Hot Seat

Brian Boyd

We've all seen Thai kids and Thai adults with their heads stuck in those damn cartoon books, but could Japanese anime be making way for Grammarman - a new comic-book superhero. Grammarman is the brainchild of Mr Brian Boyd, a teacher with the British Council Bangkok.

Q

Brian, welcome to the ajarn hot seat, first of all I assume you're a pretty normal kind of English teacher. You're not the guy sitting in the corner of the teacher's room with the yellow cape and red boots?

A

It hasn't got that bad yet. I try to keep my comic books to the level of hobby, rather than geeky obsession. However, one colleague was trying to talk me into going to a tailor's and getting a Grammarman costume made. He thought it would be good publicity to attend Thai TESOL in full superhero gear, handing out freebies. Maybe next year...

Q

But I presume you've always had a love of comic books that goes back to your childhood?

A

Absolutely. As a kid, I first got drawn into fantasy TV programmes like Six Million Dollar Man, Planet of the Apes and Spiderman Cartoon. As I got older, I started reading any comics I could get my hands on. They really captured my imagination as a child, and that was what I loved about them - anything could happen (remember this is decades before CGI movie effects, when comics were able to deliver those kinds of stories better than the silver screen).

Q

An obvious question but what suddenly gave you the idea for Grammarman?

A

It sprung from a conversation in the Bull's Head one night, after work. My good friend, Thom Kiddle, and I were discussing the amount of time our students spent with their heads buried in Manga comics. We were wondering if we could harness that enthusiasm and channel it into English learning. One of us mentioned the idea of Grammarman - a hero who battles careless errors.

We joked around with it, coming up with ridiculous villains that caused bad handwriting, stole punctuation and misused personal pronouns. After a while, Thom started urging me to actually do it (I'd done some illustration for an IELTS book Thom had written earlier last year, and he liked my cartoons).

When I got home that night, I started doodling and making notes. Three hours later I had a pile of scrap paper filled with ideas and rough layouts for the first two or three episodes. That's when I started to think the idea might actually work.

Q

You have a very professionally designed website http://www.grammarmancomic.com/ Is this your work as well?

A

Glad you like the site! It's my first attempt. I initially relied a lot on a good friend and colleague, Nick Turner. Nick's a website Jedi, and he's been programming for more than ten years. He put the original site together and taught me some basics of html.

Over the last four months or so, I've grown competent enough to update and maintain the site myself (with occasional phone calls to Nick), but I'm still little more than a beginner. There are lots of things I'd like to do with the site, but don't yet have the know-how for.

Q

Let's go through the resume a bit here. You've done how many books and how many computer games so far?

A

Not that many. I've got two books, both aimed at making mathematics fun for key stage two students (UK curriculum). It was originally planned to be a series of five books, but the publishing company went bust at more or less the same time I was finishing up the second book. I designed computer games to accompany both books, and worked alongside a programmer to get those done. That was great fun - getting paid to animate cartoons and devise puzzles all day! At around that time, I worked on seven or eight other games and books, but they weren't my own projects.

Q

Can I get the games in .....er....erm.....Panthip Plaza?

A

Ha ha ha! You wouldn't want them. The education market just can't afford the programming geniuses that big companies like Playstation have at their disposal. The games were pretty basic even when they were brand new. When I designed the games it was sometimes frustrating. I'd take a bunch of new ideas to the programmer and he'd tick his way through the list, saying "Nope, can't do that, nor that, definitely not this one etc."

Q

I'm amazed that you manage to fit this all in with your work for The British Council. Light teaching schedule is it?

A

Until recently I was on an hourly paid contract, which was very flexible. I was able to request as few teaching hours I wanted (within reason). I had a three day weekend, which freed up lots of time for the comic and website.

It does sometimes feel like I'm juggling two full-time jobs, but since they're both jobs I love, it's no problem. On days when I don't teach until 1pm or later, I'm usually at the computer or drawing board until 4am the night before.

Q

You've got interest from publishers and newspapers in Thailand and Malaysia but bloody hell......Argentina! How did that come about?

A

There was a small article on Grammarman in the EL Gazette earlier this year. They managed to spell the URL wrongly, but some people still found the site ... including two editors at the Buenos Aries Herald. They got in touch for an interview, and later to discuss running the strip regularly. There's been similar interest from India, Korea, Singapore and others, but they each fell through for one reason or another - mainly tight budgets.

Q

So what exposure have you had in Malaysia?

A

The comic appears in The New Straits Times there. I think they're up to episode five or six now. They wanted to run the strip weekly, in their education supplement, but I had to decline - there's no way I would have been able to keep up the pace. So they run it fortnightly, which has been manageable so far. The URL appears under the comic's heading, and Malaysia is usually in the top ten of countries most visiting the site. I've had some really nice feedback emails from people in Malaysia too.

Q

And what about the general level of interest in Thailand of course?

A

Thailand currently gives the site the second most amount of visitors (after America).

Getting Grammarman into print in this country wasn't as easy I'd been expecting. It initially appeared in a small magazine called 'TEFLAsia' (which unfortunately folded after three issues). Grammarman now appears once per month in the Bangkok Post's 'Student Weekly' magazine.

Q

So what's your dream? How far can you take all this?

A

I'm already over the moon at the various minor successes the comic has had so far. It was exciting to see it in print for the first time. It was great the first time the website had over a hundred visitors in a day. Stuff like that.

One dream I have is for the comic and/or site to generate enough income to allow me to reduce my teaching to only two or three days a week. I'm still not sure how possible that is.

I also love daydreaming about Grammarman board games, card games, computer software, animated cartoons, stickers etc. - but one step at a time.

Q

Will we ever see the day when Syntax and Alpha-Bot become as well known to Thai kids as that blue space-cat and the little Japanese boy who shows his meat and two veg at every opportunity?

A

I don't think Doraemon is shitting himself just yet. A comic based on grammar can't really compete - but when it comes to the classroom, I'm hoping students will see a comic (even a grammar comic) as a welcome break from their course books.

Q

Your students know all about your work of course?

A

Some of them do. I've just added a webquest to the site. It's a project where students design their own comic book heroes and heroines, and then create finished comics for them. Three of my teen classes are doing the webquest this term.

Later in the year, I'm planning to add a gallery of students' comics to the site. I'm hoping other teachers around the world will get their classes involved, so I can eventually build a huge archive of work online.

Q

How about the British Council management? Do they approve?

A

The three or four senior teachers who are aware of it seem fine. One senior manager spoke to me a while back about buying the rights to use some episodes of the comic on a British Council website. Once again, budgeting complications saw that one fall through.

I never let the comic and website work interfere with my teaching work, so hopefully I won't get any hassle. As a rule, British Council are very flexible and supportive of teachers branching into other interests.

Q

So where or when will teachers and students be able to get hold of Grammarman comics?

A

I'm in talks right now with a major efl publisher. They want to make a Grammarman book. It'll be a course book or home study grammar book. Each unit or chapter will have grammar input, exercises, texts etc, finishing off with a one page Grammarman episode. The episodes will make one big story that continues from unit to unit.

They've already got a co-writer on board - a Portuguese woman who's a bit of a grammar boffin by all accounts. They reckon it could take up to a year to get a finished product. I don't want to say more than that, because no contracts have been signed, and I don't want to jinx it!

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