Comics Exploring Working Class Academics

For the past year I’ve been an occasional mentor to Charlie Davis, an Assistant Professor in Higher Education at the University of Nottingham, who has been investigating issues faced by academics of working class heritage. The results were then illustrated in three interactive comics, each with a distinct theme:

Comic 1: Roots and routes into academia (What it means to be an academic of working-class heritage)

Comic 2: Navigating the unknown: career journeys into and through academia (Career routes into and through academia)

Comic 3: Speaking up and being heard: finding your voice as an academic of working-class heritage (Developing epistemic confidence)

Class is a difficult thing to define and is influenced by various factors such as: confidence, wealth, culture, geography, occupation, attitude, and much more. Consequently, many working class people do not enter post graduate studies because of financial restrictions. I was only able to do my M.A because I was awarded a full AHRB scholarship – at the time I was a single parent and primary carer for my mother. The M.A transformed my life and opened the door to my current (part-time) career in academia where I’m paid to write and develop modules around my research interests in digital storytelling and literary heritage. I still struggle to convince myself that what I’m doing is work.

I was the first person in my family to go to university. My friends laughed. My brother wanted to know what we did – he’s a builder who deals (and bills) in tangibles. Skimming a wall with plaster is a productive use of time whereas reading a book is an indulgence. Consequently, studying was seen as a fad, and, most likely, a strategy to get out of doing a proper job. You battle with these attitudes when studying. Instead of questioning the theory you are reading you question whether you should be reading in the beginning.

Universities are rife with snobbery. I experience this internally: ‘Oh, you teach Creative Writing,’ and then for being an academic on a ‘Teaching and Practice pathway’ rather than the nobler pursuit of research. My practice is writing. There is nothing I want to do in the world other than write, so this category suits me fine, thank you very much. Prejudice exists externally, too: ‘Oh, you’re at Nottingham Trent. I see. One of the Polys.’ When you add class into the equation it’s no wonder that so many working class academics feel like imposters or unwelcome, particularly in Russell Group universities, the focus of Charlie’s research.

I’ve been working on a series of comics challenging stereotypes called Whatever People Say I Am, so I was very interested in Charlie’s desire to address perceptions and myths associated with working class academics. Charlie did this by forming story circles where participants shared their experiences. Then they drilled deeper into this data and co-produced comics based on composite stories.

I love this way of working because it ensures that everyone has a say in how they are represented at each stage of the process. The embedding of additional research material in the comic – such as audio recording – provides another layer of meaning and an opportunity for the reader to dig deeper into the topic. This is a technique that we pioneered in Dawn of the Unread.   

Considering this is Charlie’s first foray into comics, he’s done a fab job. It’s the perfect medium to begin difficult discussions around identity. You can read more about his project by visiting his website here.

Further Reading Regarding Charlie’s Work.

The Aura of Deferred Gratification

Image from Pexels with filter added.

It’s 6.50am on Saturday morning in the mid-1980s. Me and the siblings are eagerly eyeing the letterbox, waiting for the postman to deliver The Beano and Eagle. When the letterbox snaps, all hell will break loose as only two of us will be victorious. The winners will scarper off and lock themselves away somewhere, devouring the comic in one sitting. This process will be repeated a couple of times before the battered comic is begrudgingly lobbed out onto the landing. When we’ve all read up, we’ll sit down and draw our favourite characters and then discuss how we’d defeat the Mekon or Doomlord if they visited Nottingham.

Saturday night is also when the videoman (back then it was always a man) will turn up in his rusty transit, peel back his creaking doors, and reveal 60 odd videos. So much choice! Problem is, we’re only allowed one film. Patience isn’t a virtue, it’s a necessity when there’s four of you. When it’s my turn I go for The Goonies. I’m allowed two friends to sleep over and we huddle under our bed covers in the front room and watch it repeatedly all night long until we know every line off by heart. Then the grim reality of waiting another month before I can choose another film, kicks in.

What these examples illustrate is the aura of material culture. 35 years later and I still find myself salivating when I hear our letterbox go – but now it’s just bills and credit card applications. Video has transformed into on-demand streaming that can be accessed 24/7 and comics can easily be purchased from bespoke shops such as Page 45 or found online for free – such as my own creations Dawn of the Unread and Whatever People Say I Am. And although I love the freedom and ease with which we can now access culture, I do miss the magic of deferred gratification.

In Ghostworld, which is 20 this year, one of the characters asks, ‘So, what’s my future?’ If asked this in March 2020, I doubt anybody would have said ‘wearing a mask, only allowed to leave the house for one hour of exercise a day, and a Tory government will implement a benefit scheme that will pay people not to go to work’. But this is exactly what happened when a disease that banished touch came along.

Our experiences of Covid vary, but I think one thing we all have in common is a greater appreciation for the everyday things we once took for granted. Eating out, seeing friends, listening to an elderly relative rattle on – have all become magical luxuries to be cherished. The banal has become spectacle.

Cinema is vital to this process of healing. To be sat in a dark cavernous auditorium laughing at a film together is not only about rebuilding a sense of community and connection but relishing shared experience.

During August, Broadway Cinema is looking at a hopeful future through comics, graphic novels and manga screen adaptations. Ghostworld, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year, is the centrepiece of the programming. As part of this, I was asked by Melissa Gueneau, the Cinema Programme Coordinator at Broadway, to write something for a zine they are creating to celebrate the season (this blog is an extension of that article). There was also the opportunity to get involved in a post-film discussion of Ghostworld but I declined this invitation. This is partly because I’ve lost my enthusiasm for public speaking (probably because I work in education so get sick of hearing my own voice) but also because I would much prefer to sit and listen to others talk about the film.

I’ve been creating comics since 2014 and it’s a slow and costly process that involves lots of people (writer, artist, script editor, colourist, letterer, digitization). But it’s nothing in comparison to the amount of people involved in creating and producing a film, many of whom have been laid off during lockdown. Consequently, sitting and watching a film in a cinema has taken on new meaning. It’s not just about connecting with people again, it’s about supporting an industry that’s been battered by Covid. If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that none of know our future. So best enjoy what you can, while you can.

Broadway Cinema, 14-18 Broad St, Nottingham NG1 3AL. The ‘So What’s my Future?’ season runs from 8 -29 August. You can view the films here

Related reading

  • Cinemas shut, movies postponed: how Covid-19 upturned film in 2020 (Guardian)
  • Picture this: 3 possible endings for cinema as COVID pushes it to the brink (The Conversation)
  • Ghost World at 20: the comic-book movie that refused to conform (Guardian)
  • The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Walter Benjamin at MIT)
  • Broadway Cinema: So What’s My Future? (