Saturday, May 31, 2008

Word Balloons 5, Jun 2007

“I have always considered DeeVee to be an Australian comic.”
An interview with Daren White.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, May 2007.

As the masthead quote implies there has, at times, been some queries expressed over the nationality of this comic started by two Brits and an Aussie in Brisbane, printed in Canada, distributed worldwide and featuring work by another Australian-based British expatriate Eddie Campbell.

In this interview co-editor Daren White makes his position clear along with detailing the book’s genesis and development. He then describes his own path as a part-time comic writer that has seen him work for DC and Dark Horse.

Begun in 1996, DeeVee published fourteen issues to a quarterly or bi-monthly schedule until 2000 and have brought out nominal annuals since. During the initial period they mainly used Brisbane-based creators, but since then have showcased work of what could be called the cream of Australian comic talent.

PB: One of the interesting things about you is, for someone who has played and continues to play a significant role in Australian comics, you were, in fact, born and raised in Britain.
DW: Correct. I was born in 1967. My family were from the East End of London, and as a baby we moved to a place called Leigh-on-Sea, in Essex.
PB: So how and when did you end up in Australia?
DW: My sister had married an Australian and was living in Brisbane. I had visited a couple of times, but had been frustrated with the flight time and costs involved, for what amounted to a visit for only a couple of weeks. Around August 1994 I was offered a move that would have eventually led to my becoming a partner in the firm of accountants where I worked. This, instead, convinced me that I was ready to move on. I had another friend who was in a similar position, so we came out here on a twelve month working holiday visa. I found accounting work immediately and so there was little interruption to normal life.
PB: How did you contact Brisbane fandom?
DW: On an earlier visit I had gone into [Brisbane comic shop] Comics Etc. looking for the Collected Alec by Eddie Campbell. I had left my copy at an ex-girlfriend’s and decided that buying a replacement was an easier option than asking for it back. [Laughs.] I knew Eddie lived in Brisbane so thought they might stock a copy. They didn’t, but the shop staff knew Eddie had copies and passed my details on to him. We got in contact and when he heard that I was from the Southend area, he invited me over for a drink. After I returned to England, we started an occasional correspondence. When I came out here to live I got back in contact and we began to meet for a drink on a regular basis. I enjoyed it in Brisbane, and had no intention of returning to England before the year was up. A few months later I met my future wife. I subsequently extended my visa for two years and was then granted permanent residency. We eventually married in 1997.
* * *
PB: What was the editorial stance with DeeVee ? What were you trying to achieve with it?
DW: Initially just to get as good a line up as possible, and to have a vehicle for the material that was coming out of Brisbane at the time. Eddie had been thinking of doing the How to Be an Artist graphic novel but needed an impetus to get it out. Because Bacchus was a monthly he tore through ideas at a rate of knots, so Marcus [co-editor Marcus Moore] and myself began to help him out with some stories. We worked out a deal whereby there was a trade off between the stories we did for Bacchus and his contributions to DeeVee. He impressed upon us that he would only let us run the strip if the quality of the rest of the book was of a sufficient standard. So that inspired us to lift our game. The criteria was whether the stuff was good enough to be seen. We did reject a lot of stuff, particularly once the issues started to rack up. I think one of the problems with Australian comics today is that there isn’t a critical enough editorial stance. There’s nothing wrong with the small-press ethic, I still contribute to mini-comics and enjoy doing so, but there is a difference between that and something that is going to go through Diamond and get world-wide distribution. With the early issues we probably still set out sights too low. Some of my own stuff, with hindsight, I wish we hadn’t run. It took us to around issue six or seven to get a consistently good line up.
PB: One of the most noticeable things for me was that DeeVee was an Australian comic that didn’t proclaim that on the cover.
DW: Yeah, that was deliberate. I think I’d already guessed that Australian sales would be a pretty small percentage of the overall figure. But clearly, when you read it, you would see it was an Australian comic. The editorial always spoke of local issues, and everyone involved thought of it as an Australian comic.
* * *
PB: How successful was it? I’m primarily thinking financially, but I’m also interested in your thoughts on it as a creative venture.
DW: Initially it did very well and we ended up with quite a bit of money in the bank. Starting around issue five or six sales began to drop a few hundred an issue. When we got to issue fourteen we were about down to the break even point. By that time all of our circumstances had changed. I was married and [co-editors] Marcus and Mick were both looking at doing so, so there were things like mortgages and kids beginning to enter the equation. Marcus was also beginning to lose interest. He let us know well in advance that fourteen was going to be his last issue. Doing a bimonthly magazine is essentially a young man’s sport. That’s one of the reasons why we decided to go to the ironically titled ‘annuals’. “Ironic” because we’ve never been able to keep to that schedule.
PB: With the annuals there is a different feel about them. It seems that you have actually gone out of your way to use specific creators, rather than utilising a stable of locals.
DW: That’s true. We decided that we’d only do one issue a year and make it bigger. I thought that there had been too many one and two page strips.
PB: Did you specify the sorts of stories you wanted?
DW: I couldn’t exactly spell it out, but I did ask for work that was thematically ‘mature’; that had resonance. Everybody really raised their game. 2001 is probably the happiest I have been with an issue, but I think Molotov is a better issue.

