Challenging stereotypes through comics

I’m worried about the world we live in at the moment. From Brexit to Covid to the US elections, we’re becoming increasingly fragmented and tribal. These divisions are amplified by social media platforms which were meant to enhance democracy by giving voice to everyone. But now that we can all speak; we’ve forgot how to listen. The world has become a very noisy place…

It’s for this reason, I’ve spent the last three years working on a comic series that aims to dispel myths around identity. Each issue has taken around two years of interviews and research. This is good old-fashioned s-l-o-w journalism, offsetting the immediacy of social media. If we want to challenge stereotypes, prejudice and simplistic thinking, we need to listen.

The project is called Whatever People Say I Am (yes, another nod to Sillitoe, gawd bless him) and each issue focuses on a particularly theme – the elderly, refugees, the unemployed, the lonely – and of course everything you presume to know about these types of people – that’s what they’re not.

The aim is to take the reader from birth to death (the last comic in the series is with someone who works in a funeral parlour) but at present, the comics are lobbed up online as and when myself and Paul Fillingham get a chance to finish them. We have three issues so far. The project has been funded by the Police Commissioner, City of Football and Kaplan College Inc (as well as the goodwill of me and Paul). But we’ve nearly run out of private investment so it will soon be time to continue with the Arts Council Grant form I started three years ago and gave up on.

This week we published ‘What is Coming‘ – the story of Syrian refugees who have settled in Nottingham. Some arrived here via the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement scheme (VPRS). Others through sheer will and determination. They are ordinary people living ordinary lives doing ordinary jobs who gave everything up for one thing: To live.

None of us know what is coming, which is why this project is so important to me. It’s not just about writing stories. It’s about changing perceptions and helping to ‘build a better world with words’. I want these stories to make a difference. As with the Dawn of the Unread format, we have included embedded essays so that readers can gain deeper context to the stories and learn more about the people involved.

These first three stories also have another function, to utilise research by Dr Loretta Trickett and make her findings more accessible to a wider audience. I work part time as a senior lecturer in digital humanities at Nottingham Trent University and I want the incredible work that goes on here to have a deeper impact on society to help bring about meaningful change. There’s no point hiding it away in journals that only a privileged few have access to. Therefore, we have taken her research into new and emerging communities and, along with the interviews, drawn out important themes to shape our three stories.

Now, get reading them. www.whateverpeoplesayiam.co.uk

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This is an abridged (and tweaked) version of a blog originally published at Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature on 4 November 2020

D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre project launch on Lawrence’s 135th birthday



For the last five years, Paul Fillingham and I have been working on a digital project to celebrate the life of D.H. Lawrence. We’ve done this without any funding (because we haven’t had time to apply) filling up every spare second of our evenings after a hard day’s slog. Our intention is simple, to bring Lawrence (kicking and screaming) into the 21st century. We don’t claim to be Lawrencian experts and fully expect some of our suggestions to be ripped apart. So please do tell us when and where we have got something wrong and we will consider revisions (although not biases). Our memory theatre will contain the good, the bad and the ugly: the complexities and contradictions of a human life.

It’s taken five years because this is how long we’ve needed to immerse ourselves in Lawrence’s phenomenal literary output – and we still haven’t touched the surface. Lawrence once chided Mabel Dodge Luhan that, ‘You don’t know your floor until you have scrubbed it on your hands and knee’. We’ve taken this attitude with the memory theatre. We don’t know Lawrence until we’ve read every word written by him or about him.

Representation of any author’s work is a challenge because there are so many interpretations of their work. This is particularly true for Lawrence who has been reviled and loved across the decades.  We understand how important it is to get things right. This means reading, reading, reading. Lawrence is a complex beast who can easily be misinterpreted. He can be infuriating and unbearable. Then profound and evocative. One thing he is not is mediocre.

To help challenge and cement ideas, the Memory Theatre project has been a dissertation option at Nottingham Trent University for the past four years. This has given me time to select and curate various aspects of Lawrence’s work, to identify recurring themes, and, more importantly, to understand what these themes mean to younger, digitally literate audiences. His ideas on money, industrialization, rananim, and the environment seem increasingly more relevant.

Paul has been constructing the website and coding for the project, thinking about the way the Memory Theatre can be accessed via different devices, developing the logo and branding, and visualising how the artefacts will appear. Due to Coronavirus, the memory theatre will have to be digital for now and so we need this to look right. This takes time.


Our intention was to launch the memory theatre in 2019 to mark the centenary of his self-imposed exile. But instead we are doing this today, on his 135th birthday, where we have our first artefact: Mr. Muscles. This is in recognition of his incredible work ethic, and the good spirit in which he approached life. Juliette Huxley said Lawrence cooked ‘as he did most things, with a radiating creativeness which was contagious. Even washing-up had its own charm, enriched with the satisfaction of putting everything back in its chosen place, glowing with fresh cleanliness.’

Lawrence constantly reminds us that we are transmitters of life and what we transmit has an impact on the way we perceive the world as well as the way we make others feel. Paul and I have given the memory project every ounce of our being. We hope it ‘radiates creativity,’ by pushing the boundaries of digital literary criticism and as an alternative to the linear biography.

You can visit the project website here and read the opening artefact essays using the links below.

Artefact 1: Mr. Muscles

Essay 1: A model of Neatness and Precision

Essay 2: Loves the Jobs you Hate

Essay 3: Roadmap to Happiness

Essay 4: We are Transmitters