I met Jane Straw when I first heard about Medikidz – a series of comics to help kids understand medical conditions. She’s the art editor there, and I heard of her when she was looking for talent. Of course then I had to actually interview her because, seriously, it’s using comics to discuss medical conditions and fill a gap. That’s awesome applied geekery.
1) You’ve been at Medikidz for 3 years as art editor, getting the comic artwork production in order. What did you do before that – and how did you get the position at Medikidz.
Before Medikidz I worked in admin, first as a database administrator, which was basically copy and paste into Excel, then project administrator before working at a college as an administrator. Very basic and mundane stuff. But that was a job.
Career wise I had decided to go into comics which is how a met Huw-j who got me the job at Medikidz. In 2008(?) I joined his comic art masterclass after meeting him at a comic convention in London and went on to work on a graphic novel with him and colourist Owen Jollands. I did the pencils and inks.
In 2012 Huw-j had just got a job as Art Director at Medikidz when he called me and told me he want to hire me as art editor. I had just got a permanent job at the college after they went through redundancies and he literally wanted me to start on the following Monday! I went for a formal interview with the then Production Manager and on my way home Huw-j called me to confirm the job. The college was very gracious about letting me give only a week notice.
2) It sounds like you work with freelancers all over the world – how do you find people, how do you organize them – and how do people help out?
We do! We work with artists in South Africa, Malaysia, Phillipines (which is becoming a talent power house), the US and South America (Brazil if I remember correctly), as well as here in the UK and other parts of Europe. That’s the great thing about the internet age: you find artists from all over the world and there’s no barrier to them securing work on the grounds of where they live.
I used to put call outs on DeviantART (primarily) when we need to hire more artists. I also tried other sites, posting on relevant Facebook groups and even trying sites like Digital Webbings. The results were not good though I’m afraid, in fact it was often disheartening, like trying to find a needle in a haystack. It’s exhausting going through dozens of emails with little yield (and applicants expect you to reply to them not realising that mean’s replying to nearly 80 emails!).
Now I only do a mass call out if we get a urgent need but otherwise I just browse DA and keep an eye out for who meets our criteria. I find it’s just easier to keep an eye out and approach specific artists. Most of the artists I find now I find that way. Some I’ve been following on DA since before I joined Medikidz. Marcel Ferreira (http://marcferreira.deviantart.com) and Ceci de la Cruz (http://vassya.deviantart.com) are two of such artists.
Organising them is a matter of timing and schedule. Depends who’s available when a script becomes available. Sometimes reading the script I know who would be the best artists for it but it doesn’t always work out that way. Before the Christmas break me and my colleague, Rich, planned out which artists would work on which project. I even confirmed it with the artists. But all the scripts got delayed and other scripts became the priority which meant switching artists round. There’s so many factors that go into assigning artists to projects it’s insane sometimes! But our artists are very understanding and flexible.
I’ve got to say we have a solid group of freelancers working with us now. Very reliable, professional and talented! Over the years they’ve put up with a lot and still kept their enthusiasm for the job. We hire pencilers, inkers and colourists (never flatteners or lettering though. colourists are responsible for flattening and we do lettering in-house). The hardest are to hire are inkers. Because we layer our artwork (separating characters from backgrounds etc), we can’t hire traditional inkers and that limits the potential greatly.
3) What kind of artists are interested in Medikidz – and how do you hold them to your high standards?
I can’t speak for what kind of artist would be interested in Medikidz but the obvious answer would be comic artists (lol!). However we have had artists from other fields apply: one applicant worked in games. To my knowledge he’d never done comics before. Sometimes we get concept artists but their portfolio is mainly background environments or sci-fi based characters. Not appropriate at all. Often we get studios applying who can handle the whole process but we don’t work like that. Each stage is tightly controlled and reviewed extensively. It’s not a simple as ‘here’s the script, see you in 3 months when the whole comic is done’. Doesn’t work like that and I’m yet to see a studio convince me they can handle the whole process from pencils to colours based on their current body of work and our exacting standards.
I’ve also learnt that what you see in a portfolio or gallery is what you get. Most will tell you they can do any style but if that’s not demonstrated in the portfolio they can’t do it. Or if you think ‘we’ll it’s almost there, perhaps with guidance they’ll get all the way there…’ nope, that doesn’t work either. Especially if their portfolio only has single page images, pin-ups and such; it’s one thing to work on a single page image but ask them to draw consistently across 32 pages and you quickly see why there’s no sequential in their gallery. There are very few exceptions but they’re the ones with exceptional talent.
The hardest thing to communicate is that we only hire commercial mainstream styles. We’re talking styles that will hold their own top class cartoons, the kind of stuff you watch on Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon, the kind of cartoons Marvel and DC produce these days. Styles that are dark and brooding, unique in an indie comic kind of way, or amateur/hobbiest just won’t cut it with us. But they apply anyway and that can be frustrating.
Plus the other barrier is the ability to draw medical based images. The majority of our books take place inside a human body so being able to draw anatomically accurate is vital. Some liberties can be taken but if you have to draw the spine, or inside the lungs or a fracture they need to be recognisable or it defeats the purpose.
4) So tell us more about how Medikidz got founded and the core idea behind it.