The rest of the interview can be found in Word Balloons 5.

My Life in Comics: Part IV- Inkspots: the early years 1975-1980.
by Philip Bentley

This is the fourth of a series of articles chronicling my path as a comics aficionado in Australia over the past forty years. These articles have been inspired partially by a sense of nostalgia, but also to record certain aspects of the local comics scene for posterity. These are firstly, the patterns of comic collecting in the 1960s and 1970s, a process that has been irrevocably changed by the arrival of comic stores; secondly, the beginnings of comic fandom in Melbourne and Australia; and lastly, my reflections on the establishment and running of two comic magazines and a shop (Inkspots, Fox Comics and Minotaur). Primarily these are my recollections alone and make no claims to be the authoritative view.

This time I move into my entry into comic writing and publishing by detailing the lengthy planning and publish-ing of the first issue of Inkspots – an anthology which ran for four issues 1980-84.

In previous instalments I have mentioned my friendship with Greg Gates and his interest in meeting fellow fans. Thus, by the mid-70s, Greg had contact with a diverse group of fans, many of whom would visit him from time to time, often of a weekend. Many of these were artists as Greg was one himself and enjoyed encouraging others in their endeavours.

In my own case, I was something of the odd man out as I was a writer rather than an artist. My interest in writing had come about thanks to my adolescent interest in science fiction and fantasy, combined with an English teacher, whom I had for the last three years at school, who encouraged self-expression. In no time I was churning out reams of Conanesque drivel, then graduated to science fiction and more general fantasy.

It was only a matter of time before Greg and I began a strip together, an ‘epic’ sword and sorcery piece which thankfully never saw completion. Instead, soon after we were working on some shorter post-apocalypse type tales and I was collaborating on a fantasy strip with another artist fan, Colin Paraskevas. Towards the end of 1975 we decided to publish these strips in a magazine. During the five years it took to bring it out we went through a number of names before, fairly late in the piece, settling on Inkspots. This name and, I fancy, the original notion to publish came from Colin, who was more imbued with ‘the vision thing’ and the get-up-and-go to achieve it than Greg or I at this time. The fact that the first issue took five years to produce was due, firstly, to having no idea what sort of commitment it took to draw a strip on a after-hours basis, secondly, that as we went along we met other artists with strips we wanted to include, but which needed to be begun, finished, or redrawn.

Inspiration came from a number of quarters but they were unified by the fact that none of them were local. Whilst we would have been vaguely aware of the situation regarding the indigenous comic industry – that one had flourished in the 1940s and 50s, but was done in by the introduction of television in 1956 and the removal of the wartime ban on the importation of America publications in 1958 – I don’t think we ever identified with being successors to it. There was definitely no intention of trying to kick-start the industry. Instead, our inspiration, both in terms of content and presentation, came from overseas, principally America, and I think we saw ourselves as being an off-shoot of that market.

In terms of content, we were inspired by a lot of what we considered to be the cutting edge work of the day throughout the various levels of comic publishing. Mainstream titles, such as Wein and Wrightson’s Swamp Thing, Starlin’s Warlock, and McGregor and Russell’s Killraven were influenetial, as were strips in the more fringe professional area such as those from Warren Publications. Underground comix would also have been of influence, but less the counter-culture tinged ones as those featuring ‘extreme violence’, such as the horror and science fiction titles Fantagor, Skull and Slow Death. However, the most influential publications when it came to format were the slickly produced, semi-professional zines that came out in the early 1970s with names such as Phase, Phantasmagoria and Infinity, and the ‘ground level’1 anthologies they inspired, like Star*Reach, Hot Stuf’ and Imagine.

