This is a guest post by Linda Berube, an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student based at the British Library and City, University of London. If you would like to know more about Linda's research, please do email her at Linda.Berube@city.ac.uk.
When I last wrote a post for the Digital Scholarship blog in 2020 (Berube, 2020), I was a fairly new PhD student, fresh out of the starting blocks, taking on the challenge of UK digital comics research. My research involves an analysis of the systems and processes of UK digital comics publishing as a means of understanding how digital technology has affected, maybe transformed them. For this work, I have the considerable support of supervisors Ian Cooke and Stella Wisdom (British Library) and Ernesto Priego and Stephann Makri (Human-Computer Interaction Design Centre, City, University of London).
Little did I, or the rest world for that matter, know the transformations to daily life brought on by pandemic that were to come. There was no less of an impact felt in the publishing sector, and certainly in comics publishing. Still, despite all the obstacles to meetings, people from traditional large and small press publishers, media and video game companies publishing comics, as well as creators and self-publishers gave generously of their time to discuss comics with me. I am currently speaking with comics readers and observing their reading practices, again all via remote meetings. To all these people, this PhD student owes a debt of gratitude for their enthusiastic participation.
British Comics Publishing: It’s where we’re at
Digital technology has had a significant impact on British comics publishing, but not as pervasively as expected from initial prognostications by scholars and the comics press. Back in 2020, I observed:
This particular point in time offers an excellent opportunity to consider the digital comics, and specifically UK, landscape. We seem to be past the initial enthusiasm for digital technologies when babies and bathwater were ejected with abandon (see McCloud 2000, for example), and probably still in the middle of a retrenchment, so to speak, of that enthusiasm (see Priego 2011 pp278-280, for example). (Berube, 2020).
But ‘retrenchment’ might be a strong word. According to my research findings to date, and in keeping with those of the broader publishing sector (Thompson, 2010; 2021), the comics publishing process has most definitely been ‘revolutionized’ by digital technology. All comics begin life as digital files until they are published in print. Even those creators who still draw by hand must convert their work to digital versions that can be sent to a publisher or uploaded to a website or publishing platform. And, while print comics have by no means been completely supplanted by digital comics (in fact a significant number of those interviewed voiced a preference for print), reading on digital devices-laptops, tablets, smartphones-has become popular enough for publishers to provide access through ebook and app technology. Even those publishers I interviewed who were most resistant to digital felt compelled ‘to dabble in digital comics’ (according to one small press publisher) by at least providing pdf versions on Gumroad or some other storefront. The restrictions on print distribution and sales through bookstores resulting from Covid lockdown compelled some of the publishers not only to provide more access to digital versions, but some went as far to sell digital-exclusive versions, in other words comics only offered digitally.
Everywhere you look, a comic
The visibility of digital comics across sectors including health, economics, education, literacy and even the hard sciences was immediately obvious from a mapping exercise of UK comics publishers, producers and platforms as well as through interviews. What this means is that comics-the creation and reading of them-are used to teach and to learn about multiple topics, including archiving (specifically UK Legal Deposit) (Figure 1) and Anthropology (specifically Smartphones and Smart Ageing) (Figure 2):
Figure 1: Panel from 'The Legal Deposit and You', by Olivia Hicks (British Library, 2018). Reproduced with permission from the British Library.
Moreover, comics in their incarnation as graphic novels have grabbed literary prizes, for example Jimmy Corrigan: the smartest kid on earth (Jonathan Cape, 2001) by Chris Ware won the Guardian First Book Award in 2001, and Sabrina (Granta, 2018) by Nick Drnaso was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018 (somewhat controversially, see Nally, 2018).
Just Like Reading a Book, But Not…
But by extending the definition of digital comics to include graphic novels mostly produced as ebooks, the ‘same-ness” of reading in print became evident over the course of interviews with publishers and creators. Publishing a comic in pdf format, whether that be on a website, on a publishing platform, or as a book is just the easiest, most cost-effective way to do it:
We’re print first in our digital workflow—Outside of graphic novels, with other types of books we occasionally have the opportunity to work with the digital version as a consideration at the outset, in which case the tagging/classes are a factored in at the beginning stages (a good example would be a recent straight -to-digital reflowable ebook). This is the exception though, and also does not apply to graphic novels, which are all print-led. (Interview with publisher, December 2020)
Traditional book publishers have not been the only ones taking up comics - gaming and media companies have acquired the rights to comics, comics brands previously published in print. For more and different sectors, comics increasingly have become an attractive option especially for their multimedia appeal. However, what they do with the comics is a mixture of the same, for instance being print-led as described in the above comment, and different, for example through conversion to digital interactive versions as well as providing apps with more functionality than the ebook format.
