Authors: Mark Hibbett, Guy Lawley, Tobias J. Yu-Kiener
Images: John Miers.
FRAME:WORKS was a one-day symposium on comics held at Central St Martins (CSM) on Friday, June 16th 2017, funded by University of the Arts London (UAL) Communities of Practice as a UAL Comics Studies Network event. It was organised by Mark Hibbett, Guy Lawley and Tobias J. Yu-Kiener, with sketch-noting by John Miers.
The symposium was devised to bring together a mix of comics academics, practitioners and professionals. Grouped into four thematic sessions, the speakers discussed the nature of working within frameworks, whether artistic, conceptual, professional or legal. The organisers envisioned that the term ‘framework’ could be perceived both negatively, as limitation and restriction, and positively, as a guiding and framing structure to a project. This idea was picked up by the speakers and carried on into the chaired discussions that concluded each panel.
The first session began with Emma Hayley, founder and director of SelfMadeHero, publisher of the Manga Shakespeare and Art Masters graphic novel series. She shared her experiences as a small scale comic publisher in London, explaining the different parameters that form the frameworks of a new comic book and arguing that every restriction has to be seen as an artistic opportunity as well.
Emma argued that deadlines can actually facilitate productivity and creativity. Working in a completely ‘timeless’ setting would be paralysing for artists because “you need to have limitations to make it possible.” Further, format limitations such as page count, length and the need for a preliminary page layout can assist in shaping the artist’s initial ideas into a final graphic narrative. The graphic novel medium (not a genre, as Emma pointed out) brings its own restrictions but at the same time an equal number of opportunities for a multisensory and interactive storytelling. However, if the artist is too tightly bound by restrictions the creativity gets “squeezed out”. Therefore, concluded Emma, at SelfMadeHero, the artist would have the final say and will be respected.
Lee Lightfoot, comic artist, illustrator and president of Black Ship Books, took the audience on a journey through his PhD research in the field of graphic medicine, with the creation of a graphic novel about mental illness as its core. Researching and describing such a sensitive topic had brought multiple challenges for him, especially since he was using real patients’ medical files as the basis of his work, and this had led to major difficulty when he had to get approval from the university’s ethics committee for his work
However, once the limits of his research (imposed by the ethics commission) were known it allowed him to develop the idea of an ellipse as a symbol for mental illness as the central motif of the graphic novel. Lee himself appears in various roles in the work, which tells the stories of patients from multiple perspectives. By using his own image for the characters he was able to work around some of the problems of privacy and recognisability, but this brought up further issues to do with the notion of truth. As Lee argued, any interpretation of somebody’s experience of a mental illness – whether graphically or literary – means “injecting subjectivity into other peoples’ lives.”
The second session featured two comics creators whose work had begun in the world of self-published fanzines and moved into the mainstream. Al Ewing began by discussing his early efforts making mini-comics, using single photocopied sheets which could be folded multiple times, stapled and then cut to make them readable. This was an easy and exciting way to get ideas out to a wider audience and was a natural introduction to the fast-paced storytelling of 2000AD, where he did much of his first professional work. He talked about creating the “secret crossover” Trifecta, where the writers of three Mega City One-based stories worked together to make their separate series intersect without giving any indication to readers that this would happen. The fact that the three writers could devise and execute the story without interference from the editorial team, or demands to promote it as a crossover, was typical of the style of Rebellion, the owners of 2000AD. When he moved to Marvel Comics he again found surprisingly few limitations. His work on The Ultimates included dramatic changes to the underlying reality of the Marvel fictional Universe, but his experience was that the bigger the concepts and the more massive the changes he undertook the less it seemed to impact with the day to day concerns of the more famous characters in other books, and so the fewer restrictions were placed upon him.
Josie Long had had similar beginnings with fanzines, although hers had been based on stand-up comedy and activism rather than comics. In her very earliest stand-up outings she found she could use her drawings to express points, and then later developed these into fanzines which she would distribute to audience members at gigs. All of this, she said, was influenced by the work of the American musician Jeffrey Lewis, who integrates his artwork into performance in a similar way.
