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Comic books - a powerful medium for all ages and genders

Research has shown that comic books serve an important purpose in education and understanding history, as well as art, culture and language. Over the last few years, there have been various initiatives to increase public engagement with comics and encourage their use as a learning tool. One researcher at Northumbria University with a longstanding commitment to and expertise in comics and graphic novels is helping to drive these changes, making a significant impact on many organisations and fields. 

Through her research, Dr Mel Gibson has supported the development of comics awards and university based collections, as well as national exhibitions and festivals. Regarded as a maker of change, through her academic and practical work, as well as her popular website Dr Mel Comics, she is engaging academic audiences and professionals within the comics industry. She is also changing public perceptions of the medium through her work with literacy organisations, public libraries and schools, amongst others, via talks, training and collection development.  

Dr Gibson’s research covers topics such as audience, memory, comics and graphic novels. Her research has revealed the value of comics in exploring contemporary and historical issues, inspiring learning, and understanding the way perceptions of childhood have changed over time.   

An important focus of Dr Gibson’s research is comics, childhood and gender, leading her to work with several UK comics and graphic novel festivals. Thought Bubble, the UK’s largest comics art festival, for example, worked with Dr Gibson to confirm that the event was female and family-friendly. One highlight of the annual festival became a ‘Women in Comics’ panel, which Dr Gibson chaired to encourage debate on issues of gender and diversity. This has now been developed into a diversity panel with a wider remit. 

Seven Stories – The National Centre for Children’s Books is another organisation that sought Dr Gibson’s expertise to develop an in-depth understanding of comics and to stage their first comics exhibition – ‘Comics!’. This relationship has enabled Seven Stories to plan, deliver and curate a year-long British children’s comics exhibition at the Centre in Newcastle. The focus on comics was a new initiative for Seven Stories; a step-change away from their usual content of picture books and novels for children, nevertheless the exhibition proved hugely popular, attracting over 49,600 visitors between July 2017 and June 2018. The curatorial team acknowledged that this event appealed to a wider audience than their typical exhibits attract, as many older adults were interested in the content. After the exhibition, ‘Comics!’ embarked on a national tour which lasted from June 2018 to February 2020, during which five venues across the UK hosted it for up to three months each. 

In other work, Dr Gibson has been instrumental in establishing various awards, including the Comics Laureate, a biennial role assigned to an outstanding comics artist or writer. During those two years, the Laureate’s role is to raise awareness of the significance of comics as a tool for learning, particularly in improving children’s literacy and creativity. Since its creation in 2014, three writers have been Comic Laureate: 2014–2017 illustrator and graphic novelist Dave Gibbons, whose artwork featured in the bestselling series Watchmen and 2000AD; 2017–2018 Charlie Adlard, who has drawn Walking Dead since 2004 and worked on Savage, The X-Files, Mars Attacks, and Judge Dredd; and, since 2019 Hannah Berry, the award-winning creator of graphic novels Adamtine and Livestock. As well as promoting the educational potential of comics, Laureates also act as public figures for the wider comics community, attending public appearances, judging awards, and advising organisations.  

Dr Gibson has also been involved in supporting the establishment and growth of the Lakes International Comic Art Festival (LICAF), an annual event held in Kendal, Cumbria. The LICAF acknowledge that Gibson’s work on childhood and girls experience of comic books was fundamental to influencing the creation and direction of the festival, particularly with regards to the aim, concept, and desired ‘feel’ as a festival. Since it was established in 2013, the LICAF has grown from around 4,000 attendees to more than 15,000 (2019–2020 event held online due to Covid attracted 9,000 views). 

In addition to this, Dr Gibson regularly shares her expertise in comics through training events, speaking engagements and leading various projects. She has provided training to charities and literacy organisations, such as the National Literacy Trust and spoken to various schools and libraries, including Dalmuir Public Library and Whitley Bay High School. In addition, for the Oxford University Press, Dr Gibson developed a series of comics and an associated teacher’s pack.   

The public talks are important for cultural heritage – attendees regularly report that they stimulate and enhance their memories of comics and broaden their knowledge. Older attendees also state that they have a wider understanding of why the medium appeals to younger people, reminded of their own youthful enthusiasm. Meanwhile, training given to libraries and elsewhere often leads to new graphic novel collections or the extension of existing ones, thus expanding the range of materials available for leisure reading and making them accessible to new audiences. In addition, training builds staff confidence in handling comics and graphic novels. For literacy organisations, training contributes to initiatives aimed at engaging reluctant readers and celebrating confident readers’ experience of the medium too.  

Based on Dr Gibson’s research and expertise, comics as a medium to facilitate change has been adopted as an element in many projects and initiatives such as Manchester Metropolitan’s ‘Graphic Lives’ project on Bangladeshi Women’s experiences, Bolton University’s ‘Shakespeare Investigate Days’, and Liverpool John Moores University’s ‘Femorabilia’ archive collection of British 20th Century print culture for women and girls. 

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