When a Yorkshire secondary produced its own graphic novel, it provided a riposte to those who dismiss the genre as ‘dumbing down’ for low-achievers
Brash and bawdy comics such as Viz, The Beano and The Dandy have all occupied a fond place in the heart of British popular culture for years.
At the other end of the scale, the graphic novel has been quietly gaining ground not just as a source of entertainment but as a creative means of documenting real events.
Teenagers and young people, mainly boys, make up the majority of the fan base, but comics and graphic novels alike are all too often perceived as a dumbing down of English for pupils who find “real” literature too difficult.
However, one secondary school in Rotherham, south Yorkshire, has ignored the critics to produce its own 132-page, high-end graphic novel. Fool’s Gold, written and produced by about 100 pupils at The Dearne High, and with the input of 10 multi-award-winning writers, two famous photographers and a professional illustrator, went on sale last week.
“Just in time for the Christmas sales,” says deputy head and project co- ordinator Peter Shaw. This might sound ambitious, but a book of short stories published by the school last year called Out of the Shadows: An Anthology of Fantasy Stories was among the top three fantasy books in Amazon’s sales charts and was sold in Waterstone’s and WHSmith.
“After the success of our first book, we began to think about how we might do something more adventurous,” says Mr Shaw. “Short stories just don’t sell as well as a novel, and then we hit on the idea of it being pictorial. Initially, we just had students writing for students, but what we lacked was the professional support.”
As a humanities college, the school already held specialism weeks, where the timetable is cleared for talks and workshops with professionals, and pupils are freed up to work on cross-curricular projects. Over the course of the year, professional writers including Malorie Blackman, Robert Swindells, GP Taylor, Alison Weir, Linda Newbery and Ian McMillan were all involved, some even becoming characters in the story.
Fool’s Gold follows a traditional narrative, yet the story is told through a mix of poetry, prose, dialogue and graphic styles ranging from life-like images based on photos to Japanese Manga-style sequences. At the heart of the story is a group of pupils who start to be haunted by three child ghosts. They try to solve the mystery about the circumstances of the children’s deaths, travelling across the county to investigate.
In a case of art imitating life, or vice versa, Dearne High pupils themselves went on geography and history field trips to take photos of actors on location and research potential storylines. The novel encapsulates pupils’ and authors’ interpretations of the Yorkshire landscape, as well as the harsh realities of life for children working in the mines and aboard the fishing boats at Scarborough in the 19th century.
Sean Fearn, 14, was one of eight pupils on the novel’s IT team who worked on the photos taken on location, turning them into animation. “Teenagers will start reading it because of all the pictures,” he says, “but once they get into it, they’ll see the bits from the different authors and think: ‘That’s quite good,’ and they will start looking for more stuff by those authors.”
The involvement of “real-life” authors, either by their contributions of writing, animation or giving their permission to appear in the story, was a key part of the project. “It’s made (the pupils) feel like rock stars,” says Mr Shaw. The tours of bookshops and libraries, and photo shoots with the authors, have made pupils consider writing as a career option. “Now if they are in a bookshop, they will look out for other books by the writers they have met,” says Mr Shaw. “Books are now seen as valuable things, and they want to get them signed.”
Reading has not always been held in such high regard at Dearne High. Literacy levels on school entry are well below the national average, according to the school’s most recent Ofsted report, and this is one of the reasons why the book is such an achievement.
“The book is having a big impact, particularly among reluctant readers and those who think it’s old fashioned,” says Mr Shaw. “Children today aren’t accessing libraries and reading books on the same scale as they used to.”
More than a quarter of the pupils at the school have learning difficulties and/or disabilities, and the level of social and economic deprivation in the area served by the school is also well above average. Brandon Noble, 13, is an aspiring writer, and having a physical display of their communal achievement was one of the best things about being involved in the project.
“We’re not just hanging around on the streets - we do good work in school,” he says. “Some people have opinions about what kids are doing at my age. Me and my friends are definitely not like that.”