When she began writing stories for The Guardian she found, like Al, that she faced little editorial interference. She suggested that this might partly have been because she was producing comics, which the editorial team had much less experience with, rather than articles. She had found comics-making helpful in developing her own storytelling, especially when it came to using external characters to express alternate ideas, and felt that there were many similarities between stand-up and self-published comics, as both allowed for a rapid, unhindered expression of ideas. In both cases an idea developed in the morning could be disseminated the same evening.
The next session began with a talk by Paul Aleixo, senior lecturer in psychology at Sheffield Hallam University, about the use of comic strips as educational tools. He described the many challenges involved in getting his comic strip textbook Biological Psychology: An Illustrated Survival Guide (Aleixo & Baillon, 2008) into print, including the assumption by publishers that a comic strip must be for children or remedial students. To counter this attitude, Paul was able to quote numerous examples of comics designed to educate, including Will Eisner’s comic book-style PS, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly and Larry Gonick’s Cartoon Histories. The idea that comics could be a good way to absorb complex information is consistent, Paul said, with Paivio’s theory of dual coding in human cognition, involving separate but interconnected nonverbal (image-based) and verbal systems. A number of studies have been published investigating the use of comics in educational settings, but research empirically demonstrating their usefulness has been very limited. Paul, therefore, set up a controlled experiment. He presented undergraduates with the same information in comic book form (pages from his textbook), as pure text, and thirdly in ‘incongruous text’ form (the same words from the textbook, but now accompanied by random, unconnected images), then tested their memory of what they had read. He found, with statistically significant results, that the comic strip format did, in fact, give the best results. He now plans to test this hypothesis further, including working in primary schools.
Rachael House was the next presenter. Rachael is an artist in many different media and co-director of Space Station 65 in Kennington. She has a long history of making zines, many of which are wholly or partly comics-based, including several issues of the autobiographical Red Hanky Panky. She showed strips from throughout her career, and it was noticeable that even in a public slideshow, removed from the usual personal experience of reading a zine, they retained a moving, emotional power. In contrast to Paul’s informational textbook, Rachael’s work was autobiographical, self-expressive, and allusive. Her strips also demonstrated the fierce intellect behind her work, using comics to get across the experience of a queer feminist artist. The old truism that ‘the personal is political’ was reinvigorated by this rich body of work. Arguably we saw in this session how the dual-coded power of the comic strip can work in contrasting ways to achieve different, powerful effects on the reader.
For the final session, Richard Daniels delivered a generous insight into the scope and challenges of his work as Senior Archivist at the University of the Arts’ Archives and Special Collection Centre (ASCC). He is based at London College of Communication (LCC) and is responsible for 17 different archives, with a focus on film-making, printing history and graphic design. Of special interest to Comic scholars is the Les Coleman Underground Comic Collection, a massive collection containing material from the late 1950s through to the early 2010s. It features probably the largest Robert Crumb collection in the world, alongside works by Julie Doucet, Aleksandar Zograf and many others. Richard was particularly proud of their complete runs of the magazines Arcade, Bijou Funnies and RAW. In his role, Richard has to manage the difficult split between the necessity for preservation and the demand for public access. He finished his part of the day with an amazing hands-on session, where people could handle some of the archival comics, read them and ask questions.
To close proceedings, John Miers, comic artist, illustrator and UAL lecturer, talked us through his sketch notes of the symposium, some of which have been used as part of this report, with the complete set available to view on his website.
The symposium was deemed to be a great success by those who attended, although the organisers hope that, in future, they will be able to attract more attendees from the undergraduate community. The range of speakers demonstrated how much fascinating and diverse work is currently being undertaken in comics and comics studies in the UK, and the organisers would like to thank everybody who took the time to be a part of the day.
There are plans to continue in a slightly different format as FRAME:WORKS Discussions at the various UAL colleges.
- Aleixo, P., & Baillon, M. (2008). Biological Psychology: An Illustrated Survival Guide. Hoboken: Wiley.
- Aleixo, P., & Sumner, K. (2017). Memory for biopsychology material presented in comic book format. Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, 8(1), 79-88.
- US Army Defense Dept. (1951-present). PS: The Preventive Maintenance Monthly. Washington DC: US Government Publishing Office.
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