Lot of answers, for sure, but here's another idea: with comics festivals! One in each school, every year!
Educational authorities, writers and librarians have been talking about 'Reading for Pleasure', the idea that if kids LIKE reading instead of having it shoved down their throats, they'll do it more, and get better at it. (I know, takes a genius to figure that out, right?) Well, kids like reading comics. And do you know which kids like reading comics the most? The ones who make comics themselves. Here's one way it could work, a five-point plan:
A bunch of us work together to develop a central database of all the comics creators in the country who are interested in doing paid comics workshops. We've been talking about the idea on Twitter (under the hashtag #awesomenewcomic), and Comica Festival have already said they might be interested in hosting this. Which would make sense, it's already a big database of what's happening in comics for adults. So the database website could be a sort of one-stop shop for schools, libraries and festivals looking for a creator to work with their kids.
Kids can make a comic book from something as simple as a single folded sheet of paper, photocopied. Comics creators can demonstrate how it's done. My general rule of thumb is to do comics workshops with kids who are 8 years old or older. You can do simpler character design workshops with younger children, but making a full comic book with children younger than eight requires more literacy and coordination than many of them have.
A creator could take part in this, but if the school doesn't have enough money for the time it takes, it could be a fun place for the teachers and librarians to pick up the idea and run with it. Kids can think about advertising: what makes them want to buy something? How can they make someone want to buy their comic? Ideas include:
*a witty blurb on the back that draws in readers
*a good price, possibly with incentives (buy a comic and get a sketch thrown in!)
*book trailers (more and more kids are making their own films and simple animations with just a basic digital camera) A low-tech version of this could be something a simple as a puppet show.
*badges, postcards, art prints of the comics' main characters
*exciting quotations from other people
*costumes - dress up as your character! Also known as cosplay in comics. (See my MCM Expo posts for some examples of awesome cosplay)
*attractive table displays
Philippa Rice with My Cardboard Life at MCM Expo
... which leads to the next part:
A school, library, or larger festival would need to brainstorm how this could best work for them. Perhaps they could tie it into a current book week they run. Or they could send their kids on a field trip to work at tables at a larger comics convention, such as Leeds Thought Bubble, London's Comica Comiket or Inverness's Hi-Ex.
Zoom Rockman with The Zoom! comic at London Comiket
They could partner with a comics award, such as the Leeds Graphic Novel Award. The festival could be part of a school Open Day. They could work in tandem with a comics publisher, such as The Phoenix comic or Walker Books, perhaps with the publisher running a stall at the fair, alongside the kids' tables, where the kids can buy the comics made by the visiting creator who inspired them, and have the privilege of getting them signed and dedicated.
It's almost like magic! Kids you never thought would enjoy reading are suddenly totally engrossed in stories, and making their own. I've done a lot of work in schools the past few years and I've this: if I give a talk about my stories where kids just sit and listen to me, they fidget and get bored. If I ask them to contribute and get THEM to think up story ideas, suddenly they're on fire! If you ask a kid to sit down and write a story just with words, often they'll be quite intimidated by the blank page. But if you get them excited about doodling their own characters, about dressing up their characters, giving them names, personalities, making their characters say things, letting them draw when words fail, suddenly they're off and running and it's a game, not work.
I've even seen kids who have absolutely no English or no writing skills draw amazing wordless comics with character development and plots that make perfect sense. And they can starting adding words - a ZOOM here, a POW there - they gain confidence, and as they keep making comics, they may choose to use more words.
Schools are also big on entrepreneurship. Again comics are perfect for this. A kid can make a comic, reproduce it on the school photocopy machine, fold and package each copy. They can come up with a blurb on the back to sell it, a price tag. They can design posters to sell their books, make videos, a proper ad campaign. It's exciting, thinking you can actually make something that people might buy. You have proper gifts for your family and friends for birthdays, Christmas, etc. If they're old enough or have adult guidance, they can set up a free blog to advertise their book, or to chart their character's progress in the story world they've created for it. Hurrah, web skills!
Possible areas of growth through comics: drawing, writing, design, typography, computer skills, web skills, business marketing skills, dealing with money/maths
I'm not a complete expert on this and I don't want to become a full-time festival organiser; I want to make books. But I thought I'd throw into the mix some experiences I've had with festival-type projects:
Pop Up Festival: I recently curated a tent at the Pop Up Comics festival in London. I pulled in comic creator friends and we turned it into the Comics Big-Top of Awesome, a comics festival-within-a-festival. Kids arrived, were met by professional creators, could spin the Story Wheels to help them come up with a character for their comic. They then drew a simple 8-page comic about their character. Next step was designing punchy covers for their comic. And at the end, they could show their comic to one of the professional creators and get feedback. The atmosphere was wonderful; the kids really got stuck into making their comics and the tables were hives of activity, with creators circulating to help out. This is one model where everything's done on the day, during one visit.
Have a look here at what we did and how creators and kids got involved.
And read here about how one of our team, an 11-year-old comics creator has been self-publishing comics since he was 8. It's possible!
School workshops: Another model I've experienced is workshops in schools, by myself or with another comics creator. (Here's an assembly comics battle I did with Neill Cameron!).
