Empire-building: An interview with Simon Corvan

August 16th, 2018

Simon Corvan is a history teacher at a prestigious high school in Brisbane. He’s a good friend who brings a deeply devious sense of strategy into our board game sessions. Who better to ask about bringing history to life for young readers..?

If we were knocking back some beers, how would you describe what you do?

I am a high school history teacher who is also responsible for staff development. Basically, it is my job to help every teacher keep improving and be a little more awesome next year than they were this year.

Which period of history most excites you, and why? (3 marks)

The collapse of the Roman Republic is one of the most interesting periods of history. The tensions between the political factions, the army, the generals, the masses, and the way in which dictatorship emerged, first in Julius Caesar and then in Augustus is fascinating.

In a recent interview, the topics of theme and plot popped up. It’s been a long time since I studied English - what’s the difference between plot and theme, and what that might mean when I’m writing a comic script?

In the rough sense the theme is the central idea or message. I think a theme should be able to be stated quickly and simply as it is the core of the writer’s intent. Themes are often quite universal and can serve to make writing accessible. If we used the end of the Roman Republic as an example, a key theme from that time period is the notion of power, particularly in the use/ abuse of power and ways in which people grasp after it.

A theme should be able to be stated quickly and simply as it is the core of the writer’s intent

In terms of literature which connects with our students, some of the most connected themes tend to be things like: being a teenager, transitions, love, journeying into the unknown, even the hero's journey.

Plot is the vehicle for the events, timings, sequences – it is all the stuff that takes the story from start to finish.

Republican Rome’s plotlines would centre on the rise and fall of key figures with their impacts clear at each stage e.g. The Gracchi brothers’ mobilisation of the mob, Marius’ ability to reshape the loyalty of the Roman army, Caesar’s unsuccessful dictatorship, Augustus’ clever manipulations to retain power.

If I was telling a story rooted in history, what’s the most important element(s) in recreating the past? Should I prioritise the costumes, socio-political attitudes, or the location… or something else altogether?

The vibe? New York feels different to Paris which feels different to Tokyo which feels different to Oslo. I’d be trying to capture something of the essence of the time period.

To continue the Roman theme maybe it would be the Subura’s crowded narrow alleys, slave markets, brothels, apartment blocks contrasted with the Palatine Hill to get a sense of the rich vs the poor.

The comics industry is waking up to the realisation that about half of its readership is female. What level of interest for comics do you see among your students?

Our school library stocks an impressive array of manga comics which certainly surprised me. Most of the readership seems to be 12-15 year olds but drops away when they hit about 16 which I think is due to the pressures of senior assessment and exams.

There’s definitely interest in comics amongst the girls and I suspect if there were more comics that were thematically connected then readership would be higher.

Is there much appetite in your school, or the wider English curriculum, for teaching comics as a literary format?

In the broadest ways I suspect not. There is generally a sense that only things like Romeo and Juliet or Pride and Prejudice are valid literary approaches.

However, I know Frankenstein is taught as both a novel and a graphic novel with Year 8 English students. I think the language of “graphic novel” gives more legitimacy to using it as a teaching resource.

I’ve used The Rabbits (John Marsden and Shaun Tan - photo at top of article) as a resource in teaching the Australian History Wars. There’s a fascinating elegance to the way message of that book is communicated. My students analyse the ability of children’s picture books to position their readers to accept certain versions of history.

There’s a fascinating elegance to the way message of that book is communicated

Which comics characters, writers, or artists do you tend to follow when choosing stuff to read in your own time?

For comics - Ed Brubaker.

In books, I have some favourites in several genres. In sci-fi, Ian Tregillis, Neal Stephenson, and Margaret Attwood. Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon cleverly toys with the notion of “sleeving” bodies and downloading the consciousness while exploring the potential impacts.

Sci-fi is at its most interesting when it pushes the boundaries of “what if?”. Provocative thinking around how humans and society would respond to changes and challenges tend to interest me more than space marines blasting aliens with big guns.

In fantasy books, Patrick Rothfuss, Terry Pratchett, and more recently Jim Butcher. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series deserves a special mention.

Grab your preferred music device and set it on random - what are the first five songs it plays? No cheating!

  • My Way – Calvin Harris
  • Feel it Still – Portugal
  • Chameleon – Pnau
  • Shape of You – Ed Sheeran
  • Dog Days Are Over – Florence + The Machine

Simon, thanks so much for sharing your insight into writing history and what high school students are reading! I’m sure creators who are looking to create work for younger audiences will find your thoughts helpful. You can sometimes spot Mister Corvan in the wild at Brisbane's Growl Theatre.

Image credits:

  • The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan - Lothian Children's Books
  • Fatale by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser - Image
  • Stephen King's Dark Tower by Stephen King and Robin Furth, and Jae Lee and Richard Isanove

Photograph of Simon Corvan, supplied.

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