PositiveNegatives use online comics to drive social change

PositiveNegatives use online comics to drive social change

This award-winning non-profit uses comics, animations and graphic novels to spread impactful personal narratives.

The pitch

Social non-profit organisation PositiveNegatives creates unique online comics. Combining ethnographic research with storytelling and illustration, it adapts personal testimonies into beautiful graphic stories order to spark public, political and educational debate. The charitable arm of PositiveNegatives, Why Comics? was set up specifically to bring contemporary issues to life in classrooms around the world.

All comics and animations produced by PositiveNegatives and Why Comics? are available for free on their websites.

The team

Dr Benjamin Dix is executive director and founder of PositiveNegatives. Previously a communications and liaison manager for the United Nations and various international NGOs across Asia and Africa, throughout 2004-8 he was based in the LTTE-controlled Vanni, north Sri Lanka, throughout the post-tsunami reconstruction and subsequent civil war. His experiences there led him to embark on a PhD in visual anthropology, which allowed him to explore issues around representation, the ethics of interviewing people with trauma, and turning their testimonies into comics. The initially one-off graphic novel and research project, The Vanni, eventually morphed into PositiveNegatives.

Managing director Emily Oliver has a track record of launching high-impact initiatives that aim to deepen public discourse around meaningful topics, and creatively spark better critical awareness. Her experience ranges from launching peoplefund.it (which became the UK’s largest crowdfunding platform, Crowdfunder), to establishing the arts services for the London Borough of Newham.

Four research and communications consultants round off the team. 

What’s the gap in the market?

Dix and Oliver believe, that as the world becomes more interconnected, storytelling must not just adapt to our dominant visual media - it must take responsibility for communicating unheard narratives.

"Illustrative storytelling is a great way to communicate people’s stories as it ensures anonymity for the storytellers, providing them not only with the protection to tell their stories, but also with the freedom to express themselves," Dix explains. "A significant proportion of PositiveNegatives’ storytellers are from marginalised communities that need their voices amplified, but are not always in the position to do so under their own name. Beyond amplification, the illustrative element adds visual depth to often overly-simplified and imposed narratives, enabling the reader to appreciate these personal narratives in their complexity. Moreover, illustrative storytelling increases accessibility, as visual narratives have the added value to transcend age, gender, cultural differences and literacy levels."

Illustrating narratives is nothing new. But where previous works have been one-off projects, such Art Spiegelman’s Maus, PositiveNegatives is building a varied portfolio of creative work, from short comics to animations and graphic novels. The company also incorporates academic research practices into its methodology, which enables the team to work with a range of partners in the academic as well as third sector.

"This ability to adapt and diversify, and the uniqueness of PositiveNegatives as a storytelling organisation, means that it is currently unrivalled in the market," says Dix.

Success so far?

PositiveNegatives currently boasts over 28 comics and six full animations, with more being released over the summer. The latest project, North Star Fadingis a ‘zoom-styled’ animation is inspired by the testimonies of four Eritrean refugees who fled their homes to make the dangerous journey across Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya to Europe.

PositiveNegatives has been featured in various media outlets, from The Guardian to the Huffington Post. The visual narratives featured have been viewed by a significant numbers of people, with Hooked being viewed by over 90 million people in a week on the BBC.

PositiveNegatives’ work has also presented graphic advocacy to the UK Parliament. Commissioned by The Guardian and facilitated by The Poppy Project, Abike was submitted to the UK Parliament in order to creatively and emotionally engage members in reforms to the Modern Day Slavery Act 2015.

What's next? PositiveNegatives flagship project, its full-length graphic novel The Vanni, is going to be released later next year. You can read a preview here.

Biggest challenges?

Scaling from one person with a big idea to a team. "The two biggest challenges were finding the right consultants and building the artist networks," Dix admits. "With this in place, PositiveNegatives is now concentrating on looking at how its operating mechanisms can be implemented locally in different parts of the world."

Ultimate ambition?

The PositiveNegatives team "simply want people to look at other people’s stories with greater understanding. By building this understanding we are hoping to contribute to there being more empathy in the world."

Advice to other publishing entrepreneurs?

"Make your idea simple and have a strong guiding star for what matters to you as an organisation."