Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Life in Comics – a personal history of comics in Australia 1960-1990 by Philip Bentley

Second Shore is proud to announce the publication of the above work.

For much of the past 50 years, Philip Bentley has had an involvement with the comic scene in Melbourne and Australia. From collecting Marvel comics in the 1960s, to attending early meetings of fans in the 1970s, being involved in publishing two seminal anthologies – Inkspots and Fox Comics – and in the establishment of Australia’s first comic shop –Minotaur, in the 1980s – Philip has lived a ‘life in comics’.

In this engaging and candid memoir Philip reflects on these events within the context of the development of the medium in Australia and the world. Hence this is not a work not simply for those with an interest in comics, but for anyone with an interest in popular culture in general. It collects together chapters serialised in Word Balloons, now fully revised and with the addition of many more illustrations. Excerpts of the respective chapters can be found throughout this blog. It is a trade paperback sized, softcover of 125pp retailing for Au$25. Trade discounts on application.

Available from Minotaur, All Star and the publisher via payment methods to right (under Word Balloons). Add $5 for post Australia-wide. Overseas postal rates on application.

'Comic books were one of the most popular, and yet most despised, forms of popular culture in Australia. Yet despite their often tumultuous history, the fascinating stories behind comic books in this country have largely gone unrecorded. Overlooked by academics, the history of Australian comics has been largely documented by generations of fans, who have compiled informal histories of comic-book characters, their creators and publishers. Without their tireless efforts, our knowledge of this vibrant medium would be all the poorer.

‘Philip Bentley's A Life in Comics is a welcome contribution to this growing body of ‘fan scholarship’. Drawing on his longstanding involvement in Australian comics, Philip's work draws on his unique perspectives and experiences as a comics retailer, editor and publisher and, latterly, comics historian. His firsthand accounts of the ‘new wave’ Australian comics scene during the 1970s and 80s adds a much needed, and most welcome, chapter to the unfolding history of Australian comics.’ Kevin Patrick, Curator, “Heroes and Villains: Australian Comics and their Creators”, State Library of Victoria, 2006-2007.

‘Any culture worth its salt has its archetypes, its myths and ley-lines. Here, Philip Bentley breathes life into some of the great rivers that have fed comics culture in Melbourne. How can he do that? Simple. He was there.’ Bernard Caleo, Cartoonist and Editor Tango.

'Philip Bentley is in a big way responsible for making Melbourne the comics city that it is. Without Minotaur Books I doubt I would have made a career in comics, as where else would I have found them at the crucial juncture I did? I blame him for all that has happened since!’ Bruce Mutard, comic creator, The Sacrifice, The Silence.

Word Balloons ceases publication

With the release of A Life in Comics it seems an appropriate time to draw a line under the publication of Word Balloons. It was not my intention from the outset to conclude its run here, but anyone who has been following the magazine’s trajectory will have seen that its frequency has slowed over the years. This is just the natural consequence of producing an work as labour of love. Eventually enthusiasm will run out. I had thought that perhaps at the end of producing the book I would feel energised and be enthusiastic about getting back into WB, but the opposite has been true, so I very much feel it is time to move on.

I would like to take this opportunity to thanks those readers and retailers who supported the venture. Copies are still available from the publisher, Minotaur or All Star, see note to right.

Philip Bentley

Friday, May 4, 2012

Word Balloons 14, April 2012

This will probably be only issue of Word Balloons produced this year, with the next slated for March/ April of 2013.

“George Miller would introduce me as ‘Head Geek’.”
An interview with Wai Chew “Chewie” Chan.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, March 2012

Since making his home in Australia in his late teens, Chewie Chan has set about working in a number of different capacities across the graphic story spectrum. Receiving his initial break as a storyboard artist on Happy Feet he has subsequently worked on more films, as the Graphic Novel Supervisor for film director George Miller, and in main-stream American comics. But Chewie has always paired his creative work with that of a comic advocate. He super-vises the extensive graphic novel section at Sydney bookshop Kinokuniya and, more recently, has set him-self up as a ‘comic consultant’ advising librarians and booksellers on how to establish a graphic novel section, and talking up the medium at conferences and universities. Chewie is therefore well placed to make informed comment on the medium as well as having an entertaining story to tell.

PB: How much of a difference is there between comics and storyboards? Clearly there is major difference in the purpose they are being put to. Comics are designed as entertainment, storyboards have a more functional purpose to explain to the director, cameraman, actors etc. how the action is going to flow.
CC: There is quite a difference. They both come from the same source, namely the visual language, but as they have different purposes you produce them differently. Having done comics I spoke the language, but how you express it, the images you choose are totally different. I used to think with comics you would have a sequence running in your head and you would grab freeze frames from it. I have ultimately decided that was the wrong way to go because you end up with a static work. So in comics you need to amalgamate action so that it appears to be fluid and in the moment all the time. Whereas in storyboards it is very much about grabbing freeze frames.
PB: Is this notion of fluidity for comic breakdowns more applicable to dynamic action work as opposed to an interior drama say?
CC: No, it is probably needed more in quieter works to keep the reader involved the whole time. The reader needs to think that it’s a moving narrative. Storyboards aren’t about ‘good’ or finely rendered art, they’re about communicative art. But like any language the better you speak it the better people understand it. So the better you draw the more communicative your ‘boards will be. And I have to say that the ‘boards for Happy Feet looked amazing, even if I do say so myself. [Laughs] But it wasn’t just my work, there were eight of us involved. But, you know, it was an academy award winning film, so I took that and ran with it. And not long after that I got work on Superman Returns (2006). I was there for over a year ending up being the longest serving ‘board artist on it. I also got to do the opening credit sequence, which again was unfortunately deleted. [Laughs] That was done as an actual comic which was used in a sequence where a kid was shown opening it, much like in the original Superman movie. After that I used my Superman Returns credit to go to the States, to Marvel and DC, and see if I could get work from them as a result of it.
PB: So what are your feelings on the future of comics?
CC: I think our best days are ahead of us.
PB: What will be the fate of floppies [traditional pamphlet-style comics]? Are they dead in the water?
CC: Umm…no. The format will have to change, but the monthly nature should stay. We are actually lucky to have that monthly schedule built-in to the format. It’s monthly advertising we don’t pay for. It means that people think of comics every month. We don’t have to remind them. Someone like Tom Clancy, even if he brings out a book every year, will still need to do a certain amount of advertising to reintroduce himself to the market. So in order to keep the monthly schedule you would need to keep things cheaper. Either as a floppy or a short app. It needs to be short and quick so people get it. That’s why TV shows work. What DC have done with the app for The New 52 [the relaunch of DC’s superhero line comprising fifty-two titles that are released as print and digital versions simultaneously] is I think brilliant. It’s the sort of thing which will bring people back to the market. The biggest challenge is to grow the market because it is so tiny compared to its potential. Once we get a billion people in the world reading comics then we can tap into other things and not worry about relying on the monthly schedule. To get there we need the app. More people will be brought in by the app than any other method I can think of. But as you still need to produce the work you may as well produce a printed version.
PB: What about print-based graphic novels?
CC: Always going to stay. Certainly in our lifetimes. Even with iPads. Their main use is if people want to travel light. Hands down people still prefer books.

The rest of the interview can be found in Word Balloons 14.

“It’s about being creative. Who cares if it’s a comic or a painting.”
An interview with Trevor Weekes.
Conducted via email by Philip Bentley, February 2012

For a brief period of time in 1980 Australia had not one but two adult-oriented comic anthologies.
After a couple of decades of little comic publishing activity the debut issue of Minotaur’s Inkspots had been released in June then, later in the year, mainstream publisher Angus & Robinson made their own pitch with Outcast magazine. Comprising seventy pages, with twenty-eight in colour, Outcast was a bold attempt at a quality product. But as it turned out the early ‘80s were not a particularly advantageous time for publishing this sort of magazine. Inkspots, largely financed by its editors, ran at a loss for four issues before expiring (see next article). Outcast, produced with harder commercial expect-ations, lasted but the one issue.
In an attempt to learn more about its brief tenure I tracked down one of its principal contributors Trevor Weekes. As I discovered he is someone who has had a greater connection to the graphic story medium than I was aware, whilst forging a distinguished career as a painter, sculptor and academic.

