The Perth Comic Arts Festival

I was really honoured to be a festival guest at the Perth Comic Arts Festival last weekend, which was held at the WA State Library and Museum. It was a really wonderful event. The PCAF Committee should be very proud of the event. It really seems like, they have the most wonderful community of comic creators and fans there. 

I was there representing ALIA Graphic Novels and Comics and spoke at a panel on Saturday. It was odd to be on stage with Eleri Harris, an editor and creator I admire who just recently received an Eisner Award for her work with The Nib, and Josh Santospirito a creator and advocate I have admired for a long time and only met in person the day before. 

It was also odd to be speaking to an audience composed in large part of Australian comic book creators. People who I greatly admire. I usually promote their graphic novels, work to elevate their profile and sometimes interview them for the ALIA Graphic Podcast. But I was invited to represent ALIA Graphic Novels and Comics and the work we do, so I was there ready to speak.

Our panel discussion covered a lot of ground. 

  • Editing comics, residencies for comic creators, building community and readership through library events and workshops, including library comic cons like King Con!, Comic Gong, and others.
  • Advocating for comics in literary spaces. Literary awards and journals very often exclude comics. However, literary journals and awards often work a launching pad for authors, so what options do comic creators have?
  • Comics in libraries and the work of ALIA Graphic. Advocating for comics in libraries and schools. Raising their profile in general and of Australian titles and creators in particular, including ALIA Graphic's Notable Australian Graphic Novels list, webinars, etc.
  • Fighting back book challenges at libraries and defending comics and graphic novels through ALIA's Freedom to Read Committee.
  • Eleri also spoke about her first hand experience when one of the comic anthologies she edited was challenged in the USA.

It's great to have artists in the audience who can summarise the panel talk in infographic visuals. The first one, on paper is from Aśka. The others, on the WA State Library's window, are from some other artist - sorry, I don't know who.

All the panel talks on Saturday's Academy Day were really amazing. The comics and Culture panel with Brenton McKenna, Chris Wood and Scott Wilson was outstanding. All three of them are Australian Indigenous comic book creators and their thoughts on comics and culture were really interesting. They talked about living and working in two worlds. Scott Wilson talked extensively about the culture protocols with First Nations people. There are stories where Elders have the authority and you need their involvement and guidance. But he encouraged other creators to create stories that include Indigenous characters. He just stressed the importance of making sure they check with their local Indigenous people and ensure they approach them with respect and in a spirit of collaboration.

The romance in comics panel was really lively. They talked about the current trend for YA romance now, but also the struggle to keep romance books ‘clean’ for young readers and the risk of bans when depicting physical intimacy on the page. Sara W. Searle said that publishers always push for YA romance for girls, but it’s not just teenage girls reading comics. Romance books are a big genre but publishers are reluctant to publish romance graphic novels for adults, probably fearing depictions of physical intimacy.

There was a discussion about how unfair it is that romance books are hardly ever challenged but graphic novels with depicting physical intimacy are discouraged by publishers and, if published, often the target of challenges.

We also enjoyed comic readings from a few creators. This is something that I would definitely love for libraries to adopt. The readings were fascinating and it was beautiful to hear the creators themselves reading and interpreting their comics. There was a bit of everything in those readings. It really struck me how the audience responded to Marc Pearson's hilarious comedic reading and people were visibly moved, even cried, with Josh Santospirito's non-fiction account of his family's migration story.

I'm home with my son today. He's picked up something at school (thankfully, not Covid) and I'll be going through all the comics I collected at the Perth Comics Arts Festival Market Day, which was an outstanding success. The market hall at the museum was absolutely packed with families. 

There's such a wide range of comics here, including comics created by children through the Milktooth school of art and stories. Something, that I will have to write about in a different blog post, because their work is incredible and so inspiring. Something that I think libraries could tap into, a club for young comic creators.

And finally, I would like to mention, the Comics Battle Royale. This is such a fun and beautiful event to watch! Once again, four comic book artists had to battle it out, creating comics in front of the audience. With Campbell Whyte as MC and audience participation, including four kids drawing some panels together with the artists, the battle royale was a resounding success. 

After the battle royale I had to gather all my belongings and run to the airport to get back home with a huge smile in my face and filled with positive feelings. Thank you to the PCAF Committee for inviting me and to all the festival guests, creators, and everyone that I had a conversation with. It was an illuminating and beautiful weekend. I look forward to keep working on this field and to continue advocating for Australian comics. You're a wonderful community. ALIA Graphic sees you and we're here for you.

Of book challenges, attempts at bans and advocating for comics in libraries

The fact that Maus is being removed from school libraries and there are attempts at banning it should give us serious pause for thought. Why is this happening now, when this book was published decades ago? Like it or not, and there are come critical voices, there's no doubt that Maus is an outstanding work of non-fiction in graphic novel form that explores a deeply personal and, at the same time, universal story around genocide, trauma and the author's relationship with his father, who survived the genocide, Nazi Germany and Auschwitz.

