Co-organiser, Barbara Chamberlin, reports on the many successes of Graphic Brighton 2022

Graphic Brighton is a comics symposium that has run annually (aside from the pandemic) since 2014 and brings together comics creators, publishers, academics, students and the general public, with previous themes including war and conflict, comic as a research tool and music. This year, with funding from CAW, the focus was on children’s comics, an area relatively under-researched within the academy, as the number of readily available children’s comics has declined in recent years and so has not had as much attention as other areas. However, comics continue to play a key role in child literacy, with parents, teachers and scholars alike recognising the benefits (and joys) of reading comics and so this event was both timely and important.

The event took place on the 27th and 28th May, and played host to an almost dizzying array of comics creators and scholars from the world of comics and an audience of all ages and backgrounds. Friday opened by demonstrating the link the University has with the vibrant local comics context with a talk from UoB lecturer and audio producer Lance Dann and former Comics Laureate (and UoB alumnus) Hannah Berry about their multimedia project The Rez which combines comics and podcasts, winning the Gold Award for Best Entertainment Producer, and a Silver for Best Comedy Producer at the 2021 Audio Production Awards. This was followed by the first of two academic panels, with papers from PhD student and child comics club facilitator Helen Jones, an exploration of the use of humour in early Beano comics by Dona Pursall, and Stephen Silverwood (pictured below showing some of the work produced) from the local charity Upside Comics sharing his experiences of doing comics workshops with disadvantaged and disenfranchised children and teens.

photo of a male speaker at a lecturn, at a conference

The post-lunch panel extended some of the discussion by looking at the ways that comics creators approach difficult topics in children’s comics: Helen Bates shared the honest approaches she uses in her books around topics such as Chernobyl or warfare; Richy K. Chandler on parental break up and dealing with difficult times; Daniel Locke on projects that include making topics such as environmental collapse hopeful and accessible by looking at rewilding. The second academic panel took a more form-focused approach, with Graphic Brighton’s co-organiser Alex Fitch (below) applying his PhD research to children’s comics and looking at cross-sections; male speaker stands in front of a projected image of comic stripsDeniz Altındağ (Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts) looking at how narratives for young people deal with memory and identity and an interactive session from Dr Paul Fisher Davies discussing the differences between picture books and comics. Alex hosted the final Q&A with Bob Molesworth (Star Wars and Lego Comics) and Richy K. Chandler (Eco Kids Planet magazine and Wallace and Gromit comics) which discussed the fun and occasional frustration of working with licensed characters which, according to an audience member, was a topic not covered before in comics discourse.

The second day was even more creator focused, with a strong emphasis on younger creators in both talks and workshop. Matt Baxter, whose work has featured in The Phoenix (a weekly comics anthology that was fundamental in developing my own son’s reading skills) and Danny Noble, a creator known for her comics as well as illustrated children’s books such as Adrian Edmondson’s Tilly and the Time Machine, opened the day. The second session featured two creators who started work in comics as pre-teens: Zoom Rockman first started making his own comics after his parents bought a box of old Beanos as a car boot sale when he was very young and he sold them to local newsagents before later working for both The Beano and Private Eye; Coco Kirkland wrote his first graphic novel Project Immortality at 14 and is working on his second at 19. They both shared their experiences of how creating comics helped them deal with school as well as the world around them. Coco later delivered a sell-out lunchtime workshop for children to create their own comics with practical tips on designing memorable characters. Just before, Jaime Huxtable (G Bear and Jammo) and Zara Slattery (Tomboy) spoke about designing characters that appeal to much younger readers (pictured below).

people at a conference

Sally Kindberg (The Comic Strip History of the World) and Woodrow Phoenix (Donny Digits) gave insight as to how they create comics with a more educational slant and ways of combining humour and their individual styles to comics to encourage an interest in and learning about the world for children.

The final talk was for many the star event, with every seat taken and the audience full of children and parents as well as those (and there were quite a few!) who had attended throughout. Here former Children’s Laureate (and national treasure!) Michael Rosen came to speak with artist Cole Henley about adapting Michael’s much-loved book You’re Thinking About Tomatoes into a crowd funded graphic novel, and why comics can be such a brilliant and powerful form of storytelling for all ages.

people at a conference

At the book-signing that followed, the queue snaked around the room!

Graphic Brighton 2022 demonstrated that it is still important to talk about the role that comics play in young readers’ lives, in terms of their developing literacy and creativity as well as their understanding of and connection to the world around them, both of which are fundamental to children’s wellbeing and sense of self. Here’s hoping more events like this will take place in the future to keep the discussions going.

With enormous thanks to all who came, shared their practice, experiences and research, asked questions, bought and signed books, ran workshops, and helped out. Special thanks to the Centre for Arts and Wellbeing for funding and to UoB’s Widening Participation and Outreach. And particular credit to Alex Fitch whose boundless love for comics brought all these amazing people together in the first place.

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