PB: Your recollections of the beginnings of Outcast?
TW: The year after I finished art school (1979) I shared a house with Louis (Luciano) Silvestro who was doing the “Eric and Douglas” comic for Revs motor-cycle magazine. [A fairly outré full page strip in a style vaguely reminiscent of British cartoonist Leo Baxendale about a bike rider (Douglas) and his side-car koala sidekick (Eric). It appears to have run from the late 1970s to early 80s. There was a collected edition in 1983. Ed.] I think Tony was the editor and Louis introduced me to him. Tony moved to A&R and had an idea about an adult fantasy & science fiction comic magazine. He pitched the idea to his boss Richard Walsh. He went for it, so we started doing stories. Originally it was just Louis and myself, but gradually others were added.
PB: Where did you draw your inspiration from?
TW: Heavy Metal had a big influence on us at the time and Outcast was based on that format. [Heavy Metal began in 1977 mainly reprinting European strips in translation. Ed.] I was also aware of Metal Hurlant, Pilote and other publications coming out of Europe. I guess my persuasion toward European comics came out of the interest in drawing and the fantastic characters the French artists had developed. Arzach was a single story basically and that was it. It left me wanting more but there wasn’t any. So I would move on to another story and another character. But the source of inspiration was always Moebius
PB: Thoughts on the completed work then and now? From my perspective there is a shared stylistic quality of a storybook/surrealist bent which helps the overall unity of the mag, but may have made it less saleable to comic fans weaned on superheroes and barbarians.
TW: I think it was an adventurous move and as you have so rightly pointed out perhaps misguided in terms of the projected audience. I think Australia was a hard market at that time and is still not an easy market to release comics in. I think there is an audience out there but it remains small in relation to other countries. So it was a brave move.
PB: How was its cancellation broached to you? Your reaction?
TW: My recollection of that is quite vague. I think there was disappointment but as it was an experiment I was rather casual about its success. If it was successful I would do more, if not it was a matter of getting on with other projects. I did do some more comic strips that were done for nothing in particular and in just the last few years I have returned to doing stories, graphic and animation, not only for Scribble [a comic anthology edited by Trevor and published by the University of Newcastle] but for my own solo graphic novels. I feel I do them better now. At art school I was hassled for being too illustrative and too graphic. I don’t see the division. It is all about being creative and who cares if it is a comic or a painting. If people like it they will want to read it or buy it or even just appreciate it.

The rest of the interview can be found in Word Balloons 14.

My Life in Comics
Addendum– Inkspots: the final reckoning
Philip Bentley

Regular readers will recall that as part of my personal reflections on the Australian comic scene over the past forty years, I detailed the circumstances surrounding the publication of Australia’s first adult-oriented comic anthology Inkspots, in the 1980s. At the time I wrote these articles (WB 5 & 7) my sources were mainly my memories, augmented by diaries and letters from the period. Most of the documen-tation from the publication had ended up with fellow editor, Greg Gates, whom I assumed had disposed of it long ago. However during Greg’s move to Adelaide (referred to last issue) much of this came to light enabling a more accurate picture to be constructed. It is my eventual aim to revise all ten chapters of my recollections into book form This is more to enable late comers to access the information without having to buy all issues of WB, rather than expecting loyal readers to have to double dip to access the extra information. So I present some of the extra Inkspots related information here. Whilst it may be a bit too fine-grained for some, I know there are readers who appreciate this level of detail.

The rest of the article can be found in Word Balloons 14.

Plus reviews of Terra 1 (Black House, 2011) by various, Keith McDougall’s The Many Faces of George Grosz 1 (Degenerate Comix, 2011), Hidden by Mirranda Burton (Black Pepper Press, 2011), Ubby’s Underdog’s: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon by Brenton McKenna (Magabala Press, 2011), Frank Candiloro’s The Testament of Dr Zeitpunkt 1 & 2 (Franken Comics, 2011), Ballantyne: Where hidden rivers flow, and The Return of the Night Eagle by Peter Foster (Pitikia Press, 2012)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Word Balloons 13, October 2011


The ‘unlucky for some’ thirteenth issue of Word Balloons marks a partial change of tack for the magazine. Following the completion last issue of my recollections of ‘my life in comics’ this issue sees the unveiling of not one, but two replacements.

The first will be articles by myself and others. Some, as Dann Lennard’s here, will be of a nostalgic bent, others will deal with issues relevant to the form. The second replacement will be interviews of a more historical nature where I will track down past proponents of the field. My especial interest is with those creators who were active during the interregnum period of the 1960s & 70s, post the collapse of the local industry but before the rise of the more fan-based titles of the 1980s and 90s. It is an area largely overlooked and ripe for exploration.

Towards that end this issue’s historical interview is with Fysh Rutherford, the writer of the brief but legendary newspaper strip Iron Outlaw. These historical interviews are meant to complement those with contemporary creators, such as this issue’s conversation with Mandy Ord.

As a result of these changes I have decided to stick with the thirty-two page editions. I would much prefer to charge either five or ten dollars, and I don’t hear anyone pushing for a return to the black & white format. That said, in all likelihood I will be cutting back production to once a year (around April-May) to allow space to undertake other endeavours.

In news of a more personal vein, Greg Gates, who will be known to many readers, either personally or via my recollections, has recently announced that he will be moving to Adelaide for family reasons towards the end of the year.

Greg has made a significant contribution to the Australian comic scene in general and the Melbourne one in particular over the past forty years. Had it not been for Greg’s insatiable desire to meet and converse with other comic aficionados it’s fair to say that the course of comics in this city would have been quite different.

By introducing himself to those he saw buying comics, first in newsagencies and later at Space Age Books, Greg formed a network of friends that inevitably led to the creation of the comic anthology Inkspots and the Minotaur emporium. He has also been instrumental in perpetuating the monthly Melbourne comic meetings, which have been running continuously for over twenty years. As well he has been an informal mentor to a generation of artists, doling out praise and criticism in just the right measures to inspire these people forward.

Greg has also been a great supporter of this magazine, always ready to provide an illustration here and a cover there, sometimes at short notice.

So Greg’s cheery countenance will be missed around the Melbourne comic traps, but our loss is Adelaide’s gain.

“I like stories where people take that risk and reveal things.”
An interview with Mandy Ord.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, September 2011

From self-published mini-comics to square bound books from major publishers, and a slew of contributions to magazines of both a comic and literary bent, Mandy Ord has trodden a path that many would like to follow, but few have achieved.

Seeking to uncover how she has gained such apparent success, this interview follows her life from Sydney, to Canberra and then Melbourne, seeking to understand the forces driving her to wish to commit her life to paper.

Mandy gives insight on the creation of her one-eyed alter ego, explains how baring your soul can be empowering and describes some of the challenges of teaching the medium. Through it all Mandy’s passion for comics is self-evident.

PB: Over the course of the last ten years or so you have concentrated on autobiography. It really could be said that you have just done instalments of one strip, that of the One-Eyed Girl, for want of a better name. What is it that drew you to continue with autobiography rather than other genres.
MO: Well that had to do with working in a comic book store.
PB: Really?
MO: Yes, I worked at Impact Records for two years. [Canberra’s first comic store that branched out from merely carrying records. Ed.] I was in charge of ordering all the alternative titles from Fantagraphics etc. So I used to order a lot of different books for myself. That’s when I discovered the various artists out there doing autobiographical work; people like Mary Fleener, Julie Doucet, Seth, Chester Brown, Joe Matt, Denis Kitchen etc. I also liked Charles Burns, even though he didn’t do autobio. But seeing all this work sort of confirmed that autobio was a legitimate way to tell stories. I like stories that are real. I know some may find them trivial, but you will find with any genre that it will appeal to some and not to others.

