Teaching Physics Through Comics with The Newcastle Science Comic Team [Interview]

At Comica Comiket last year I had a newspaper pressed into my hands. But, rather than be subsequently yelled at by a London Urchin demanding a hot tuppence from me, I found that this was the latest copy of a comics anthology called The Newcastle Science Comic.

Produced in newspaper format and featuring a whole host of UK creators like Adam Murphy, Kate Brown, Jess Bradley, Gary Erskine, Leonie O’Moore, Terry Wiley and Nigel Auchterlounie The Newcastle Science Comic seeks to educate, inform and entertain through the lovely medium of comics. They’re basically using comics as a tool to teach kids (and adults) about science. And if in the process they win over people to comics? An absolute bonus.

After devouring the issue I was given (their most recent, Asteroid Belter) I got in contact with editor Lydia Wysocki and she kindly agreed to let me have a chat with all the editors on the issue – that’s Paul Thompson, Britt Coxon, Jack Fallows, Mike Thompson, Mike Duckett, and Alex Inskip! Phew. Read on for a look at how Newcastle Science Comic got started, how they put together the anthology, and more! [All images featured here came from, by chance and then by intent, Richard Bruton's excellent review of the first issue, which you can find here.]

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Steve: Usually this is a neat little opening question, but here it’s going to make me sound like a simpleton – YET! What’s the idea of Newcastle Science Comic? What was the genesis of the project?

Lydia: Asteroid Belter: The Newcastle Science Comic is our anthology of science-infused comics, with a target audience of 7-13 year olds, produced in Newcastle as part of the British Science Festival 2013.  Our editors know each other through Paper Jam Comics Collective in Newcastle, so have been involved in making their own comics and working on anthologies. My day job at Newcastle University led to a cuppa and a chat with their public engagement team about using comics to help children connect with university-level work – and now, some two years and a lot of list-making later, we’ve given away about 9800 copies of our 10000 copy print run and put the full comic online for the world to see.

Steve: What do you think are the goals of the comic – what do you hope people take from it?

Lydia: Well there are a number of things, really.

Paul: Getting kids to read comics, of course, and also getting people of all ages to appreciate how comics are a great way to communicate ideas and information.  Then for a number of contributors to the anthology we offered them their first paid comics job, which I’m very proud of.  It was important that we treated new independent creators, some of whom are still students, on an equal footing with more established creators, but also made sure to support them through the process.

Lydia: Yes, I agree with those, and there was also something mildly subversive about taking university research and finding a way to put it into children’s hands.  Completely bypassing the National Curriculum and going straight for research that in some case hasn’t yet been written into textbooks for undergraduates, let alone primary schoolkids.  The same goes for the local history and local science content in the comic – it was important to us to share this information, so having the huge national event that is the British Science Festival here in Newcastle was a chance to give this project more clout than we could have done as a Paper Jam anthology.

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By Ian Mayor and Will Campbell

Steve: How did you decide the physical format of the comic?  Was there an idea that you wanted to emulate the feel of the kids’ pull-out section of a newspaper?

Mike T: It wasn’t a case of emulating one particular thing, I think we all remembered how when we were little comics like The Beano were big and printed on newsprint, and yeah the Funday Times too, which isn’t what current kids’ comics look like.  But there’s still something inherently comics-y about newsprint comics, and when you see kids lying on the floor reading comics it’s almost like they’re climbing into the comic, so the tabloid-size format was both fun for us to work with and fun for readers to pick up. 

It was so important that the comic didn’t look like a university marketing brochure or an undergraduate prospectus, it had to be a comic that stood out from other things produced for the Festival.

Britt: Yes, so in the early days of the project we were looking at our own comics collections and also what’s currently on sale, to get ideas of what formats appealed to us for this project.  We’re all into small press comics among other things, so that’s an absolute wealth of examples there.  Then there was some great work in Comix Reader where creators were really spreading out on the page and making the most of the newspaper format, and in the examples our printers Newspaper Club sent us, so we were able to narrow down what format we wanted to work in.

