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Changing the Beliefs on Comics

Unknown Thursday, July 7, 2011 ,
“There’s a lot of misconception and a lot of ill formed opinions out there. It is something that needs to worked on to improve the situation.” As opening statements go, that by Chris le Galle is particularly forthright. Yet it is hardly surprising.

As the founding members of the annual Malta Comic Con and an author of one of Malta’s first graphic novels in the form of The Golden Lizard, comics inevitably have a major influence in his life. His desire to share the hobby, however, isn’t completely driven by his own love for comics but a belief borne through personal experience of their benefit.

“I was always a bookworm. Naturally, when you’re young, stories with imagery appeal more to you so I used to really enjoy them,” he recalls. “I have comics from when I was a kid that I still occasionally read today. Then there was a period in my life when I effectively only read novels because it was very difficult in Malta to find comics for sale. Eventually, I found out that there was a comics’ store here as well and when I saw all those comics I went crazy!”

For him, comics provided a way to re-ignite his love for reading. “A lot of people complain because their kids don’t want to read but it depends on what you give them to read. When I was young we used to be told to read the Reader’s Digest but for me that was extremely boring. Then I found an English teacher who told me not to read that and encouraged me to read what I like.”

Le Galle story is fairly typical. Sadly it often has a different conclusion with the child in question deciding that books aren’t for him.

Yet there will also be those whose opinions of comics will always be that they are, effectively, a bit of joke with poorly written English. It is a claim that Le Galle has often heard before and one that he immediately rebuffs.

“A lot of people who write comics have also published novels. One of the most popular is Neil Giaman whose reputation was formed by modern classics like Neverwhere and American Idols but who has also written a number of comics.”

“As with any other medium, particularly one that has a strong industry behind it, there are professional editors who go through the work.” Le Galle continues.

“The fact that there are images helps one to understand expressions, characterisations, how different people interact. Personally, I think that there are some exceptional writers out there. Obviously, there are also amateurs. Self published graphic novels, for instance, can be a bit or miss but that is the same for any genre of books.”

“As with any other entertainment medium, it is very pleasurable. The story telling element is very strong in comics. Myself, being a writer, that is something that I look out for. Obviously, an artist will tell you a different story and that they look out more for the drawing side of things. I think that’s important as well but I give greater weight to the story narrative element.”

So what makes a good comic? “One that is entertaining, that has a very good story and is visually very interesting,” comes the reply.

Three years ago, Le Galle’s love for comics took a different twist when he helped set up Malta’ s own comic con.

“The whole thing started when Joe Bugeja wanted to do an exhibition of artwork and the people at St. James Cavallier asked us to look at ways to make it more interesting. What we did was round up local comics’ artist and we did a sort of gathering for them. There was a lot of interest in and we decided to do a full blow convention.”

At this point it might be fair to ask what a con is. “A comic con is a convention which celebrates the whole comics culture,” is Le Galle’s response when asked about the con itself. “It doesn’t include only comics but also movies, table top gaming, video gaming, Cos play, there’s even music that is purely dedicated to this culture. We invite guests from abroad to do talks. In the first comic con we had five, then seven in the second one. This year we’re looking to bring ten.”

“Then there are the local creators. Each one has a table so that they can exhibit their material and, at the same time, it puts the creator in touch with his audience. We always put up stands for Playstation and Xbox to allow people to play and have competitions.”

“For kids we have workshops that are specifically aimed at them. We always have a workshop on each day where kids are split into age categories and there are artists - both Maltese and foreign - who guide them on how to draw comics. They teach them who to draw and how to link everything together. And, I have to say, the kids love this.”

In the context of this magazine, this final point is perhaps particularly poignant. In truth, in the previous edition of the convention there has always been a lot of focus on getting children interested.

“For us, we see being able to get to the children as being extremely important.”

And, in this respect, there has been some progress. “Last year we had an eight year old boy who was the youngest creator at the Comic Con. What happened is that his mother had seen us on some television show promoting the event and she got in touch because her son was very much into drawing comics.”

“We invited him to come along, set up a table for him and he really enjoyed himself. As for us, we were impressed that not only did he draw but he did so in comic format so much that we did an exhibition of his work.”

“We encourage parents of children like this to bring them along. As long as there’s a guardian with them, they’re more than welcome.”

The work to get more people, specifically children, more interested in this culture isn’t limited to the annual event that is the Malta Comic Con.

“We’d also love to be able to go to schools to educate. However, when we tried to do so through the Education Department we got nowhere because, basically, they don’t see it as being important. So what we do is find art teachers who are into the subject and they invite us to do a workshop during one of their lectures.”

“I’ve been involved in loads of scenes: I’ve played guitar in a band and I’ve written plays. However, I’ve always maintained that in Malta we abhor creativity. It is our job to foster it. If you go to the USA or even England, comics are part of the curriculum. You can get degree and masters in comics.”

“Our job is to expand the local scene as much as possible. We have to educate about the culture, which is ultimately an entertaining culture, but also one that you can learn from. Recently there’s even been a trend to publish classic novels in the form of graphic novels which have proved to be really popular.”

So they would in Malta, probably, where they widely available. As Chris later admits, “the problem of accessibility is a big one” and, with very few Maltese outlets selling any form of comic, children do not have as much exposure to such books.

This is a huge obstacle, but not an insurmountable one. The key, ironically, lies with the parents. Tell them what the benefits are, show them how the children will learn (and have fun) and you’re likely to see an increase in the popularity of such books.

More information about the Malta Comic Con and the Maltese comics scene can be found on their official website.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Growing Up In Malta magazine.

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Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer