“We make awesome comics based on specific information, and help people use comics for specific purposes.” Applied Comics Etc.’s Lydia Wysocki on turning 1920s archaeologist Gertrude Bell into a web comic heroine
As discerning comic fans we know they don’t all have to be about spandex-clad superheroes, but what about the true story of a female archaeologist from the 1920s? Webcomic Gertrude Bell: Archaeologist, Writer, Explorer is part pulp adventure, and part history lesson (thanks to added info in hyperlink hot spots) and so we catch up with Applied Comics Etc’s Lydia Wysocki to find out more about this unlikely webcomic heroine.
You’ve released a webcomic about the archaeologist Gertrude Bell, what inspired you to tell her story as a comic? And what attributes do you think make her worthy of being a ‘web comic heroine’?
Lydia Wysocki: Telling Gertrude’s story as a comic came about because there’s a good story there to tell, and because we think the comics medium is well suited to telling it. Gertrude became a powerful force in Iraqi politics and her work is highly relevant today. The personal materials in the Gertrude Bell Archive – letters, diaries, photographs – give us amazing glimpses of what she was like, but on the other hand she’s a complex character, which makes for a strong narrative. And it’s not only a comic about Gertrude: she met people from a range of social groups, cultures, and ethnicities, which again suggests possibilities for a rich and compelling comic.
Telling Gertrude’s story as a webcomic meant we could embed hyperlinked hotspots in panels of the comic to click directly to digitised photos, diary entries and letters in the Gertrude Bell Archive, and other key sources. Printed comics (or a novel, or a film, or music) can’t do that in the same way. In the comic, we used photos from her archive as image reference for locations, characters, and objects. We could include real diary entries as captions, and use maps to show where in the world events happened.
Everything started as a chat about comics with archives staff. I was talking with Gillian Johnston and Sara Bird at Newcastle University Library to set up another archives-and-comics project (True War Stories No.1: Thomas Baker Brown with comics creator Terry Wiley). We chatted about other archives that might be a good fit for comics projects, which brought us to Gertrude Bell – she was born in the North East of England, her archive is still in the region, and 2016 marks a hundred years since some of her key work. Then we got in touch with Dr Mark Jackson and Dr Jane Webster in Archaeology at Newcastle University, who among many other things manage the Gertrude Bell Archive, and in partnership with them applied for funding from Newcastle University’s Institute for Creative Arts Practice so we could make the comic. It was great that so many elements came together to make this comic possible.
How did you come to work with artist John Miers?
LW: John was one of the artists who contributed to our first big comics project, Asteroid Belter: The Newcastle Science Comic. His comic in Asteroid Belter, and his other print and digital work, shows he’s a skilled artist and keen to experiment with comics as a medium, both as a cartoonist and as a comics scholar. John’s technical/digital skills and his willingness to take creative risks made us very happy he was available for Gertrude Bell: Archaeologist, Writer, Explorer. Then as we started to discuss possible artwork and story influences it was clear that John was a great choice. For example, after John showed us two initial options for character sketches, Hergé’s Tintin was a useful point of reference for discussing ligne claire art style – which is very much the same period as Gertrude’s work (Tintin was created in 1929, Gertrude died in 1926), and ideal for clarity of storytelling. Tintin also gave us a point of reference for comics about adventure and exploration themes as we discussed how to represent of people from different parts of the world as meaningful characters, which is something for which Hergé has been criticised.
You’ve added in hyperlinks within the story to existing historical documents to give the stories extra context, did you write the story to match the historical facts or were you lucky enough to have enough historical elements that you could focus on the story and then add the extra elements later?
LW: Everything started from the archive. John and I met with Mark and Gillian to find out more about the archive content, and what the archive already does to work with schools and young people. Then John did further research into clothing and art styles of the early 1900s in Britain and in the places Gertrude lived and worked – Iraq, the Syrian Desert, Asia Minor – and followed up specific questions with Mark. The characters in the comic are closely based on the people Gertrude recorded meeting in her diaries and letters, and in her photos which are digitised as part of the archive (have a look: http://www.gerty.ncl.ac.uk/). Alongside this we worked with Brittany Coxon and Paul Thompson on the practicalities of how to use embedded hyperlinked hotspots in this way.
Tell us a bit about Applied Comics and the other comic related projects you have worked on and where did the original idea came from for developing the company?
LW: We make awesome comics based on specific information, and help people use comics for specific purposes. For me, the field of applied comics is about making comics for specific purposes that still work as comics – it has to be about good comics.
When I was an English as a Foreign Language teacher I enjoyed making worksheets for students to use, and also started to see how important pictures (visual language) are in learning words (spoken/written language). I’d read a few comics, then when I moved to Newcastle in 2009 I kept drawing and making small books, and went to Paper Jam Comics Collective meetings which is where I met people who make and read comics. I made more comics including some for Paper Jam anthologies. Through that and through Thought Bubble I saw more of what comics can do, and was wondering about the possibilities for bigger collaborative comics projects… and worked to create opportunities to do a bigger project. With Paul Thompson I set up Newcastle Science Comic as a way to work with some Paper Jammers, and other comics creators, and science researchers, to make 10,000 copies of Asteroid Belter: The Newcastle Science Comic as part of the 2013 British Science Festival. This had a great response from fantastic comics creators who replied to our first anthology call for submissions. Since then Applied Comics Etc is me plus whoever is needed for specific projects – keeping Newcastle Science Comic for science comics, and also being open to other areas. Two recent projects to plug…
True War Stories: Thomas Baker Brown was with a WWI archive that includes WWI-era comics, working with comics artist-writer Terry Wiley and running workshops with high school students to make their own comics based on archive materials
Spineless: The Newcastle Science Comic is a 16-page anthology in partnership with the Great North Museum: Hancock as part of their exhibition of creepy-crawlies and invertebrates in summer 2015
Plus there have been smaller workshops and talks along the way, I’m plugging the biggest projects here because they have lots of free comics to read online!
What are you hoping to achieve with the Gertrude Bell comic and your other projects and what are you working on next? Will you be releasing the comic in another format or platform?
LW: For GB:AWE, the aim is to help younger historians into primary sources. Feedback from Newcastle Young Archaeologists’ Club helped us plan what will be phase 2 of this project, to use these digital comics as a starting point for young historians’ further exploration of the Gertrude Bell Archive. This also links in with the new exhibition The Extraordinary Gertrude Bell, about Bell’s work in the Middle East.
The hyperlinks between the GB:AWE comics website and the Gertrude Bell Archive website mean that a standalone website is currently the best platform for these comics. It also makes sure that the comics are free to read not behind a paywall. Digital comics apps and software offer amazing platforms for comics, and that’s certainly something we’re looking at for other projects. In terms of reaching people beyond existing comics readers I think digital comics platforms are a great way to showcase the range of what’s possible in digital comics. That said, I think there’s also a big role for standalone websites, and still for print comics.
At the moment we’re working on a project for children to make comics as a way to reflect on the new maths and science lessons they’re having through the FaSMEd project, and planning other workshops for children and young people. There are other projects on the horizon but nothing confirmed enough to announce just yet.
You can read The Extraordinary Gertrude Bell online for free here. And for more information about Applied Comics etc. and their other titles then visit their website.