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cabinet_room_1

The Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street – a panel-in-progress from Ben Dickson’s graphic biography of Neville Chamberlain which I’m illustrating.

This month marks the start – in earnest – of work on the graphic biography of Neville Chamberlain. The book has been written by Ben Dickson – whose latest graphic novel, A New Jerusalem, is out now. This project is only my second big graphic work  – the first being Something Different About Dad several  years ago. And with a script clocking in at about 200 pages, it’s certainly the longest work I’ve ever done on a historical or archaeological subject.

It’s a fascinating time-period and a gripping story. Ben’s script is a biography of Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister – from May 1937 to May 1940. But it’s also the story of Neville Chamberlain’s childhood, his political career, his marriage, his friends – and his rivals. Ben’s script challenges – as several other historians have done – the notion that Chamberlain was “a guilty man”, whose policy of appeasement was a thin disguise for cowardice. Instead, Ben paints a picture of a man who understood how unprepared Britain was for another war – not just economically and militarily, but psychologically.

It’s a story full of high drama, something which is overshadowed by our contemporary focus on the action of the war which we know is inevitable. When I first read Ben’s script I just couldn’t put it down: reading the story as a interplay of characters and situations, not just of dates and facts, brought home how tense and unpredictable this pre-war period actually was. It’s interesting how Ben’s Chamberlain comes across as someone who understands these complexities, and is willing to sacrifice his political reputation in order to steer the country on a safe course through them.

I’m going to be talking about the project at Laydeez do Comics in Leeds, this Monday evening – you’re all invited! (Wharf Chambers, 23-25 Wharf Street, Leeds, LS2 7EQ, 6:30pm. Entry: £1.50 – no need to book. Wharf Chambers is wheelchair accessible). I’m going to talk about the book itself, and about how I’m approaching the artwork – specifically historical locations and people. And I’m also going to talk a bit about what it means to work collaboratively with an author, and what it means to work on such a large-scale project like this one.

Hopefully see you in Leeds on Monday evening!

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Reception of Nineveh sculptures at the British Museum, Illustrated London News, 1852. 

I’ve just had an article published in “The Ancient Near East Today”, which is the online news journal of the Friends of the American Schools of Oriental Research. The article – Comics, Narrative and the Archaeology of the Near East – is about comics and archaeology, and the it they can bring something “new” to information about a very “old” part of the archaeological world.

Most of my comics and archaeology projects have been based in the “New World” – and have dealt almost exclusively with new sites, new projects and new data. It’s easy to do something “new” about archaeology which itself is mostly “new”. Not only is there a fairly shallow depth to the information – coming as it does from one a few seasons, but there is also a fairly contained context to the information – a single team, often operating on a restricted number of research threads. It’s not too difficult a job, therefore, to present that information to a non-archaeological audience.

But in the Near East, this is not the case. Research and excavation may be “new”, but it takes place within a context of archaeological work that goes back centuries, and within a complex network of cultures and civilisations that goes back millennia. It’s hard to talk about a small Bronze Age site in eastern Turkey without needing to talk about the Bronze Age as a whole across most of the eastern Mediterranean. And it’s almost impossible to talk about a Neo-Persian fortified site without talking about the Byzantine Empire, the Roman Empire, Sassanian kings, etc., etc. Indeed, in outreach about Near Eastern archaeology, it often boils down to trying to decide what you aren’t going to talk about, more than what you are. Our archaeological stories deal with this great depth of complexity and context by sticking to time-honoured boundaries and limits – quickly making those narratives feel “overly-familiar”. Despite decades of new and interesting research, most archaeological explanations of Near Eastern archaeology conform to recognisable patterns because it’s simply too difficult to tell such stories any other way within the narrative restrictions imposed by a museum interpretation panel or a site guide book.

My argument in this ASOR article is that using comics as a medium for presenting such complex, multi-threaded and multi-layered information offers us a unique opportunity to do three things: (1) To re-present the archaeological stories of “old” sites, cultures and monuments in a way that actively addresses the complexity and connectedness inherent in Near Eastern archaeology, and in doing so (2) to look anew at the way we traditionally break down these stories along well-worn – even traditional – geographical, cultural and temporal lines, and in doing so (3) start to talk about the “overly-familiar” archaeology of the Near East in new – and perhaps unexpected – ways that more accurately reflects new research and scholarship.