Pen America published an interview with the author recently. In the interview, Art Spiegelman, makes some really great points that are highly relevant for us as librarians. He mentions how librarians and teachers participated and were complicit in book bans in the 1950s. It's an uncomfortable truth, but one that we need to acknowledge and be aware of. Then he says:

I think that book banning is not the only threat. I mean, there are many threats right now, where it seems to be, memory is short, fascism is a while back, they don’t know much about it. And, you know, it’s maybe attractive. It’s so complicated to live in a plurality, a democracy of some kind, even if it’s a flawed one, and try to balance out all those needs, and make decisions for yourself. So there’s a desire to keep it simple. And maybe fascism looks simple to them. And it seems to be the direction we’re moving in, more and more in various ways. And not just in America. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. Art Spiegelman 2023

While many see book bans as something distant that happened in Nazi Germany and the USA, I'd like to mention here that Australia was at the forefront of book bans in the 1950s. The Horwitz Code for comics was set up before the Comics Code Authority was created in the USA and there were various literature review boards across Australia set up in order to ban books they objected to. Comics were especially targeted as Daniel Best, author and comics historian explains here

Boards were being formed in almost every state. South Australia was attempting to have amendments to its Police Offences Bill to deal with ‘objectionable literature’ in August, 1953 and New South Wales and Victoria were looking to follow suit. The state leading the way for outright banning was Queensland. Various mothers groups were calling for censorship of both comic books and film. In March, 1954, the Queensland Literature Board Of review was formed and duly announced. Its role was simple – to ban comic books in the state of Queensland.  Once a comic book was banned in one state, other states would unofficially adopt the bans, thus preventing a title from being on sale, resulting in cancellations and publishers either going out of business or looking at other mediums to stay afloat. The Board was up and running and busily banning comic books before the year was out. Daniel Best, 2014 

This year, in Australia, a pattern is emerging. Those who are challenging books and want them out of libraries are targeting books with LGBTQ+ themes and comics. The bulk of titles being challenged are clearly LGBTQ+ books. That is very clear. But they're also targeting comics and they often use images from comics and manga to make their case. 

In fact, eleven publications have been referred to the Australian Classification Board this year. All eleven of them are comics. They are, the six volume collected edition of The Boys by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, three volumes of Warrior Nun Areala Rituals created by Ben Dunn and published between 1995 and 2003, and Crossed Badlands 41 by David Hine and German Erramouspe, published in 2013. 

The ALIA Graphic Novels and Comics blog has all the information here about the decision taken by the board for The Boys (essentially, three volumes have been banned in Queensland and severely restricted in other states, the other three are classified as unrestricted M). The ACB's decision on Gender Queer was appealed and it's with the review board. They initially classified it as Unrestricted M (not recommended for readers under 15) in a decision announced April 3 but we're waiting on the final decision, which should be announced soon. 

Warrior Nun Areala Rituals is only available in one university library and Crossed Badlans 41, doesn't appear to be in any library in Australia.

We know why they're targeting rainbow and pride books. These radical conservative and religious individuals cannot accept people outside their narrow minded dark cave. Anyone who lives their lives beyond the strict and narrow confines of what they deem appropriate is attacked and it's a vicious culture war with devastating consequences.

The LGBTQ+ books they're targeting include picture books and non-fiction books for children. They talk about pornography, grooming and pedophilia, but it's all about erasing any mention of LGBTQ+ people altogether. They want them criminalised, humiliated and gone. We've seen this many times before. Including, as Spiegelman notes in the interview above, by the Nazis, who attacked LGBTQ+ people first.

But why comics? Why again? What is it that frightens them so much about comics? 

I believe there are various reasons but it all comes down to the incredible power this medium that we love so much has. The unique mix of words and visuals on the page, where the reader, not the creator or anyone else, is in total control of the reading process.

In fiction, there are no visuals but the ones you make in your head. In theatre, the actors are on stage telling the story. In film, you can pause an image but otherwise, the film moves at 24 frames per second. You are not in control as a viewer. 

But in comics, you have a unique mix of words and visual where you, the reader, are in total control. You can choose the reading speed. You may stay with a panel for a long time, or quickly glance at it and absorb what's going while jumping to the next panel. You can focus on one detail or move to the previous panel and back to that detail. You can focus on one panel or look at the page as a whole.

You may in fact, look at more than one space and time in different panels at the same time while putting all of that together in your brain and constructing the sequence in your mind. 

And then, there something else. Spiegelman mentions the power of the image and the mix of words and pictures and how, when they combine, something magical happens. Not only do they have bigger impact at the moment of reading, but they stay with us longer. They stick in our mind.

There’s something about pictures. Pictures go straight into your brain, you can’t block them, right through your eyes. You see it, you can’t unsee it. With words, we’ve actually got to struggle to understand the word before you can be puzzled or surprised or enlightened by those words. 

... So basically, it’s because pictures are so strong, it’s words and pictures combined, they’re actually stronger than either one alone. And it’s easier to take information in and study. Unlike a movie, comics stand still. Art Spiegelman 2023

There's also the issue of their high popularity. Comic book sales have been growing and growing in the last few years. At libraries, we can also see how popular they are and how they get kids hooked to reading. Those kids that fill their bags with junior graphic novels and manga turn into life long readers who read a lot and read widely. And life long readers are dangerous you see?

Reading is dangerous for these radical conservative and religious types, because people who read are, generally, more empathetic and better informed. They cannot accept that. The idea of an informed, empathetic community frightens them because they cherish and thrive in an environment of fear and division.

Parents, psychiatrists, teachers, librarians, we were all complicit and active in banning books and comics in the 1950s. There's no denying it and no escaping from it. Thankfully, I'd like to think, that decades later we know better. I'm glad that librarians and teachers are defending comics, graphic novels and LGBTQ+ books from attacks these days. 

Yes, there are still pockets of people in education and libraries who are still prejudiced against comics as a medium. But, graphic novels, as we like to call them these days, are far more accepted and available. We know, that this is a literary art form with wide appeal and merit that we must defend and advocate for. It's up to all of us, we all need to go to our kids school and our public library ready to fight for them.

Comics are also very high circulating items in libraries with a great return on investment ratio. Graphic novel collections are among the best performing collections at public and school libraries, particularly Junior and YA graphic novels. In fact, I was at a library recently and the Junior Graphic Novels shelves looked really empty and sad. I talked to a librarian there and mentioned that it looked like they needed more. She smiled and agreed with me. Then, she proceeded to tell me that about 70% of the junior graphic novels were out on loan.

