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OCA student work: David Price - The Open College of the Arts
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OCA student work: David Price

OCA Visual Communications degree student David Price successfully completed his Level 3 studies in July this year. His final major project was Darwin, a 60 page graphic novel that David wrote and drew which examines the life and work of English naturalist Charles Darwin. David discussed the development of the project, his inspiration and creative process with the OCA.

David acknowledged that before he began his studies, ‘I only had a very limited knowledge of comics/graphic novels prior to starting my degree course. Perhaps, like most people, I thought that the comic genre was just for children; as a child I enjoyed reading DC comics like Superman. It was not until I researched ‘Form & visual language of graphic novels’ in Part 2 of the Advanced Practice unit that I became aware of the true breadth of the graphic novel genre.’

David researched the field of comics and discovered the variety of contemporary narrative and visual approaches: ‘Richard McGuire’s Here cleverly explores space and time applied to a specific location; Marjane Satrapi ably demonstrates the autobiographical approach in her book Persepolis; Shaun Tan reveals the power of story telling using sequential pictures alone (without text) in his book The Arrival; and Nick Sousanis employs an academic approach in his book Unflattening.’ One book especially inspired and informed David’s project: ‘I found Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics invaluable in grasping the nature of comics/graphic novels as a medium. The mostly black and white illustration style McCloud used was really quite uncomplicated and looked a relatively quick technique to execute. So I adopted a similar approach – employing a digital ‘line and wash’ method using Photoshop – in my own graphic novel.’

While McCloud’s study of comics is a stylistic influence on Darwin, David also brings his own knowledge and understanding to his story of the biologist’s travels and discoveries: ‘Darwin is one of my scientific heroes – I admire his contribution to science, and his courage in publishing his work on evolution, knowing that it would lead to criticism and condemnation not only from the Church but also from the scientific community of the day. I studied Biological Sciences to degree level (over 30 years ago) so was very familiar with the work of Darwin and evolutionary theory.’

When planning the graphic novel, David began to consider formal decisions like size, structure and page length: ‘At the start I created a sewn signature bound mock-up book, with blank pages consisting of 4 sections of 4 folios per section, giving 64 pages in total. This would allow for front matter and a further reading page and still leave a decent number of pages for the story. This mock-up proved invaluable for planning the amount of content as it provided a maximum number of pages to work with.’ 

From there, David then considered the structure of the page: ‘I first encountered the use of grids in the second part of Graphic Design 2. I felt that a 3 x 3 page layout grid would provide the necessary structure and versatility for planning the arrangement of my panels and text. I decided on a slightly smaller and squarer format than A4 to avoid the ubiquity of this overused standard format.’ David’s use of the 3 x 3 nine panel (or ‘waffle’) grid is most famous for being used in both early ‘Spider-man’ comics drawn by Steve Ditko and in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ groundbreaking superhero story ‘Watchmen’.

While biographies are often told in the third person, David chose an unusual narrator for his graphic novel in the ghost of Darwin himself: ‘I thought that using Darwin as narrator was a useful device – I felt that Darwin as an historical figure would impart greater credence to the narrative. This however put great pressure on me as author because I felt that I had to understand the man and get into his skin, his character, his views and beliefs. By utilising the ghost of Darwin (introduced to the reader at the start of the book) I was not only able to tell the story of his life but also extend the story into the future beyond Darwin’s lifetime to the present day.’

For reference material and visual research, David went directly to the source texts: ‘Darwin wrote ‘On the Origin of Species’, ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’, ‘The Descent of Man’ and an autobiography, which were all useful resources. Additionally, I found that there were websites dedicated to the life and work of Darwin. There were also movies and a TV series about Darwin which were historically accurate, these helped with the story of Darwin’s life, but were also a good resource to consult for drawing clothing and furniture of the period. I sketched panel thumbnails in my sketchbook before creating a digital version using Photoshop. The digital images typically underwent amendments and editing before final panels were produced. Tracing from photographs (using Photoshop) was used on occasion to draw subjects like Westminster Abbey, a map of the world, Darwin’s finches and HMS Beagle, but the majority of illustrations were done freehand in Photoshop working from my thumbnail sketches.’ Darwin is structured into five chapters that explore the biologist’s childhood, early life, famous voyages on the HMS Beagle, subsequent scientific discoveries, and his personal life and legacy. 

The biographical graphic novel is a relatively recent genre; the form really began with Art Spiegelman’s Maus in the 1980s which recounted is family’s experiences in Nazi Germany. In recent years works the work of artists like Jason Lutes, Reinhard Kleist, Nick Bertozzi and Bryan & Mary Talbot have exponentially expanded the form by telling the stories of such varied figures as magician Harry Houdini, Irish writer James Joyce and rock singer Nick Cave, and David’s Darwin adds the story of another hugely important historical figure to the growing list. Written and drawn from a hugely knowledgeable and informed perspective, it is very readable, witty, visually engaging, and above all informative.

You can find more information about David’s artwork and the forthcoming publication of Darwin at https://davidmprice.weebly.com/.

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Posted by author: James Pyman

2 thoughts on “OCA student work: David Price

  • Great to see your work developing into the form of graphic fiction, it’s perfect for your blend of pictorial realism and typographic elements! Now that you’ve graduated, what your next book going to be about?

  • Hi David, very impressed with your novel! I am just finishing Level 2 and am planning to produce a graphic novel for Level 3 also. I too knew very little about Graphic novels prior to the course, now I am a big fan of Lynda Barry’s work and have gained a lot of inspiration from her “100 Demons”.

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