PB: Do you find it challenging to bare your soul?
MO: No. I have something of a confessional streak. I will be talking to someone and find myself revealing things even though I didn’t mean to. A voice in my head will be saying “Shut up”, but I just go ahead. [Laughs.] I like stories where people take that risk and reveal things. Often the sort of things people are reluctant to reveal are the things that others will best relate to. But within telling your own story there is a degree of control. I do try to be sure that I’m certain about what I’m putting in a story before I publish it. There’s a lot that I don’t tell. That would be the advantage of doing fiction – you can deal with various human conditions without mentioning names or referencing anyone. Although it’s not as easy as that. If I’m reading a book I will often wonder if any of the author’s friends have asked “Is that character based on me? [Laughs.] But I feel confident when I tell stories about my life, because they deal with events that I have experienced and processed.

PB: I was amused in the final strip in Sensitive Creatures [Allen & Unwin, 2011] you say that someone had suggested you should “put yourself out there more” as a creator, as of anyone who has produced comics in Australia I’m inclined to say that you have been the most widely published. So I’m just wondering what your strategy for being placed has been. Have you actively submitted work wherever you can?
MO: I actually don’t think I’m very good at actively seeking things out. I tend to have offers come to me. And there’s a ninety-nine per cent chance that I will say yes – unless it’s going to be a lot of work for little reward, not necessarily financial. But I really like appearing alongside other artists in anthologies. And working in anthologies with a single topic is good as it stretches you as a writer and artist. I tend not to go searching for things because whenever I do I seem to be rejected and I find that soul-destroying. It’s like I know I can do this thing, but someone else is sitting in judgement. I’d rather sit at home and do my own work. But it’s not like I’m dependent on comics as a means of support. I have a day job working in an organic greengrocer, and previous to that I have done lots of things.

PB: How do you approach creating a comic story?
MO: I generally write it first. I always work out where I’m going, and where the characters are going visually through the story, allowing for some tweaking as I go along. If it feels wrong and you ignore it, it’s not going to turn out right. The incentive for me is always the story. Forget about the drawings, forget about the panels, just think about the story. Even comics that are rendered in a style I normally wouldn’t be attracted to, if the story is fantastic I get sucked in regardless and put my aesthetic bias aside.

The rest of the interview can be found in Word Balloons 13.

“We were ‘being the change’ at this time.”
An interview with Fysh Rutherford.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, August 2011

For a brief period of time in the early 1970s Australia had its own superhero, in the form of the Ned Kelly-helmeted, golden boomerang-wielding Iron Outlaw.

A full page weekly newspaper strip, it ran for the year July 1970 to June 1971 initially in Melbourne’s Sunday Observer, then later in the nationally distributed Sunday Review. Although in part a super-hero spoof, Iron Outlaw was very much a part of the radical agenda of its day and gained in notoriety by sending up then political figures and societal attitudes.

Credited only to ‘Greg & Grae’ it was in fact drawn by Gregor McAlpine and written by Graeme ‘Fysh’ Rutherford, two friends who had met at uni and created the strip on a whim inspired by the ‘spirit of the times’.

In this interview Fysh explains the strip’s origins, its connection to the radical culture of the day, the reasons for its truncated run and why the two creators never produced any more strips.

PB: How did Iron Outlaw come about?
FR: Greg [MacAlpine] was a talented artist and I liked writing so at some point I suggested we should do something together. There must have been some trigger, I think he had some comics in his folio.
PB: What were you attempting to achieve with it? It presumably was tied in with the growth of radical culture at this time.
FR: It was, but it’s not like we had a well-thought through agenda. To begin with we were both pretty naïve, just interested in drinking and girls and the like. If you had asked us who the Prime Minister of Australia was I’m not sure we would have known. [Laughs.] But we were interested in some of the more creative events happening around the city like the Film Festival. Its director, Erwin Rado, was one of a number of [Continental] European immigrants after WWII that helped to break us from the shackles of our staid Anglo culture. But at the same time there was a growing Americanisation of the country. There was an increasing American content on TV and of course there was also the Vietnam War and conscription; the big raffle you didn’t want to win! Both Greg and I were in the draft, but our birthdays missed being picked. It was scary stuff. So there was naturally a big anti-American sentiment around. Our idea was that there were all these American superheroes so we would do an Australian one and parody the American influence, whilst propagating Australian humour and attitudes. At the same time we decided to stick it up local politicians, as there was a backlash against Liberals, such as [State Attorney-General Arthur] Rylah and [Premier Henry] Bolte.

FR: We came up with a hero who in real life was Gary Robinson, an accountant for Melvern Council, who after becoming concerned with the way the world was going encountered an aboriginal spirit at Glenrowan and is bequeathed superpowers, a Ned Kelly helmet and some golden boomerangs. Gary Robinson resembled and was broadly based on me. I worked at Malvern Council at the time and like him drove a FJ Holden.
FR: We produced some pages, made an appointment at The Age, went and showed our samples and they said “Hmm…gosh…well…this is interesting… Maybe you should go and see this new paper the Sunday Observer”.
[A creation of the libertarian millionaire Gordon Barton, the Sunday Observer, and it’s successor the Sunday Review (later Nation Review), ruffled the feathers of the staid Melbourne establishment of the time by giving a voice to the emerging radical urban left. Ed.] So we just showed up and they said “Okay, we’re looking for some comic strips.”

PB: What sort of editorial direction or interference was there?
FR: Very little. We answered to nobody and told no-one what we were doing. Greg would show up once a week with the strip and I think he picked up the cheque at the same time. But some of the things we depicted now make me cringe. Like the drawing of aboriginal trackers as bloodhounds on dog leashes.
PB: I do read that as satire i.e. you’re drawing the reader’s attention that that is how aboriginals are viewed by society at this time, rather than promoting the idea, but it is fairly edgy and I’m sure that there are those who would take offence at it. But I’m betting that there would have been fewer complaints to this than there would have been to say bare breasts. In one of the later strips there is an aside that “Dawn [Iron Outlaw’s girlfriend and partner Steel Sheila] is depicted nippleless in Victoria”.
FR: That was a joke on the state of affairs here, not direct interference.

PB: Did you deliberately keep a low profile due to worries that you’d be a target by those in power? The strip was just signed Greg & Grae.
FR: Not really, it was more our inability to handle fame. [In Ferritabillia, Richard Walsh’s annotated reprinting of the best of Nation Review, he calls Iron Outlaw one of the Sunday Observer’s most popular features. Ed.] But then again Greg once claimed that one time when he went to the studio he found a couple of ASIO agents going through it. And there were a couple of blokes in a car parked near where I living in St Kilda for a few weeks. So we were observed.

The rest of the interview can be found in Word Balloons 13.

My Life as a Comic Geek
Dann Lennard

Inspired by ye ed’s recollections of collecting comics in the 1960s and 70s Dann Lennard has committed his own story to posterity. Providing an interesting counterpoint to my own, Dann traces his steps around rural South Australia and Adelaide in the 1970s and 80s, then to Sydney in the 1990s.

Dann is a journalist for Australian Consolidated Press and has published the shrine to trash-culture Betty Paginated since 1992. This article originally appeared in Betty Paginated 30 in 2007.

If there’s anyone I have to thank for my lifelong love of comics, it’s my mum. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of grabbing the big plastic bag from Mum’s wardrobe, removing the musty, crumbling contents and poring over her beloved collection of Australian comics from the 1940s and 50s. I quickly fell in love with the artwork of Keith Chatto, especially his ‘good-girl art’ in the bush soap opera, Bunny Allen, a standout strip in Tex Morton’s Comic (Allied, 1947-50), and Lone Wolf (Atlas, 1949-56).

But my love for comics was influenced from many different directions. Growing up in rural Kalangadoo, South Australia, there were no shortage of Wizard Of Id, B.C., Peanuts and Tumbleweeds paperback collections in the house, courtesy of my older brothers. There were also their Cracked mags and tons of Phantom comics. Best of all, my older brothers had accumulated several 60s-era English annuals: hardback collections like Hurricane, Bronco Layne, Superman and Batman (containing reprints of the original American comics).

