Sarya and Selma interview Fabio Agius and Aaron Zammit Apap – the creators behind bBrave’s first comic.
Saryah and Selma are youth volunteers at bBrave.
Sarya: How did the anti-bullying week help you express your creative energy?
Fabio Agius: Being a comic artist I am always in search of new ways to express my art. When I was approached to do this project, I immediately felt that the comic medium was the best way to reach a young audience when it comes to bullying. For this comic in particular, I have expressed myself in a different way because usually, I draw Science fiction/Fantasy material, so I thought that the best way to approach this comic was to draw the characters in a simpler and linear way rather than my traditional style which is crosshatching.
Selma: In this comic story, we can see different facial expressions and body language; how did you manage to link them to the comic story?
Fabio Agius: Like all comic books in the industry, when there is a project, the writer and the artist meet and come up with different character designs, discuss changes or modifications to the characters and finalise them. In this case, I was given photographs as guidelines on what the characters should look like. I used a style which is different from my usual one, I made the characters look similar to those of Dennis the Menace (the American one) and The Peanuts altogether. Obviously, having a comic that is based on the stigma of bullying, the facial expressions were important so I went meticulously through the script and imagined how the character would feel in the different situations portrayed in it. Being a comic with limited body and face features, different from the mainstream superhero ones, I thought that the facial expressions should look more “emoji-like” so the reader would get the mood of the situation straight away.
Sarya: How effective do you think your artistic style is for this type of story, and what are the current art trends you are following?
Fabio Agius: Actually, art, in general, has no limits and no boundaries. It is like calligraphy, everyone has his/her own style of drawing and express emotions through their art. The same goes with comic art; I am attracted to different artistic styles when it comes to comics. The most important thing that a comic artist has to keep in mind is that he is telling a story and he has to do it in the best way possible. It is not just illustrating but storytelling. As for establishing how effective my work is, I think that it is up to the public to decide.
Selma: What are the ideas behind the black shades? Are they there to help the reader to get more out of the story?
The black shades, or silhouettes, are there just for aesthetic purposes and give an extra depth to the perspective in the scene. By blacking out some of the parts in the panel the reader can focus more on the action taking place around the panel.
Sarya: Can you please tell me how you organized and planned your work to write this story?
Aaron: Well, first I had to understand the setting. Given that this comic is primarily intended to be sent to schoolchildren, I thought it best to portray a bullying scenario within a school. It was not difficult to come up with bullying examples, but my intention was to weave as many anti-bullying messages within the story itself. For instance, the involvement of several characters in bringing about a positive outcome was important, particularly since the theme for Anti-Bullying Week this year is United Against Bullying. It was crucial to show that the best result can be attained only if every player does his part well. It was also important for me to bring out the ‘twist’ at the end, to show the other side of a person who is bullying others – and I hope that if anything, that last frame in the comic makes people think about bullying in a deeper way. But apart from the speech part of the story, since I had nothing to do with the artwork itself, I had to make sure that I leave suitable information about the characters and the setting of each frame; this way, the comic artist would be able to picture the context and bring that setting to life frame by frame.
Selma: The scene/ setting of this comic is school, does it mean that bullying happens more often at school?
Aaron: I had decided to set the story within a school since the comic was intended to be sent to schools and youth organisations during Anti-Bullying Week 2020. In reality, bullying takes place everywhere. Young people may be shocked to learn that bullying takes place between adults too, and also at the workplace. Unfortunately, bullying is a power struggle, and on occasion, when one realizes that he or she may enjoy greater power over others, one can seek to exploit that by abusing it repeatedly. The comic readers will surely also be aware of the widespread bullying that takes place on social media. It used to be the case that if one was bullied at school, one could ‘get away from it’ once at home. But with the use of smartphones and tablets, the bullying that takes place at school continues online. The worst part of cyberbullying is that not only can it take place 24/7, but it can also reach a greater audience, causing much hurt and embarrassment.
Sarya: Did you experience bullying, and if yes, can you please share an experience you had in dealing with a bullying situation and how you handled it?
Aaron: I do not think that anybody can claim that bullying has not touched their lives. One has either bullied or been bullied (if not both), or experienced it happening around him. I must say I am lucky not to have gone through a serious bullying case. I was brought up to always stick up for my rights, but although I am assertive by nature, it does not mean that because one is generally strong in character, one does not find oneself weak in other scenarios. I found myself, a few times in my adult life particularly, in situations which I did not like. I knew that I would likely face backlash if I protested, but I chose to stick to my beliefs and take the risk, rather than remain acquiescent. I must say it was a very difficult decision to take, but although at the time it felt immensely difficult, looking back I am glad that I did not compromise my principles. One cannot generalize though. At bBrave, we always advise that in a bullying scenario make sure you put yourself in a safe zone first and foremost. Many parents in Malta tell their kids to hit back twice if they are hit…we tell kids to firstly make sure they are safe, and whilst they have the right to defend themselves, defense should not turn into revenge.
Selma: How does the community react to bullying? What message would you give to the community about bullying?
Aaron: If I had to give one message, it would be to ‘open your eyes to bullying’. So first of all, recognise that bullying is bullying. Many adults do not even recognise that certain behaviour at work is bullying because they associate bullying with children, or feel embarrassed to acknowledge that they are being bullied, due to the fear of being perceived as weak. Secondly, do not tolerate it. If you are being bullied, speak up, and seek help. If you see that others are being bullied, help them out. Make sure that you are safe, but where possible, stick up for them. Put in a good word – it could not only make their day but their life better. Sometimes we tend to ‘want to stay away from trouble’, but not all forms of help mean getting ourselves into trouble. Lastly, we should not wait for a bullying incident to try and make others’ lives better. Make it your mission to be nice to those around you. Can you imagine how much life would be better if everybody did that?