It's How You Read Them
Comics formatted especially for reading on apps, such as 2000 AD, ComiXology, and Marvel Unlimited, can be variable in the types of reading experiences they offer to readers. While some have retained the ‘multi-panel display’ experience of reading a print comic book, others have gone beyond the ‘reads like a book’ experience. ComiXology, a digital distribution platform for comics owned by Amazon, pioneered the “guided view” technology now used by the likes of Marvel and DC, where readers view one panel at a time. Some of the comics readers I have interviewed refer to this reading experience as ‘the cinematic experience’. Readers page through the comic one panel or scene at a time, yes, as if watching it on film or TV.
These reading technologies do tend to work better on a tablet than on a smartphone. The act of scrolling required to read webcomics on the WEBTOON app (and others, such as Tapas), designed to be read on smartphones, produces that same kind of ‘cinematic’ effect: readers of comics on both the ComiXology and Web Toon apps I have interviewed describe the exact same experience: the build-up of “anticipation”, “tension”, “on the edge of my seat” as they page or scroll down to the next scene/panel. WEBTOON creators employ certain techniques in order to create that tension in the vertical format, for example the use of white space between panels: the more space, the more scrolling, the more “edge of the seat” experience. Major comics publishers have started creating ‘vertical’ (scrolling on phones) comics: Marvel launched its Infinity Comics to appeal to the smartphone webcomics reader.
So, it would seem that good old-fashioned comics pacing combined with publishing through apps designed for digital devices provide a different, but same reading experience: a uniquely digital reading experience.
Same But Different: I’m still here
So, here I am, still a PhD student currently conducting research with comics readers, as part of my research and as part of a secondment with the BL supported by AHRC Additional Student Development funding. This additional funding has afforded me the opportunity to employ UX (user behaviour/experience) techniques with readers, primarily through conducting reading observation sessions and activities. I will be following up this blog with an update on this research as well as a call for participation into more reader research.
Ware, C. (2001) Jimmy Corrigan: the smartest kid on earth. London, England: Jonathan Cape.
 “More of the same but different”, a phrase used by a comics creator I interviewed in reference to what comics readers want to read.↩︎
 By ‘traditional’, I am referring to publishers who contract with comics creators to undertake the producing, publishing, distribution, selling of a comic, retaining rights for a certain period of time and paying the creator royalties. In my research, publishers who transacted business in this way included multinational and small press publishers. Self-publishing is where the creator owns all the rights and royalties, but also performs the production, publishing, distribution work, or pays for a third-party to do so. ↩︎
 For this research, digital comics include a diverse selection of what is produced electronically or online: webcomics, manga, applied comics, experimental comics, as well as graphic novels [ebooks]. I have omitted animation. ↩︎
Comics fans, are you getting geared up for Thought Bubble? If you enjoy, or want to learn how to edit Wikipedia and Wikidata about comics, please do join us and our collaborators at Leeds Libraries for our first in-person Wikithon since this residency started, on Thursday 11th November, from 1.30pm to 4.30pm, in the Sanderson Room of Leeds Central Library.
Joining us in person?
Remember the first step is to book your place here, via Eventbrite
Once you have done that, or if you already have a Wikipedia account, please join our Thought Bubble Wikithon dashboard (the enrollment passcode is ltspmyfa) and go through the introductory exercises, which cover:
Evaluating Articles and Sources
Contributing Images and Media Files
Sandboxes and Mainspace
Sources and Citations
Introduction to Wikidata (for those interested in this)
These are all short exercises that will help familiarise you with Wikipedia and its processes. Don’t have time to do them? We get it, and that’s totally fine - we’ll cover the basics on the day too!
You may want to verify your Wikipedia account - this function exists to make sure that people are contributing responsibly to Wikipedia. The easiest and swiftest way to verify your account is to do 10 small edits. You could do this by correcting typos or adding in missing dates. However, another way to do this is to find articles where citations are needed, and add them via Citation Hunt. For further information on adding citations, watching this video may be useful.
When it comes to Wikidata, we are very inspired by the excellent work of the Graphic Possibilities project at the Michigan University Department of English and we have been learning from them. For those interested in editing Wikidata we will be on hand to support this during our Thought Bubble Wikithon event.
Happier with a hybrid approach?
If you cannot join the physical event in person, but would like to contribute, please do check out and sign up to our dashboard. Although we cannot run the training as a hybrid presentation on this occasion, the online dashboard training exercises will be an excellent starting point. From there, all of your edits and contributions will be registered, and you can pat yourself firmly on the back for making the world of comics a better place from a distance.
However, if you can attend in person, please register for the Wikithon at Leeds Central Library here and check out the Thought Bubble festival programme here. Hope to see you there!
We are so excited to be working with Thought Bubble and our friends at Leeds Libraries to run our first in-person Wikithon since this residency started. Thought Bubble is an amazing comics festival spread across Yorkshire, culminating in a two day convention in Harrogate, where the British Library will be having a stall and curating a panel discussion, more details about these can be found here.
