Making the academic, creative: A graphic novel about community energy

by Sioned Haf

Drawings from the graphic novel ‘Tick-Tock’

During the past few years of attending academic conferences, I have been to several workshops that talk about the need for academic research to be more clear, accessible and intelligible for non-academic audiences. Workshops have ranged from refining presentation skills, reaching influential policy makers, engaging with the public and using clear language in journal papers.

Using personal creativity as a means of disseminating academic research however, has never really been discussed, at least not in my experiences in such workshops. Is it that researchers tend to be regarded as uncreative types? (A myth – as in my opinion, we are all creative beings!). Would your integrity in academia be compromised, if you were to create an animation, a painting or write a song about an element of your work?

However, there are a number of creative pursuits that some academics have engaged in. One of my favourite examples, is the Bright Club  comedy circuit in Edinburgh – a stage given to researchers in Scottish universities, to condense their research experiences and findings into short stand-up performances. Other examples of creative academia include PhD Viva presentations being partly delivered through poetry – which also reminds me of a conference talk I once saw delivered with the aid of a ukulele. Type ‘Dance your PhD’ into YouTube, and you’ll see that there are a number of early career researchers, willing to take a shot at explaining their research in a completely abstract way – through dance. I’m not sure how keen more established academics would be to use interpretative dance methods in disseminating their work? Gauntlet. Thrown.

In 2011, I conducted some research of my own into the role of the creative industries in developing a wider understanding of sustainable development issues amongst society. This work entailed conducting interviews with people who had produced some creative work within the broad theme of sustainable development. This included authors, scriptwriters, visual artists, poets, arts and crafts practitioners and filmmakers.

The conclusion of this small study supported existing evidence that unpicking and presenting issues through creative formats can enrich understanding of sustainable development issues. This is of particular importance when considering that sustainable development is the most used term in political rhetoric but the least understood by the public (see Sustaining Spin by Gordon James).

So, if the theory is correct, the creative arts could be a means of disseminating and clarifying some complex and esoteric subjects amongst a completely new audience. Artistic discussions of ideas branching from scientific research are crucial for deeper and wider societal understanding of the challenges that face humanity.

The main character, Gwenno, learning about community energy in the graphic novel ‘Tick-Tock’.

Energy infrastructure, use, ownership and engagement with energy and climate change matters could be some such complex subject matters that could be subject to such artistic dissemination. As my PhD research touched upon many of these themes (from looking at community energy experiences in Scotland and Wales), it was at the forefront of my mind to let others know about what I had found out, particularly outside academia. I also wanted to give voice to the concerns of the participants that had given their time to contribute to my research. I wanted to do this in a more creative way than just presenting findings in conferences and writing academic journals. Having made a few comic strips in the past, I decided on creating a graphic novel – a chance to create a narrative of my research findings, but also, a chance to doodle and paint!

Through a small grant from the Economic Social Research Council (ESRC) in Bangor University, myself and author and climate change activist Angharad Penrhyn Jones, cooperated on developing a short graphic novel (a novel told through pictures) about community energy. Although the initial aim was to create a package that would be available for schools in particular (Key Stages 2-3), the story itself, being in graphic novel format (which is quite the ‘hip’ format as of late) was also written as a story accessible to all age ranges.

Gruff, explaining community shares in graphic novel ‘Tick-Tock’

The process of writing, editing, illustrating and final proofing of the story, took about 6 months in all (which was the timeline allowed by the funders).  It was a true pleasure to be able to write ‘freely’ and creatively for once (although merging true voices amongst the characters in the story too). Having a break from traditional journal paper writing, for this project, is something I would encourage all other early career researchers to have a go at. As a first attempt at a graphic novel as a part of a teaching resource, I am immensely proud! I’ve also learnt about more technical, fiddly artistic things, like how to make storyboards, and that watercolours don’t scan very well – so there’ll be room for artistic improvement next time!

‘Tick-Tock: a graphic novel about energy, ownership and community’ (and additional teaching resources), is now available for free download from the Welsh Governments digital learning website here or for more information about developing the story and also to download, you can visit the project’s website here.