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By Nigel Auchterlounie

Steve: There’s a staggering amount of content. Did you ask creators to pitch their work to you, or did you have a hit-list, so to speak, of people you wanted to work with?

Paul: A bit of both. Working with local creators was important, not least because we’re all involved in small press comics here, and while there are folks involved whose professional work we’re big fans of, it wasn’t a distinction we wanted to make and tried hard not to. We asked all comics creators and scientists to fill in the same expression of interest form to get a sense of who they were, what they were interested in working on, and what their reasons were for getting involved. Some contributors were starting to pitch us ideas at this stage but in most cases that came later, once we’d set up page teams of artists/writers and scientists for each comic.

Steve: The science aspect is absolutely vital to the comic, and I note that each strip cites the scientific research that went into each piece. How did arrange the collaboration between researchers and comic creators?

Paul: The majority of the science in Asteroid Belter is based on research done by our scientist contributors at Newcastle University – some established researchers, and some PhD and undergraduate students. We asked the scientists explain their research to us and the creators. As an example, The Three Parent IVF page was very difficult to get right: a difficult subject to start with, it would have been so easy to over simplify and send the wrong messages. There were so many heavily annotated drafts of the script, diagrams and artwork and there wasn’t a clear distinction between scientist, writer, artist and editor by the end.

For some scientists this was very similar to what they do in their science communication and outreach projects – for others it took a little time to gain trust in ourselves and ‘comics’. Other strips focused on biographies of scientists and their discoveries, or on more established science, so moved beyond Newcastle University.

Steve: What was your approach to editing the individual comics? Some creators expand out into two-page stories, some present splash images with text, and all kinds of different writing/art experimentation going on. 

Lydia: Okay well, building on Paul’s answer, I’ll talk a bit about my role in setting up the page teams Paul mentioned, then hand over to Jack to talk about the editing of each contribution.  From the expression of interest forms I got an overview of which creators – whether comics creators, artists/illustrators, or writers, or some combination of these – were interested, and also which scientists wanted to be involved: we had molecular biologists, an astrophysicist, civil engineers, an educational psychology… a real spectrum of types of science.  Then I made spreadsheets and lists to work out which creators would fit with which scientists.

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Tom Curtis and Jess Bradley

For example, Jess Bradley’s style of drawing was a great fit for Tom Curtis’ work on poo and sewage systems, whereas Terry Wiley’s technical skills and physics knowledge, as much as his art skills, fitted well with David Alderson’s work on infrastructure networks.  Each of editors then had a number of page teams to work with, as a way to be sure we could pay attention to the detail of each page and share the workload.

We talked about EPIC THEMES (such as Heroes & Villains, Things We Eat And Things That Eat Us, and Matters of Life & Death) as a way to get to the heart of what the science research was telling us, and about AWESOME WAYS (such as story comics, how-to guides, biographies and puzzles).  So I set up each page team of comic creator(s) and scientist(s) with an EPIC THEME and an AWESOME WAY, and handed them over to their page editor.

Jack: I edited a number of page teams, and also worked with Elisa Lopez-Capel on our own page so knew what it was like to be edited, as much as to be the editor.  Our page was a story comic talking about the geothermic borehole and the geology of Newcastle that this science research had uncovered, which became the comic ‘Felix and Chuckney in… Time Travel Rocks!’ 

I work as a primary school teacher and Elisa does a lot of science communication and outreach work with children, so we kept going back and forwards to break down the science content and to work out how this could become part of a story.

Lydia: I get ranty about educational comics that are thinly-disguised lectures, or invent superheroes with flimsy storylines, so yes,it was exactly what you said – making the science and the story part of a page that worked as a comic.