This is common place in a lot of libraries. Libraries who have a dedicated junior graphic novels section that is current and up to date suffer from this kind of success. Stand around the junior graphic novels after school or on the weekend and you'll see kids empty the shelves and fill bags. The same goes for YA graphic novels. Especially, YA manga.

In libraries and schools, we must talk about the benefits of comics as a medium and their literacy super powers. Comics are multimodal texts, where the reader must use multiple literacies to decode all the elements of the text and make meaning. Here's an example, following and adapting The New London model.

Comics model efficient, economic and concise writing. You can't have long chunks of text, so every word matters. Perhaps, this is why they also have a high incidence of rare words per 1000, which is higher than adult books.

Sadly, challenges to books and attempts at bans are no longer something that only happens in the USA. They've reached Australia and we cannot be complacent. Every library needs a graphic novels champion and we have to be prepared.

So activate your brain. In fact, light up your whole brain and read comics. Because reading comics, as you decode words and multiple visual elements, putting them together to make meaning, more of your brain lights up. This is a joy they can't take away from us. 

Share books and comics. Advocate for them and advocate for LGBTQ+ books and people.

I'd like to talk about Maia Kobabe's Gender Queer but I, deliberately, chose not to, as the book is still with the Australian Classification Review Board. We can talk about it when the decision's announced. And when I do, I should also talk about The Boys by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson. It's a comic for adults and it's now banned in Queensland, but the live action TV series adaptation is available. Total nonsense.

But this blog post is long enough for now. Time to sign and out and read a comic.

This blog post initially stated that seven publications have been classified in 2023 so far, this was wrong and has now been amended to eleven publications, all of them comics, with added information. 

Get on Board With the New Wave of Australian Graphic Novels

The June Incite magazine is packed with great articles. 

It includes one about the new wave of Australian comics. I loved writing this article and I'm so excited about the future of comics in libraries and of Australian comics. It's free to read for ALIA members on the ALIA Incite magazine site here. However, if you're not a member, you can read the whole article below (click on the images to make them bigger and easier to read).


King Con! A dream come true

The previous two days had been horrendous. Melbourne insisted on cold and rain but we needed a nice sunny Autumn day. It was a chilly morning but the forecast for Saturday May 27 was favourable, as we gathered at the library to prepare the last few bits and pieces. It was going to be a beautiful day in more ways than one.

Everything was ready, we had worked hard for months to reach out to comic book creators, to games experts, to community groups active in different activities and fandom. We knew it was a good program with a good balance of events covering comics, games and pop culture.

We were confident of the program and the work that'd gone into putting it all together. But even the best program can fail. What if there was some other event that we didn't know about? What if only a little bunch of people showed up? 

Did we do enough to promote it? I looked at the poster and smiled.

As the opening time approached, any doubts we had quickly vanished in thin air replaced by a concern. There was an enormous crowd gathering outside, ready to storm the library. 

It was a rush, a wave, a flood.

Had we underestimated how many people were coming through the library's doors? Would we have to turn people away? 

One thing became clear. Our first, little library comic con was a resounding success. Our first King Con! and we had already outgrown the space.

But we have to go back to 2019. Fel, a children and youth librarian, and I thought of putting a comic con-like event at the library. Our dream was to have a totally free event at the library that would bring everything we loved together. Authors, artists, comics, video games, table top games, D&D, LARP, cosplay, pop culture, etc. An event that would bring different fandoms and interests together. And an event for everyone, from little kids, to young adults, to adults. 

We dreamed up the event, put a proposal together and it was supported by management. 

As we started planning the event and we started confirming festival guests, the pandemic arrived at our door. All doors where shut, we had to cancel the whole thing and put King Con! in the back-burner. That was such a disheartening day!

But no one can kill King Con!

Spring was in the air in 2022 when we started receiving some positive signals from management. They said there was a budget, they talked about 2023, and they wanted us to revisit our old plans and start again.

A committee was set up. Fel and I presented our idea and plans. Most of the event was already there, the main events we wanted, the authors, the games, who to contact. The work we had done previously paid off. 

Organising an event like this at the library takes months and even though we started planning in November 2022 for a May 2023 event, and we had an incredible committee of hard working library staff, we all wished we had a bit more time.

More time would be better. Sure. But as more and more people burst into the library, dressed as a Jedi, greeting everyone as they came in and directing them as best I could, I knew that we had created something special.

Libraries are there to serve the community, to cater for a diverse range of people and interests. While I'm proud of what we do every day and the fact that we continue to be a space that offers access to information and entertainment for free (an incredibly rare thing nowadays, where everything has a price tag). It's events like this that I have long wanted to see at libraries. And I have looked with envy from a distance, at Comic Con-versation in Sydney, Comic Gong in Wollongong, Dandy Con in Dandenong and the Comic Con events at YPRL in 2019. 

I've always felt that libraries are really good at having programs for babies, primary school children and adults. But I've always wanted more programs for young adults and programs that bring everyone together.

As the event unfolded, surrounded by characters from Star Wars, superhero comics and movies, manga and anime, fantasy and sci-fi books. 

As I saw a group of teenagers cosplaying Demon Slayer and other anime characters. 

As children laughed with Andrew McDonald and Ben Wood's Real Pigeons talk. 

As people of all ages joined Dean Rankine's comics workshop. 

As people gathered to see the Exodus LARPers battle each other and the Southern Rogue Saber Corps demonstrate their lightsaber fighting skills. 

As people of all ages gathered around tables to have a go at different table top games, Minecraft and VR games, and to go on a D&D quest. 

I knew that the dream Fel and I had was worth it. That the hard work the committee put into putting the whole event together was worth it. 

