UK comics laureate: ‘it’s great to see the variety of heroes out there’

The Walking Dead artist Charlie Adlard is the UK’s new comics laureate. He tells Positive News why comics are not just for kids and how the genre offers a thrilling creative freedom

How do comics allow freedom of expression that other media forms perhaps do not?

We’ve always been a fairly niche industry, especially if we’re talking about the UK or US market. Being regarded as a bit underground, the comics world tends to attract more adventurous people to write and draw. Back in the 1960s actual underground comics, as they were termed, were the craziest, most adventurous, surreal, psychedelic, experimental comics you could possibly get. I think that has held over since. Being slightly regarded as a lower art form means we feel we can get away with a lot more.

Plus, comics generally only have a couple of people working on them: a writer and an artist. They are very much the vision of one or two people. The creative direction can be really strong and exciting because of that.

Michonne from The Walking Dead comic. Art by Charlie Adlard, colours by Cliff Rathburn

What is unique about comics’ ability to convey information in a powerful, accessible way?

Comics are essentially just another way of telling a story but are probably a lot less threatening to some people. I think this is perhaps more true for comics than novels or plays, particularly to those who might have difficulty reading. It comes from a personal place for me because my eldest son is fairly badly dyslexic. He’s 15 now and the only things he’s read willingly without us forcing him or recommending them are comic books.

There are plenty comics out there that I would argue are just as relevant and important in literature as any other great contemporary novel. On the beginnings of someone’s ‘reading journey’, comics are great doorways into other forms of storytelling.

Comics are great doorways into other forms of storytelling

Many of today’s comics pick up on current affairs in exciting ways, covering subjects such as migration and climate change. Is this new, or has it always been the case?

I don’t think it’s too different to how it was 20 or 40 years ago. There is a rebellious streak to comics, probably because of the lack of respect we’ve been given over the years! I think comics also attract the kinds of writer likely to be interested in issues such as social justice. Of course, there’s the more commercial side and the more introverted, interesting, political side that’s a really valid and important part of the industry. I’ve noticed new issues such as migration and refugees being covered but I think comics have always followed the political landscape. Perhaps people are sitting up and taking more notice of comics now. But it’s always been there.

Is there now more of an acceptance of comics as a legitimate art form?

My view of comics is that it’s an inclusive genre. It’s not just for kids or adults – it’s for everybody. Lots of people are keen to talk about improving children’s literacy with comics. That’s brilliant, let’s do that. But let’s not keep it exclusive to children’s literacy. Let’s not pigeonhole comics as being just for kids.

We need to get away from this mindset, particularly in the UK and the US. The thinking in Japan and in mainland Europe is very different. In France and Belgium, comics are regarded as the ‘ninth art’, along with painting and sculpture. They are very well regarded. We have a bit of an uphill struggle in the UK to convince our society that it’s a worthy cause. We might not, within a generation, convince the general public that comics are the ninth art, but we can convince the majority that there’s more out there than what they assume, The Dandy and Beano.

In France and Belgium, comics are regarded as the ‘ninth art’, along with painting and sculpture

What do you love about being a comics artist?

The fact I can get up what I do every morning and enjoy what I do – all day! I’ve been drawing comics since I was six or seven. I just picked up on it and never gave it up and comics were also how I did the majority of my reading. In education back then, it was considered incredibly important to read the ‘classics’. But now the thinking is that it’s just important to get kids reading, as simple as that: books, magazines, comics, anything. As long as they’re reading words. It’s a different generation, when I was a kid, no one computers, devices, mobile phones. Now the world’s changed so much. It’s great to put comics back in the mix today and saying, ‘hey – it doesn’t matter. Look – they’re reading something.’

What sorts of characters or archetypes are emerging now? There is a Native American superhero for example, and a Muslim female superhero. Is that exciting?

Even in mainstream comics, there has been always a theme of getting away from the obvious hero. Think about when Stan Lee created Spider-Man in 1962 for example. Even though Peter Parker [the high school teen behind Spider-Man’s true identity] was a white, lower-middle-class kid, he was kind of a loser, a science geek: not your obvious Hollywood hunk by any stretch of the imagination.

Marvel created Luke Cage back in the 70s, partly off the back of the ‘blacksploitation’ movies of the early part of that decade. This was an interesting popular medium creating a black character. I’ve noticed there are nearly as many female protagonists as there are male characters in comic books but that doesn’t translate into films which probably feature male protagonists 70 per cent of the time. Within the more independent comics, there’s much more experimentation. It’s certainly exciting times and it’s great to see the variety of heroes that are out there.

In The Walking Dead, Andrea (left) and Michonne (centre) are two of the main zombie-fighting heroines. Art by Charlie Adlard, colours by Cliff Rathburn

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