Dawn of the Unread – the Book!

I’ve always been an obsessive reader so naturally I’ve harboured the dream of seeing my own words in print for a long time. And now it’s finally happened. After two years of hard slog in the digital void, Dawn of the Unread has magically transformed into moist fibres of cellulose pulp and clattered through my letterbox.

It was rather fitting that David Belbin dropped the book off. Many years ago I approached him to seek advice on a novel I’d just written. At the time he was overseeing the MA in Creative Writing but I’d plumped for an MA into Globalisation, Identity and Technology because I’d become hooked on the ideas of Heidegger et al. I figured (naively in hindsight) that as I loved writing there was no need to study it.


Laying out the book with Paul Fillingham. Photo by James Walker.

As it happened, my novel was accepted for publication by a small press, then rejected after 3 years. It went to another publisher. They accepted it, then did nothing. Finally I went the traditional route with an agent. They loved it, read it all, then never got back in contact. Seven years later I gave up on being a novelist and turned to digital storytelling because the only person stopping me getting published would be me.

On the day Dawn of the Unread turned up I was feeling a bit depressed because all of my digital projects (Being Arthur, Sillitoe Trail, Dawn of the Unread, Memory Theatre) had temporarily disappeared due to the recent DDoS attacks. So it was great to have a tangible, tactile weighty piece of evidence in my hands that what I did was real. I am a writer. IDT. INDST.

But the feeling I had on opening it wasn’t quite what I thought it would be. I felt a bit sick. I didn’t want to hold it for too long. It had suddenly become so real that I felt like I couldn’t breathe. It’s a bit like when you see a picture of yourself on film or hear your voice on radio. You cringe. You feel weird. Dawn of the Unread is so personal, so exhausting, so integral to my identity, that I lobbed the book on the sofa and went for a pint.

With a few ales swilling around “the elastic capacity of my guts” I picked it up again. And then I realised why I found it so difficult to confront. It wasn’t my book. It is a book belonging to 120 placements from NTU. A book co-written by many different writers, artists, colourists and letterers. It is representative of my home city. It has an ambassadorial role for Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature. It is a publishing risk for Spokesman Press. The weightiness is not the flesh of the book but the expectations it brings, the people and organisations it represents.


This is what two years of graft looks like. Photo by James Walker.

Rather than dwell on all of these things I slotted it into my bookshelf. It’s over. Now I can start on Part II: Whatever People Say I Am. But it isn’t really over. There will be more Youtube videos, especially the Nottingham Essay series. It will go out to schools across Nottingham to help raise literacy levels and enthusiasm for local history. It will cross the sea and land in the offices of other UNESCO Cities of Literature. It is being taught on various modules at NTU. It will be a reference point on 120 students CVs. It is a spoof This Your Life video (see top of page)And hopefully it will be read by people on buses on their way home from work, in cafés over coffee, and on park benches as autumn leaves turn to orange.

If you think 2 years of hard graft is worth £5. Come to our book launch on 11 November, 7.30pm, at Antenna, Beck Street, as part of the Festival of Literature.

Graphic Novels and Literacy


Photo by Paul Fillingham.

The 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.


Photo by City of Literature.

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.


Artwork by Dawn of the Unread.

Colour 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.