I didn't have time to feel the emotion in the course of the day. I was busy running around ensuring that everything run smoothly. That I was where I had to be. But at the end of the day, when I arrived home, totally exhausted and wrecked, I couldn't help but shed a few tears. Good tears, of joy and relief. 

We put an event together and the community joined us to party. King Con! is here to stay and we can't wait to start preparing next year's event.

A massive thank you to Fel (my co-conspirator), the whole King Con! committee for putting in 100% and then some more, for management for believing in our idea and supporting it, all the festival guests for fully embracing the event and being amazing all day, and the community for joining the party.

Good riddance 2020 and the right to dream in 2021

 Good riddance 2020, go back to the dark shadow.  

I didn’t write much for this blog last year but 2021 is here and I thought I'd share a few scattered thoughts and hopes inspired by Eduardo Galeano’s right to dream that he wrote in the turn of the millennium (see the video below).

Fair warning: The ideas below will be spilling out as they go and are not fully thought through.

The Right to Dream in 2021

In 2021, Covid-19 will evolve into a virus that will heal our battered and exhausted hearts and minds. As a side effect it will wipe out racism, homophobia, transphobia, science and truth denialism among many other ills in our minds

Health workers, educators, supermarket check out workers, cleaners, firefighters... they will be hailed as the essential workers and heroes who kept the world safe and spinning when those elected failed, not just this year but for decades

Those who looked the other way, who chose to do nothing, who put profit, business and economy above humanity, empathy, solidarity and health will see their fortunes reversed setting them on a path of learning and humility

People will no longer believe and spread lies and fake news. This will be followed by the sudden disappearance of trolls who will evolve and turn into creatures of light and wonder: unicorns and winged horses, for instance

Journalists will only be able to write the truth, whether their editors like it or not because ink will choose not to print lies and lies will not be able to be beamed or travel through the net, simply becoming a silence, a blank space

Governments and economists no longer will talk about GDP, growth, dollars and gold. Instead, they will measure people’s well being, happiness, access to homes, availability of affordable public transport and all essential needs

Military budgets will dry up completely and young people will embrace each other across borders and trenches ignoring orders that only inflict pain, suffering and sorrow in a cycle that perpetuates hate and death

Governments and politicians will realise that people can see they’re naked, that people cannot live off promises and that corruption will no longer continue with total impunity

No one will be arrested, condemned and imprisoned for shedding light on crimes against humanity, exposing corruption, lies and deceit, warning and protecting the world, seeking a better life away from conflict and persecution, dreaming of a better world

No one will be spied upon and persecuted, ridiculed and criminalised for loving our earth, protecting the rich diversity of life at risk due to our greed and materialism

No animals will be endangered anymore, with a sudden and unprecedented resurgence of life and trees; flowers and plants long not seen will blossom again

Some gods will vanish never to be seen again: Death, Weapons, Money, Coal, Oil. Instead people will put their faith in solidarity, empathy, love and understanding; everything that gives joy, warms hearts and betters life

Borders will no longer exist, there will be no refugees and flags will be buried with the realisation that our human nature is not one of greed, envy and self interest but as the social animals that we are, one of community as we all hold the same hopes and dreams, desires and needs

The old wars and conflicts will die and new wars will emerge: against climate change, poverty, water and food scarcity; against, hatred, injustice, inequality and racism; to cite a few

Wealthy elites, religious organisations and corporations will all pay their fair share of taxes with the abolition of tax havens, tax rebates and special treatment. From this revenue poverty will be erased, inequality abolished

The church will change the ten commandments, putting Earth and the universe as our prime concerns, from where all life emanates, proclaiming the existence of gods and spirits in all nature, in every tree, plant, rock, ravine, earth, wind and sky, which we must respect, nurture and celebrate; mandating sharing of gifts, food, and wealth, solidarity and free love

Police will lose all power, no one will die in police arrests and police custody, and as they head back to their homes in plain clothes, their weapons will turn to seeds from which olive trees will grow

Education and learning, health and well being, water, food, shelter, electricity, and all our basic needs will finally be free for all and not just for the privileged and those who can pay

A coalition of Indigenous People will take the reins of the nation and leading with example and generosity initiate a treaty process with the white settlers who so cruelly have treated them for so long

All in all, for this is becoming too unwieldy and too long, our laws will not be punitive, will not tell us what not to do, but what we can do and achieve; they won’t say follow this path blindly and within this narrow confines, instead they will encourage us to always aim for multiple horizons, through a myriad of traversing paths

And we will blossom into our positive, nurturing, social, human nature, in peace with our Mother, the giver of life, ceasing to kill and destroy, choosing to clean, reforest and rebuild; blossoming and flourishing as we turn the tide

21st century literacy with graphic novels

Reading is reading

We read books, newspapers, magazines, billboards, signs, notices, bills, websites, blogs, social media posts et cetera. When we read all those things, consciously or unconsciously we’re developing and using multiple literacy skills. Thanks to the internet and social media, we’re also increasingly relying on visual literacy and multimodal texts.

Comics have long suffered a stigma that is unfortunately frequently reiterated by teachers, parents and librarians. A child is reading a comic or wants to borrow one and a well-meaning grown up says, ‘Pick a real book. Do some reading.’ Every time this happens enormous damage is done, with children being turned away from reading the books that pique their interest.

A comic – a graphic novel – is sequential art. But what is the harm in that? Reading is reading and it is a well-known fact that children who read for fun and find pleasure in reading become lifelong readers. So let’s fight the stigma and discuss some of the literacy superpowers that can be gained by reading comics.

The power of comics

Comics come in all shapes, forms and genres. It is all too common for people to think of superheroes on hearing the word ‘comics’. However, the most popular and best-selling comics for young readers today are Raina Telgemeier’s humorous and heart-warming slice-of-life graphic novels, where she shares some of her life struggles, and Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man. As an English teacher noted, among all the fun and silliness of Dog Man: Lord of the Fleas, one page featured the words ‘shun’, ‘redundancy’, ‘eschew’, ‘reiteration’ and ‘recapitulation’.