I grew up with the archaeology of the Near East, studied it at University, and worked out there for over a decade as illustrator at Çatalhöyük. I know this world, and I know first-hand some of the issues facing public outreach in such places. But I also know that, with comics, the medium can make us think differently about our message – the form can suggest new ways to shape and present content.  This is, I think, something that “old” archaeology might need – and this is why I think comics can bring something new and invigorating to our archaeological stories of the ancient Near East.

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Related imageI’m heading to the “Drawing on the Past” comic at UCL tomorrow – a conference about comics and the pre-modern world. There are some excellent papers lined up from people like Glynnis Fawkes and Sonya Nevin. I’ll be doing a poster presentation on depicting the “other-ness” of prehistory in community heritage comics, looking at examples from the Oswestry Heritage Comics, comics about Offa’s Dyke and my recent comics work on Yap. And on Monday afternoon, Hannah Sackett and I will also be leading a short workshop on making archaeological comics.

It looks to be a really interesting conference for anyone interested in the way in which our shared past is, can or could be represented in comics – and some of the potentials and pitfalls involved in the use of the medium.

UCL Senate House, London 10-11th September 2018, room G22/26

Registration via Eventbrite

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Image result for Vanguard 1 satellite

Vanguard 1, launched 1958 and the oldest satellite still in orbit. A genuine piece of space archaeology.

Those of you who are regular listeners to AstroRadio will already know that I appeared on their “Live from Oswestry Heritage Fest” show earlier today, talking about science outreach, heritage and comics.

What do you mean: you’re not a regular listener to AstroRadio?

AstroRadio is an astonomically-focused radio station that broadcasts out of Whittington, just a few miles from Oswestry (where Whittington Castle is – our local Napoleonic Re-enactment group runs events there, for example). They are doing an astronomical heritage event up at the Racecourse for Heritage Open Days, and were broadcasting from Oswestry Town Museum all today, interviewing lots of people involved in events on the Bailey Head. The radio station is broadcast via satellite to FM stations around the globe, and a world-wide audience of 120,000 people listened to people from Oswestry talk about the heritage events taking place in and around town today – and to me talking about archaeology, heritage and comics! I was interviewed by the very enthusiastic Pete Williamson FRAS. Not sure what archaeologists in Brazil and Australia made of it, but maybe it’ll encourage them to make comics about astronomical heritage and space archaeology.*

I’ll be making another appearance on AstroRadio next Saturday during the second Heritage Open Days weekend, so you can listen live via AstroRadio online – or, programmes are repeated one week later on the AstroRadio Mixcloud page. I went to Heritage Open Days today expecting to discover all sorts of new things about the history and archaeology of Oswestry – but what I didn’t expect to discover was that we have a astronomical radio station in the area!

* Actually, I’d be really interested in making a comic about space archaeology. Get in touch if you have any ideas…

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Oswestry Heritage Comics II - week 13

Heritage Open Days – Week Thirteen of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

It’s Heritage Open Days this weekend, and the Oswestry Heritage Comics will be at the Oswestry Town Museum’s stall on the Bailey Head all day. I’ve created a special “Oswestry Heritage Comics” town trail for Heritage Open Days this year. The map is printed in this week’s Advertizer as a big double-page spread, and also as separate leaflets and booklets. The trail guides you around Oswestry to twenty of the places and sites mentioned in the comics – which are all reproduced in the special booklet. It’s a great way to get to know Oswestry’s history and heritage – perfect for people who’ve never had a chance to look around the town before. Along the way you’ll be taken down Oswestry’s main shopping streets, and past loads of other Heritage Open Day attractions – including the Oswestry Castle excavations, the Cambrian Railway and the Oswestry Town Museum.

