Graphic Novels and Literacy

ipadpaulThe following article was originally published in the August issue of the Southwell Folio. This is a magazine edited together by Penny Young which will sadly cease publication at the end of December.  

In 2014 I created an online graphic novel serial called Dawn of the Unread. The narrative conceit is that, incensed by the closures of libraries and low literacy in 21st-century Britain, Nottingham’s most famous dead authors return from the grave to wreak revenge. It’s at this point I should make a confession: I am not an expert in graphic novels. In fact, prior to the project I didn’t even read graphic novels. But it was the right medium for my target audience: reluctant readers.

As far as I’m concerned, illiteracy is a form of child abuse. And Britain’s never had it so good when it comes to this shameful social problem. According to a major study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), England holds the unenviable title of 22nd most illiterate country out of 24 industrialised nations. The study involved over 166,000 adults and went as far as to suggest the potential threat of “downward mobility”, whereby the younger population is less well educated than the older generation. Not what you’d expect in the ‘Information Age’.

Literacy is a particular problem in Nottingham. Recent figures suggest six out of ten teenagers leave school without five A* to C GCSE grades, including English and maths. We were recently ranked worst in the East Midlands for level two SATs results with 77 per cent gaining a level four or higher, below the 79 per cent national average. It’s a right mess and it makes me furious which is why I decided to do something about it. But we’re getting somewhere. Dawn of the Unread was vital in Nottingham being accredited as a UNESCO City of Literature and was used as an example of best practice in how to engage youth through digital technology. The City of Literature has now become an educational charity, with improving literacy their number one goal. I’m proud to have helped contribute to this conversation.

There’s been much written about the diminishing attention spans of our ‘youtube generation’ so thrusting ‘complex’ books on them isn’t going to help. If teenagers reading levels are already low, Shakespeare will only frustrate them further. Instead, I’ve tried to create a thirst for knowledge. To tease, tantalise and inspire by creating a series of 8 page comics which offer snippets into the lives of our incredible diverse and rebellious literary heritage. By using a wide variety of styles (reportage, poetry, fiction, gallows ballad) and combining different writers and artists, I hope that one of the stories may appeal. And if teenagers go on to the library to get out books, it will be because they want to learn more.

dotu-city-of-lit

So what is a graphic novel?

The term ‘graphic novel’ was first coined by Richard Kyle in an article for Capa-Alpha in 1964. But to be blunt, it’s just a means of making a comic sound more respectable. There is a prevailing attitude that comics are a form of dumbing down reading and that they are somehow inferior to literature with a big (or little) L. But having edited together 16 issues of Dawn of the Unread I can assure you that comics are anything but simple.

A comic is a kind of creative production line which involves: a writer, artist, colourist and letterer. The writer and artist are co-authors of the text and it’s vital that both get to express themselves equally. Therefore a writer must not be over descriptive as a broad range of ideas can be illustrated by the artist. The style of the artist can also reflect the theme of the story. I selected Carol Swain to illustrate the life of Alan Sillitoe (issue 12) because she draws in rough crayon on textured paper. What better way to subtly reflect the gritty realism of Sillitoe’s writing?

Each page of a comic consists of a limited series of panels (frames) which function to create a sequential pace to the story. This helps you feel the action unfolding and is similar in purpose to a storyboard. How characters react in frames offers a further layer of meaning too. The Gotham Fool (issue 4) is the tale of a group of people who feigned madness in order to avoid building a highway for King John. At the time madness was perceived to be contagious. Labels are a means of reducing identity to one fixed point, so we reflected this in the art by the way characters are not constrained by panels. They break out into the gutter (the space between panels), suggesting a degree of freedom.

05-01Colour is also an important signifier of meaning. When we created the charismatic hybrid Byron Clough (issue 5) we used bright colours and thick black lines, just to stop verisimilitude and reinforce that he was imaginary. Likewise the use of font (letterer) can capture the essence of a character. In issue 11 we explored Geoffrey Trease’s debut novel Bows Against the Barons which features Robin Hood. The font is sharp and crisp, as you would expect from a master archer.

By making Dawn of the Unread available online I was able to utilise the potential of digital technology by including embedded content. This means that when you click on a star icon within a panel it provides contextual information, such as essays. This helped facilitate more insightful discussions for more confident readers who wanted to go deeper into the text. As far as I’m aware nobody has done this before.

Finally we created an App that enabled users to ‘play’ Dawn of the Unread. This consisted of a series of tasks, bringing in a gaming element to our project. By using a wide variety of styles and storylines, making the comic available across media platforms, and providing different narrative routes through the text, I hope that there is something for all types of readers.

There will be a book launch for Dawn of the Unread as part of Nottingham’s Festival of Literature on 11 November (7.30- 9pm) Antenna, Beck Street, Nottingham. Tickets are £5 but you get £3 off a book. 

The Importance of Economic Literacy

illustration: Natalie Owen

illustration: Natalie Owen

I’ve been harping on about the importance of literacy for ages but never in terms of economic literacy. As we’re all expected to work zero hour contracts perhaps it’s about time we had a zero hour mortgage…

First off, let’s have a few statistics about the miserable mess we’re in. I’m not talking about Brexit, Trident or the prospect of Big Sam becoming the next England manager. I’m talking about two four letter words that define our lives: work and home.

