Life as Comics Laureate: Dave Gibbons (2015 - 2017)

The Comics Laureate is an ambassadorial and educational role for the comic genre and aims to raise awareness of the impact comics can have in terms of increasing literacy and creativity. The Comics Laureate appointment is made biennially to a distinguished comics creator, writer or artist in recognition of their outstanding achievement in the genre.

Working closely with the Lakes International Comics Art Festival, the Comics Laureate will champion the role of comics in improving literacy through a programme of educational visits, workshop events, guest appearances and conferences. A key focus is working to increase the acceptance of comics as a creative artform in schools, libraries and throughout the education system.

Dave Gibbons was the first Comics Laureate, appointed in 2014, the project initially launched with the support of the by the charity Comics Literary Awareness (CLAw). He's best known for his artwork on Watchmen as well as numerous creative projects for Marvel, DC Comics and 2000AD. Here, he recalls his time in the role...

It sounded like a joke when I first heard about it. The UK had long had a Poet Laureate, whose task was to write a poignant ode on matters of national importance, like a Royal Wedding or a war. 

There was also a Children's Laureate, whose brief was to promote reading for children. He or she would usually be a published children's author or illustrator. It seemed a short stretch to appoint a comics person to promote the reading advantages of comics and graphic novels in a similar fashion.

The idea was the brainchild of a school librarian, Paul Register, who had already instituted the Stan Lee Excelsior Award for favourite graphic novel or collected edition, voted on by school children. I'd appeared at a well-attended schools event he'd organised and, after a little persuasion, humbly accepted the role.

The reaction from the media was immediate and widespread. It was just a quirky enough idea, it seemed, to make an ideal radio or newspaper feature. I was soon being interviewed by local and national media and despite an occasionally indulgent or slightly mocking start was able to deliver the message that comics were a great way to engage children in the act of reading.

Appearing before conferences of teachers and school librarians, though, I was struck by how on-board they were already. It was like pushing a closed door, only to find it was actually open. It was not so much a question of should comics be in schools, but what were the best or most suitable titles.

In this vein, I was approached by the Oxford University Press, experts in scholastic publishing, who wanted to start a line of what they referred to as “Graphic Texts” and wanted my advice and input. They were working with highly talented writers and artists who, however, had little or no experience in the grammar and practicalities of the comic page.

From pointing out the basics of, say, leaving room for the word balloons to the subtleties of balloon placement, it was an enjoyable and worthwhile experience for, I think, everyone involved. The resulting books, ranging from adaptations of classics, through poetry, to famous lives and all-original stories have been well received and I hope, merely the start of such ventures.

My youngest stepdaughter is now a teacher and, as part of her training, helped with a group of children with learning difficulties. The subject of comics came up and one of the young pupils, usually quite withdrawn and uncommunicative, ventured that he loved comics and manga. The next day, he brought in his favorite possession to show. It was a copy of Frank Miller's 300 graphic novel. The fact that such a youngster now has a knowledge of the ancient battle of Thermopylae through the medium of comics speaks, well, volumes.

When my two-year tenure was up, I passed on the mantle of Comics Laureate, both allegorical and actual, to my successor. The sky blue cloak, fashioned by Paul Register's sister-in-law and worn only on days of high ceremony, next hung in the worthy wardrobe of The Walking Dead artist, Charlie Adlard, before being passed to the current incumbent, Hannah Berry. May she and her successors, in turn, wear it proudly.

Dave Gibbons

• You can read an interview with Dave Gibbons about taking up the role of Comics Laureate in The Guardian from 20th October 2014 here

For more information on the role of Comics Laureate visit this page on the Lakes International Comic Art Festival web site

The Comics Laureate is kindly supported by Lancaster University, Peters (the UK’s leading supplier of books and furniture for nurseries, schools, academies and public libraries) and Crescent Purchasing Consortium.

With additional support from Bryan Talbot