Neill Cameron is a cartoonist and (occasional) educationalist whose comic strips have appeared in The DFC and The Phoenix. Recently, he was commissioned to create a gigantic comic strip that could be mounted on the side of the Story Museum in Oxford (a museum dedicated to children’s literature). I decided to have a chat with him about that project as it sounds fab!
The Story Museum is a charity and non-profit company that works to celebrate and demonstrate the power of stories to inspire learning, especially for the young. It takes story performances, exhibitions, activities and ideas to schools and communities and is gradually creating a magical new world centre of children’s literature and storytelling in the heart of Oxford. The Museum’s patrons are Kevin Crossley-Holland, Michael Morpurgo, Philip Pullman, Michael Rosen and Jacqueline Wilson.
The Museum is raising funds towards its £8m development campaign. The first chapter of the development, a shop and café, will open in April 2014 alongside a brand-new exhibition.
Matt Badham: How did the project get started?
Neill Cameron: Well, The Story Museum is an ongoing, massive work-in-progress. They’ve taken this somewhat dilapidated old building in the centre of Oxford and are working to transform it into something magical and unique, a permanent museum dedicated to stories and storytelling.
They’ve had various temporary exhibitions and installations there, making really imaginative use of the buildings and doing all these incredibly creative site-specific things, but as of yet there has been no permanent, fixed, always-open-to-the-public space. No actual Museum, if you like. They’re now in the process of creating this – or at least the first phase of this, carrying out major renovations on the buildings to set up a gallery space, shop and cafe which will be opening to the public in spring 2014.
While that’s going on the whole site is closed and there’s rather a lot of noise and dust and demolishing going on, so they needed to put up some hoardings to cover it all up. And someone had the rather fine idea of doing something a bit different with those hoardings.
Matt: And how did you get involved?
Neill: I’d met the guys at the Story Museum when they, in association with The Phoenix, hosted Oxford’s first Children’s Comic Festival last year. I’d gone in to talk to them about the possibility of painting a giant comic in one of the museum’s empty rooms. Making a giant comic that the reader would have to walk around to read has been a dream of mine for years and years and years. That ended up not happening due to time limitations, although actually it worked out for the best as, instead, we ended up making a massive, collaborative jam comic as part of the activities on the day, which was hugely fun. (I blogged about it here)
Anyway, I guess the idea stuck with them…
Matt: Tell us a little bit about the comic itself and how you came up with a concept for it?
Neill: Well, it had to serve various purposes: to provide information about the renovation, to tell people a bit more about the whole project and what the aims are, and to give teasers of some of the stuff that’ll be happening in one of the upcoming exhibitions. As well as that, there were certain specific ‘signage’ type points I had to include, telling people how they could get involved, how to support the museum, including thank-yous to the builders and architects working on the project, etc.
But on top of all that I was very keen to try and make it, insofar as possible, an actual story, with characters and a beginning and an end and jokes and stuff. So I came up with a very basic plot, with a kid turning up to the museum and learning that it’s still being built – which gave us a chance to get across some of the informational stuff – at which point pirates hijack the museum and sail it off into the sky, and the kid has to enter the conceptual Land of Story to get help from various mythical heroes and fictional characters. Because I thought that would be cool.
With hindsight, this was a rather optimistically complex idea for a story to paint on the side of a building.
Matt: What were the practical problems of producing a comic for hoardings as opposed to the page?
Neill: Well, there were some issues in terms of the paint I had to use and the undercoat we put on the boards – this is a comic that has to be able to withstand the elements through six months of an Oxford winter, and some of the paints we tried using at first were super weather-durable but completely horrific to try and paint with. But the main issues just related to the sheer scale of it. The boards all had to be laid out across the floor of a giant unused room of the museum and I had to scoot around drawing it, on my knees, from one board to another. It all ended up taking rather longer than I’d first estimated, and was a surprisingly physically exhausting process.
And also very cold.
But I don’t wish to sound negative. For all the challenges of making it, it was hugely fun. And I did have a plesiosaur to keep me company, which was nice.
Matt: Is this the sort of project you’d like to do again?
Neill: First, I’d absolutely be up for doing more with the Story Museum guys, as they were all extremely lovely and great to work with, and they have totally infected me with their enthusiasm for the project.