The Thought Bubble website sums it up best when it says: ‘[w]e use our festival week to promote the power of comics! We believe they can inspire, educate and bring people together like no other medium [...]’. We at the library quite agree.
On Thursday November 11, from 1.30pm to 4.30pm, we’ll be taking up residence in the Sanderson Room of Leeds Central Library to demonstrate how to update, create and improve Wikipedia articles, and we'll even dabble in a bit of basic Wikidata editing for those who are interested. The Comics Wikithon event is free, but please book here.
We’ll be focusing on underrepresented and marginalised voices in graphic novels and comics. We’re particularly interested in exploring the way Black, Asian and minority ethnic, disabled and LGBTQ+ creators and characters, and want to amplify representation at all levels!
As with all our Wikithons, no previous experience of editing Wikipedia is required. If you can write an email, you can edit Wikipedia! Whether it’s Widdershins, The Walking Dead or Wolverine that you like best, come along and learn some new skills and expand your comic horizons.
For those of you keen to get started, we’ll be following up next week with a blog post on how to get set up for the event. In the meantime you can freely register for the Comics Wikithon event here.
Posted by Mahendra Mahey, former Manager of British Library Labs or "BL Labs" for short
[estimated reading time of around 15 minutes]
This is is my last day working as manager of BL Labs, and also my final posting on the Digital Scholarship blog. I thought I would take this chance to reflect on my journey of almost 9 years in helping to set up, maintain and enabling BL Labs to become a permanent fixture at the British Library (BL).
BL Labs was the first digital Lab in a national library, anywhere in the world, that gets people to experiment with its cultural heritage digital collections and data. There are now several Gallery, Library, Archive and Museum Labs or 'GLAM Labs' for short around the world, with an active community which I helped build, from 2018.
I am really proud I was there from the beginning to implement the original proposal which was written by several colleagues, but especially Adam Farquhar, former head of Digital Scholarship at the British Library (BL). The project was at first generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon foundation through four rounds of funding as well as support from the BL. In April 2021, the project became a permanently funded fixture, helped very much by my new manager Maja Maricevic, Head of Higher Education and Science.
The great news is that BL Labs is going to stay after I have left. The position of leading the Lab will soon be advertised. Hopefully, someone will get a chance to work with my helpful and supportive colleague Technical Lead of Labs, Dr Filipe Bento, bright, talented and very hard working Maja and other great colleagues in Digital Research and wider at the BL.
The beginnings, the BL and me!
I met Adam Farquhar and Aly Conteh (Former Head of Digital Research at the BL) in December 2012. They must have liked something about me because I started working on the project in January 2013, though I officially started in March 2013 to launch BL Labs.
I must admit, I had always felt a bit intimidated by the BL. My first visit was in the early 1980s before the St Pancras site was opened (in 1997) as a Psychology student. I remember coming up from Wolverhampton on the train to get a research paper about "Serotonin Pathways in Rats when sleeping" by Lidov, feeling nervous and excited at the same time. It felt like a place for 'really intelligent educated people' and for those who were one for the intellectual elites in society. It also felt for me a bit like it represented the British empire and its troubled history of colonialism, especially some of the collections which made me feel uncomfortable as to why they were there in the first place.
I remember thinking that the BL probably wasn't a place for some like me, a child of Indian Punjabi immigrants from humble beginnings who came to England in the 1960s. Actually, I felt like an imposter and not worthy of being there.
Nearly 9 years later, I can say I learned to respect and even cherish what was inside it, especially the incredible collections, though I also became more confident about expressing stronger views about the decolonisation of some of these. I became very fond of some of the people who work or use it, there are some really good kind-hearted souls at the BL. However, I never completely lost that 'imposter and being an outsider' feeling.
What I remember at that time, going for my interview, was having this thought, what will happen if I got the position and 'What would be the one thing I would try and change?'. It came easily to me, namely that I would try and get more new people through the doors literally or virtually by connecting them to the BL's collections (especially the digital). New people like me, who may have never set foot, or had been motivated to step into the building before. This has been one of the most important reasons for me to get up in the morning and go to work at BL Labs.
So what have been my highlights? Let's have a very quick pass through!
BL Labs Launch and Advisory Board
I launched BL Labs in March 2013, one week after I had started. It was at the launch event organised by my wonderfully supportive and innovative colleague, Digital Curator Stella Wisdom. I distinctly remember in the afternoon session (which I did alone), I had to present my 'ideas' of how I might launch the first BL Labs competition where we would be trying to get pioneering researchers to work with the BL's digital collections.
God it was a tough crowd! They asked pretty difficult questions, questions I myself was asking too which I still didn't know the answer too either.
My first gut feeling overall after the event was, this is going to be hard work. This feeling and reality remained a constant throughout my time at BL Labs.
