When I’m not reading or writing about comics, I work at a junior school in England as a teaching assistant.
Several weeks ago, I started a Comics and Games Creation Club to give students a school-sanctioned chance to explore their geeky interests. As you can imagine, having a lot of nerdy kids in one place leads to some hilarious, touching, strange, and revelatory occurrences. Some of the best are documented in this Comics and Games Club Diary. (For privacy, all children are identified by initials only.)
The idea for the club came about after several conversations with two kids, M and R. Both of them are in our advanced math class and have wonderfully geeky tendencies. M is one of the few girls (possibly the only girl, although I hope not) in the school who can go on at length about Batman and Assassin’s Creed. Whenever she came to class early, she’d tell me about Arkham City or the new Batman-themed sign she got for her room.
R is a high-achieving boy who’s developing some incredibly elaborate first-person shooter strategy game for PC/consoles; I discovered this after talking to him about a story he was creating in the school’s Writing Club. I’d ask him about the game whenever the opportunity arose and he’d tell me all about its features, levels, characters, options, and so on.
It seemed like they and others like them could benefit from a space dedicated to exploring these interests, hence the founding of Comics and Games Creation Club.
I tell M and R that I’m thinking about starting a new club centered on comics and games, and ask them whether they’d be interested in joining.
“My mum’s been bugging me to join a school club!” M says happily.
The opportunity to fulfill parental requirements by pursuing your own parentally misunderstood interests doesn’t come along very often, so it feels good to be able to provide that opportunity to the next generation.
I assure them that while membership is somewhat limited, they’ll be guaranteed a spot. After all, this club is for them, although I don’t tell them that.
Over the next week, the membership list takes shape. On it are some of the usual suspects: J, a quiet boy who is crazy about Doctor Who, and T, another boy who loves PC gaming and wants to be “a famous YouTuber” when he grows up. M and R are there, of course, as is M’s friend E, a sweet kid with the unfortunate tendency to turn up the volume too often when she speaks.
I get a consent form from RJ, who is a top student, amazing artist, and one of the brightest children I’ve ever met (she wants to be a philosopher when she grows up; a few months ago she was reading a book called How To Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog. She is 10). RJ is in her Philip Pullman phase. This is the same kid who asked us whether it was okay to not believe in God, despite her family being Filipino and Methodist. I wonder what her parents think about the Pullman thing.
Then there’s L, Z, and K: blonde proto-popular-girls who have heretofore displayed zero visible geeky tendencies. What would they want with a Comics and Games club? But that skirts close to the edge of the Fake Geek Girl fallacy, so I let it go.
In the days leading up to our first meeting, I become increasingly excited and nervous. This is a chance to affirm the validity of children’s interests and, in my capacity as an adult authority figure, to assure them that these aspects of their personalities really do matter.
On the other hand, I’ll be the sole adult in charge of almost 20 children.
Most importantly, I want the kids to get something out of the club experience. I hope I’m up to the task of helping them to do that.
M comes up with what is, hands down, one of the best comics concepts I’ve ever heard: Old Manasaurus, “an old man in a robo-dinosaur suit”. When his grandson is bullied at school, Old Manasaurus arrives at the school in the robo-dinosaur suit to back him up; during a game of lawn bowls with that same grandson, Old Manasaurus climbs into the robo-dinosaur suit in order to win.
J’s comic is Danger Dog, the front cover of which lists him as “Writer”, “Drawer”, and “Producer”. Halfway through the story, there’s a gravestone for Danger Dog – but our hero returns to continue fighting. I ask J whether Danger Dog really died or whether he just pretended to be dead. Apparently Danger Dog is dead, “but God brings him back to life”.
J may be young, but he already has a good grasp of how the comics industry works.
R is drawing up screens for his insanely complex game on big sheets of paper. Every few minutes he pops up to explain what he’s doing next.
This is the inventory. It shows you all the weapons you have. But when you pick things up, they just get added on top of each other, so by the end you’ll be a whole foot fatter.
This shows your alignment…It changes between good and evil depending on what you say.
And then comes several paragraphs of enthusiastic elaboration, telling me exactly what everything in the picture does, how it affects later stages of the game, and anything else he can think of.
