Comics in New Zealand Education: Interview with Steve Malley

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.

Artist, author and comic book creator Steve Malley
Artist, author and comic book creator Steve Malley

A fine arts graduate turned tattooist, then comic book creator and novelist, the American Steve Malley was already a wandering soul before a tattoo commission from a Christchurch librarian drew him into the world of New Zealand comic book education.

Minnesota-born Steve abandoned a career as an artist in the US to develop his skills in tattooing, eventually taking his trade to a new home on the South Island of Aotearoa.

Steve wandered into educational work after doing a full sleeve tattoo on a librarian, as he told me over a pint on the outskirts of Christchurch’s quake-shattered Central Business District back in May.

‘They invited me to rattle on about graphic novels at a young-adult librarians’ meeting…it turned out I rattled pretty good. In fact, tattoo commissions really helped develop my educational work: when I tattooed a film studies professor, I ended up giving a guest lecture at the University of Christchurch on film noir!’

Steve enjoyed his work with undergraduates, but in outreach work his focus remains the encouragement of budding artists in New Zealand schools:

‘It really hurts me when I think about wasted potential. We need programs to rouse young writers and artists – the next Mike Mignola, the next Jodi Picoult – to convince them to keep working.

‘Talent gives you a leg up, and a proclivity – but it takes a mountain of hard work to develop that into something useful. I’m a great believer in practice!’

Early inspiration was vital to Steve’s own career. It came in the form of two artists who demonstrated that a career in art was possible.

‘When I was just seven, a painter named Benjamin Rubin taught a class at my school. He saw my talent, fostered it, and showed me that people can do art for a living.

‘A little later on in my life, I saw Gil Kane drawing at a comics convention. He was working, inking the pages at speed. He was so down to earth, happy to chat to us – but it never stopped him working. It made me a great believe in hard work and practice: I bought the issues of Conan the Barbarian that he was inking at the convention, and was able to think, “I was there when this happened!”’

Steve’s occasional workshops for young people in New Zealand are delivered through Christchurch Libraries, who featured on this blog earlier this month. In his sessions, Steve seeks to continue the chain of inspiration and dedication from one generation to the next: ‘It’s like trying to pass on the ‘divine spark’, passion for the art. I hope that at least a few students at my workshops see me as someone who’s doing something they’ve always dreamed about.’

In a similar vein, Steve namechecks New York’s Alex Simmons as an example of the engaged comic book writer, serving the community: ‘These people tell the students – ink and paper is cheap – get your message out there!’

Steve considers himself lucky that his parents were very supportive of his childhood addiction to comic-book adventures. ‘My parents saw comics as encouraging wider reading. I basically learned to read so I could understand Batman’s speech bubbles!

‘When I was 10 or 11 years old, my dad gave me an old typewriter. I knocked out a story about Iron Man! The teacher saw it and complained about plagiarism, but my Dad understood what I was doing and he was proud. He told the teacher: “It’s not Steve’s fault all these comic-book stories read alike!”’

Like another New Zealand based comic illustrator, recent Books and Adventures interviewee Michel Mulipola, Steve sees teaching comic book creation as a way of refocussing visual arts studies on narrative.

‘When I was studying, there was a great trend towards abstract art. I felt caught between two schools – sterile reproduction or kooky expressionism – but comic art is representational. I get to draw stuff that looks like stuff – but you only need to give just enough information to tell the story.

‘Comic books teach students the art of stacking and telling stories in a clear simple form. That’s useful whatever your line of work.’

Last April, Steve gave an interview with Christchurch Libraries’ youth website The Pulse, including his top tips on becoming a graphic storyteller. You can find it here.

Stay tuned for more Books and Adventures in comic-book education next time…

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