Shining a Magic Torch on history to promote literacy for youngsters via graphic comics

Working with Whinhill Primary in Greenock

History can be one of those subjects that sends students to sleep, cramming facts and memorising names and dates from textbooks written in the driest language, then regurgitating it in exams.

But Magic Torch, a group of writers and comic artists in Inverclyde, have found a way to enrich the study of history and heritage by visiting schools and getting students to create comics or graphic novels about historical events and folk tales from their local area to promote literacy and creative thinking.

Paul Bristow, one of the founders of the social enterprise, says:  “The whole point is encouraging creativity in young people. You can see pupils who get a wee light on, like younger boys who have a comic club, but don’t read much else.”

Magic Torch have been around since 1999, creating drama from folktales and local heritage but, four years ago, they decided to try something different: using comics as a way of engaging new audiences in history and heritage.

The first project was a full-colour 64-page graphic novel they worked on with 16 Inverclyde schools.  It was called the Archivist’s Treasure, the story of two protagonists, John and Jenna, who “follow the mysterious Archivist into his labyrinth of objects, stories and memories. As he guides them through hundreds of years of history, Jenna and John discover their area’s forgotten past.”

Each school created a two-page vignette, and Paul and Andy Lee and Mhairi Robertson, the comic artists, combined the vignettes into a single work.

Paul describes the experience as “a learning curve. We had to work out how it all fitted together.”

When they go into a school, they spend anywhere from four to 16 weeks.  They have the students designing characters, then show them how to script dialogue into blocks and fit it into the panels of a comic. Robertson transforms the students’ work into a colourful, professional graphic novel.

“It’s easier with the primary schools,” Paul reflects.  “But once the high school kids are engaged, they really love it.”

They’ve even done comics in other languages. Scottish schools had a 1+2 initiative, where students were learning two additional languages, and Magic Torch worked with classes on comics in English and Gaelic, with someone who was fluent in those languages. The Gaelic comic was about a shinty match, while the French one was about a space wizard fighting an alien princess.

Some of the projects are open-ended, like the 1+2 ones.  “You let it go,” Paul says.  “You have no notion of where they are going to take that story.”

With the historical projects, Magic Torch keep the students within more set parameters, while still allowing them the freedom to invent characters and be playful with the stories.

Their most recent project, with a P7 class in Greenock, is a book called The Stowaways, based on a true account of boys who hid on a ship sailing from Greenock to Canada in 1878.  The boys were discovered and badly treated, then thrown out of the ship and on to the icefields of Newfoundland.

Magic Torch used the framework of this story that was published in 1928 from newspaper articles and witness testimony, but let the pupils loose with designing their characters and making the story their own.

Magic Torch do not only work with schools; they write their own graphic novels as well.  One of their first books was Paul and Mhairi’s story, called The Skeleton Key, which they describe as “a daft kids’ adventure story set in WWII about witches who tried to stop the war”.

They have received support from the Heritage Lottery Fund – First World War Then and Now, to create a graphic novel about the catastrophic Gallipoli campaign, using soldiers’ letters home, wartime propaganda, military reports, and other primary sources.

When Glasgow hosted the Commonwealth Games, they received Lottery funding to write a graphic novel exploring folktales from all the Commonwealth countries.  These are available for free download on their website.

For Magic Torch’s latest project, still in development, they are collecting folktales from across Scotland and aiming to work with schools in different parts of the country.  So far, their projects have been in Inverclyde, but every region in Scotland has stories, and they want to get youngsters participating in retelling them.

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