Of course I don’t mind listening – that’s the point of the club, after all – but it makes me wonder whether he ever has the chance to talk to other adults about it. Later, I ask him whether he ever shows his game work to his parents, and he says no. I tell him he should.
RJ is creating a fantasy story inhabited by creatures a lot like Philip Pullman’s daemons. They’re assigned to people based on ranked personal characteristics, one of which appears to be “lust”. Ten-year-olds should not be writing about lust. She’s probably learned about it from Dan Brown or Dante (earlier this year, she read Dan Brown’s Inferno and a bit of Dante for reference), but still.
“Hey, uh, do you know what this word means?” I ask as neutrally as possible.
“I’m…not sure,” she says, in the tones of someone who isn’t used to being unsure.
Oh, thank God, I think, because at least this means I don’t have to flag this up as cause for concern. Then I realize that, as the person who brought it up, I’m the one who’ll have to explain it to her. I try to focus the definition on lust for power and away from anything not appropriate for the classroom. She seems to buy it. Then I change the subject as quickly as possible.
Instead of creating a comic or game, L is just drawing comic-style sound effects: BOOMs and POWs in sharp, brightly colored starbursts. I’m wondering whether she has any genuine interest in either comics or games when I notice that her drawings are really, really good. The line proportions and balance of colors work out perfectly, to a standard that I think many adults would struggle to achieve.
I compliment her work and add that she might want to think about graphic design when she grows up – or now.
We have a new member this week. C is a boy in the same advanced math class as M and R, but a lot less visibly geeky.
On the other hand, there was that one day when he got up from his desk and started moving around in the corner of the classroom for seemingly no reason.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Just dancing,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone.
Other children would have made a production of it, ensuring that they were seen and heard. Only C would say “just dancing” as though it were a completely logical thing to do, which is why I think he might be a good fit for the club.
C begins work on The Adventures of Dustbin Man, a sentient garbage bin who “hates the nth term!” We’ve been teaching some of the top-level students (of which C is one) about the mathematical concept of the nth term, but they never seem to grasp it – probably because it’s fairly complex and these kids are nine and ten years old. “It’s his frenemy.” He’s lying on the desk as he explains this, in a schoolboy version of how Eartha Kitt or similar would lie on top of a piano.
When I sit down next to K, one of the proto-popular blonde girls, she opens her backpack and pulls out two TPBs: a New 52 Justice League TPB and a Star Wars EU collection.
My aunty is really into graphic novels,” she explains. “She came round this weekend and we went to this comics shop, and she said these were good books to read to get into comics.
In the interest of not crushing childhood joy, I don’t tell her what I think about the New 52. Instead I recommend Grant Morrison’s JLA run for further reading, and am gratified to see her writing it down.
Z is creating a Batman comic for her dad, who is a huge Bat-fan. It’s your standard Batman vs. the Joker story – the Joker is modeled on Heath Ledger’s portrayal, with stitches on either side of his mouth – but the dialogue is full of gems.
JOKER: You can’t be watching all the time!
BATMAN: Justice is always watching.
And then, when the Joker is in his hideout and hears a knock at the door…
JOKER: Is that Batman?
VOICE: No, just pizza delivery.
(Spoiler alert: it was Batman.)
Those two exchanges right there are better than anything from The Dark Knight Returns.
T is working on a comic entitled Fog Fighters, which has something to do with a secret base under a mountain. The back cover contains a blurb like the kind you get on books or in movie trailers.
One man. A thousand enemyies [sic]. One will stand. Others will fall.
I read it out loud in my best Movie Trailer Guy voice and get T to provide dramatic backing sounds.
I’ve brought some of my own comics from home this week. RJ and another girl, A, are flipping through an issue of Captain Marvel. Seeing them scan the pages intently as Carol Danvers flies across the sky does a grownup’s heart good.
C’s Dustbin Man now has a colleague in the war on crime/the nth term. Dustbin Woman “is like a female version of Dustbin Man, but with different hair”.
“She kills the nth term…but it comes back!”
“So what happens next?” I ask.
Before C can answer, M’s friend E proffers a convoluted and not very coherent explanation that I swear ends with something about the Easter Bunny.