I'd lead an assembly to show the kids my work, then visit an individual class to walk them through designing their characters and writing an 8-page comic, with the first and last pages being the front and back covers, made out of one sheet of folded A3 paper. At the break, I went with the teacher to make photocopies of the comics. After break, the kids learned how to fold the copies of their comics back into little books, and, ta-dah, they each had a stack of six books! I've also done it where the insides were photocopied, but the covers were each handmade, like this comic:
They can be quite eyecatching!
Here's a promotional poster:
Have a look at some more comic books from school workshops here and here.
So I'm throwing the idea out there, would any schools be interested? Do you think you could host a comics creator and run a festival like this? The rewards could be enormous.
Now some more fine-print suggestions for some nitty-gritty details. But again, these are just ideas, feel free to suggest changes or additions!
The website database - Here's what I think could go on it for each creator:
100x100 pixel avatar?
Comics and books for children they've published with links (to own website if self-published)
Contact details (for people to enquire about availability and fee)
Lists of sample workshops (Between 1-10?), including:
*a title for the workshop
*age range it's suitable for
*size of group it's suitable for
*content of workshop (what will the kids be doing? what will they have achieved at the end of it?)
*materials needed (flip chart, flip chart pens, Powerpoint facilities, visualiser, etc)
Emma Vieceli, Kate Brown & David O'Connell doing a comics workshop at the Crystal Palace Children's Book Festival
About pay, I hear teachers saying, "sadly, it is not always easy to locate funds in schools these days'. Not easy, but not impossible, either. If a school isn't willing to pay a comic creator a day's wage for doing a day's work, I'd encourage the creators to walk away; the people asking don't want it badly enough. Here's something that may sounds strange, but I've found it to be true almost 100% of the time: People expect to get what they pay for. If they don't pay you much, or anything at all, they almost always treat you like you're not worth anything. When you walk in, the kids won't have any idea who you are, the facilities won't be set up right, they may have even forgotten entirely that you're coming (and forget about the possibility of kids there buying your book). You will make very little impact on those kids because they pick up on that vibe and don't think much of you. The thinking behind this treatment seems to be, 'well, we didn't pay anything, so we have nothing to lose'. The more money you charge, they better the school will prepare for your visit. They want to get their money's worth! And if you charge a lot, they will see you as a bit of a celebrity and treat you that way; the kids will pick up on this and hang on your every word. You will have made an impact for good.
So it sounds like a paradox, but if you want to really make a difference with kids, even disadvantaged ones, charge a decent amount of money. You don't have to bankrupt schools and libraries, but remember that their staff are paid, why shouldn't you get paid, too? To the people asking for workshops: remember that comics artists often live on as little money as a £2000 advance they got for a book that may take them a year or more to make. Imagine trying to live somewhere like London for a year on £2000. Yeah. It's crazy. And that's with major publishers; indie publishers may pay even less. Things will have to change to make comic making more viable for the creators, but we can at least start by charging reasonable amounts to run workshops, so we don't actually starve. The Society of Authors recommends charging £350 a day plus travel, and lodgings, if they're asking you to come a long distance or start very early. 'A day' means three hours of actual eventing/workshop/on-stage time, you shouldn't be expected to work for that rate from when the school opens to when it closes. You'll still get very tired and do this when you get home:
I've had no trouble getting £350 and I've moved it up to £400 just because I'm hoping for less workshops and more time to work on my books. (So if people want me badly enough, there's a chance I'll still do it.) Remember that preparation and e-mailing back and forth with the organiser takes time, too, and often an energetic day will completely wipe you out for the following day. Even an hour's event can take up nearly the whole day, when you consider the preparation time and travel. (And if you're responsible, you try to get there a bit early, in case trains are delayed, etc. So that's more time.) If I'm doing half a day, I'll charge more than half of the full day's fee. It's up to you what you charge, but I really don't recommend underselling yourself.
The paybacks are amazing; I've heard all sorts of reports of comics taking off in schools; kids writing and drawing up a storm after I left. If schools want their kids reading, and reading for pleasure, the best way is to get in someone who will make them want to make their own books. And no one understands the hands-on, do-it-yourself publishing process from start to finish better than a comics creator. It's inspirational. If schools have to run bake sales to get you in, it's worth it to them. The pressure is then on you the creator to prepare well and do a good job, but that's a good pressure.
Feel free to leave comments here on my blog, but if you're on Twitter, do jump into the #awesomenewcomic discussion to brainstorm ways to make comics relevant to kids. And please DO use the hash tag, we don't want to see your comments and ideas disappear down the Twitter stream! If you click on the hash tag, you can see what a lot of other people are saying. This is just my idea (and not anything terribly original); you might have a better idea, or know ways to make this idea work better. That'd be fabulous!
***My studio mate Gary Northfield (former contributor to The Dandy and The Beano and current creator for The Phoenix comic and National Geographic Kids mag) has written a blog post here, talking about his hope for British comics.
***Hey, look, just this morning, Neill Cameron (creator for The Phoenix comic) has put forward his idea for an AWESOME NEW COMIC. For GIRLS! He says on Twitter: Please note that my #awesomenewcomic idea is not a proposal, not a plan - it's just a Thing That Could Be Done. ...Which is what I'd say about my idea, too. A Thing That Could Be Done.