Soon, I was ordering weekly English comics from my local newsagency. My fave titles as a non-discerning reader in the early 70s were IPC’s horror-themed humour titles Shiver & Shake and Monster Fun (starring Frankie Stein), followed by the adventure-filled Valiant & Lion.

However, my comic-reading habits were to receive a massive shake-up one day in 1975 when my mum sent me down to the corner store to buy some milk. She also gave me twenty-five cents to buy a comic. Instead, it was a thirty cent comic that caught my eye: The Avengers 2, a black & white reprint published by Aussie company Newton Comics [see article in WB 6]. Despite the lack of colour, it had more pages, plus a pull-out colour poster… that seemed like value for money to me. So I ‘borrowed’ five cents of Mum’s change and bought the mag. Despite getting in a heap of trouble from my parents when I got home, it was worth the hassle as I pored over the cheap reprint, marvelling at Jack Kirby’s artwork (although I had no idea who he was at the time) and the fascinating tale of a team of superheroes bickering and fighting among themselves thanks to the cunning machinations of a creature called the Space Phantom. There was also a creepy back-up tale featuring Giant-Man and the Wasp versus Egghead’s android. I loved that comic. After that, I collected as many Newton titles as I could find, especially The Avengers.

When my family relocated to another country town, Peterborough, in 1977 I discovered two wonderful things – there were two newsagencies and a second-hand bookshop. From Homes Newsagency I picked up my first genuine Marvel comic. Distribution was utterly random but I scored a fair number of George Perez’s Avengers including the Kang/Immortus finale in 143-44.

But the coolest thing about Peterborough was the second-hand store run by Mrs White. It was located in the town’s defunct movie theatre and for a while there it seemed like every week it had a fresh stock of awesome comics for sale from the 60s and early 70s.

My attitude to collecting comics changed drastically in 1980 when I spied my first copy of The Uncanny X-Men. It was issue 138 – written by Chris Claremont, art by John Byrne and Terry Austin – and was the perfect issue to get into the title. Cyclops had quit the team after the tragic death of Phoenix the previous issue and this was a recap of not only his life but the X-Men from its beginnings. I was hooked.

1980 was also the year of another seminal event in my life while on a trip to Adelaide to visit my oldest brother Chris. One evening we went out for dinner in the city centre and afterwards he took me to a trippy second-hand bookshop called Third World in Hindley Street. For a naïve country boy, being inside a shop at…gasp…9.00pm was mind-blowing. After all, Peterborough’s shops closed at 5.30pm! The two-storey shop was overflowing with strange books and magazines (many appeared to have been there since the 60s) and its ceiling was covered with weird and wonderful posters.

In this magical place I bought Masters Of Comic Book Art by PR Garriock. This 1978 book featured art and bios by some of the world’s greatest artists and opened my eyes to the likes of Will Eisner, Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman, Moebius, Richard Corben and Robert Crumb. It was a consciousness-expanding experience. Very quickly, I adopted Eisner, Wood and Corben as my three main comic book idols.

The rest of the article can be found in Word Balloons 13.

Plus reviews of The List and Uncle Silas.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Word Balloons 12, April 2011


Welcome to the long overdue twelfth issue of Word Balloons. Having concentrated mainly on creators in past issues I thought it was time that the spotlight was shone on another aspect of the scene namely publishers. After all they are responsible for taking raw material and turning it into a published entity. Even though professional comic publishers in this country are fairly thin on the ground I have sought out the three most prominent.

My original idea was to ask them all essentially the same questions in an endeavour to see where their similarities and differences lay. My assumption was that this would produce a number of fairly short responses (especially as two would be conducted by email), which would hopefully take up the same amount of space as one long interview. However I reckoned without their loquaciousness. So given circumstances had prevented me from producing an issue at the end of 2010 I decided that rather than holding over the conclusion of the Fox saga I would increase the page count to present a bumper issue. It is my intention to revert to the 24 page full colour format next time.

This issue also brings to a close the recollections of ‘my life in comics’. Given it seems as many people appear to buy the magazine for these as the interviews, I do wonder how sales will hold up in the future. For the moment, though, I intend to press on and will replace my recollections with a variety of articles broadly alternating nostalgia with a more critical analysis of the form, which tend to be the two hallmarks of the journal.

It should be noted that none of the three publishers interviewed are currently in a position to accept unsolicited submissions.

"My motivation in publishing is not just to make money.”
An interview with Erica Wagner.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, December 2010.

The Australian publisher Allen & Unwin was established as an independent entity in 1990, following the sale of its British parent George Allen & Unwin.

In 2007 Erica Wagner (pronounced Germanically like the composer), the publisher of their children’s and young adult books made the significant decision to publish Nicki Greenberg’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby .This has been followed by a number of other graphic novels and illustrated books including Greenberg’s adaptation of Hamlet (2010), two works by Bruce Mutard The Sacrifice (2008) and The Silence (2009), Shaun Tan’s Tales From Outer Suburbia (2008), Nathan Jurevicius’ Scarygirl (2009), and Five Wounds by Jonathan Walker & Dan Hallett (2010).

This interview endeavours to discover what led a mainstream publisher to what many might consider a fringe market, what they are trying to achieve in it, as well as canvassing the vexed issue of marketing comics in the modern world.

PB: Why did you decide to start publishing graphic novels and what interest had you had in the comic medium prior to this?
EW: Well it grew out of doing children’s books – working with illustrators who were wanting to develop their own stories. I guess I have always been attracted to work with a strong visual element. As a child I loved dark German fairy-tales and stories, Disney comics and Peanuts. I would also read comics that my older brother had. But my big awakening was reading Maus in the 1990s when I was still at Penguin (it was a Penguin book). The lynchpin to start doing the graphic novels, though, was probably [cartoonist] Andrew Weldon. He had approached me when I was at Penguin looking to have his editorial cartoons published. I loved them, but they didn’t come under the heading of children’s books and the perceived wisdom was that cartoon books didn’t sell unless you had a huge name already. So I suggested Andrew do some kids’ books. Andrew knew of my interest in graphic-oriented works and he would occasionally send artists my way to look at their work. One of these was Nicki Greenberg, who came with the first 100-odd pages of The Great Gatsby. And we all thought it was fantastic and I really wanted to publish it. But it took a long time to work out how we could do so. It was a big risk
PB: What criteria do you use in choosing works? Is it different for graphic novels than with other books you publish? EW: At one level it is, but it isn’t at a fundamental level. The basic reasons that make you take on a book are whether you have a gut feeling that it is good and that there’s a market for it. Then you’ve got to analyse whether there actually is a market or you just want there to be one. [Laughs.]
PB: Do you have a specific idea of the types of stories you’re after or is that being too proscriptive?
EW: It’s more of a gut reaction that I look for – you just feel it in your bones if the work moves and excites you, has integrity, is very well thought out and executed, and has that indefinable ‘x’ factor that is of the time and will attract readers.
PB: It must be more difficult to work out what is going to sell well in the graphic story market as you have fewer sales figures.
EW: That’s true. But we’re not trying to attract just the established comic audience, we’re trying to attract a book-loving audience.

The rest of the article can be found in Word Balloons 12.

“The nature of storytelling is truly gestalt.”
An interview with Wolfgang Bylsma.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, December 2010-January 2011.

Since its beginning in 2007 Perth-based, but internationally focussed Gestalt Publishing has produced a number of impressive looking works in a variety of formats. There have been the anthologies Character Sketches (2007) and Flinch (2009); graphic novels Vowels by Skye Ogden (2007), Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday (2008) by Alex Cox & Chris Bones and Justin Randall’s Changing Ways (2010); and ‘traditional’ comic magazines The Example (2009) by Tom Taylor & Colin Wilson and Taylor & Ogden’s Rombies (2010). They have also stepped in to publish the originally self-published Digested by Bobby N. (2008-)

Nowhere is its international perspective better illustrated than by its two principals – Perth-based Wolfgang Bylsma and the Tokyo via Melbourne and Perth located Ogden.

In this email interview Bylsma gives an insight into Gestalt’s origins and their publishing rationale.

