Comics in New Zealand Education: Interview with Jeremy Bishop of Gotham Comics

Today, Books and Adventures continues a series of posts exploring the use of comics in New Zealand education. You can find my New Zealand Education Gazette piece on the subject here.

Gotham Comics, Auckland, New Zealand
Like a superhero's hideout, this mild-mannered shopfront conceals the geeky treasure trove that is Auckland's Gotham Comics

Publisher, bookstore manager, and former youth librarian, New Zealand’s Jeremy Bishop is a devotee of graphic literature whose passion has led him on an educational crusade to find the Kiwi comics creators of the future in Auckland schools.

Jeremy’s passion for spreading the word into schools is evident as we talk one busy lunchtime at Gotham Comics, the Auckland store which he manages. In between serving regular customers and hurrying his way through a sandwich, he explains:

‘Comic books are a great medium for education. They’re creative and innately interdisciplinary – bringing together English, art, media studies, but also history and social studies. One kid in our workshops pitched a story based on his history coursework – retelling the story of Genghis Khan….on Mars!’

Jeremy was just 19 when he took charge of the teen section of Onehunga Library in suburban Auckland. A lifelong comic book fan, he quickly saw that graphic novels could provide a great draw for teen readers. Exploiting the comic book movie craze of the early 2000s, he ran a series of competitions to encourage teens to use the library.

Meanwhile Jeremy was also a frequent customer at nearby Gotham Comics. He ran three blocks from the library to the store each lunchtime, until finally he crossed the counter and went from regular customer to part-time employee.

At the same time, Jeremy was promoted within the ranks at library, ‘essentially from a dogsbody to the second in command’, to the extent that he had the clout to bring a Mayor of Auckland to award prizes at one youth ceremony.

Jeremy is gleeful at the memory.  ‘We made the then-Mayor Christine Fletcher wear fairy wings to present the prize for our Dungeons and Dragons competition!’

‘Waitakere Libraries then recruited me as a Children & Teen Services Librarian, keen to emulate what they saw at Onehunga.’

But when Gotham Comics founder Tony Gibson died 9 years ago, Jeremy went full-time as manager, and became the Kiwi comic book community figure that he is today.

‘Comics in New Zealand have sometimes suffered for being an “art for art’s sake” community,’ Jeremy says. ‘Only recently have we seen names like Dylan Horrocks, Roger Langridge, Colin Wilson, and Ben Steinbeck working for the major publishers, going professional and working in the big leagues.’

Seven years ago, Jeremy set up his own publishing group, DMC. The letters stand for ‘Dealer Man Comics’, after Jeremy’s habit of giving favoured customers a free read of their first comic to get them hooked – ‘just like a pusher – the first hit is free!’

‘The way DMC got started, I was sick of hearing so many complaints about American material. “Show me something better and I’ll publish it myself!” I told them. Six months later I had to find $2000 to make good on my word! We starting producing 64-page anthologies on a regular basis, as a springboard for new writers and artists.’

Together with Michel Mulipola, an illustrator of Samoan heritage, Jeremy now visits schools offering comic-book workshops for students.

‘In our sessions, we talk about the business of finding ideas and creating comics. I’m the writer with experience of the industry, and Michel is the artist.

‘In New Zealand’s most diverse city, we’re also a mixed-race pair, and that’s important too in reflecting the diversity of the school populations we visit.

‘We’re fan boys, not professors: we rant and rave about our favourite comics, and put the kids at ease. I got started on comics with Dandy and Whizzer and Chips before discovering Marvel in the 80s: we learned this stuff as our hobby, our passion!’

Working with Steve Saville at Alfriston College, Jeremy even arranged for Auckland high schoolers to contribute to DMC’s anthologies of new New Zealand writing.

Despite leaving the public library service, Jeremy has also continued to be an advocate for comic books within NZ libraries.

‘I’m happy to badger the Auckland library buyers, getting them to stock up on comics. At Waitakere we gave a talk to buyers for the adult collection. Back in the day, it was an uphill battle, explaining to boards of sixtysomething buyers that graphic novels weren’t just ‘sophisticated picture books.’ Senior staff back then held the opinion, ‘Libraries are for books…and comics are not proper books!” Now people are more receptive and in September 2011 Auckland Libraries are holding Comic Book Month, celebrating their diverse holdings of graphic literature.’

For more on Jeremy and Gotham Comics, visit http://www.comics.co.nz/

Comic Book Month at Auckland Libraries continues through September – find out more here.

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