According to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) there were 10,732 repossessions of rented and mortgaged homes by bailiffs between January and March. Although this was down by 123 during the same period in 2015, it was up by 479 for the final quarter of 2015. But we should be grateful as The Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) believe if repossessions continue to drop at the current rate we’ll be at our lowest annual numbers since 1982. Back when houses were affordable.

There are some reasons to be cheerful in terms of buying a property. The standard variable rate for a mortgage has plummeted and a rise in stamp duty has slightly halted property developers from  swallowing up entire streets. But this has been offset by the ridiculous increase in house prices that simply make it impossible for anyone to save up a deposit, let alone get a mortgage. I bought my first home when I was twenty-one and it was roughly 3 times my annual wage. My current home is 7 times my annual wage. The house is the same size.

This may explain why rents in both the social and private sectors have risen this year by around 7-9%. The landlords who’ve had their wings clipped by the Chancellor are passing this cost onto those who can’t afford to get onto the property ladder. According to the MoJ there were 10,636 evictions during the first quarter of the year. Expect this to increase, as the cap on housing allowance kicked in at the beginning of April. Then there’s the 7.2million, according to Churchill Insurance, who have moved back in with the parents because a relationship ended and are too poor to rent alone.

For those without the luxury of parents, there’s the streets. You always know when the privileged are in power because the number of people ‘begging’ zooms up. On an average walk across town I probably get stopped between 5-10 times for ‘a spare bit of change’. Expect more of this as hostels, Citizen’s Advice, and public sector support service staff increasingly begin to evaporate.

What we really need is change.

Speaking of which, banks have a lot of loose change at the moment. They’ve saved a bundle in wages by adopting the trend set by supermarkets and kitting out their stores with self-service machines. The unidentified item in the bagging area is staff. People are losing their jobs in every area of work as technology slowly takes hold. Ring up for a taxi and you’ll no longer be put through to a call centre of eternally bored operators. Instead there’s an efficient automated service that tells you where you want picking up from before you’ve even said a word. And you know things are seriously wrong when Waitrose gets in on the trend and dismisses checkout staff in favour of self-service machines.

Banks need to cut back on wages because they’ve finally been caught with their pants down. According to the CCP Research Foundation the top twenty banks paid out £252bn in conduct charges over the past five years, such as the six banks fined a record £4.3bn for rigging foreign exchange rates and Lloyds £4bn penalty for mis-selling of payment protection insurance. So why exactly did we bail out the banks again?

According to the Sutton Trust, the poorest British students will graduate with debts in excess of £50,000. (In the US, by contrast, where students study for an extra year, the average debt at a private for-profit university is £29,000.) Although state-sponsored loans are linked to future earnings, these debts are subject to inflation so the money keeps going up. Students who studied a decade or so ago will tell you that although their debts were a lot cheaper, the loans have been sold off to debt agencies, despite the promise that they wouldn’t be, and now fear earning a penny above a certain threshold because it will trigger larger repayments.

For those of us fortunate enough to have a job there is the constant restructuring of departments and the shoehorning of two jobs into one, and for an added bonus, with reduced hours. Some of us have had our wages frozen for so long we have to put gloves on when we draw money out the bank. We’re told we should be grateful that we’ve got a job, and expected to smile when we receive the ‘Happy Friday’ email wishing us the very best for the weekend and remembering not to be late back in on Monday.

For adolescents who’ve skipped F.E. there’s the temp agencies where you’re guaranteed the minimum of work for the minimum amount of money. One lad I spoke to told me he had to drive to Grimsby to do a two hour shift and he wasn’t paid for his petrol or the four hours the round trip took. He had to do it because if he refused they wouldn’t consider him for other work. Work left him out of pocket. Of course this is completely illegal but it goes on all the time. ‘Calm down and carry on’ is the expression. This translates as ‘Shut up and do as you’re told’.

Zero hours contracts are the reality for most of us now. University lecturers are paid by the term and join an expendable workforce who can be got rid of with the flicker of an eyebrow. And this is where the Big Society steps in. The volunteers who run our libraries. The volunteers who cut down the forests. The volunteers who write for free for magazines because they have the deluded idea they can make a difference. So in some respects we’ve been complicit.

All of which finally gets me to my point. If we are expected to live flexibly in a big society on zero hours contracts, isn’t it time we had a more flexible mortgage, a ‘zero-hours’ mortgage, to reflect the reality of our lives?

A zero-hours mortgage would work exactly like a zero-hours contract. If there’s no work, there’s no mortgage payment. Simple. It’s not your fault that you’re losing your job in the call centre to the latest Siri. If you do work a few hours then you pay a proportionate payment. Yes, calculating this could be tedious but isn’t that better than repossessing a home and putting a family out on the street, which is ultimately more costly for society?

A university lecturer told me recently that universities need to throw out all of their liberal newspapers and stock the Financial Times. He said that’s where the power is, in the things people don’t understand. The things that are deliberately made complicated. For this reason he believes economics should be at the heart of everything that it is taught, no matter what the discipline. It’s for this reason that I’ve joined a reading group where we are slowly working our way through Karl Marx’s Capital Volume One, reading one hundred pages per week. It’s complicated, but far more humorous and literary than I would have imagined. I don’t believe in communism, and I certainly don’t believe in capitalism in its current manifestation. All I know is that something isn’t right at the moment and the system needs a bit of tinkering. Hopefully this book group – comprised of PhD students, unemployed, artists etc – and from Manchester, Mansfield and other places not necessarily beginning with M will help me figure it out.

The above article was originally published in the August issue of LeftLion magazine and The Axiological Perspective.

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