PB: What is the story behind the establishment of Gestalt?
WB: Gestalt came about owing to an alignment of several elements. I used to teach media production at Murdoch University in Perth, but opted to leave that position in 2000 to take my own business in branding and web development more seriously. Admittedly, that became a smidgen laborious despite being quite successful. After a couple of years I came to realise that I was essentially just doing my work because it was, well, just work. Enter Skye Ogden, now Art Director with Gestalt. We worked together on [comics] projects for about eighteen months. During this period we managed to network and discover more Australian comic talent than we’d realised existed. We were disappointed that their work wasn’t more readily available and, after one of our production meetings, decided to do something about it. Investigating arts funding options led me to the Write In Your Face grant, established by the Australia Council to assist with exactly what we were trying to set up. So I applied, and a few months later we received the letter that made it all possible. The funding was only $5000, all of which was paid out to artists for the stories that were included in our first anthology, Character Sketches, but that was the crux of our approach; we wanted people to be paid for their work.
PB: What is Gestalt’s publishing ethos or mission statement?
WB: We started out with the clear mission to enable Australian creators to receive international distribution and exposure without having to take their intellectual property overseas, or being forced into ‘work-for-hire’ to create their careers. For the most part that remains true, although we have now expanded to work with international creators as well. Our underlying ethos, however, is to enable great storytelling.
PB: What market are you aiming at?
WB: We’re aiming at a somewhat discerning market who appreciate storytelling with substance, which may sound a little odd given that we’re publishing a comic about zombies in Ancient Rome, but at the heart of every story we choose to publish there is a poignancy or perspective that we feel holds a degree of gravitas.

The rest of the article can be found in Word Balloons 12.

“I want to back artists, not hire them to do a job.”
An interview with Baden Kirgan.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, December 2010-January 2011.

Begun as an offshoot of a successful printing business, Black House has initially concentrated on horror or gothic-tinged comics in the traditional pamphlet–style format, before recently branching out into graphic novels and pulp fiction in a wider range of styles. To Chris Sequeira, John Cornell & Dave Elsey’s revisioning of Sherlock Holmes in The Dark Detective and Jan Scherpenhuizen’s apocalyptic thriller The Twilight Age has been added Jason Paulos’ horror anthology Eeek!, a collected edition of an early Bruce Mutard strip A Mind of Love, the black humour of Matt Emery in the Guzumo Show and finally a line of zombie novellas After the World by a variety of authors.

In this email interview Black House proprietor Baden Kirgan explains what led a teenage sci-fi nut to publish comics once he ‘grew up’, the pitfalls of calling for submissions in the horror genre and why ballerinas should get a day job.

PB: What prompted you to found a comic company?
BK: The same reason anyone starts a company – to make money. I had been operating a successful commercial printing business for about eight years by then and I was a bit bored. I was also looking to the future and for printers a challenge we all face is that we are always waiting for the next job to come through the door. The most successful printers, however don’t wait, but generate their own work by creating content, such as magazines or newspapers. I wanted to find a way to do that myself. At the same time my interest in comics had really blossomed and one night I was at work running a press and reading a trade of The Walking Dead [Image, 2003- present]. It occurred to me that I could easily produce the physical book myself if I wanted to and so I set out to see if anyone was doing anything locally to the level I thought I could achieve.
PB: What is Black House’s publishing ethos or mission statement?
BK: When I started I remember telling Jason Paulos I wanted to be an Australian Vertigo. He was very kind in not laughing in my face, but that was the original idea – to print good quality, adult oriented darker material. Over time that changed a bit as a few realities hit. No company can really restrict itself to one genre and be commercially viable. You need to be open to a spread of genres and ideas. You also have to be careful not to dictate the art to the artist. I had several very good creators pitch stuff to me that they thought I would like or that fitted my vision of the company, but they mostly lacked passion or interest because they were trying to tell me what they thought I wanted to hear – and it showed. It was much more rewarding for me to ask them to give me an idea they liked regardless of whether they thought it would suit us
PB: What are your selection criteria when it comes to projects?
BK: From a material point of view, really, I just have to like the story. I have no one to please but myself and if the book is something that I actually want to read then I am interested. I am text focused so I tend to pay more attention to the idea and the quality of the writing at first. I don’t regard myself as a good judge of art so I do ask advice on that. But having said that, I know enough to be put off by non-professional standards and I have knocked back several projects with interesting stories because the artist hasn’t been up to it. Apart from those obvious points, who is behind the project is the main criterion. A professional attitude and proven record of getting work out the door is essential.

The rest of the article can be found in Word Balloons 12.

My Life in Comics Part X – Fox Comics, the later years 1989-92.

By Philip Bentley

This is the tenth and final of a series of articles chronicling my path as a comics aficionado in Australia over the past forty years. Primarily these are my recollections alone and make no claims to be the authoritative view.

After last chapter detailing what I felt to be the strengths of the magazine, this issue I look at the difficulties involved in its production. Starting from the move to magazine size in 1985, the saga is taken through to the last four issues co-produced with Fantagraphics Books. Reasons for the title’s cancellation are canvassed and the variety of short-lived titles, also under-taken with Fantagraphics, are detailed thereafter.

With our thirteenth issue (Oct. 1985) publisher David Vodicka decided it was time to up the ante by seeking greater overseas distribution. As I have previously explained, at this time there were fewer comics being published and more distributors carrying them than is the situation today, so achieving overseas distribution wasn’t that difficult. We simply sent a sample copy and many, but not all, agreed. Much to our surprise the issue was ordered in numbers far exceeding expectations – in the vicinity of 3,500 copies, a considerable amount for an indie publication. Whilst gratified by this turn of events, I think we greeted the news with caution given the prevailing conditions in the US comic scene at this time.

Like many collectables over the years various types of comics have come in and out of popularity, with various companies, titles, artists, characters and motifs all having their time in the sun. By the mid-80s the spotlight had turned to black and white indie books sparked by the success of the Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles (TMNT), a spoof on the X-Men and other teen groups. When TMNT’s popularity took off back issues, which had been produced in modest numbers, became like gold. This frenzy spilled over into the rest of the indie market as dealers bought up any and every new work in the expectation that one of these would go stellar and sales of its back issues, at vastly inflated prices, would cover the cost of all of the other stockpiled titles.

But of course there was no guarantee that any of these books would gain massive popularity. So after a while dealers became tired of tying up money on obscure titles and in a version of ‘blame the victim’ there was a backlash against all indie comics. Fox Comics was unlucky enough to be caught in the middle of this reaction and whilst it would be churlish to lay all our woes at this door it still provided market conditions that were weighted against us. So from a high point of 3,500, orders steadily declined in direct opposition, in our minds, to the increase in quality in the book.

The situation in Australia was a bit different although very much of two speeds. Away from Melbourne there was virtually no way of reaching interested parties and the few copies that ended up in comic shops probably languished in some dark corner. In Melbourne, though, sales steadily grew. This was due partially to word of mouth, partially through being prominently displayed at Minotaur where there were a number of supportive staff. But most importantly it was due to promotion on independent radio programmes.

The rest of the article can be found in Word Balloons 12.

Plus reviews of Daren White & Eddie Campbell’s The Playwright, Gregory Mackay’s Francis Bear, It got big for no reason by Andrew Fulton, Guzumo Show by Matt Emery, & Yuck 1 & 4.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Word Balloons 11, May 2010

There have been further heartening moves to bring the graphic story medium out of the shadows of late. In late April 2010 Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre, a newly-formed peak literary body, hosted a weekend spotlight-ing the medium with talks, panels and workshops. On the Saturday a series of panels were held giving some notable creators such as Bruce Mutard, Queenie Chan, Bernard Caleo, ‘Chewie’ Chan and Dylan Horrocks (from NZ) the opportunity to both explain their work and debate some perennial questions of the form.

Apart from the encouragement of the weekend being held at all, it was refreshing to realise that the graphic story medium in this country has reached the point where there are sufficient articulate creators to make such an event possible. I well recall panels from early comic conventions of the 1970s and 80s where creators were exclusively newspaper cartoonists between whom and the audience, I have previously suggested, there was an insurmountable distance.

