Lee Henry discovers how David Campbell is using comics for education, charity and community
The Verbal Arts Centre is a charity resource and education facility located within the ancient ramparts of Derry, Northern Ireland's magnificent maiden city.
Since its foundation in 1992, the centre has worked to promote linguistic arts in all their forms, offering educational classes for children and young adults.
Providing research tools and creative performance spaces, the centre encourages diversity and commonality through the appreciation of the verbal arts.
In 2006, the VAC added a new medium to its repertoire by appointing David Campbell as Artist-In-Residence; his specialism being comic book art.
With years of experience working as a graphic designer and colourist for comic book industry heavyweights like Marvel and DC Comics, Derry-born Campbell has helped the VAC develop a new form of visual communication.
Campbell will visit Washington, DC in conjunction with Washington Very Special Arts and the School for Arts in Learning, to study pedagogical methods when introducing comic or sequential art to the classroom.
Campbell studied Visual Communication at the University of Ulster at Belfast, specialising in illustration.
After graduating in 1997, he was employed as a computer colourist - focusing on complex cover illustrations - producing fully rendered colour artwork for a range of Marvel and DC Comics top titles including Wolverine, The Incredible Hulk and Superboy.
‘First and foremost, I’m a comic book fan,’ says Campbell. ‘Like a lot of people I got into comics through reading 2000 AD when I was young, which is the only large-selling comic in the UK.
'It had a lot of imagination and was a bit grittier than the American comics. From there I developed a love of the art form.
‘Working as a colourist was really good experience. I got to work on my favourite Marvel characters, and I got free comics too. But after about two years I felt that I’d reached a ceiling creatively. In this industry, you shouldn’t be afraid to do something different.’
Gaining a MSc in Computing and Design with the University of Ulster in 2001, Campbell then worked as a graphic designer before taking up his post with the Verbal Arts Centre.
He sees this post as a valuable opportunity to educate a new generation on the joys and conventions of comics and comic book art.
‘I have a lot of different roles at the Arts Centre,’ Campbell enthuses. ‘Working with the Verbal publication, running various comic book schemes for children and developing the Comic Book Expo Festival, which will establish the Verbal Arts Centre as a place where people of all ages can come and learn about comic book art and storytelling.'
In addition to basic comic book illustration courses like 'Face It' (in which students discover how to suggest character traits through facial features) and in-depth classes on comic book production and history, Campbell also participates in community relations projects aimed at confronting contentious social and political issues particular to Northern Ireland.
‘I’m proud of the cross community work we do here,’ he admits. ‘It’s been a good change for me in terms of style.
‘A comic artist has to be able to draw a wide variety of characters and backgrounds, and I think that this can be exploited in an educational context.
'If we’re dealing with contentious issues like the parades season or focusing on the differences between Catholics and Protestants in NI, I find that it’s best to get straight to the point.
'Rather than produce something that’s completely realistic and detailed, it’s easier to simplify or stylise images, especially when teaching children.
‘It's important to encourage young people to express themselves and comic book art can be a vehicle for this expression.
'Hopefully our work here at the VAC will promote comic books further and encourage a new generation of Northern Irish comic book artists.'
Northern Irish comic book writers such as Garth Ennis (creator of the internationally-acclaimed Preacher series) and artists like John McCrea and Will Simpson have helped to increase the profile of the medium in NI.
Campbell believes that even with competition from video games and other forms of modern entertainment, comic books have a lot more to offer.
‘Comic books have so much to contend with for young people’s attention these days,' he says. ‘They’ve become more of a specialist thing, a niche market, because they have to compete with video games and iPods.
'Yet, on the other hand, the mainstream is more aware of comics and graphic novels than they’ve ever been.
‘The movie industry has adapted many of the more well known characters in recent years, exposing the medium to a much wider audience.
'Graphic novels like From Hell and Frank Miller’s Sin City have received widespread critical acclaim in broadsheets and other literary publications. The art form has gained a lot of respect in recent years.'