C turns to her and, in a perfectly critical tone, says, “How unsubtle”. It’s like those episodes of Frasier where you’d see young Frasier and young Niles, except with a British accent.
M’s concept for this week is Sir Strings, “a walking, talking guitar”, and his sidekick Mr. Drum. She doesn’t develop their story very much, but I would happily read the adventures of both of those guys.
In fact, M has a real talent for concepts in general and visual gags. I remember one day when she came into math class and, instead of just telling me that she was tired, drew a pillow on a piece of paper and put her head down on it to show that she was tired. A lot of the kids’ work is based on books they’ve read or movies they’ve seen – T’s comic for this week centers on the “Survivor Games”, for instance – but M tends not to do this. I can’t think of any existing books or movies out there that would have inspired Old Manasaurus or Sir Strings; she must have made them up herself.
It’s the last club meeting before Valentine’s Day, so L, Z, and K are making cards. L’s card is an intricate 3-D pop-up affair with hearts and hand-drawn angular designs. Z’s card is for her boyfriend, who is in my class. Yes, these kids already have boyfriends and girlfriends. For Valentine’s Day, she’s going to give him a gift bag; he’s going to give her homemade bonbons.
“Man,” I tell my supervisor after the meeting, “I’m married and I don’t get bonbons.” I can’t eat them due to food allergies, but it’s the principle of the thing.
M is filling me in on how to fight Catwoman in Arkham City. We end up talking about the terrible security in Arkham.
“What kind of prison is it where the Joker can just take over all the time?!” she says.
I wonder aloud why Bruce Wayne doesn’t donate money to improve Arkham’s security. Maybe he purposely leaves Arkham underfunded so he’ll have bad guys to fight.
M agrees. “Maybe Batman wants them to escape so he can punch their butts!”
At a paper-strewn table, R appears to have found a collaborator in T. Together they draw more complicated screenshots in a blocky Minecraft style and engage in almost constant discussion. I can only catch snippets of it.
…but if you get hit in the chest…
…and then you can increase your inventory…
I’ve brought some of my late 80s/early 90s Batman comics today, the ones I got in a charity shop in Glasgow for a pound each. After telling the kids that these are from the 80s and 90s (they make astonished noises, as though they can barely imagine anything so old) and warning them to be really, really careful when they read them, I lay them out in numerical issue order.
I do my rounds of the room and come back to see E rearranging the comics.
“What are you doing?!” I try to sound calm, but it doesn’t 100% work.
“Putting them in order,” says E.
“Wait, no, no, no,” is what comes out of my mouth before I can stop it. “They’re already in an order.” I point to the issue numbers. “This one is 609, and the next one is 610, and the next one is 611. See? They go in order of the numbers.”
Obviously, as an educator I’m supposed to ask E what criteria she is using to order them and engage with her on that level. Next time I will. But this time, the persnickety nerd part of me takes over, the part that can’t bear to see her precious Batman comics out of order.
In the corner, A is reading one of my favorite single issues ever: Detective #614, where Batman fights a street gang that sells drugs to kids and then, as Bruce Wayne, offers full scholarships to all of those kids to encourage them to stay in school. Remember when superheroes helped people? Now she can remember that too.
The girl/boy balance appears to have shifted. There are only two boys here today; all of the other attendees are girls. It’s a wonderful moment when I look around the room and notice that Comics and Games Creation Club has now become predominantly female.
Our school will be dressing up for World Book Day later in the week, so several children ask us what I’ll be wearing.
“All the teachers in our year are doing something together,” I say, “but you’ll have to wait till Friday to find out what it is!” (Specifically, we’re going to be the Things from The Cat in the Hat; my supervisor will be Thing 1, so that makes me Thing 2. They gave me an option to dress up in a different costume, but I went along with it in the name of team spirit and because they’d already bought the wig.) I hope there’s enough pep in my voice to mask the fact that, left to my own devices, I would have been Batman or at least a Mega-City Chief Judge. That’s right, kids; Mrs. Kanayama is the law. “What about you?”
L is going to be Smurfette. T is going to be Ash Ketchum. E is going to be Artemis, whom she learned about from the Percy Jackson series. Since I know that a lot of girls at our school are going to be fairytale princesses by way of Disney, this is immensely heartening. Nothing wrong with princesses, but between a mortal princess and an immortal hunter goddess? No contest.