It was also great to see that the panels were so well supported. I had feared that there may have been only a handful of people in attendance. But instead it looked as if a couple of hundred attended each session, with most of these not being the ‘usual suspects’ from within the comic scene.

Of course the event was not without its hiccoughs. Organisation prior to it seemed a bit shambolic with details sketchy. Whilst I appreciate that promotion may best be targeted in the week leading up to an event, the relative paucity of information on the website in the preceding weeks was hardly encouraging.

It is hoped given these sorts of numbers that this experiment will continue. Readers are encouraged to stay abreast of activities at the Wheeler Centre by bookmarking the website www.wheelercentre.com.

In early May Melbourne again played host to Doujicon, a small but vibrant convention focussing on small-press creators from both the manga and Western comics fields. As with the Wheeler Centre events the release of this issue was poorly placed to advertise them, but again interested parties are encouraged to bookmark www.doujicon.oztaku.com.

Finally, small-press creators from all types of media will be showcased at the Page Parlour Zine Fair, associated with the Emerging Writers Festival, at Federation Square, Sunday May 23 12.00-5.00. www.emergingwritersfestival.org.au.

The colour introduced last issue has been persevered with this time, although with a further rise in price to seven dollars. Unfortunately a breakdown in communications with the printer led to last issue’s price being increased post-printing, and had I thought the matter through more closely I would have realised that it needed to be seven dollars rather than six. So apologies for two price rises rather than one. Mail sales are now seven dollars by cheque, post inclusive, but will remain at five for those wishing to pay by notes.

“I wanted to draw magnificent naked women having adventures.”
An interview with Chris Johnston.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, April 2010

Given the fractured state of the Australian comics scene over the past fifty years, it is perhaps not surprising that someone could make a notable contribution to the field, yet remain a virtual unknown. But when you consider that this person’s most prolific work appeared for ten years in Australia’s most popular magazine of its time, it is certainly worthy of comment.

This is the case with Chris Johnston whose “Nurse Nancy Nightingale”, produced in collaboration with Rowena C. (under the pseudonym of Roy Roberts), appeared weekly in the magazine Picture. Of course Picture is hardly your most high-brow publication and Nurse Nancy was, it must be said, a work that was aimed around the groin, even though it still maintained a narrative integrity that meant it was more than simply a ‘stroke piece’.

Chris’s work makes him well-placed for our discussion into the in and outs of producing an erotic comic. But there is more to him than this as over the years he has also turned his hand to book illustration, storyboards and political cartooning, demonstrating again the varied paths someone with comic skills can take.

CJ: [In the early 1970s] I would haunt Franklins [second-hand bookshop in Melbourne] and picked up quite a few old books and magazines. A lot of the magazines were illustrated by the likes of Kelly Freas, Leo Summers, Jack Gaughan, Edd Cartier etc. who were early influences. Then I discovered Space Age Books. And there I also discovered the wider world of comics. I was never really into superheroes, but there were other comics that had more of a fantasy nature.
PB: What in particular?
CJ: Richard Corben made a deep early impression on me with works like Rowlf. He and artists like Jeff Jones had more of a European sensibility about them. Then I discovered French artists such as [Jean-Claude] Mezieres (Valerian) and Moebius. I think I was naturally led to comics because I had an abiding interest in illustration as opposed to painting. In my teens I had been an admirer of English illustrators from earlier in the century like Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Heath Robinson. Then I had a moment of epiphany on a visit to the Art Gallery in the early1960s when I saw a Norman Lindsay watercolour. That was the first time I had seen a picture of a woman with public hair. [Laughs.] But it was also the style of the art. Despite the fact that it was a painting it still was closer to illustration and a comic book style than what you generally saw in a traditional painting. And I realised that that was the sort of art I wanted to aspire to. To draw magnificent naked women having adventures. [Laughs.]
PB: In the early 1980s you started an artistic partnership with Stephen Campbell.
CJ: Through SF fandom I’d met a number of people who would play a major part in my later life. Stephen was one. Prior to going overseas in mid-1979 Stephen and I had talked about working together. [On my return], towards the end of the year, it seemed appropriate to get the partnership happening. [After about a year]…we had a stroke of good luck by getting onto the publishers Decalon [and through them were put in touch with Tony Barber who had developed a range of soft toys called Puggles which he wanted us to visualise. ]
PB: At Decalon you did seven Puggles books: an initial large one in 1981, and then a series of six small booklets that you did three each in 1982.
CJ: [After a couple of years we set] up under the name of GASPP (Graphic Art Suitable for Practical Purposes) in St Kilda.
PB: That was in a couple of shops in Carlisle Street, close to the corner of Barkly and opposite the National Theatre. You were all living there: yourself, Stephen and Rowena C whom he had now taken up with.
What sort of work did you do at that studio?
CJ: Well, you could say there were two levels. Stephen lead the more artistically challenging jobs, like art directing ads, and painting book covers and video jackets. On the other level, Rowena and I used the Puggles to hawk our wares around, producing children’s books for publishers such as Rigby, Mimosa, and Macmillan. It was something of a production line, as she coloured my pencils.
PB: Over the years, either by yourself or in partnership, you have done many children’s books. How many roughly?
CJ: I’m not exactly sure. It would be more than fifty but less than one hundred. The peak period was in the late 80s to early 90s.
PB: Previously you’ve mentioned your interest in the naked form and your early exposure to Norman Lindsay, but you have been able to take these interests and do what for some would be a dream job, and that is to make a living, for a time, drawing naked women.
CJ: It started in the late 1980s and occurred through Paul, a former partner of Rowena’s who was doing articles for True Blue, an Australian men’s magazine. Rowena and I started off by doing some accompanying illustrations, then the magazine approached us to do a strip “Jody Jumpsuit”. We had always admired “Little Annie Fanny” [the Kurtzman & Elder strip in American Playboy] and “Wicked Wanda” [by Ron Embleton in Penthouse]. Wanda was probably more of an influence as Rowena liked the way she was more in control of her own destiny.
PB: How come you decided to work with Rowena?
CJ: Well we were working together already. It was a natural progression. Our intention was to do ‘subversive erotica’ where the woman was in control; naked, but in control. [Laughs.] We didn’t see anything sexist about nakedness in and of itself. Jody lasted until the early 90s. When the editor of True Blue, Brad Boxall, moved over to Picture he asked us to do something for them as well.
PB: What was Brad’s brief?
CJ: He asked for the adventures of a naughty nurse and came up with the name “Nurse Nancy Nightingale”.
PB: Did you collaborate any differently given these were continuing story arcs?
CJ: We’d have a conversation about the direction, I’d make some notes about where I thought the story should go and Rowena would then write the script. But I would sometimes make changes to ensure continuity and that there were naked ladies in it each week.
PB: It’s a hard life. [Laughs.]
CJ: I know. [Laughs
PB: How many years did it run?
CJ: It began in 1991 and ran to 1999, although it did return in the Picture Home Girls magazine [where] we did a number of episodes of “Young Nurse Nancy” that ran into the early 2000s. There were ten different story arcs, eleven if you count the young Nancy, that amounted to some 400 pages.
PB: Now although you started out with Nancy as a nurse in a hospital, at the end of the first storyline you blew the hospital up and she became a secret agent.
CJ: We felt that had more narrative potential. At this time Picture wasn’t simply the best selling men’s magazine in Australia, but the best selling magazine period. It had regular readers’ polls and for quite a few years Nancy was the most popular comic in the magazine. So we had a bit of clout. So long as it remained popular Brad was happy to let us have our heads. We still kept Nancy as a nurse, but changed her to a world famous sex therapist who thought that sex could solve all the world’s problems.

The rest of the interview can be found in Word Balloons 11.

My Life in Comics
Part IX – Fox Comics, the middle years 1986-88.
by Philip Bentley

In this chapter I deal with the ten issues (14-23) of Fox Comics produced after the shift to magazine size but before the co-publishing deal with Fantagraphics. It was a period when the magazine attracted some talented creators and impressive strips, as well as developing a pleasing sense of community. Readers who find the tone perhaps too triumphalist are advised that it ideally needs to be read with next issue’s instalment, which will cover the more sobering issues of what went wrong, as opposed to this issue’s what went right.

