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Next Friday, March 28th 10am – 4pm, the Applied Comics Network are holding a one-day event at Newcastle University on Comics and Research. Making, using and sharing comics can offer interesting, fun and thought-provoking potential for involving people in research, accessible ways to communicate the complexity of research, and means by which ethical issues in research can be explored.

This one-day event next week includes sessions which look at all these aspects of applied comics and research, including communication of research, comics as a method in research, graphic facilitation, sketch-noting, and comics and user experience.

As one-third of the Applied Comics Network coordinating team, I’ll be there – talking about ethics in research, with particular reference to the work I’ve been doing on the NAGPRA comics about repatriation of sacred items and ancestral remains back to Native American communities.

Speakers:

  • Lydia Wysocki (School of Education Communication and Language Sciences, Newcastle University)
  • Ian Horton (London College of Communication)
  • John Swogger (Archaeological Comics Network)
  • Florence Okoye (Natural History Museum)
  • Pen Mendonça (University of the Arts London)
  • Liz Todd (Newcastle University)

Although this is a free event, as lunch is provided, please use this lightbox link to register so we can keep track of numbers: https://forms.ncl.ac.uk/view.php?id=4173976

ACN Newcastle poster 96dpi 1

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intro_panelThis week, the Oswestry Advertizer is featuring a full-page comic introducing the Oswestry Heritage Comics project. I talk about how I got into using comics in archaeology, and why I thought using them in a local newspaper to shine a bit of a spotlight on local history, archaeology and heritage might be a good idea. It’s a very quick introduction to everything I’ve been doing with comics, information and public outreach over the past ten years – right back to the Çatal Nedir? comic I did way, way back in 2005.

My basic argument has always been that when we talk about the past – history, archaeology or heritage – we use a very specialised language full of concepts and assumptions that most people don’t recognise. This is because these concepts and assumptions don’t feature a great deal in the day-to-day of ordinary life. So public outreach has to provide a context for these things in order for them to be best understood by an audience unfamiliar with them: and the narrative and visuals of comics do that very well indeed.

Over the next twelve weeks, the Oswestry Heritage Comics series will hopefully demonstrate how this can be done even with a subject as rich and diverse as “heritage”, and within the confined parameters of a four-panel strip. It’s an artistic and informational challenge, certainly – but it’s an opportunity to really test the idea that comics can be effective as a means of communicating information about the past.

The comics are only part of the package. There’s a Facebook page which will provide onward links and additional information based on the subjects of each week’s strip. Plus, over the course of the twelve weeks the comic series is running in the newspaper, I’m going to be hosting a professional-level workshop and a family activity on comics and heritage at Underhill Farm during Heritage Open Days, a kids activity on comics and family history at Oswestry Library, plus a Learning at Lunchtime talk about the project, also at Oswestry Library, a mini-exhibition of the comics and preparatory artwork at The Willow Gallery in September, with an introductory talk on the process. If funding materializes, there will also be a pop-up exhibition of some of the comics at venues around Oswestry during Heritage Open Days, plus I’ll be giving a talk to the Chirk History Society which will be about public outreach in heritage, which will draw on (no pun intended) the comics project. I’ll put links to each of these events up here, closer to the time. I’ll also put up posts here about each weekly comic strip in turn, discussing some of the “behind the scenes” process, as well as talking in more detail about the way each of the strips was written.

I’m extremely excited about this project. If it proves to be successful, I’m hoping it might provide a model for other comics and local heritage projects – both in Oswestry, and beyond!

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facebook_titles_2I’m very pleased to announce the launch of a new archaeology comics project. On July 5th, the Oswestry Advertizer newspaper will start publishing Oswestry Heritage Comics: a 12-week series of comic strips written and illustrated by myself all about the history, archaeology and local heritage of Oswestry and the borderlands region. The series is being supported by a group of local organisations in and around Oswestry, keen to raise the profile of the town’s history, archaeology and heritage.