In early May 2013, we launched the competition, which was a really quick and stressful turnaround as I had only officially started in mid March (one and a half months). I remember worrying as to whether anyone would even enter! All the final entries were pretty much submitted a few minutes before the deadline. I remember being alone that evening on deadline day near to midnight waiting by my laptop, thinking what happens if no one enters, it's going to be disaster and I will lose my job. Luckily that didn't happen, in the end, we received 26 entries.
I am a firm believer that we can help make our own luck, but sometimes luck can be quite random! Perhaps BL Labs had a bit of both!
After that, I never really looked back! BL Labs developed its own kind of pattern and momentum each year:
hunting around the BL for digital collections to make into datasets and make available
helping to make more digital collections openly licensed
having hundreds of conversations with people interested in connecting with the BL's digital collections in the BL and outside
working with some people more intensively to carry out experiments
developing ideas further into prototype projects
telling the world of successes and failures in person, meetings, events and social media
launching a competition and awards in April or May
roadshows before and after with invitations to speak at events around the world
the summer working with competition winners
late October/November the international symposium showcased things from the year
'Nothing interesting happens in the office' - Roadshows, Presentations, Workshops and Symposia!
One of the highlights of BL Labs was to go out to universities and other places to explain what the BL is and what BL Labs does. This ended up with me pretty much seeing the world (North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and giving virtual talks in South America and Africa).
My greatest challenge in BL Labs was always to get people to truly and passionately 'connect' with the BL's digital collections and data in order to come up with cool ideas of what to actually do with them. What I learned from my very first trip was that telling people what you have is great, they definitely need to know what you have! However, once you do that, the hard work really begins as you often need to guide and inspire many of them, help and support them to use the collections creatively and meaningfully. It was also important to understand the back story of the digital collection and learn about the institutional culture of the BL if people also wanted to work with BL colleagues. For me and the researchers involved, inspirational engagement with digital collections required a lot of intellectual effort and emotional intelligence. Often this means asking the uncomfortable questions about research such as 'Why are we doing this?', 'What is the benefit to society in doing this?', 'Who cares?', 'How can computation help?' and 'Why is it necessary to even use computation?'.
Making those connections between people and data does feel like magic when it really works. It's incredibly exciting, suddenly everyone has goose bumps and is energised. This feeling, I will take away with me, it's the essence of my work at BL Labs!
A full list of over 200 presentations, roadshows, events and 9 annual symposia can be found here.
Competitions, Awards and Projects
Another significant way BL Labs has tried to connect people with data has been through Competitions (tell us what you would like to do, and we will choose an idea and work collaboratively with you on it to make it a reality), Awards (show us what you have already done) and Projects (collaborative working).
At the last count, we have supported and / or highlighted over 450 projects in research, artistic, entrepreneurial, educational, community based, activist and public categories most through competitions, awards and project collaborations.
We also set up awards for British Library Staff which has been a wonderful way to highlight the fantastic work our staff do with digital collections and give them the recognition they deserve. I have noticed over the years that the number of staff who have been working on digital projects has increased significantly. Sometimes this was with the help of BL Labs but often because of the significant Digital Scholarship Training Programme, run by my Digital Curator colleagues in Digital Research for staff to understand that the BL isn't just about physical things but digital items too.
Browse through our project archive to get inspiration of the various projects BL Labs has been involved in or highlighted.
Putting the digital collections 'where the light is' - British Library platforms and others
When I started at BL Labs it was clear that we needed to make a fundamental decision about how we saw digital collections. Quite early on, we decided we should treat collections as data to harness the power of computational tools to work with each collection, especially for research purposes. Each collection should have a unique Digital Object Identifier (DOI) so researchers can cite them in publications. Any new datasets generated from them will also have DOIs, allowing us to understand the ecosystem through DOIs of what happens to data when you get it out there for people to use.
However, BL Labs has not stopped there! We always believed that it's important to put our digital collections where others are likely to discover them (we can't assume that researchers will want to come to BL platforms), 'where the light is' so to speak. We were very open and able to put them on other platforms such as Flickr and Wikimedia Commons, not forgetting that we still needed to do the hard work to connect data to people after they have discovered them, if they needed that support.
Our greatest success by far was placing 1 million largely undescribed images that were digitally snipped from 65,000 digitised public domain books from the 19th Century on Flickr Commons in 2013. The number of images on the platform have grown since then by another 50 to 60 thousand from collections elsewhere in the BL. There has been significant interaction from the public to generate crowdsourced tags to help to make it easier to find the specific images. The number of views we have had have reached over a staggering 2 billion over this time. There have also been an incredible array of projects which have used the images, from artistic use to using machine learning and artificial intelligence to identify them. It's my favourite collection, probably because there are no restrictions in using it.
Read the most popular blog post the BL has ever published by my former BL Labs colleague, the brilliant and inspirational Ben O'Steen, a million first steps and the 'Mechanical Curator' which describes how we told the world why and how we had put 1 million images online for anyone to use freely.