The early Foxes were produced to a small-press ethos and largely published such work as was to hand. In 1986, though, we made the switch to a magazine-sized format with our fourteenth issue. This move had a knock-on effect in other areas. One immediate observation was how some of the off-the-cuff strips that had worked in the A5 magazine looked out of place at a larger size. Another was that we needed to add more ‘bang for the buck’. As it would happen, issue fourteen was released the same week as a Love & Rockets, and whilst both had thirty-two pages, the Fox took a mere ten minutes to read, L&R took over half an hour. So we began to consider whether by imposing more selective editorial criteria we could produce something with greater artistic clout.

Whilst we may have begun to have a greater input into the magazine’s direction, we were still well aware of the limitations we were working under. At around thirty-two pages, but with a ‘stable’ of artists that over the first thirteen issues was pushing forty people, space was at a premium. So strips over the first few years had tended to be short (one to five pages) with subject matter that could be easily contained in a few pages, such as flights of fancy, humorous cartoons or autobiographical tales.

It was the latter that I that I seized upon, when I was contemplating future directions, as the one most likely to produce a deeper emotional response from the reader in the shortest amount of space. It’s not like we issued a blanket ultimatum for real life stories, and strip selection still remained largely by submission rather than by commission, but we did come to have a preference for this style of work which, significantly, some of our key creators had already been utilising.

As chance would have it subsequent arrivals to the Fox had their own take on the autobiographical area. The most prolific was Dave Hodson, who, following his first appearance in Fox Comics 14 became one of our most significant contributors. Another take on the notion of ‘real life’ strips, if not totally autobiographical, came from New Zealender Dylan Horrocks.

Other local contributors to make their mark during the middle issues of the magazine included Lindsay Arnold, Micheal (sic) Graham, Tony Thorne, Maria Peña, Gerard Ashworth, Lazarus Dobelsky, David Bird, and Dillon Naylor.

The UK connection continued to prosper helped along by a number of visits there by David Vodicka. After initially publishing reprints we had begun to receive original strips, primarily from artists we had approach-ed, but over time unsolicited ones as well. The main contributors continued to be Ed Pinsent and Phil Elliot, although others such as Glenn Dakin, John Bagnall and Bob Lynch made cameos.

In Fox Comics 18 (March 1988) we welcomed back Eddie Campbell, who by now had married and emigrated to Australia. In the succeeding issues we ran a suite of strips that Eddie had been producing since his arrival in Australia. Drawn in an appealing sketchy manner, they reflected the fact that sometimes it takes a perceptive outsider to capture the spirit of a locale

So as time progressed there was to our eyes a growing momentum about the magazine. It had begun with Fox Comics 16, which was the first to reflect our attempts to up the ante in terms of better strips and design. Then, with the addition of Dave Hodson’s strips, Lazarus Dobelsky and Ian Eddy’s “Lifestyles of the Poor and Insignificant”, Dylan Horrocks's “Sex” and Eddie Campbell’s work there were some heavy hitters to build each issue around. For me this wave peaked with issues twenty and twenty-one in the latter half of 1988.

The rest of the article can be found in Word Balloons 11.

Plus reviews of Scarygirl by Nathan Jurevicius “a lushly illustrated tale…that is not without its flaws”; Daniel Reed’s Crumpleton Experiments 9 “full of invention [with] the quality of an off-kilter fairy-tale”; Dead By 30 by Andrei Buters “a creditable beginning”; Bobby N’s Digested 2 “some finely observed and well-interpreted insights into various aspects of the human experience” and Dark Detective Sherlock Holmes 1-3 by Chris Sequeria, John Cornell and Dave Elsey “the mix of Holmes and Hammer Horror seems to mesh effectively enough.”

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Bruce Mutard Interview Update

A Panel from Bruce's submission to Tango 9.

To coincide with a reprinting of Word Balloons 1 we present below an update to that issue’s interview with Bruce Mutard. For those who came late, Bruce is a Melbourne-based writer-artist committed to telling stories that have a deeper meaning. From early socio-political works for street zines he has progressed through his self-published Street Smell, contributions to local and overseas anthologies, such as DeeVee, Tango and SPX, to substantial graphic novels: The Bunker (Image 2002), The Sacrifice (Allen & Unwin, 2008) and The Silence (Allen & Unwin, 2009).