The strips will run up to, and over, Heritage Open Days in September. During that weekend, I’ll be giving a professional workshop on using comics in heritage interpretation. I’ll also be doing a range of other workshops, activities and talks in August, September and October about comics, archaeology and local heritage.

There will be more information about these events – and other heritage information – at the project’s Facebook page, which will be launching next week. In addition, over the twelve weeks the series is running in the newspaper, I’ll be posting here with “behind the scenes” details on the making of each week’s strip.

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Not on our doorstep! New cartoon in support of the campaign to keep Old Oswestry Hillfort the way it is, thank you very much.

Not on our doorstep! New cartoon in support of the campaign to keep Old Oswestry Hillfort the way it is, thank you very much. John G. Swogger, 2015.

It’s Comics Forum this week, one of the best conferences on comics in the UK. The theme of the conference this year is Politics, and I’m going to be giving a paper on the role of politics in archaeology comics.

This is something I’ve become both increasingly aware of and increasingly involved in recent years. As I produce more and more archaeological comics, so I’ve come to understand that these comics have a political dimension beyond the simple communication of information about the past. In some cases, it’s the information which is outright political – in some cases, more intriguingly, it’s the medium itself. Sometimes the very act of communicating accurate information about the past can be a political act – sometimes the use of comics as a form of science communication it itself a form of political statement.

Sometimes, aspects of the study of the past collide with personal politics. The illustration above is one of a series of cartoons I’ve done, very much after the work of the 18th-century political cartoonist Gillray, and all about the current heritage-politics surrounding Old Oswestry iron age hillfort in Shropshire.

Personal, professional, practical: there’s a lot of politics in archaeological comics, and as far as I’m concerned – – well, if you want to know what I think, you’ll just have to come to my session. See you at Comics Forum!

“Digging Deeper: Applied comics and political discourse in archaeology”, Panel 2A – Constructing History with the Community. 11:15-12:15, Thursday, Nov. 12th, Leeds Central Library.

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We are such stuff as bytes are made of?

We are such stuff as bytes are made of?

This week I’ve been updating my operating system and downloading the latest versions of various pieces of software that I use, and all the backing-up, installing and uninstalling this has involved has got me thinking: despite backups and redundant copies, cloud-storage and mirrors, there’s still something ephemeral about digital media. I was pondering along these lines at last weekend’s ‘zine fair: how there’s something tangibly different about handling a physical comic when compared with flipping through a digital version.

I’ve talked with other archaeologists about whether there’s something to be learned here as far as the practice of making archaeological comics. Is there some [in]tangible quality to print comics that speaks to the dirt-under-the-fingernails materiality of archaeology? Tangible has particular meaning for archaeology and heritage; I’m wondering whether it also might have particular implications with regard to archaeology and comics?

Certainly, the benefits of replication and distribution which digital products enjoy can do wonders for a niche genre (which archaeological comics certainly are, and are likely to remain). But are we missing a trick by not embracing aspects of the materiality of archaeology itself from which a digital product is actively excluded: the uniqueness of the object [artefact], the unrepeatable experiment, the wear, scruffs and dog-ears that preserve the visible footprints of time?

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Identity, Graphic Narrative and the Past - my poster for the American Anthropological Association session on graphic medicine. Click for larger version (warning: it's a big file)

Identity, Graphic Narrative and the Past – my poster for the American Anthropological Association session on graphic medicine. Click for larger version (warning: it’s a big file)

Thanks to everyone who came by the AAA Graphic Medicine poster session this morning. Some really interesting discussion and comments on all the posters. Nice to hear from some people that the session has inspired them to think of applications for comics in their own areas of expertise! There’s more on the One of Those People project here, and more blog posts on comics and archaeology generally here.

There were a number of times during the conference that the subject of comics came up. First, they came up in conversations about accessibility of information; second, they came up in conversations about representations of anthropology (and anthropologists) in the media and the public arena more generally; and third, they came up in specific conversations about ways to capture and present narratives of experience to a peer audience.