It was founded by 2 ladies from New Zealand, Kim and Kate, who worked in paediatrics. They were frustrated that there was no material available to help children understand the serious illness they or a loved one was going through. After a bit of research the identified comics and superhero’s as the best format to help children understand in a fun and engaging way, so they set up Medikidz. At the heart of Medikidz is helping children understand and cope with illness. Our mission statement sums it up as:
Medikidz believes that every child deserves access to medical information they can understand. We are creating a global community of young people that are informed, empowered and health-aware.
We have tremendous feedback from our partners in the field about the impact our comics are having. Most of our books are loosely based on a real child who we draw into the comic. We cover their main concerns about their condition and turn it into a fantasy adventure. In one case the boy who was the star of our Epilepsy 2nd Edition read the comic to his class. After reading it, one of the girls in his class realised she must have epilepsy and she subsequently went to the doctors and was. In another case we did some school visits to encourage children to get their eyes checked (in such visits we get actors to dress up as the Medikidz). During the visit, a boy pulled out his glasses and started wearing them; no one in his class knew he work glasses but the little comic gave him the courage to start wearing them in school! How amazing is that! And it’s not just the kids feeling the benefit. We had a testimony of a mother who was diagnosed with cancer. She hadn’t told her young son because she didn’t know how to. But she read one of our cancer titles and it helped her to finally tell him what she was going through. These stories are essentially what drives us, and I always pass these testimonials on to the artists to encourage them and make them feel a part of our vision.
Our CEO gave a TEDx talk last year and she really sums up what Medikidz is about, definitely worth a watch: http://bcove.me/sx7kd2g7
5) How has the impact been on children’s education on medical issues – as I imagine there’s a lot more to do.
Last year the focus was on market research: do our comics work and is it the right format I think are the foundations of the research. The research just concluded and overwhelmingly the results were positive. Even the company that did the research was impressed by the responses we were getting. I’m probably not the best person to ask to be honest but I know one of the hardest things is getting into schools and libraries. Medikidz is still incredibly niche and there are a lot of barriers with getting into schools and libraries. Even getting into hospitals is difficult: at one time our graphic designer tried calling hospitals offering them free comics as we needed to clear out some stock, but they wouldn’t take it! They thought there was a catch involved. There was no catch – just take them off our hands! Haha.
The ultimate goal is to be a global brand for children’s health covering more than just serious illness and to branch out beyond only comics.
6) Have you had any imitators or allies who’ve come on board to do similar work?
Once in a while we’ll hear about someone doing a medical comic for kids to explain something, but they’re usually often a one-off random publication that don’t quite hit the exact mark we’re aiming at. There are book publishers who have dabbled in publishing one offs, but there isn’t really a company or publisher dedicated to creating such comics as a brand as we are. Medikidz really is the first of its kind but as with all things I’m sure a competitor will spring up eventually; but we’ll be well ahead of the curb. The closest I saw one at a publishers exhibition last year but they were doing storybooks on less serious health issues, or rather more common health issues, like colds, sore throat etc. They only had about 10 titles, at the moment I think we have over 100 titles and have translated into I think around 50 languages? It’s not that each book has 50 languages. Some only have 1 translation, some have 5 or 10 different translations. Depends on the clients requirement.
7) You’re moving into digital education next. What’s the plan for that – and how will you make the shift?
Again I’m not the best person to ask for this one either. We have a digital director in charge of all that but yes we are moving into digital content to compliment the comic books. Digital is in our short term goals.
8) After three years at Medikidz, how does it feel to know your work’s made a difference
Haha, to be honest I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it in those terms.I know the product makes a difference, and being a part of the team and company, we make a difference, but I’m just the middle man, the bridge between script, art and product. It’s easy to get caught up in just the day to day work involved in producing the comics. But that’s why every time we get a testimonial back it’s important and special. It reminds you that yes – we are doing something special that is impacting lives in such a profound way. It really is changing the lives of families dealing with very difficult and heartbreaking situations. When going through the script before sending to art, I do remain detected from the condition and case studies, but then sometimes while editing scripts I have to look up some medical stuff online and seeing the photos etc, it’s a hard thing to do because you know these sickness’ we write about are every day realities for kids! Any most are life-long conditions. No kid should have to go through or live with these or any condition. It’s horrible when you think about it. So it is nice to know that what I do, what we do, is having a tangible impact on the lives of these kids, and that it’s doing it in a way that makes them smile and builds there confidence too.
9) Any other good geek causes you can recommend my readers get involved in?
I wish I knew of more but I’m so busy in my own bubble I don’t know what other geeky initiatives are out there. Once in a while I’d hear about a group of creators getting together to do an anthology for a cause but I don’t think such things are long term. They normally crop up when something prompts it like the Haiyan disaster that happened in the Philippine’s in 2013. After that I heard of a few groups of artist collaborating on an anthology to help raise donations. I did contribute to one but that was back in 2013 and the anthology still isn’t published. Unfortunately the people putting it to gather have had to juggle it with their everyday life and volunteers kept dropping out. I know there’s still every intention to publish it and if anyone wanted to help volunteer, not to contribute art/story but more administrative and design help, it would be appreciated: https://www.facebook.com/HaiyanBenefit. Phil Woodward would appreciate any and every help.
There are however organisation that help provide legal aid for comic artists whether there in legal trouble or fallen on hard times. One I know of is The Hero Initiative (http://www.heroinitiative.org/) and there’s also the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund which support creators in legal matters around censorship (http://cbldf.org/). Bleeding Cool is also pretty good at highlighting issues and initiatives related to comics you can rally around.