It is wonderful to know that George Oates, the founder of Flickr Commons and still a BL Labs Advisory Board member, has been involved in the creation of the Flickr Foundation which was announced a few days ago! Long live Flickr Commons! We loved it because it also offered a computational way to access the collections, critical for powerful and efficient computational experiments, through its Application Programming Interface (API).
I loved working with artists, its my passion! They are so creative and often not restricted by academic thinking, see the work of Mario Klingemann for example! You can browse through our archives for various artistic projects that used the BL's digital collections, it's inspiring.
I am really proud of helping to create the international GLAM Labs community with over 250 members, established in 2018 and still active today. I affectionately call them the GLAM Labbers, and I often ask people to explore their inner 'Labber' when I give presentations. What is a Labber? It's the experimental and playful part of us we all had as children and unfortunately many have lost when becoming an adult. It's the ability to be fearless, having the audacity and perhaps even naivety to try crazy things even if they are likely to fail! Unfortunately society values success more than it does failure. In my opinion, we need to recognise, respect and revere those that have the courage to try but failed. That courage to experiment should be honoured and embraced and should become the bedrock of our educational systems from the very outset.
Two years ago, many of us Labbers 'ate our own dog food' or 'practised what we preached' when me and 15 other colleagues came together for 5 days to produce a book through a booksprint, probably the most rewarding professional experience of my life. The book is about how to set up, maintain, sustain and even close a GLAM Lab and is called 'Open a GLAM Lab'. It is available as public domain content and I encourage you to read it.
Online drop-in goodbye - today!
I organised a 30 minute ‘online farewell drop-in’ on Wednesday 29 September 2021, 1330 BST (London), 1430 (Paris, Amsterdam), 2200 (Adelaide), 0830 (New York) on my very last day at the British Library. It was heart-warming that the session was 'maxed out' at one point with participants from all over the world. I honestly didn't expect over 100 colleagues to show up. I guess when you leave an organisation you get to find out who you actually made an impact on, who shows up, and who tells you, otherwise you may never know.
Those that know me well know that I would have much rather had a farewell do ‘in person’, over a pint and praying for the ‘chip god’ to deliver a huge portion of chips with salt/vinegar and tomato sauce’ magically and mysteriously to the table. The pub would have been Mc'Glynns (http://www.mcglynnsfreehouse.com/) near the British Library in London. I wonder who the chip god was? I never found out ;)
The answer to who the chip god was is in text following this sentence on white on white text...you will be very shocked to know who it was!- s
Spoiler alert it was me after all, my alter ego
Mahendra's online farewell to BL Labs, Wednesday 29 September, 1330 BST, 2021. Left: Flowers and wine from the GLAM Labbers arrived in Tallinn, 20 mins before the meeting! Right: Some of the participants of the online farewell
Leave a message of good will to see me off on my voyage!
It would be wonderful if you would like to leave me your good wishes, comments, memories, thoughts, scans of handwritten messages, pictures, photographs etc. on the following Google doc:
I will leave it open for a week or so after I have left. Reading positive sincere heartfelt messages from colleagues and collaborators over the years have already lifted my spirits. For me it provides evidence that you perhaps did actually make a difference to somone's life. I will definitely be re-reading them during the cold dark Baltic nights in Tallinn.
I would love to hear from you and find out what you are doing, or if you prefer, you can email me, the details are at the end of this post.
BL Labs Sailor and Captain Signing Off!
It's been a blast and lots of fun! Of course there is a tinge of sadness in leaving! For me, it's also been intellectually and emotionally challenging as well as exhausting, with many ‘highs’ and a few ‘lows’ or choppy waters, some professional and others personal.
I have learned so much about myself and there are so many things I am really really proud of. There are other things of course I wish I had done better. Most of all, I learned to embrace failure, my best teacher!
I think I did meet my original wish of wanting to help to open up the BL to as many new people who perhaps would have never engaged in the Library before. That was either by using digital collections and data for cool projects and/or simply walking through the doors of the BL in London or Boston Spa and having a look around and being inspired to do something because of it.
I wish the person who takes over my position lots of success! My only piece of advice is if you care, you will be fine!
Anyhow, what a time this has been for us all on this planet? I have definitely struggled at times. I, like many others, have lost loved ones and thought deeply about life and it's true meaning. I have also managed to find the courage to know what’s important and act accordingly, even if that has been a bit terrifying and difficult at times. Leaving the BL for example was not an easy decision for me, and I wish perhaps things had turned out differently, but I know I am doing the right thing for me, my future and my loved ones.
Though there have been a few dark times for me both professionally and personally, I hope you will be happy to know that I have also found peace and happiness too. I am in a really good place.
I would like to thank former alumni of BL Labs, Ben O'Steen - Technical Lead for BL Labs from 2013 to 2018, Hana Lewis (2016 - 2018) and Eleanor Cooper (2018-2019) both BL Labs Project Officers and many other people I worked through BL Labs and wider in the Library and outside it in my journey.
Where I am off to and what am I doing?