I couldn’t help thinking that the same arguments I have been making over the past four years about the use of comics in archaeology are entirely applicable to anthropology. Indeed, one of the points I have made consistently is that my arguments for using comics in archaeology are derived from the same arguments being made in medicine and, indeed, in science communication as a whole.

As graphic communication – including comics and graphic novels – becomes more mainstream, scientists and researchers who embrace the medium now will find themselves at the leading edge of a what could be described as a paradigm shift in communication habits. The written word alone – as beautiful as that might be – is not going to be the dominant information medium of the rest of the 21st century. Science – in all its aspects – needs to understand that and make graphic formats part of its core communication toolset.

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Daily comic panel for July 29 - postholes!

Daily comic panel for July 29 – postholes!

It’s been a busy two months – busy with archaeology and busy with comics.

I’ve just come back from this year’s field season on Carriacou. One of the things I wanted to do out on the island was experiment with using a daily comics journal as a form of public outreach. I wanted to see if a daily comic could create a more engaging form of public outreach – one that felt like it was reaching more people and felt more immediate; and one that allowed us to talk not just to people who were already interested in what our project was doing on the island.

I’m happy to say that this is exactly what happened. The daily comics proved to be an excellent way of producing an immediate and accessible record of what was happening up on site, and grabbing the attention of a lot of people we’d never been able to successfully talk archaeology to before. More than that, it proved to be a great way of opening doors and making links with organisations, groups and individuals with whom we never quite realised we shared interests.

Unfortunately, as this year marks the last time the current project will be working on Carriacou (at least for a while) there’s not going to be any real way to quantitatively measure the impact of these comics on attitudes towards archaeology on the island. But, if “enthusiastic responses” from tourism office staff, local businesses, private and public schools, the national museum, local artists and illustrators, and local (admittedly, ex-) government ministers can be counted as positive indications, then these daily comics have been a great success.

That these comics were so well-received has given me great encouragement in deciding to push this further. I have no hesitation in saying that using comics as a public outreach tool for archaeology works extremely well – even though I don’t think I’m anywhere near discovering the medium’s full potential in this particular regard. However, I do think I learned a lot this summer doing these daily panels, so over the next week or so I’ll talk about using comics this way in archaeology in more detail.

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Family Circus (Bill Keane) - A "Billy's Path" comic. Confounding the relationship between panel and sequence?

Family Circus (Bill Keane) – A “Billy’s Path” comic. Confounding the relationship between panel and sequence?

Comics have a long tradition of poaching from other forms of visual practice. They steal – sorry: borrow – from fine art, from illustration, and from graphic design. As I’ve been looking at the connections between informational graphics and comics, I’ve been looking at the work of comics artists who have borrowed specific visual tropes from graphic design. In particular, I’ve been looking at the way in which comics uses diagrams – flow-charts and maps, for instance – as a storytelling mechanism.

Chris Ware and Bill Keane are both comics artists who have made the use of diagrams their own. Chris Ware’s graphic language – from layout and structure through to text/image relationships – is full of diagrammatic tropes. Bill Keane’s “Billy’s path” Sunday panels are hybrid map/diagram comics that (contra McCloud, for example) seem to confound a discussion of the relationship between panels and sequence. Both demonstrate how comics can absorb and transform elements of extant visual linguistics in order to create new mechanisms for storytelling.

I’ve been looking more closely at these examples with reference to archaeological comics. My recent work for Middleport Pottery has very much been situated in that grey, boundary area between diagram, comics and informational graphic, and its made me aware that this liminal zone has the potential to become a fertile zone for the evolution of new ways of drawing and writing comics about archaeology. In particular, ways of creating archaeological comics that bring together (a) the diagrammatic, process-driven sequences found in “traditional” archaeological illustrations (phase plans, finds illustrations, plans, sections, etc.), with (b) the narrative-driven explanations and discussion that underpin archaeological data and interpretation. Comics as diverse as Building Stories and The Family Circus demonstrate that it’s possible to bring together narrative and diagram successfully.