These semi-professional and ground-level zines were of especial inspiration because their publishing philosophy appeared similar to ours and many of their contributors seemed to have a shared desire to push the envelope creatively. Put simply, we held that comics, aka graphic stories, could be “a legitimate art form in [their] own right”. To quote further from the editorial of Inkspots 1, we believed that their “boundaries [were] only as restricted as a person’s imagination”, that their “future [lay] with intelligently produced publications aimed at a mature audience”, and that “to be entertaining a story need not be escapist, [one] that stimulates, perplexes, enlightens or enriches could be [just as] entertaining if handled correctly”. However, I doubt that any other ground-level anthology of the time carried such a diverse range of styles and stories as our first issue, something that was both a strength and a weakness for us.

The rest of the article can be found in Word Balloons 5.

Also reviews of Character Sketches: Trauma & Joy “a work that rises above its pulp-based roots and demands to be assessed as ‘art’”, Owen: Driver for Hire by Troy Kealley “an action film on paper”, Michael Lombardi’s Lessons Learnt Through Space Travel “a fable of childhood amusingly written and delightfully drawn in an engaging cartoony style” and Wang and Aska’s Prometheus Pan “a modern day, Goth-tinged updating of the Prometheus legend”.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Word Balloons 4, Feb 2007


Over the summer of 2006-07 the State Library of Victoria ran an exhibition of Australian comics, Heroes & Villains, curated by fan identity Kevin Patrick. Whilst you can be assured that not everyone will agree with the choice of exhibits, how they are displayed, or the text used to describe them, I personally feel that it was a worthwhile venture as it has brought the graphic story medium into the public arena in a way that is largely positive and affirming.

I admit that as a younger fan I had little interest in Australian comics of the ‘industry era’ of the 1940s and 50s. By the time I started collecting in the early 1960s they had just about disappeared, and when I did become aware of their existence in the 1970s they seemed quaint relics from the past. However, I think I have always had a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to these earlier publications because they were still a part of a commercial industry, whereas the works produced from the 1980s on have by and large been eclectic self-published books. What this exhibition has revealed, though, thanks in part to its thematic nature, is that there are stronger connections between the two eras than I had realised. Consequently I have a greater respect for the comics of yesterday and I feel less apologetic about the comics of the last twenty-five years.

Whilst the industry of the 1940s and 50s was fairly small-scale in comparison to that of the US, it’s cessation in the early 1960s has still had far reaching effects on the medium in this country. As budding comic creators in the 1970s most of us were in awe of many of the American artists. This was especially the case with the ‘new wave’ of creators who had come up through fandom and seemingly had talent and attitude to burn. But rather than all being geniuses, I have come to believe that much of their development was influenced, firstly by having a functioning industry in which to hone their craft, and secondly by having seasoned pros from whom to gain advice. In Australia, we have lacked either and so have had to be our own publishers, editors, and critics. This has contributed to the sporadic nature of the current scene. Time and again I have seen people make the same mistakes as those before them, or try to reinvent the wheel because there isn’t that perpetual pool of knowledge to draw upon. In its own small way I am hoping Word Balloons will add to that pool. Philip Bentley

“A mix of complete ego and complete insecurity.”
An interview with Jason Paulos.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, October 2006.

Jason Paulos has been one of the most successful Australian comic artists of the past twenty years. Much of his output over this period has been of Hairbutt the Hippo, many of these stories written in collaboration with Bodine Amerikah. The various formats the character has appeared in reflect the changing fortunes of the Australian comic scene over this period. Beginning in a series of mini-comics, in the late 1980s, Hairbutt went on to star in a number of self-titled, self-published, news-stand distributed comics in the 1990s, then appeared regularly in Australian Mad magazine, before finally being self-published in a print-on-demand title only available online. More recently Jason has begun to produce other titles in the print-on-demand format: the horror anthology EEEK! and the turn of the twentieth century superhero The Harlequin. As someone working at the coal face for twenty odd years Jason has many pointed observations on comics in this country.