We know that comics are attractive to children. They appeal to them because of their visuals; however, we also understand that comics are multimodal texts where the reader needs to use multiple literacies to make meaning. Think about the Dog Man words mentioned earlier. These are very high-level, but the power of comics makes them easier to understand as readers can infer meaning from the images.

It is this perfect blend of the written word and visual narrative – with the added bonus that readers are in complete control of the experience – that makes comics incredibly rich and complex texts. Novels offer no visuals. Movies offer visuals but no words and a viewer has no control over the pace of viewing. With comics, words and visuals complement and enrich each other. Even better, readers are in complete control of what they focus their attention on and how quickly or slowly they decode and read the text.

Multiple-literacy superpowers

Borrowing and adapting the New London Group’s multiliteracy model from 1996, five literacies that readers have to use when reading comics are:

  • linguistic (written language)
  • visual (mood through colours, shading, composition et cetera)
  • gestural (body and facial language)
  • spatial (panels, layout …)
  • symbolic (icons, balloons, visual representations and emanata).

In order to make meaning, the reader has to look at all of these elements, decode and interpret them, and then combine them all to make meaning. It may be argued that by combining all of these elements, the reader is working much harder than when reading a book or watching a movie. Best of all, studies have shown that readers benefit from greater information retention because they have to decode so many different elements using multiple literacies. This is why graphic novels are increasingly being used in classrooms, including in tertiary education.

Additionally, comics model some excellent literacy practices for readers, such as:

  • precise, concise and rich language (Jaffe 2014)
  • visuals supporting and strengthening memory recall with higher neural connections (Jaffe 2014)
  • a higher incidence of median words and rare words than junior fiction, comparable to adult fiction (Center of Teaching and Learning)
  • learning complex non-verbal communication (Kullberg 2018; Jaffe 2014).

Comics demand the writer to be concise. They don’t have long paragraphs and the constraints of the page demand that narration and dialogue are kept to a minimum. No word can be wasted, which forces the writer to be incredibly precise with the written word. This models excellent writing and offers rich vocabulary because every word matters.

Comics also offer a rich visual narrative with a multitude of tools for the artist to create meaning, for instance the shape of the panels, the colouring, the lines, the number of panels on the page, the shape of the speech balloons and emanata. They’re all elements the reader decodes to infer meaning. This is a complex task because often the visuals act as metaphors or contradict the text, forcing the reader to decode and establish their relationships.

In summary, comics are an excellent resource for educators because they engage struggling readers with a visual allure. They encourage reading because they don’t seem as daunting as a whole book filled with words. Comics help early readers to decode text with visual elements providing clues to support the reader. More importantly, comics extend the reading for advanced readers with the interaction of the written and visual narratives adding complex layers of meaning.

There are some great reasons for reading comics and graphic novels and they’re incredibly popular right now. Young readers are devouring Dav Pilkey, Raina Telgemeier and Aaron Blabey’s works (among many others). In fact, Pilkey’s Dog Man was the third best selling book in the US last year, despite coming out in July, and Raina Telgemeier’s Guts was in the top 15 despite coming out in October. Australian Aaron Blabey’s Bad Guys books have been in the NYT Best Seller list for more than a year.

Hollywood and TV studios are adapting an enormous number of comics for the screen, but best of all, some of the most amazing, personal, independent and diverse titles being published right now are coming out as graphic novels. School curriculums are placing increasing emphasis on visual literacy and there is no doubt that the old stigma must be cast into the dustbin of history by librarians and teachers. The time to embrace the rich variety and depth that graphic novels have to offer is now!

This article originally appeared on SCIS’ Connections Magazine, Issue 115, Term 4 2020.  

Breaking the news

 We sit at the table for breakfast with a good spread of fresh fruit and cereals. The football season, or soccer as they call it in this country, was meant to start at the end of March but the pandemic put everything on hold.

The little man has missed a lot of things during the lockdown, his friends, Taekwondo, visits to the library, watching movies in the big screen… but when everything started to reopen it was football that was most in his mind.

Training in the dark, in the cold, for weeks, he has been so focused to be ready for the first game that I don’t know how to break it to him. I’ve noticed that he’s been eating less sweets and has been asking for healthier foods. He has also been asking to watch videos of Messi, so he can observe and learn from the best. Only nine years old and so committed!

A smile blossoms in his face as he gazes at me lost in my thoughts. He’s in such good spirit, how can I break the news? But really, I can’t wait any longer. It’s Thursday and his first football game was meant to be this Saturday.

He senses something’s on my mind. “When you come back from work, we can play Exploding Kittens,” he says.

I smile. If it was up to him we’d be playing Pokemon but he knows I like Exploding Kittens much more.

“Sure,” I respond and decide to just let it out. “The football season has been cancelled. We’re on lock down again.”

A shadow appears in his forehead, his eyes darken for an instant.

“That’s a shame,” he says containing his emotions.

“I know, you were so looking forward to it.”

“It’s okay dad,” he says as his eyes brighten up and the shadow vanishes from his forehead. “We all need to do all we can to stop this Covid thing.”

Nine years old and sometimes, it seems like he’s taking it all in better than myself. I haven’t slept well worrying about what a second lock down means and the effects it will have on so many people.

We embrace, giving energy to each other.

“When you come back from work, can we play football in the park?” he asks.

“Of course,” I reply.

In memory of Ursula K. Le Guin

 No words can ever do her justice... 

One of the greatest writers of the 20th century; perhaps, the greatest. 