And second: yes, I would totally do more comics on buildings. I still really want to do the ‘comic you can walk through’ idea one day. I’d love to do one that had no advertising or informational purpose whatsoever, that was simply and wholly a story; a story you walked through from room to room, a wall being a splash page, turning a corner being a page-turn reveal… that sort of thing. I think you could have so much fun with that.
Matt: What are the possibilities offered by this kind of venture, of placing the comic strip in a new, and very exciting, context like the side of a building?
Neill: It just struck me as a really fun and cool way of putting comics in front of a lot of eyeballs. I think it’s in all our interests to be always looking for new opportunities just simply to stick comics in front of people who do not normally read comics.
And, y’know, The Combination of Text and Images on a Large Scale in Public Places is an incredibly effective way of grabbing people’s attention, as the entire billboard-advertising industry can attest. I think there are so many cool things we could do with comics to make use of that power – not to sell anything, but just to entertain, to educate, to divert and delight.
I’d love to see more comics on buildings. I’d love to see giant comics down the sides of high-rise buildings. I’d really love to see an entire town filled with massive comics – imagine getting a bunch of artists together and turning every disused or boarded-up shop in a town into a canvas for comics; turning a town centre into one giant anthology comic you could walk around!
[Brussels is one city has enormous comic street art along the lines Neill suggests, noted here in this Menage a Trois web comic by Pixie Trix Comics. There’s a collection of them here on Virtual Tours – Ed]
Matt: What other projects have you got going at the moment?
Neill: I am in the ludicrously fortunate position of being kept as busy as I could hope to be writing and drawing things for The Phoenix, the (brilliant) weekly children’s story comic. New adventures for The Pirates of Pangaea – the swashbuckling pirates-and-dinosaurs strip I do with m’colleague Daniel Hartwell – are coming up, as well as some other new stories that I’ve been dying to tell which should be getting started in 2014, including one which would be a collaboration with one of my favourite artists in the medium of comics. Touch wood.
Matt: Finally, I wanted to give you a chance to plug your educational work. Please tell me about the work you do in schools and other educational settings? Also, how educators can get in touch with you about that?
Neill: Yeah, so an unplanned but very pleasant aspect of my current career is that I spend quite a lot of time travelling around doing comics workshops – both at festivals with The Phoenix guys, and in schools and libraries all over the country.
The bulk of these tend to be with primary-age kids, and it’s just a really fun way of getting them to channel their abundant and wild creativity into some writing and drawing, getting them coming up with insane ideas and characters and then getting them started turning them into stories. I go on a lot these days about how important comics are for kids – both reading them and, possibly even more importantly, making them – it’s a way into storytelling and creation that uses both the visual imagination and encourages and develops their literacy skills and… anyway, I won’t go on. It’s hugely fun, is the main thing.
There’s a bit of information about the kind of workshops I do on my website, at www.neillcameron.com/events.html – and any interested educators can contact me through there.
I’ve also started doing work with older kids, focusing in more detail on some of the visual storytelling stuff, which works really well with pupils studying Art or Graphics. And I’ve even, lately, started giving talks to actual Grown-Ups – teachers, librarians and other, non-comics writers, about What Comics Are and How They Work and Why They Are So Awesome and Stuff. There’s a huge amount of interest out there in comics, but also a real sense of people not knowing where to start, of not having a way in to what can, I think, seem from the outside like this closed, shuttered world. So I’m always up for any kind of Comics Outreach Programme – as I say, simply putting comics in front of eyeballs they would not normally be in front of, and showing some of the possibilities and delights of this singularly wonderful medium.
A huge thank you to Neill Cameron for taking part in this interview. (Plus, isn’t his ‘town centre as anthology comic’ idea fantastic!?!)
• Story Museum Site: www.storymuseum.org.uk
• Neill Cameron’s Official Site: www.neillcameron.com
• The Phoenix comic: www.thephoenixcomic.co.uk
This interview also features on the Forbidden Planet International blog
More Street Comics Art…
• EndoftheLine specialise in mural creation featuring comics in the UK: www.endoftheline.co
• Canada’s ‘Hey Apathy Comics’ has some amazing street art: www.heyapathy-comics-art.com/graffiti-street-art.html
• adidas Japan created some incredible murals to mark Japan’s involvement in the World Cup in 2010, painted by football fans and then photographed from the air. You can view the finished art here and find out more about how the project, run across 13 japanese cities, came together here: http://creativity-online.com/work/adidas-sky-comic/20090