he felt this would work better on mobile devices. I personally would have liked this cover to have featured numerous tunnels coming in and out of the page to get across the Duke of Portland’s subterranean obsession. But it does feature the main characters of the story which is the purpose of a cover.


Issue 7 Hunt Emerson totally changed our perceptions of how much text you can fit on a page with easily the most comprehensive literary analysis in our series. DH Lawrence constantly raged against the world and this is captured in glorious colour here. Even the black border to the credits has sharp edges to get across his prickly character. This is easily our most popular cover.


Issue 6 This cover beautifully captures the delicacy and simplicity of Judit Ferenz’s style. It was the first issue we had to add a 13+ warning to due to the drug references inside. Hence the rave dummy…


Issue 5 Kate Ashwin didn’t do a front cover and so this was down to Paul and I. The most important thing was the title stood out as Byron Clough is such a wonderful pun we knew this would create intrigue. I love the font that Paul chose for this, it really captures the playfulness of our literary hybrid.


Issue 4 Our Gotham Fool issue explored the porous boundaries between what is real and what is fiction and the problems with labelling behaviour. To symbolise this Francis Lowe boxed in the cover credits. As for the green frog… What green frog?


Issue 3 Originally we wanted every issue to be in colour but when Eddie Campbell insisted his must remain in black and white we weren’t really going to argue. This cover is a mock up of an iconic front cover of the Police Illustrated News that ran with the headline: ‘Phrenological Head of Charles Peace, The Burgler’


Issue 2 John ‘Brick’ Clark was so inspired by Slavomir Rawicz’s life that he became a keen traveller and hiker and so put himself on the front cover. It was coloured by Confetti student Jessica Parry.


Issue 1  This artwork was created by Mike White and uses samples from real 1950s comics. It doesn’t include the name of the writer (me) or the artist. This was largely due to it being our first cover and therefore not being entirely sure what information should be on there. It is most likely that this cover will be replaced with a mock up of a Salvation Army poster as we are currently working on this for another project and it may simply be too good to waste.

DOTU Round logo

Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.