There’s nothing new about using comics as a classroom resource. Comic readers are 80 to 90 per cent more likely to be boys and young men, who also happen to be less interested in reading, so they have a lot of potential to get male pupils engaged. Animated versions of Shakespeare plays are widely available and seen as a good way to get the less motivated, less literate pupils interested in a subject. However, creating a personalised comic or full-scale graphic novel can feed into different subjects and stretch even the most sophisticated learners. In France, where comics (or la bande dessinee) are held in much higher esteem, the study of the medium is already embedded in the curriculum.
In a 2007 report, Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS) argued that comic animation would be more useful if it was seen more as a medium for communicating ideas, rather than a genre to study in English lessons. For example, the fact that different forms of dialogue, characterisation and themes can be explored also ties in with the media and communications curriculum.
History and geography played a very important part in the making of Fool’s Gold, but there are also a range of published historical graphic novels that can be used alongside the history curriculum. Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, which won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, is an autobiography about life in the Second World War and will convey a wealth of information while helping pupils empathise with events on a human level. More recently, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which was made into an award- winning film, personalises recent Iranian history.
In editing a comic and choosing how to put it together, pupils will also be aware of cultural differences and can access a wide range of styles of animation and narrative tone. For example, the popular Manga comics are read back to front, so even presenting the physical product will be a discussion point. American comics tend to be centered on superheroes, while the aim of British comics is to make the reader laugh.
Alan Peat, a teaching consultant and author, is a firm believer in the educational benefit of comics. “Memory is associative and, as comics blend two mediums simultaneously (pictures and words) they provide the pupil and teacher with a visual associative hook for the teaching of key literacy objectives,” he says. Mr Peat has produced two collections of learning cards with pictures and words to help four to 12-year-olds with talking and writing. “In a sense, comics are narratives told with the aid of an intrinsic visual element, and yet they are still perceived as a sub-genre of lesser importance than, for example, play scripts, written stories or diaries.”
However, belonging to a more edgy sub-culture is part of the reason that comics hold an appeal, especially to teenagers and those who don’t relate to school and mainstream curriculum. As part of its new drive to reach teenagers outside the realm of television, Channel 4 is launching a web comic for teenagers in the new year. Pressure is set in a tattoo parlour in Camden and touches on the trials and tribulations of teenage life.
“Teens love comics,” says Alice Taylor, commissioning editor for Channel 4. The commissioning team was already working on games, web and mobile content for 14 to 19-year-olds, and decided to explore what they could do with a graphic novel format as well. Channel 4’s educational remit covers health and lifestyle issues and Pressure will deal with peer pressure, sex, family relationships, drug use and mental health, all told through the lives of the main teenage characters. A key educational advantage of this comic is the multi-platform capabilities provided by the internet.
“As well as the content, which is very entertaining, we’ll be dropping in links to really useful stuff, for example to sexual health clinics, or Wiki-links for more information, so it’s all contextualised,” says Ms Taylor. “With the internet, you can be very gentle about bringing in real information.”
For pupils at Dearne High, their first excursion into graphic narration has also been an exploration of the history of their own community. The pupils involved, and their families, see it almost as a yearbook, in that it’s a visual record of the pupils and teachers who were involved in making it as well as a record of achievement.
“The uniqueness of the project, is the hours and hours that have gone into this collaborative writing experience. It’s a unified community of writers, and we’re trying to move this on to a wider reading community,” says Peter Shaw. “They are taking pride in something that will be a memory for them all their lives.”
- Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (1994)
- A website for creating comics with a Myths and Legends theme: http://myths.e2bn.org/story_creator
- Comic Life software, allowing pupils to make comics from photos or pictures: http://comiclife.com
- Manga Shakespeare, used with Comic Life, has graphic adaptations of Shakespeare plays at www.mangashakespeare.com
- Details of Alan Peat’s training and books can be found at www.alanpeat.com
- The National Association of Comic Art Educators: www.teachingcomics.org.