My professional plans are 'evolving', but one thing is certain, I will be moving country!
To Estonia to be precise!
I plan to live, settle down with my family and work there. I was never a fan of Brexit, and this way I get to stay a European.
I would like to finish with this final sweet video created by writer and filmaker Ling Low and her team in 2016, entitled 'Hey there Young Sailor' which they all made as volunteers for the Malaysian band, the 'Impatient Sisters'. It won the BL Labs Artistic Award in 2016. I had the pleasure and honour of meeting Ling over a lovely lunch in Kuala Lumpa, Malaysia, where I had also given a talk at the National Library about my work and looked for remanants of my grandfather who had settled there many years ago.
I wish all of you well, and if you are interested in keeping in touch with me, working with me or just saying hello, you can contact me via my personal email address: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow my progress on my personal website.
Happy journeys through this short life to all of you!
This is a guest post by Linda Berube, an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student based at the British Library and City, University of London. If you would like to know more about Linda's research, please do email her at Linda.Berube@city.ac.uk.
“There are those who claim that Britain no longer has a comics industry.” (John Freeman, downthetubes.net, quoting Lewis Stringer)
Freeman goes onto say that despite the evidence supporting such a view (have you ever really looked at a WH Smith comics rack? He has: see his photo of one here), the British comics industry is not just all licenced content from the United States, and it has continued to produce new publications. Maybe the newsstand is not necessarily the best place to look for them. For the newsstand does not tell the whole story. Comics are not all kiddie and superhero characters now, if they ever were (Sabin 1993). Not that there is anything wrong with that content, but prevailing attitudes about the perceived lack of seriousness of these types of comics can inhibit a consideration of comics as cultural objects in their own right, worthy of research. Novelist Susan Hill (2017) expresses a widely held view when she stated: "Is it better for young people to read nothing at all than read graphic novels-which are really only comics for an older age group?". No amount of book awards, academic departments or academic journals have eliminated such sentiments.
The best place for looking at all UK comics have to offer is online. Digital comics have not only brought a whole new audience but new creators, as well as new business models and creative processes. My Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Programme funded research will take a deep dive into these models and processes, from creation to consumption. For this work, I have the considerable support of supervisors Ian Cooke and Stella Wisdom (British Library) and Ernesto Priego and Stephann Makri (Human-Computer Interaction Design Centre, City, University of London).
Figure 1: Charisma.ai uses innovative technology to create comics
This particular point in time offers an excellent opportunity to consider the digital comics, and specifically UK, landscape. We seem to be past the initial enthusiasm for digital technologies when babies and bathwater were ejected with abandon (see McCloud 2000, for example), and probably still in the middle of a retrenchment, so to speak, of that enthusiasm (see Priego 2011 pp278-280). To date, there have been few attempts at viewing the creation to consumption process of print comics in their entirety, and no complete studies of the production and communication models of digital comics. While Benatti (2019) analysed the changes to the roles of authors, readers, and publishers prompted by the creation of webcomics, she admits that “the uncertain future of the comics print communications circuit makes the establishment of a parallel digital circuit…more necessary than ever for the development of the comics medium”. (p316)
Benatti was using the wider publishing industry’s process models and the disruption caused by digital technology as a lens through which to view webcomics. Indeed, historians have discovered cohesive patterns in the development of ideas, especially as embodied in print books. These patterns, most often described as cycles, chains, or circuits, follow the book through various channels of creation, production, and consumption. (See Darnton 1982, diagram of Communication Circuit below, for example). However, they have undergone a significant transformation, disruption even, when considered in the context of the digital environment (Murray and Squires 2013 have update Darnton for the digital and self-publishing age). And at first, it seemed that the disruption would prove terminal for certain types of communication, but most especially books and newspapers in print.
What about the production patterns for comics within this publishing context? Have print comics given way to digital comics? And are digital comics the revolution they once seemed? My research, a scoping study in its first year looking at the UK comics landscape and interviewing comics gatekeepers-mediators (CGMs), seeks to address the gap in the understanding of the creation to consumption process for digital comics. This first year’s work will be followed up by research into the creative process of digital comics writers and artists and what readers might contribute to that process. It will be the first such research to investigate cohesive patterns and production models through interdisciplinary empirical research for UK digital comics: analysing how an idea and digital comic object is formed, communicated, discussed and transformed by all the participants involved, from authors to CGMs to readers.
Benatti, Francesca (2019). ‘Superhero comics and the digital communications circuit: a case study of Strong Female Protagonist’, Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics,10 (3), pp306-319. Available at: DOI: 10.1080/21504857.2018.1485720.
Sabin, Roger (1993). Adult comics: An introduction. London: Routledge. See Part 1: Britain 1. The first adult comics 2. Kid's stuff 3.Underground comix 4. 2000AD: 'The Comic of tomorrow!' 5. Fandom and direct sales 6. 'Comics grow up!': dawn of the graphic novel 7.From boom to bust 8.Viz: 'More fun than a jammy bun!' 9. The future.