Jack: For most of the pages I edited it was a case of editing the style of the telling – editing the comics medium – rather than editing the science.  We worked with talented and experienced creators and with scientists who had volunteered to be part of the project, so it was a case of using the skills and enthusiasm for the project that were already in each team.

Steve: How do you feel about the appeal of comics in helping to convey and teach ideas about science to young – and Steve-aged – readers? Are we making the most of comics as a teaching tool?

Mike T: Both in general and with Asteroid Belter, I think there are so many great examples of kids’ comics and all-ages comics that convey information in engaging and fun ways.  Then there are also fuzzy boundaries with books like Horrible Histories and Diary of a Wimpy Kid that teach kids all manner of information and skills outside of classroom teaching, so overall yeah, comics are a great teaching tool.  Then initiatives like the Excelsior Awards and the British Comics Awards are really helping these comics get the attention they deserve

Jack: I agree, and there’s still more to be done.  There are some awesome comics libraries in schools to help kids get access to books and comics. As part of Asteroid Belter’s launch we had exhibition and workshops at Newcastle City Library with Art Heroes and Tees Toons, who all do awesome work using comics to promote literacy and skills, and have strong links with local schools. 

We found that when we were giving kids copies of Asteroid Belter at our launch, their parents were just as excited about the comic as something they could read when their kids were in comics workshops, or that they could take home for their grown-up children, so there’s definitely an appetite there and plenty of opportunities to do more with it.

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By Lauryn W

Steve: One of the best parts of the issue I read was a section called ‘introducing the inventions of 2050!’ in which schoolchildren suggest new inventions that should be brought to life. How had the response been from readers, in general and in terms of creative submissions?

Britt: That was part of the comics challenge we sent out as a school activity pack in the build up to the British Science Festival –  teachers were emailed PDFs of a comic explaining a scientific concept, then a worksheet to check the children had understood the concept, and a competition to design an invention that is science fiction at the moment but could become science fact by 2050. 

We found it was tricky to get teachers’ attention, which isn’t surprising given how busy they are, but when the activity pack got into kids’ hands they were well away.  Receiving and judging the competition submissions was a whole lot of fun, then it was exciting when some of the competition winners saw their entries on display as part of our exhibition at Newcastle City Library.

Steve: Have you had a chance to talk to younger readers in person, and see their response to the comics?

Jack: We have!  Our launch event at Newcastle City Library was really lively: there were some kids whose teachers had told them about the comic so they were busting with excitement to get a copy, and others who just happened to be in the library so getting a  free comic was an added bonus.

Lydia: The only thing was when we had to interrupt kids who were making and reading comics,  so their parents could sign photo release forms and the official photographer could get them to pose as if they were reading comics… which is what they’d been doing all along.  I know we’ve had kids as young as five read and understand the comic, then bug their parents with questions – not that they don’t understand the science, but that they want to know more.  And there’s a great photo on our website of a granddad who was engrossed in Asteroid Belter whilst waiting for his granddaughter to finish her comics workshop, so a great response from all ages.

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By Adam Murphy

Steve: Is there a place where people can send their own science comics to you?

Britt: Yes!  We’d love to have even more science comics to share on our website.  There’s more info online. 

Steve: Can we expect more Newcastle Science Comic in 2014?

Paul: Well, we can expect something, sometime in the future.  We did Asteroid Belter as a one-off, but since then we’ve already had a number of spin-off projects and are having some very interesting conversations about what comics and other projects might be possible in the future.  So yes, there’ll be more from us, but we’re open minded about what it might be.  

 

Thank you very much for the whole team for talking to me! And delightfully, you can find them all online: Lydia WysockiPaul ThompsonBritt Coxon; Jack Fallows; Mike Thompson; Mike Duckett; and Alex Inskip. You can also find the website for the Newcastle Science Comic right here.

You can find me – I’m Steve Morris! - on twitter here, and writing on t’Vanguard, by ‘eck!

Source: TheBeat

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