I’ve also produced two new illustrations for the Oswestry Castle Community Research Project, and they’re up as sign-boards at this season’s excavations. One of the illustrations is a big aerial view showing the construction of the stone castle in the 1200s – fun to draw, but also a good way to show how Oswestry began. You can even see how the Bailey Head market, the Horsemarket carpark and Bailey Street all began.

I’ll be at the Museum stall all day today, handing out free copies of the walk leaflet and booklet, and I’ve got some colouring pages if anyone wants to have a go making their own comics! Plus, I’ll be drawing some new Oswestry Heritage Comics LIVE! These are going into the collected edition which will be published just before Christmas.

So join us today at the Bailey Head, and take a tour around the fantastic history and heritage of Oswestry!

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taro_1

Taro Plant – artwork for the Yap comic.

I’m on Yap – a small island in the Western Pacific, about 1,200 km north of Papua. It’s remote, although by no means the most remote of Pacific islands, and it has some really interesting archaeology. I’m here with a National Geographic-funded project, headed by Matt Napolitano from the University of Oregon. Matt and I have worked together previously several times on Palau (another Pacific island, not far away), on fieldschools and survey projects.

The Yap project is part of Matt’s PhD research – an investigation into the earliest settlements of Yap, sometime around 2,400 BP (maybe earlier). And I’m here to contribute to the public outreach for the project in the form of a comic.

The Yap comic will be slightly different from the other informational archaeology comics I’ve worked on in the past. For starters, it’s being done as a piece of reportage – that is: while I’m out in the field helping with the survey, I’m also documenting the daily process of the project and the results as they come in. I’ve done comics like this on a smaller scale in both Carriacou and Palau in previous years (2011, 2012, 2014, 2015). Those comics were published on a regular schedule throughout the season, but the Yap comic will be published in its entirety as a 20-odd page comic book. So while there will be no daily installments as there were on Palau and Carriacou, the whole progress of the four-week season will still frame and structure the narrative.

As a result, the drawing of the comic is to be done “live” – that is, out in public: on site, etc. The idea is to have both the recording and the presentation of the project take place within a working environment in which people can see the process now, as well as the product (ie: the comic) a bit later on. This presents something of a challenge on Yap, as there are few public venues where I can work – so I will have to try and find alternate ways to find visible working space.

And by “people”, of course, I mean not just the public audience here on Yap, but also the archaeologists taking part in the project. Their experiences in the field, their evolving interpretations, the way in which they adapt the daily progress of the project to new circumstances (weather, geology, etc.) is captured and included in the comic “in real time”, not as a post-facto report after the project is completed. While such engagement from the team will almost certainly not be “visible” in the reading of the completed comic per se, it certainly has already had an effect on how the team regard the whole enterprise of public outreach: as “present”, as ongoing, as the story of the shifting tides of archaeological process and interpretation – not simpy as something left to the end of the project and focusing on a sanctioned set of “results”.

This is an exciting project for me, as it starts to bring together several important strands that have emerged through my use of comics over the past ten years: not simply the use of the medium as a way to communicate information, but the potential of the creative process itself to add an additional layer of visibility and depth to that information.

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Panel from “Box 19008”, by Ulf Jansson (Epix, 1986-1992)

I’ve just spent a very enjoyable ten days working on heritage comics with a team from Malmö University and Malmö Museum, hosted by the Ystad Konstmuseum and the Klostrets i Ystad Museum. The project was organised by Gunnar Krantz and Jakob Dittmar at Malmö University, as part of an overarching series on different kinds of storytelling in comics. The programme brought gave me a chance to talk with museum curators and exhibition designers, specialists in visual communication, comics researchers and even Swedish cartoonists and comics creators about the Oswestry Heritage Comics project. The objective was to demonstrate how comics about local heritage can be used to talk about the past in a different kind of way – a way that combines facts and information about the past with discussion of things like identity, memory, and the meaning and importance of place. Malmö has a particularly active and vibrant comics community, so it was a great privilege to meet comics artists like Karolina Bång and Gunnar and work with them on a whole range of heritage and comics ideas. It’s extremely exciting to see the Oswestry Heritage Comics inspiring both comics artists and museum/heritage organisations to look more seriously at the use of comics as a tool for interpreting and presenting the past.

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