1. For example, the Pulitzer Prize[Maus]; The Guardian’s First Book Award 2001 [Jimmy Corrigan]; Man Booker Prize longlist [Sabrina], not to mention the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics. The fact that graphic novels are singled out from comics here is another entire blog post… ↩︎
I am an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student based at the British Library and Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London (UAL). The studentship is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Programme.
Supervised jointly by Stella Wisdom from the British Library, Roger Sabin and Ian Hague from UAL, my research looks to explore the potential for digital comics to take advantage of digital technologies and the digital environment to foster inclusivity and diversity. I aim to examine the status of marginal voices within UK digital comics, while addressing the opportunities and challenges these comics present for the British Library’s collection and preservation policies.
Digital comics have been identified as complex digital publications, meaning this research project is connected to the work of the broader Emerging Formats Project. On top of embracing technological change, digital comics have the potential to reflect, embrace and contribute to social and cultural change in the UK. Digital comics not only present new ways of telling stories, but whose story is told.
One of the comic creators, whose work I have been recently examining is Jaime Huxtable, a Welsh cartoonist/illustrator based in Worthing, West Sussex. He has worked on a variety of digital comics projects, from webcomics to interactive comics, and also runs various comics related workshops.
My thesis will explore whether the ways UK digital comics are published and consumed means that they can foreground marginal, alternative voices similar to the way underground comix and zine culture has. Comics scholarship has focused on the technological aspects of digital comics, meaning their potentially significant contribution reflecting and embracing social and cultural change in the UK has not been explored. I want to establish whether the fact digital comics can circumvent traditional gatekeepers means they provide space to foreground marginal voices. I will also explore the challenges and opportunities digital comics might present for legal deposit collection development policy.
As well as being a member of the Comics Research Hub (CoRH) at UAL, I have already begun working with colleagues from the UK Web Archive, and hope to be able to make a significant contribution to the Web Comic Archive. Issues around collection development and management are central to my research, I feel very fortunate to be based at the British Library, to have the chance to learn from and hopefully contribute to practice here.
If anyone would like to know more about my research, or recommend any digital comics for me to look at, please do contact me at Tom.Gebhart@bl.uk or @thmsgbhrt on Twitter. UK digital comic creators and publishers can use the ComicHaus app to send their digital comics directly to The British Library digital archive. More details about this process are here.
This post is by British Library collaborative doctoral student Thomas Gebhart (@thmsgbhrt).
Posted by Mahendra Mahey on behalf of Nick Cave, entrant in the BL Labs Awards 2016 under the 'Artistic Category'.
Nick Cave - Animator
Today’s blockbuster films sees long forgotten dinosaurs, futuristic warping spaceships and metallic looking beings the size of our tallest buildings, transforming from a car to a giant robot in the blink of an eye. There are even whole planets of giant alien creatures walking amongst people and trees and all of these incredible visual showcases are invading our cinema screens week in, week out.
However, back before the advent of sophisticated computer generated graphics technology, artists were using simpler photographic techniques to create short animations with zany characters, new landscapes and everyday objects to bring laughter to the masses on the small screen. One such artist was Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame who used a technique known as stop motion animation to bring a variety of household magazine pictures to life. By cutting out different pictures, photographing and filming them individually moving over time, they became very funny animated cartoon like sketches.
Terry Gilliam - Monty Python animations
I’ve always been fascinated by this amazing technique, even if it is a very time consuming one, but modern computer animation software makes this process easier. Stop motion animations simply have a quirky charm. More often than not they’re animations which are not polished, or even necessarily slick looking. It’s a style of animation which creates imaginary worlds and characters, often moving in a jagged, staccato fashion, but still somehow one that looks and feels as engaging and interesting as modern visual effects which have cost millions to create. So, with the Terry Gilliam magazine picture ideas in mind where to start, social media of course!
An example of working on stop motion animation
Social media is dominated by celebrity gossip and tittle tattle, breaking news, but major events also continue to play a key part in posts. This could be when celebrating sporting achievements, raving about a new film, TV show, or even an anniversary event and significantly, nostalgia.
People always like to look back and remember, which is where my 6SecondHistory idea spawned from. I chose Instagram as my social media delivery platform, partly because mini web episodes, such as crime thriller, Shield5, had been very successful on it and partly because it’s a social media platform created specifically to showcase photographs and short videos.
As copyright can be a contentious legal minefield, where to source the modern equivalent of historical magazine photos from? Well, easy, the British Library has a massive collection of freely available copyright free Flickr archive photographs and illustrations to choose from. Animals, places, people, fancy illustrations from old manuscripts, basically a wealth of interesting material. The interesting and sometimes vexing challenge in bringing these pictures to life are many, because they’re often hand drawn with no clear differentiation between foreground and background objects, plus searching for specific pictures can sometimes bring up an interesting results set. Six second animations seemed a good starting point because of the success of internet vines, also six second gifs, or videos etc.
