Life as Comics Laureate: Hannah Berry (2019 - 2021)

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.

Hannah Berry is the third Comics Laureate, a comics creator, writer, illustrator and podcaster, author of the horrifyingly-prescient media satire, Livestock, published by Jonathan Cape. This is her third graphic novel after the critically acclaimed Adamtine and Britten & Brülightly, which was translated into four different languages and chosen as part of the official selection at Angoulême in 2010.

She does a weekly cartoon strip for the New Statesman and is one half of the podcast No YOU Hang Up with Dan Berry (probably no relation). She has been part of numerous collaborative projects, arts festivals and exhibitions all around the world...

So coming into the post I was extremely aware I had some pretty big shoes to fill and with feet that are considerably less famous, so to speak.

At the time of writing I’ve had the laureate title for six months: there are irons in fires; fingers are in pies; balls are rolling; and I’ve started using far more metaphors than I’m comfortable with. 

Here’s a list of aims and some of the most interesting developments so far, because we live in an age of listicles:

Using comics to promote literacy

Turns out the Netherlands also has a comics laureate! Margreet de Heer, my esteemed sister-in-laureate (she came up with that because she is brilliant) used her post to create a fantastic book of Dutch language graphic novels for teachers and librarians, and now she and her co-creators Willard Mans and Bas Schuddeboom and I are in the process of putting together an English version. Each entry has a description, a sample, and a series of discussion points for use in the classroom, and it will hopefully be distributed freely to schools in a bid to follow on from the excellent work begun by Charlie Adlard and Dave Gibbons.

Using comics to help children (and adults) learning English as an additional language

I know all about the power of comics in helping to learn a language: my very own mother, as a young Ecuadorian child freshly arrived in the United States, learnt English from reading comics with my Grandad. I’m hoping to put together a free regular comic for EAL kids in schools that is accessible and engaging and can be absorbed at their own pace and, importantly, taken home so that other family members can have a cheeky read too. 

Using comics to help literacy levels amongst offenders

In my previous life as probation service administrator I was shocked at the low the literacy rate of offenders (the average reading age amongst prisoners is 8, I believe), which surely must be feeding into the isolation of some of the most chaotic members of our society.

I haven’t found an easy solution to this one yet, though I’m helping Dr Laura Janes of the Howard League For Penal Reform put together a pilot for a comics-based workshop for young offenders.

Be an ambassador for the medium

You know what comics doesn’t have a lot of? Money. (If you’re reading this and wondering where all the funding and support will come from for these various schemes: I have been doing a lot of blagging lately.)

Most creators I know are making far less than minimum wage: we are a disparate and plucky bunch, proudly flying under the radar of The High Arts, but that also means we have very little access to the kind of arts funding that, say, opera has. 

The problem is that our problem is purely anecdotal, so I’m putting together a big anonymous survey with help from the University of Dundee and the British Council to be completed by everyone making comics in the UK, hopefully launching early next year (2020). Once we’ve got an accurate picture of who we are, who we’re making comics for, how much we’re earning from different sources and to what extent we are falling short of making an actual living, we can then distribute and scrutinise this delicious data, work out a plan of action, and use it to prove to various funding bodies that we do indeed exist and are worthy of their support.

Watch this space!

Hannah Berry

Twitter updates: @Streakofpith
Comments, suggestions and pledges of large pots of cash:

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