PB: When did you come up with the idea for Hairbutt the Hippo?
JP: It came to me in a dream. I was in a department store…Myer, and I was called up to the manager’s office for some reason. Not sure why, it was a bit like being at school and being called to the headmaster’s office, but I hadn’t done anything wrong. Behind the manager was a large polished wooden cut-out of a proto-Hairbutt figure. And the image moved. When I woke up I thought: “What was that all about?” It was one of those dreams where everything was highly polished like it was all in CG. But it wasn’t drug induced as I hadn’t started smoking dope yet. I thought I could draw the cut-out like Kyle Baker would. So I based Hairbutt on a character in the Kyle Baker story the “Seven Deadly Finns” who was an enormous fat slob in a black suit and Alexei Sayle. The cut-out became the first panel in the first Hairbutt mini comic.
PB: I guess you weren’t expecting him to be such an enduring character.
JP: Not at all. If I had been trying for that I think I would have tried a different character. To still be working with the same character I created when I was eighteen, at the age of thirty-seven is something many people would probably see as a bit strange.
* * *
PB: In the mid-1990s you started producing a Hairbutt strip for the Australian Mad magazine. Who approached who?
JP: They approached us. They promised that there would be no copyright on the character, which at the time I was concerned about. That led to three years of actually getting paid. I felt that we needed to get our act together a bit, learn our craft more, and be conscious of our responsibility. We tried our best, I guess.
PB: There was certainly a noticeable tightening of the story as for the most part you only had two pages to play with.
JP: That was an initial concern and at first I doubted that we could do it.
PB: Did you have much editorial direction or interference?
JP: Amazingly very little. There was only one occasion where the editor rang and started suggesting plotlines, which horrified me. But I managed to placate Bodine into turning out a strip that incorporated the editor’s ideas, even though the story ended up being fairly mediocre. There was one other instance where I came home, turned on my answering machine, and the editor had left a message: “Jason we’ve got a problem with the words ‘earth-shuddering orgasm’ in the latest strip. Can you ring me and talk?” [Laughs.] I really wish I’d kept that on tape. It’s one of the funniest answering machine messages I’ve had.
* * *
JP: Up until the late 1990s I was still putting stuff on the newsstands thinking that the exposure in Mad would help to sell the newsstand comics.
PB: You would think it would.
JP: Yeah, but what I realised was that Australian comic fans hate Australian Mad, seeing the Australian content as being lame. So it was the kiss of death to put “as featured in Australian Mad” on the cover.
PB: So you’ve now transferred over to a print-on-demand publishing process using Lulu. Can you give a brief explanation of how that works?
JP: Lulu are an on-line print-on-demand company in the States: I upload an issue onto their server and copies are printed as they are ordered on-line. Lulu do a variety of small press productions: books, comics, zines etc. They list all works on their site, but sales are obviously conditional on people either visiting it or me directing people there. However, the set-up costs are negligible.
PB: I must say that the quality of the printing and production from Lulu were impressive.
JP: That’s what made my mind up. I didn’t know that there were printing machines that could give you that degree of quality affordably. Ditto with the Hairbutt collection which turned up looking not like a comic, but a perfect bound book. It was a real buzz. I may not have sold that many copies, but because I’ve had no overheads I’ve actually made a modest profit for the first time ever. So it’s not true that you can’t make money out of self-published comics.
PB: With this more recent print-on-demand work like Hairbutt the Hippo: Private Eye, EEEK! and The Harlequin, there seems to have been an astonishing diversity of your styles occurring. Many artists work towards refining their style to a point where they can pretty much replicate it, but you currently seem to be wanting to try significant variations on a theme. For example, in Hairbutt: Private Eye 5 you have one strip in a Kurtzman/ Elder/Wood style and another in a sort of manga inspired style.
JP: Yeah it’s a bit of an ejaculation of ideas.
PB: EEEK! looks like a tribute to Warren comics.
JP: I call it “A love letter to 70s horror comics”. Bad horror comics, and I mean ‘bad’ affectionately as in kitsch. I’m more into the Batman TV series than Dark Knight Returns. In a sense it’s inspired by the failure of horror comics rather than their success: the predictable endings, the comeuppance tales, the nasty humour.

The rest of the interview can be found in Word Balloons 4.

My Life in Comics: Part III- The development of comics fandom in Australia to 1989.
by Philip Bentley

This is the third of a series of articles chronicling my path as a comics aficionado in Australia over the past forty years. These articles have been inspired partially by a sense of nostalgia, but also to record certain aspects of the local comics scene for posterity. These are firstly, the patterns of comic collecting in the 1960s and 1970s, a process that has been irrevocably changed by the arrival of comic stores; secondly, the beginnings of comic fandom in Melbourne and Australia; and lastly, my reflections on the establishment and running of two comic magazines and a shop (Inkspots, Fox Comics and Minotaur). Primarily these are my recollections alone and make no claims to be the authoritative view. This instalment I expand beyond my own recollections and have endeavoured to record all fanzines and prominent events in Australian comic fandom up to the end of the 1980s.