PB: When the interview was published, early in 2006, The Silence was in limbo following Image dropping it due to poor advance orders. The Sacrifice, meanwhile, was in the early stages of production. Given its subject matter you expressed a hope that you may be able to find an Australian publisher for The Sacrifice. Despite the fact that, as you said, it seemed a bit ‘pie in the sky’ that’s exactly what has happened. So how did this come about?
BM: Via what some cynics, in particular authors, might describe as the least likely route to publication: the unsolicited submission. After the term of the Australia Council grant had expired, which I think was the end of 2005, I had produced sixty pages which I decided I should use as a sample of a prospective publication. So I consulted the Australian Writer’s Guide, made a list of likely publishers, and sent off the package. Lo and behold, a few weeks later, I got a call from Erica Wagner [pronounced like the composer], a publisher in the Children’s and Education Division of Allen & Unwin (A&U). She expressed a great admiration for the work and a desire to publish it.
PB: How many publishers did you approach ?
BM: A&U were essentially the first. That occurred in 2006, but it still took me a good year and a half to finish the rest of the work.
PB: Over the course of its production the work has expanded to become a WWII trilogy. You are currently at work on the second volume The Fight. What was the thinking behind the expansion?
BM: At a fairly late stage of the production of The Sacrifice I realised that there were natural sequels to the story. If the first volume told the story of a man wrestling with his conscience and beliefs with regards to enlisting to fight in WWII, then it seemed logical to follow the consequences of that decision in a second volume. To show him in the army and participating in a combat zone, where he sees and performs dreadful things. And then it seemed appropriate to follow the narrative through to the character’s return home, and to look at the issues surrounding how you come back to being a normal citizen having done such things. In Robert’s case, because he was a reluctant participant to begin with, he finds it quite difficult to deal with. So I approached A&U with the idea late in 2007. They were very receptive to it, but given that The Sacrifice had yet to be released, and they were essentially entering into the unknown as far as finding a market for the graphic story in the mainstream book trade, they didn’t commit to it immediately. But after a month or so Erica agreed, going on gut instinct rather than sales. So that enabled me to start researching and writing The Fight.
PB: How have you found A&U to work with? How has the editing process changed both The Sacrifice, which was underway prior to finding a publisher, and The Fight, which A&U have been involved in from the beginning?
BM: They’ve been very easy and good to work with. They have had a very light touch in terms of their editorial involvement. I have actually invited them to be more involved because it is quite constructive to get that objective view. Their input definitely improved The Sacrifice and The Silence. But they are not prescriptive in a way that a more commercial publisher, or an educational one might be. Their position has been that this is my work and it is more their job to make suggestions rather than directions. There have been instances where I have gone against their advice, feeling that they didn’t ‘get’ the point I was trying to make. Although that does raise the issue that if they didn’t understand it, perhaps other readers won’t as well. But on the whole it has been a really good working relationship.
PB: Has their input been primarily in the story, or the art as well?
BM: Primarily with the story. With the art on occasion they may point out some inconsistencies with regard to the appearance of characters. But it is difficult when you are doing a representational style of art. You don’t have the leeway that a more cartoony artist may have with exaggerated characteristics and expressions to describe the internal emotional states of the characters. But most bloopers and errors of continuity I have had to fish out myself. I am aware of some of my failings. I tend to draw fairly masculine looking women with square jaws and can have a certain sameness to character design. Artists tend to have a stock of types and a set way of drawing facial characteristics and it is difficult, especially when you are doing a long work, not to default to easy patterns to reduce your labour.
PB: What have sales been like? Are A&U satisfied with the results?
BM: I’ve only got numbers for The Sacrifice, but they’ve been satisfactory as far as A&U are concerned. Mind you, the bulk of the sales were to some educational marketing firm on release. Traffic since then has slowed to a few dozen every half year, matched by the number of returns. We don’t expect to see any kick along until The Fight is released, which is a long way off yet.
PB: What sort of feedback have you had for either The Sacrifice or The Silence? I recall you saying that when you were doing Street Smell you would get regular letters of comment from readers.
BM: Primarily only reviews in the media.
PB: Do you think that has to do with the greater distance between author and reader in the two forms of production?
BM: Undoubtedly.
PB: But people could still write to you care of A&U.
BM: They could and I was hoping that there might have been a little bit of that. But I do think it has to do with the diminution of letter writing in the modern world. If I had set up a Facebook site or a blog and was regularly contributing to them I probably would have got comments, but I have no interest in doing that.
PB: Why is that?
BM: Just being lazy and perhaps a degree of animus I have against the whole business of exposing oneself online…like publishing one’s personal diary. It just strikes me as being immodest. I see it as an extension of the general cult of celebrity we’re in: “you too, can be a star”. But I can also see it as a rather broad version of the human need for community and neighbourhood gossip.
PB: In the interview you stated that The Silence had been the most challenging work you had done up to that time. How does The Sacrifice or The Fight match up to it? Have they been more challenging?
BM: Yes. Each work that I do does present greater challenges because I set the bar a little higher each time. The Silence was challenging because its subject matter required me to find a visual metaphor for a non-visual idea. Something that would avoid too much explanatory dialogue, which my critics have pointed out is a bit of a problem with me. It is something I am trying to iron out. I write books with a point in mind and it is hard not to make them baldly, rather than integrating them into the narrative so the point comes through that instead of merely being stated. But I think with The Silence I came pretty close to achieving this. I worked pretty extensively to iron out a lot of explanatory dialogue that had been in the initial version. PB: You or A&U?
BM: Largely myself. This is why I really would like the editing to be a little more demanding and robust. I really would like the editing to be an active process. I’m sure it was more so back in the ‘old days’. It may well be the way it’s taught these days and a part of the postmodern discourse where they don’t want to violate the integrity of the artist. I see it often in non-fiction where over-writing and repetitiveness is let go.
PB: So had The Silence appeared from Image these revisions wouldn’t have occurred.
BM: No, that’s right. But to get back to your question, The Fight was difficult to write. It took me a year and around ten drafts. But you expect that with an extensive novel. It has a broad canvas and multiple characters and it’s a challenge to sustain a narrative over such a length. But the feedback that I have had from A&U has been positive and they have sent it to a number of independent readers.
PB: What stage is it currently at?
BM: I have completed the breakdowns, but they still need to be culled a bit as it’s close to 300 pages.
PB: I’m interested in the different formats you’ve employed. The Sacrifice was virtually A4, which you would think would be ideal for illustrated work, especially detailed work, yet I was surprised that I didn’t warm to it. Perhaps that was due to the design, perhaps that’s just me. But presumably you must have had some reservations as with The Silence you’ve gone for almost a square format with only two tiers of panels per page, which I think works better. So why the change?
BM: That was my decision, although it did have a mercenary aspect to it. You once said to me that in its look The Sacrifice resembled a text-book and I tend to agree. In part that was probably intentional on the part of A&U as they had a stated intention of selling it into the educational market. The Silence, on the other hand, was originally in three tiers and around 100 pages and I just thought that a larger book with more pages would appear more substantial, have a better chance of standing out on a bookshelf and seem a better buy. Because each tier was the same size it was easy to reformat. And I liked the option of having some pages with just a single tier. Indeed A&U suggested that I use them as a form of chapter breaks. I liked how that accentuated the wordlessness or ‘silence’ of these panels. So in a way I’m glad that it didn’t come out from Image a few years ago.
PB: During the interview you also mentioned a number of other projects you would like to produce – biographies of Jesus and Hitler among them. Do you worry that because the WWII trilogy is such a long running project that these and other works are held up?
BM: Yeeeah... Sometimes I’d like to be working on a project that is contrary to the trilogy just to have some respite from it.
PB: More to the point are there more stories that are coming to you that are creating a log jam of ideas.
BM: You can never stay away from new ideas. I have contributed some short stories to the last few Tangos and will also have a strip in an edition of Meanjin [one of Australia's pre-eminent literary journals] next year.
PB: How did that occur?
BM: It was a strip I submitted to Gestalt Publishing’s Character Sketches back in 2007. When they knocked it back, I submitted it to another anthology, Rosetta, put out by Alternative Press in the USA. They accepted it, but after some three years and no sign of the book, I assume it was killed off by the GFC and the weak market for anthologies in general. Then I noticed that Meanjin was becoming receptive to graphic stories with their new editor Sophie Cunningham (like the serial by Kate Fielding and Mandy Ord). So I gave it a go and it worked. It’s something that I hope to see more of: graphic stories appearing on an equal footing alongside prose and poetry in literary journals, as a part of literature.
PB: As well you began a Masters degree at Monash Uni in 2009. In what discipline?
BM: It began in Fine Arts, but I’ve changed to Design for a variety of reasons.
PB: Why did you undertake it?
BM: Because I felt the medium ought to be examined in the academic field from the point of view of the artform itself, rather than from a feminist, Marxist, or post-structuralist position that has previously occurred. My initial idea was to focus on the transition between word and image, as I had discovered that I would often have to change the script when I came to do the breakdowns. There is something about telling stories in images that is qualitatively different to telling stories in words. And I wanted to analyse that dialectic to see if there was any kind of universal system buried in there. Mind you, it has tracked away from that now. Initially I was going to utilise The Fight, but then I realised that it already had a lot of constraints on it in terms of form, and anyway, it was too big as a project for a Masters degree. So I decided that I might do the Hitler story and work on both simultaneously. But that has been complicated by the need to earn a living doing commercial work, so right at this minute I’m not entirely sure where I am with the degree. But the Hitler book and the Jesus story are two I keep needling at. I still hope to produce them eventually.
PB: Speaking of commercial work you have just completed work on three books for Macmillan Education.
BM: They are for a new series called Stories from Australia. Macmillan have commissioned an initial series of six books of which I have done three. Two other artists have done the other three, but there’s a single author for them all. They are history texts aimed at Years 4 to 6. The three I have done are on the Anzacs and Gallipoli, Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet, and Vida Goldstein and the Suffrage Movement.
PB: Did you choose those or did they?
BM: They did show me the six ideas originally but in the end they chose. They road tested a number of illustrators by giving us all a panel to illustrate to demonstrate our style and how we would interpret the script.
PB: Illustrators or comic artists?
BM: The two I’m aware of are Scott Fraser who did the Dollboy comic a few years ago [see Doug Holgate interview WB 10], and Chris Burns, who I think was the artist on Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday (Gestalt, 2008).
PB: Did this come about because of The Sacrifice?
BM: No, again, it was an unsolicited approach. Earlier in the year I just began to contact publishers seeking illustration work. I mentioned that I had special skills in graphic narratives and as it would happen Macmillan were in the process of commissioning a series that was going to use the form.
PB: How many pages?
BM: Twelve pages per book. The rest of the books will presumably be bulked out with prose, maps, diagrams, illustrations etc. In this case I was just the hired gun. Although I did have input into the script from the position of what didn’t seem to work. It’s hard for me to switch the writer off. They were, for example, far too overwritten. The author was totally unpractised in writing for the medium and the editor and publisher hadn’t had any contact with it either. Indeed this is the first time Macmillan have used comics in their books. So they are testing the waters as well. I think they’ve learnt a lot from the process, and will undoubtedly get better at it. I gather they are thinking of commissioning another series of six next year.
PB: When are they being released?
BM: March 2010, but they will not be available through the general book trade, only to the education market. I hope it works for them, because it’s a very good field for the medium to become a part of. You’d think it would be a natural, but educators have been resistant to the medium up to now because of the old pejorative associations that comics equal too much sex, violence, fantasy and so on, not helped by the big budget films of recent times.