An extraordinary and uncompromising writer with the incomparable ability to imbue every word, every paragraph with deep meaning and yet make her writing accessible.

There’s no way I would be half of what I am without Ursula K LeGuin’s books. 

She challenged me, she made me reflect and think, she offered me insights, possibilities, wonders I could never have imagined and rewarded me by opening and expanding my mind and understanding.

She changed everything in literature with her perspective and deep humanity.

She was powerful, uncompromising, a feminist and an anarchist. 

I’d like to think that she’s gone to a better place, perhaps one of those places that she created, or perhaps a new, even better place the Ekumen hasn’t reached yet.

As Neil Gaiman says, her words are written in my soul. She’ll continue to live in us. 

In memory of Joxean Artze

One of the greatest poets and wordsmiths in the Basque language is gone, but he is not gone, he lives within us.

An old sage who said: 

‘a language doesn’t die because those who don’t speak it don’t learn it, but because those who know it don’t speak it.’ 

And the Basque language reawakened with a new conscience.

Having a drink in a bar with a friend, he wrote in a napkin: 

If I had cut off its wings 

the bird would’ve been mine,

it wouldn’t have escaped.

But then,

it wouldn’t be a bird anymore

and I, I loved the bird.

His friend gave those words music and the song became a hymn, an anthem, a song that united us all in the Basque Country, a longing for freedom and to just be, as we were, as we are, without clipped wings.

But his concerns were for all humanity, he wrote on First Notes of A March: 

The sun melts down the snow at the high peaks,

and it descends down the slope in a powerful stream.

In ourselves is the sun, the darkness, the ice,

the light that scrapes, the heart that melts.

With heart and passion, open hands and arms,

let’s enlighten ourselves and see the truth.

Treading each our own path, between all of us

opening the way for our humanity.

No one subjugated by another, all standing on our own,

all people together in one, we will have our future.

As long as there’s someone hungry we won’t be satisfied.

As long as there’s someone oppressed we won’t be free.

And wise old man that he was, he said long ago: 

Though I know death will come for me

I will not yield from fighting it

with all my heart. 

It won’t get me unaware!

And while I live I’ll sing for life.

And if I die before my time comes,

the last cry in my lips shall be

The first smile to blossom in someone else’s.

In more recent years, he said:

I'm leaving but I'm not leaving.

I'm with you, we'll be together.

We must leave, if we are to return again.

Sadly, his poetry is so philosophical and so embedded to the sounds and rhythms of the basque language that his most brilliant works are impossible to translate to any other language. The meaning would be there, but the musicality, the sounds, the tones, the rhythms, would be completely gone.

Artze’s gone, but his words, his art, his voice will live on. 

Thinking of him I write...

Joan da, hil da

Gugan bizitzeko

Ezerezetik ezerezera ez

Bizitzatik, gogo eta bihotzetara

Bizitzatik, betikotasun sakonera

Badoa baina ez doa

Gugan izateko, betirako

---- ---

He's gone, he's dead

To live within us

From nothingness to nothingness

From life, to memory and hearts

From life, to vast eternity

He's gone but not gone

To live within us, forever

Joxean Artze, Harzabal, Hartzut

I leave you with the improvisation Iñaki Salvador (a Basque jazz pianist and long time Mikel Laboa collaborator) has recorded after the news of Artze’s death.

Some notes on the Catalan referendum

 The images of police brutality in Catalonia are sad and distressing but hardly surprising to anyone that knows how the Spanish state, the Spanish police and the Popular Party operate. The events of yesterday could have been avoided and would have been avoided in any country with a strong democracy. Sadly, Spain has never had a strong democratic tradition and it shows.

First some notes on history. Catalonia has a long tradition of social groups and movements, a strong sense of civics and community, and a history of libertarian anarchism and cooperatives. The Spanish Civil War and Franco’s regime attempted to kill that, but despite the monstrous purges, mass graves and repression (it should be noted that Spain has the second largest number of people disappeared after Cambodia and the Spanish government is putting every obstacle possible to excavate the mass graves), Catalan culture endured.

On the other hand, in Spain, the fascists were never defeated. Franco ruled from 1935 to 1975, with the silence and support of the international community. When Franco died, the transition to democracy was overseen by the military and the Spanish King Juan Carlos, who had been groomed by Franco from a young age to carry on when he passed away. 

People accepted, anything in 1978, because anything was better than the fascist regime. Promises were made, to Catalonia, for more autonomy in recognition of their history, but despite there being a Catalan parliament and government, a lot of those competencies haven’t been transferred. Forty years on, it’s clear those promises will never be fulfilled. The same applies to the Basque Country, which also longs for a referendum of its own.

This is further compounded by the issue that the same people that ruled under Franco’s regime, still rule today. The IBEX 35 businesses (IBEX 35 being the 35 biggest companies in the Spanish stock exchange market) in Spain right now, are exactly the same IBEX 35 that were the main business and financial powers under Franco’s regime. 

The Popular Party now in government, was founded by Manuel Fraga, who was a Minister under Franco’s regime and, most famously, Minister of Interior and in charge of the police when they attacked workers as they left a meeting inside a church in Vitoria-Gasteiz, which resulted in 5 dead and 150 wounded by gunshots. The event is known as the Massacre of Vitoria and was described as a massacre by the police involved themselves. The people in government now are the direct descendants of Franco’s regime. They are fascists trying to playing by modern European democracy standards, but fascists deep inside, and they still rule the country with the silence and support of the international community. Nothing has changed.

Yes, the repression may not be as strong as in Franco’s years, but the endemic corruption with more than 700 cases of corruption against the Popular Party (the party in government) that’s bleeding the country dry; the tight control of the public broadcaster by the government with blatant censorship and propaganda in equal measure, denounced even by workers in the public broadcaster themselves; the cases of torture in Spanish police stations and prisons that are regularly condemned by the United Nations and Amnesty International but have never been addressed by a government and a judiciary who simply shrug and say “that’s not true”, meaning “we know it happens but we don’t care and won’t implement any international measures to improve the situation.”

