27 June 2017
Earlier this year I was made Comic Artist In Residence for The Word in South Shields, as part of the Arts In Libraries programme, funded by Arts Council England.
My brief was both simple and complex - to create a comic book inspired by the people I encountered at The Word. We were keen to make the comic universal in appeal, so I pitched to them a short comic essay on the topic of libraries - how they are defined and how this definition has changed with the times - that uses The Word and its users as a case study. I surmised that libraries come in all shapes and sizes, but regardless of which part of the world they are situated, people use them for very similar reasons. I was also very keen that this comic be as accessible as possible, so wanted my approach to be informative in content, but light in tone - similar to my A Bunch Of Amateurs comic, but more autobiographical.
The main part of the residency took place over seven days (broken up over the course of April) and I spent the first two days of this walking around the building and chatting to it's users to find out why they were there and what their thoughts were on The Word and libraries in general. I also sat in on a number of groups and classes, including two writers collectives, a ukulele group, and a series of classes and workshops on creative technology. From the get-go everyone was amazing and extremely generous with their time. I took very few photos (as I wanted people to be comfortable talking to me and sharing their thoughts and stories), but I had my notebook with me and so furiously scribbled down information and doodles to remind me of clothing and hair.
I had an idea early on that I might go anthropomorphic with it a la Creature Comforts (and therefore sidestep the issue of capturing likenesses with no photo references) but quickly abandoned this when it started getting unnecessarily complicated.
For the remainder of the residency I worked in the atrium of The Word, consolidating my research and roughing out the structure of the comic, while people would occasionally stop by to chat and find out what the residency was about. I was a little nervous at first, feeling that I was on show, but it turned out to be a very relaxing working environment.By the end of the seven days I had a completed comic in rough form.
However, it was only a rough draft, so I spent the next two months (in between my other commitments) refining the script until it read well and made sense structurally. It was quite tricky finding and maintaining the right tone - I wanted it to be light and funny, but I couldn't mock the library or it's users, so drawing out humour was a challenge. I also wanted it to make a serious point, but without being preachy or one-sided, and most of all, I didn't want the comic to be seen as merely an advertising piece for The Word (a feeling shared by my supervisors).
Comparatively, the actual drawing and inking aspects took very little time and with the script and roughs locked, it all came together fairly easily. To better catch the eye of passing library users I went for a simple but expressive colour scheme rather than a naturalistic one. Here are some process shots from the comic, taking it through pencils, inks then digital colouring...
Talking Libraries is the result - a 16pp humorous comic strip essay on the evolving idea of the modern library.
To cap the residency off, last Saturday the Writer In Residence Niel Bushnell and I returned to the atrium to unveil our creations as part of the inaugural WRITE Festival. The feedback to the project has been very good and we received a lot of good notices in the local press.
The original print run of Talking Libraries is available for free via The Word, with a downloadable digital copy available to download here.