Farewell to my Manga & Graphic Novel Reading Group!
Last month marked the end of my five years working in a public library. Before these memories turn to dust I’d like to record some of the highlights of my time there, promoting comic-books in my community.
One of my first actions when I began working for the council was to set up a reading group for young people, in the hope that by sharing my interests I could make my role a little more interesting. Starting out with such selfish motives (hey, I’m nothing if not honest!) I was amazed at the dedication and commitment of the people that attended the groups. Our first meeting was an awkward affair between me, a 14-year-old girl and a Chinese man that spotted Astro Boy in one of the books we were talking about. The group later became so popular that I had to split it by age, and even then would often feel like the poorly-qualified teacher of a class of 25 cosplayers. For five years we met at least once a month, discussing comics and graphic novels, arguing about anime and console games, drawing bad comic strips about each other and dressing as outlandish characters. In that time we also arranged a lot of visitors to the group and I want to thank some of our more memorable guests.
Okay, this one stinks of nepotism, but for the first big activity I organised I brought in my Blackout co-creator Phillip Marsden to run a week-long workshop, teaching young people how to make their own small press comics from start to finish. I loved watching their procrastination at the beginning of the week, followed by ever-increasing hard work in the run up to their deadline. We had a lot of attendees that had been drawing manga-influenced pin-ups for years but that had never stretched themselves to tell a story sequentially before, which led to surprise at the amount of effort that goes into creating comics. This was, of course, the point, and the satisfaction that many felt when their work was compiled into a lovingly photocopied and hand-stapled comic was immensely gratifying. Our workshop took place not long before Phil embarked on a world tour that still continues, though if you check his website you’ll find that his publication rate hasn’t suffered as a consequence. Most recently Phil has been providing illustrations for Kerrang! Magazine and a strip for OFF LIFE, as well as slavishly collaborating with me on our full-colour Blackout for this year’s Thought Bubble.
It would be difficult to exaggerate just how excited the group were about Emma’s visit. Manga was always a big focus of our conversations, and I think that meeting a British artist beginning her career in a manga-influenced style validate their desires to do likewise. I met Emma a couple of years before I began writing about comics professionally, probably at the stage in my life when I knew least about contemporary comics, so she won me over with her kindness and encouragement for the group long before I read any of her work.
Since then Emma has worked for publishers all over the world and is one of the true success stories among British comic creators. (If you can call being given the opportunity to draw comics for 22 out of every 24 hours a success!) I interviewed Emma for Starburst Magazine at Thought Bubble in 2011 but this was around the time of our transition from a free digital to a paid print format, and now that I think about it I can’t remember seeing the interview surface in either…
From all of our visitors Rob is the one that managed to visit us at our most chaotic, when the group had organised their own comic convention in the library. The con was absolute lunacy, with activities that included a talk about Japanese culture by Akemi Solloway, J-Pop karaoke and free miso soup, drawing over 300 visitors and almost as many cosplayers!
It was always going to be tough to impress a crowd of such dedicated fans of manga but with a workshop that gave many of the group their first taste of creating digital comics Rob was a smash hit. Among other recent accomplishments Rob’s new series Troy Trailblazer has been serialised this year in the weekly story comic The Phoenix, much to my son’s delight.
With his credits on series like Judge Dredd, Spider-Man, Superman and The Simpsons, John’s workshop appealed to pretty much every aspiring comic creator in the local area that had been left cold by the prospect of small press comics or manga-influenced art.
With a warmth and frankness that put at ease an audience with a wider age-range than any of our past activities, John stayed to give advice to attendees long after his allotted slot and I had to practically prise him from the building at the end of the day. I later interviewed John about his strip War Paint with Phil Hester in Starburst Magazine issue 374.
Our last big project together as a group before my departure was a massive undertaking to retell local heritage stories through a variety of mediums, beginning with a comic-book directed by Kate Holden. As a founding member of small press group IndieManga, a former Tokyopop Rising Stars of Manga finalist and Manga Jiman winner Kate epitomised the style that most of our group aspired to, so it was fitting that she got to spend longer with us than any other visitor and had such a lasting effect on our work.
I was so impressed by Kate’s work that we collaborated on a strip called Drag the Lake for SCREAM: The Horror Magazine, my first professionally published comic. Drag the Lake was a turning point for me and I’ve had comic strips serialised on British newsstands ever since, so I owe Kate a debt of gratitude!
More important than any of our guests were my colleagues in the library that made all of these activities possible. My position was such that I had no right or authority to lead as many events as I did, but thanks to the help and support of my co-workers I was able to do work that I will never forget. The opportunity to work closely with local young people for five years allowed me to change the lives (hopefully for the better) of a number of young adults, some of whom would go on to achieve success at college and university, some of whom tackled problems like homelessness or learning difficulties, all of whom earned a lasting place in my heart.
To the group, I’d like to say that knowing you has changed my life, not just in grey hairs, but in the way that you allowed me to share everything that I know about comic-books in a meaningful way. Having the opportunity to pursue my own interests in a way that benefited you was a privilege, and I will miss each and every one of you. To the girls that took over running the group for me after I had children of my own and my patience began to wear thin, I will be eternally grateful, and I hope that the group will enjoy a long life in my absence. If any of you choose to commit to comics then I look forward to meeting you again at conventions in the future, and whatever you do I hope that you’ll find happiness and remember me as fondly as I remember you. Ganbatte!