Spain is broken but not because a large number of Catalans and Basques want out. It’s because 40 years of dictatorship and 40+ years of so called ‘democracy’ under the rule of exactly the same political, business, financial and military, have taken their toll.

The campaign for a referendum has been brewing and growing for a number of years. This is not new. Catalan people have organised themselves in a huge movement of millions that should never have been ignored. They protested and campaigned, not just peacefully but cheerfully, in a festive fashion, demonstrating great civility and making their case respectfully. All they wanted, was a vote, the right to be heard.

Sadly, the Spanish government didn’t listen. Refused to listen. 

An overwhelming 82% of Catalans support a referendum, which is not to say that all of them support independence. They support the right to a vote. This cannot be ignored, but the Spanish government, with no democratic tradition, set in their authoritarian ways, refused to talk and negotiate.

It’s important to note the stern warning by United Nations experts a few days ago

“The measures we are witnessing are worrying because they appear to violate fundamental individual rights, cutting off public information and the possibility of debate at a critical moment for Spain’s democracy.”

On 21 September, more than 4,000 police officers were deployed to the autonomous region, with an order from the Government to “act in case the illegal referendum takes place”. 

“We are concerned that this order and the accompanying rhetoric may heighten tensions and social unrest,” the experts said.

“We urge all parties to exercise the utmost restraint and avoid violence of any kind to ensure peaceful protests in the coming days”, they concluded.

Alfred Zayas, one of the UN experts responsible for the warning went even further in an interview when he was asked about the fact that the Spanish constitution makes the referendum illegal.  

Stopping Catalan citizens from expressing their opinion, they [the Spanish government and judiciary] are infringing many articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Spain must respect European and International Rights. The fact that this referendum is contrary to the Spanish constitution is not extraordinary, that happens in many countries, but it’s a positivism that must be rejected. The problem is not that the referendum is contrary to the constitution but that the constitution is contrary to international rights and common sense. 

He later added: 

As an expert in international rights, I’m not pronouncing myself in favour of Catalan independence. I’m pronouncing myself in favour of the right for a people to express their opinion. It’s an inalienable right.

But a government, a power without legitimacy always responds with violence and aggression. This is how the Spanish government chose to respond. Closing all possibilities of dialogue, they chose the baton and rubber bullets (which by the way, are banned by Catalan law - there’s an irony there, the Spanish police attacking Catalan citizens with votes that are deemed illegal in by the Spanish courts, shooting rubber bullets that are banned by Catalan law). 

It was their choice. They could have chosen to let the vote happen and question its validity, but instead they tried to set an example the only way fascists and authoritarians know, exercising extreme political and police brutal force on peaceful citizens. Suspending Catalan autonomy. Taking over their finances and police force. Brutally attacking peaceful voters, elders and firefighters. Beating up Catalan firefighters who were attempting to protect voters and provoking fights with the Catalan police force. Grabbing people and tossing them down the stairs like garbage.

Regardless of the result, one thing is clear, the civility shown by Catalans is an example. Their campaign was a shining example of citizenship, a social movement that was strong in its arguments and respectful, in contrast to a Spanish government that used every blunt tool of oppression and aggression.

The voting stations were peaceful and in a cheerful positive mood until the Spanish police arrived ten minutes before the polls opened. The police brutality must be condemned in the strongest of terms. Their use of extreme force on the elderly, children and peaceful citizens must be condemned. 761 injured and hospitalised to close around 90 polling stations out of more than 2,000. That was their choice.

And, now, the day after, I choose to highlight something else. 

The shining examples of civility shown by the Catalan people who have endured all this with humour, creativity and a positive attitude. The images of people holding or raising their hands and singing as the Spanish police raided the polling station.

The images of elderly people who suffered the civil war, concentration camps and oppression, being given access to the voting stations first. People applauding as they exercised their vote and the emotional embraces of people, who longed for this to happen for so long and did not honestly believe it would happen in their lifetime. 

The courage shown by Catalan citizens who voted and stayed at the polling stations to protect them from the police. Who faced brutal violence and yet stood peacefully. And the ultimate courage and determination of the woman thrown down the stairs by the police, who left the hospital in the afternoon with a neck brace and went back to a polling station in order to vote.

That’s the kind of courage and determination that defines this Catalan movement.

Whatever happens now. One thing is clear, political issues and struggles are not solved with violence and brutality, they only strengthen the resolve of the citizens. Let’s hope that the international community stops looking the other way and ensures a referendum with all the guarantees and protections as Catalans have been asking for so long.

The right to vote, to decide your own future is an inalienable right and the overwhelming 82% of Catalans who are calling for a free vote must be heard.

No more excuses. No more violence of the state.

Trapped in the Twin Peaks Roadhouse

I haven’t slept well all week. My head keeps spinning. I’m preoccupied. Am I in a dream? Is it nightmare? An alternate reality? Or the actual real world? The new season of Twin Peaks came to an end, in surprising ways that opened up new questions, left a lot unanswered and offered very few answers. In true Lynchian way, dreams and nightmares, reality and other realm collided. I’m trapped in the the Twin Peaks roadhouse and I can’t get out of it. 

This series took me through so many highs and lows and when I thought I understood where it was going, it surprised me once again, subverting expectations, expanding the canvas, beyond what I thought was possible. It was announced as an 18 hour movie, we talk about it as a new season of a TV series, but this was so much more than all that. David Lynch, Mark Frost and all the other co-conspirators have created a monumental piece of art that pushes the art forward just as much as the original series did. The original series was the weirdest and most challenging network TV ever produced. Twenty five years later, they’ve done it again.