Images taken from the British Library Flickr Commons Site
Left - British Library Flickr Shakespeare Character (https://flic.kr/p/i2ba1M): Image taken from page 252 of 'The Oxford Thackeray. With illustrations. [Edited with introductions by George Saintsbury.]’
Top Right - British Library Flickr Skull (https://flic.kr/p/hVgqkH): Image taken from page 246 of 'Modern Science in Bible Lands ... With maps and illustrations’ - 1888
Bottom Right - British Library Flickr Shakespeare Theatre (https://flic.kr/p/i6ymLe): Image taken from page 76 of 'The Works of Shakspeare; from the text of Johnson, Steevens, and Reed. With a biographical memoir, and a variety of interesting matter, illustrative of his life and writings. By W. Harvey’ - 1825
As an example, 2016 saw the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Whenever the focus is on Shakespeare famous speeches are cited and one such speech is Hamlet’s Act 5 Scene 1 lament to a disembodied skull. Perfect material for a funny 6SecondHistory animation and one that could truly show off the merging of a variety of British Library archive pics, repurposed and coloured to create a comical short Hamlet animation with an element of 3D perspective in it. This was a labour of love, but I hope you agree that my short animation has brought the speech to life.
I’m currently a BL Labs Creative/Researcher alongside my role as Creative in Residence for the State Library of Queensland. SLQ is an Australian institution which serves a population of over four and a half million people…spread over an area three times the size of France.
Matt Finch Creative in Residence at the State Library of Queensland
Our footprint stretches from our headquarters in Brisbane’s cultural precinct to the Indigenous communities of the Torres Strait Islands in the north, the Great Barrier Reef to the east and the edge of the Simpson Desert to the west.
Such a demanding geography means we blend physical and digital activities, embracing our collections but also creating opportunities for local communities to surprise us with their own plans, schemes, dreams, and innovations. We seek to imagine a digital future for Queensland which acknowledges Traditional Owners of the land and pays respect to Indigenous elders past, present, and future, as well as embracing all the many and diverse communities who live, work, and play here.
Given the huge distances involved when you work in a state like ours, we’re especially interested in geolinked collections and mobile digital access. Partnering with BL Labs, we’re currently working on ways to celebrate and share Queensland-related material from the BL collections.
We also make stuff which is brand spanking new. This month, the State Library has released an online comic maker for the global Fun Palaces event which takes place every October.
In 2015, users around the world surprised us by using the simple comic maker to create non-narrative comics, cheeky horror stories, and even comics in Te Reo Māori – this year we look forward to people reimagining, repurposing, and reworking the code behind the comic maker into weird and wonderful new forms. We’d also love to see friends of the BL Labs, sister institutions, and communities worldwide put their own image sets into the drag-and-drop image inventory.
Please don't forget to book for our latest events:
Black Abolitionists in 19th Century Britain.
Thu 6 Oct, 19:00 – 21:00
British Library Conference Centre, 96 Euston Road, NW1 2DB
Cost: £8 (Concessions available)
An informative and entertaining evening of talks, performances and discussion about the antislavery movement with scholar Hannah-Rose Murray, actor and writer Joe Williams and actress Martelle Edinborough.
British Library Conference Centre, 96 Euston Road, NW1 2DB
The Symposium showcases innovative projects which use the British Library's digital content and provides a platform for development, networking and debate in the digital scholarship field. This year’s keynote will be given by Melissa Terras , Professor of Digital Humanities at University College London, entitled 'Unexpected repurposing: the British Library's Digital Collections and UCL teaching, research and infrastructure'.
British Library Conference Centre, 96 Euston Road, NW1 2DB
Cost: £12 (Concessions available)
Following the BL Labs Symposium, join Dr Bob Nicholson (Edge Hill University) and comedians Zoe Lyons, Bob Mills and Iszi Lawrence for the evening as they unearth thousands of old puns, sketches, one-liners, mother-in-law jokes, saucy songs and other comic clippings from the 19th century.
The Way Ahead? Map Making and Digital Skills for Geography Teaching.
Sat 12 Nov, 9:45 – 13:30
British Library Conference Centre, 96 Euston Road, NW1 2DB
Cost: £12 - £24
This half-day conference for Geography teachers at Key Stages 2–5 uncovers the British Library’s forthcoming major exhibition Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line and explores a range of approaches to interpreting and creating maps, with a focus on digital resources, to support and enrich Geography in the Primary and Secondary classroom.
Starting at the Freemasons’ Hall, Great Queen Street, London WC2B 5AZ
Cost: FREE (places limited)
An afternoon walking tour around central London which will visit six sites where African American abolitionists made an indelible mark on the British landscape. The walking tour will be followed by food, drinks and a short re-enactment of an antislavery meeting at the Old Crown Public House.