RJ is going to be Professor Snape for our Book Week dress-up day (she’s recently discovered Harry Potter). This week she’s developing her fantasy story setting further and written out the major narrative themes in a list:
She’s also looked up Greek words for various abstract concepts, such as anger and beauty, and worked them into characters’ names.
After we talk about her story, I gently inform her that she can’t write her name on the club register as “You-Know-Who”.
“This goes down to the office,” I explain, “and they’re going to look at this and think, Voldemort doesn’t go to our school! It’s going to be really confusing.”
She laughs, but it makes me wonder. Why put so much stock in Voldemort and Snape? Why not Hermione – the only female character in the franchise with clear academic tendencies – or Harry himself?
Because Voldemort was ambitious, I think, and Harry and Hermione aren’t. I wonder what kind of message Rowling is sending by equating ambition with evil. Where are kids like RJ, who want to get to the top through the pursuit of knowledge, supposed to turn if that’s what their books are telling them?
L has created a paper rose. This doesn’t sound like much, but she’s done it without instructions or a template, done all the drawing freehand, and managed to wrap perfectly shaped paper petals around a plastic stem in a way that successfully mimics the folds and contours of an actual rose. (After the meeting ends, I tell her class teacher that she’s really talented. This isn’t simple crafting; this is potentially something big.)
When I ask M who she’s going to dress up as, she mimes the sleeves of a coat, straightens an imaginary tie, and waves an invisible sonic screwdriver in the air.
“Oh, the Doctor!”
“I was going to be Batman, but I’m going to save that for Halloween,” she explains. “I’ve dressed up as the Doctor for Halloween every other year.”
M is writing a song about Doctor Who this week. She’s normally very talkative, but for this song her concentration is turned up to 11. Once the song is done I stop by her table to hear the finished product. The lyrics reference the Pandorica, Rory being an Auton, and various other events from the Eleventh Doctor’s time in the TARDIS.
“Did you make the tune up yourself as well?” I ask.
She nods and points to her head.
“Ah,” I say, “it was in your mind palace.” She’s a big fan of Sherlock, too. If she were older I’d bring up the problematic nature of how Moffatt writes women and Series 3 of Sherlock (the latter of which my mother has detailed in a long email involving bold type, italics, underlining, and red font) but at her age that amounts to crushing childhood dreams. “That’s amazing!” I add, and I mean it. An original song, with original lyrics and an original tune? I tell her she should sing it for her parents, because they should know how creative their child is.
My contract at the school is for a year with the possibility of extension. This means I may have a finite amount of time in which to work with these kids, particularly since some of them are going on to secondary school next year. (RJ is a super-genius and is going to a prestigious private school next year, so she’ll be all right. To be on the safe side, though, I have told her that her thinking and achievement levels are easily high enough to get her into Oxford or Cambridge when the time comes – if that’s what she wants.)
I try to cultivate an image of the club as elite in a positive way; I continually imply that having access to the comics I bring in and being able to create comics and games is a privilege, in order to give the club members a sense of belonging to something special. I also let my geek side shine as much as possible – not just because that’s what the club is about, but to let the kids know that my compliments are rooted in knowledge of the medium, which I hope lends them more weight. In other words, Mrs. Kanayama reads a lot of comics and hates a lot of things, so when she says your work is good, she really means it.
Since I’m a teaching assistant rather than a teacher, I don’t think I’ll be able to call official meetings with parents. However, I’m hoping that near the end of the school year, I can invite parents to a sort of exhibition where a) the kids can show off their work and b) I can let the parents know how talented their kids are and provide some suggestions for how to nurture these talents. I can also provide official write-ups for teachers with details of how our club members are excelling and growing, both in terms of skill and on a personal level.
I’m sure I still have a lot more to learn, so as the club progresses I can figure out more ways to give these kids the foundation they need. That’s the end goal of the club, really: to help kids feel validated as gamers, as girls who read comics, as boys who’d rather stay in and game than run around outside, as nerds, and as people. And if I can achieve that, I’ll be happy.