I remember coming out of the theatre after watching Lost Highway. The movie had stirred so many emotions in me during the screening, the way that only David Lynch can, taking you from one extreme to another, often in the very same scene. By the end of the movie, I was exhausted. I was a mess. I was burned out. I was angry. I was frustrated. I couldn’t understand the movie and I rejected it. But then, something strange happened. I couldn’t let the movie go. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I kept thinking about it, coming up with new ways to understand it. And, I assume, that as I couldn’t go back and watch it again and again, I started constructing my own reality of Lost Highway, my own understanding, which perhaps was my own construct.

It took me a few days, perhaps a week, to finally come to terms with the fact, that Lost Highway was always intended to be interpreted in different ways. Life is like that, art is like that, it poses more questions than answers. It challenges us in surprising ways and we all come to different interpretations and understandings. I finally accepted, that Lost Highway was not meant to be understood one way or another. It was meant to be experienced. It was meant to make you feel. And your understanding of it, your interpretation of the plot, could constantly change, and that was okay.

Of course, Mulholland Drive continued along the same path and Inland Empire doubled down on it. 

The new Twin Peaks not only continued the same path set by the original series and Fire Walk With Me, but it expanded the Twin Peaks universe. It opened the canvas further, not only in terms of locations, but also in terms of the spiritual and other worlds portrayed. It’s broken new ground and that’s one of the best things in it. It wasn’t content with just the Red Room, it had to also give us the Fireman, the creation of Bob through the atomic bomb, doppelgangers and tulpas.

But here’s another thing that I found a really interesting thread all the way through. The new Twin Peaks felt, in many ways, like an exploration of David Lynch’s own filmography. There were echoes to his own career and the films he created. When Gordon Cole, interpreted by David Lynch himself, spoke, it often felt like a commentary on his own work and what we were seeing on screen. 

The series also reflected on nostalgia. Here’s a series coming back 25 years later, and people wanted to see the old characters, see what happened to them, go back to the RR diner and spend time in the town that we all felt in love with. But Lynch and Frost didn’t give us that. Not only did we spend a lot of time in Vegas and Buckhorn and other new locations. The past is the past, time has moved on and Twin Peaks has changed. The cool, retro, goofy feel of the town is gone. This is a darker, more sombre Twin Peaks.  

There’s so much more to it, like an exploration of dualities and mortality. I can’t write about everything, but I do want to touch on the two part finale. 

Be warned: SPOILERS for the finale follow!!!!

David Lynch and Mark Frost seem to take us through a fairy tale first. Everyone comes together, evil is defeated and Cooper, the ultimate hero, wants to go one step further by changing the past and saving Laura. The images of Cooper leading Laura through the forest are just that, changing the past is just that, a fairy tale. But we know, life is not like that. Life is not a fairy tale. 

So, after giving us the fairy tale, Frost and Lynch change tack. The finale suddenly turns and twists making us question everything that we’ve witnessed. Was it all a dream? And who was the dreamer? Us, the viewer or the creators of the story, embodied in Gordon Cole (David Lynch) who forged the whole plan? 

Could Twin Peaks be a dream that is dying, coming to an end? This new reality we’re witnessing seems deserted. We hardly see any people at all. Cooper is not Cooper anymore. Even Dianne doesn’t recognise him. Laura is not Laura anymore. She doesn’t remember Twin Peaks or her father. But, traces of memory, may be there. She seems to react to her mother’s name. Reality and fiction blur once more. 

Then they arrive to Twin Peaks. No one’s there. The streets are deserted. The RR diner is closed (I think that’s the first time we see it closed), all the lights off. Finally, they arrive to Laura Palmer’s house and the new Laura, now called Carrie Page, can’t remember the town, the diner, nor the house. What does all this mean? Are we in the real world? 


In fact, when they knock on the door, the woman who opens the door is not Sarah Palmer. She’s not someone, we’ve ever seen in Twin Peaks before. In fact, she’s the real owner of the house that was used as the location for the Palmer family house. She bought the house, which is actually in Seattle, a few years ago, not knowing it was a location for Twin Peaks. She wasn’t a fan of the series. So, why did David Lynch, give this woman a big role in the final scene of the series? And of course, she says that this is her house, which is true, and she doesn’t know about Laura, she doesn’t know about Sarah Palmer. How would she? They’re fictitious characters, and this is her reality, her real house.

Of course, nothing is that simple. Reality and fiction blur again when she says she bought it from the Chalfonts, who are Twin Peaks characters we know and who are related to the spiritual, magical realm of the Red Room and the mythology.

At the end… we’re as disconcerted as the Cooper who is not Cooper and Laura who is not Laura. What year is this? How many years have passed? Why is Twin Peaks so deserted and dark? Why is the only place lit up, the house where Laura was abused repeatedly for years, where Sarah Palmer morphed into a bitter dark lovecraftian monster? Is Bob dead? And what about Judy? Should we continue screaming? Yes, in fact, we should. 

I don’t have clear answers. My understanding of the series keeps morphing and changing and that’s one of the greatest things about David Lynch and Mark Frost’s work. Gordon Cole (David Lynch) himself said it in episode 4 (see the picture above) and it’s hard to argue with him. But then again, I don’t think, that was ever the point.

Art is meant to stir emotions, to pose questions. This is David Lynch’s greatest gift. He stirs emotions I’ve never felt before. He moves me deeply. And he makes me ponder so many questions. That’s why Twin Peaks: The Limited Series Event is so much more than 18 episodes of a TV series. 

There’s only more thing to say… Thank you David Lynch, Mark Frost and all the other co-conspirators of this series. It was incredible. And thank you to Jeff Jensen and Darren Franich for all the podcasts.