I’m working now on ideas that bring together narrative and diagram in archaeological comics. It’s early days yet, but some of the sketches and rough drafts I’ve got so far look promising. And the best news is: I get to justify reading a lot of Chris Ware’s stuff as research!

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Because You Love You Come Apart - Bianca Stone, 2014, published by Factory Hollow Press

Because You Love You Come Apart – poetry comic by Bianca Stone, 2014, published by Factory Hollow Press

I’ve just finished reading Bianca Stone’s Because You Love You Come Apart, one of her poetry comics published by Factory Hollow Press and available to buy online via Flying Object.

I’ve been reading about her work while I’ve been writing and illustrating my latest medicine-based graphic novel, One Of Those People. I’ve been interested in the approach Stone takes to the idea of making a very different kind of comic out of the pairing of poems and drawings. This is not, importantly, an “illustrated poem” – it is a poem written in comics form, using all the mechanics of comics: panels, gutters, speech-bubbles, layout, etc.. This is a piece of “sequential art”, not just an illustrated piece of text. Bringing poetry and comics together is an intriguing idea, as the dynamic of the text part is unlike the dynamic of story or dialogue which forms the backbone to most comics. Here, the text follows its own logic: non-linear, reflexive, highly abstract. Before I read the comic, I think I expected the artwork to have to play “catch-up” to such a partner, reduced to a poor mirror for the tone of the poet’s usual voice, or even worse, constraining my imagination and my reading of the poem by imposing a pre-selected set of visuals. What I wasn’t prepared for was the way in which the “poem” genuinely emerges from the collusion between text and image. I felt at once that this was not a stand-alone written poem to which Stone had added visuals, but a true “poem in the form of a comic”. The visuals, like the words, were only half the story; the poem emerged from that indefinable location between panel, page, art and word.

This poem comic has suggested to me several new ways of approaching comics both in archaeology and medicine – about breaking away from the “illustrated text” approach and looking for ways of creating something that genuinely emerges from a new dynamic between text and image. This is perhaps most difficult in archaeology, where the visual tradition is one rooted in the “objective” school of detailed, specific visual recording. Perhaps in looking for ways in which comics and archaeology can develop new ways of seeing and showing, we should be looking outside the box of these traditions – perhaps at examples like Stone’s work.

Unfortunately, the second of Stone’s published poetry comics is sold out on Flying Object, and I haven’t been able to find it elsewhere. I’m also not sure if Stone is doing any more of these. I hope she is. I didn’t think of myself as much of a poetry person before, but I think poetry comics might have converted me.

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Comics in York! Part of the "Heritage & Play" sessions. March 26th.

Comics in York! Part of the “Heritage & Play” sessions. March 26th.

There’s a great event taking place up in York for anyone who’s free next Wednesday, the 26th. It’s the latest “Heritage and Play” session organised by Sara Perry and Colleen Morgan – and next week it’s all about comics!

To quote Colleen’s FB post:

During the next Heritage & Play meeting, we’ll consider the productivity of using and making comics to share ideas and create knowledge in archaeology. We’ll begin by discussing (and viewing samples of work from) various individuals who’ve been applying comics to archaeology (both in the past and in the present). We’ll then lead participants through a preliminary drawing session where we start to articulate aspects of our practice and/or current research through comic–style depiction.

The Heritage & Play group is an informal series of events which Sara and Colleen are organising with Gareth Beale. The open sessions bring together play with a focus on a particular heritage, history or archaeology theme. You can follow the sessions on Twitter via #heritageandplay @clmorgan @ArchaeologistSP.

Heritage & Play

26 March, 2014

12:00 – 13:00

Room: K/157

 NO SKILL OR PREEXISTING DRAWING TALENT REQUIRED!!

 Bring: A pencil/pen/preferred writing implement & your lunch

I’m excited about this event – comics, archaeology, play and education are all natural partners. I’ve exploited these connections in the comic-format activities I designed for my Anglesey Prehistory comics, and I know Hannah Sackett is working in a similar vein down in Southampton. Best of luck to Colleen, Sara and Gareth for the day – I look forward to hearing how the day went!

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