In the previous instalment I detailed the significance of Space Age Books in the Melbourne comic collecting scene of the 1970s. It was also important for providing the location for the first organised meeting of fans in the city, which occurred in 1972.

The rather grandly entitled Melbourne Society of Panelologists (MSP) was the brainchild of John Breden, a member of the Space Age ‘inner circle’, who worked at Technical Books a few doors down Swanston Street (and also sported an impressive pair of mutton chops!) Panelology was a term that had been coined to give comic appreciation greater importance, much as coin collecting had been rebranded numismatics. John was particularly interested in “the comic strip medium as art and communication” and used ‘panelologist’ to differentiate the ‘serious’ student of the form from someone simply interested in cheap thrills.
* * *
The MSP meetings only ran during 1972 and 1973 for a total of eight events. After the cessation of the MSP the organising of fandom fell to the younger generation. Two of these were the twins Steve and John Corneille. They had become the city’s first fan dealers buying and selling comics by placing advertising slips in comics they sold at Franklins second-hand book shop and through the Trading Post. In 1974 they organised a meeting of comic fans, probably orchestrated as a club through Melbourne University, which was where the sparsely attended one and only meeting was held. Two years later one or both of the Corneilles decided to publish a fanzine: the rather prosaically entitled The Australian Comic Collector, or TACC for short. This was one of the first of its kind in Melbourne, or indeed Australia. John Corneille’s other contribution to comics in Australia came through his editorship of the short-lived Australian Marvel reprints Newton Comics. (A full article on the rise and fall of both the comics line and its publisher, the “brilliant, but erratic” Maxwell Newton, appeared in WB 6.)

According the Grant Stone’s article in TACC 5/3 (1983) the first Australian fanzine was John Ryan’s Down Under which began in December 1964. Although Stone is unsure how long it ran Ryan went on the contribute Boomerang to CAPA-Alpha “the US’s premiere APA” (Amateur Press Association). Boomerang ran until 1974 and “much of its material became the basis for Panel By Panel” (Cassells, 1979), John’s history of Australian comics. John, however, died a few months after its release and the book soon ended up on remainder tables (and now sells for a couple of hundred dollars on eBay).

The Corneilles only maintained their connection with TACC for six issues. It was subsequently taken over by another Melbourne fan, Joe Italiano, who ran it for another six issues (1979-80). Joe would later found the Melbourne comic shop Alternate Worlds. In the early 1980s Joe passed TACC over to a collective from Perth comprising Cefn Ridout, Chris de Fries and Gordon Wilkinson-Cox. They published four issues (1981-83) before going their separate ways.

Joe Italiano, in collaboration with Moris Sztajer, was also responsible for organising the first, true comic convention in Melbourne (or indeed Australia). In 1979 they staged Comicon I at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). Their budget, however, was fairly limited and certainly didn’t run to bringing out overseas professionals. This meant that the convention had to exist on a steady diet of local comic strip and political cartoonists between whom and the audience there was an insurmountable gulf.

In 1980 Joe and Moris upped the ante by holding the more substantial Comicon II at the Sheraton Hotel on Spring Street. Although no overseas artists were in attendance they did score an Australian with overseas connections, Peter Ledger, after whom the current Australian comic awards are named. In the following year, 1981, the reins of Comicon were passed to a Sydney collective who ran Comicon III in October. Separate conventions were then held spasmodically in both cities throughout the next two decades.

The rest of the article can be found in Word Balloons 4.

Also reviews of McDonald & Colliton’s After Life “a cautionary tale that speculates on the future both at a personal and societal level”, McDonald & Wells’ Vigil 1 “a laudable concept…let down by the art”, The Dreaming I by Queenie Chan “crisply delineated art, but [with a story that] is a bit underdone”, Mel Stringer’s Girly Pains 10 “sincere and evocative” & Plump Oyster 4 by Ben Constantine “perplexing, disturbing and fascinating”.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Word Balloons 3, Oct 2006

“Sort of a melding of Jesus and South Park.”
An interview with Dean Rankine.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, September 2006

Dean Rankine is a comic creator who pushes the envelope in a number of directions simultaneously. His art style, which for want of a better word, could be said to be ‘extreme cartooning’, pushes form and anatomy to its limits. His themes also take him into contentious areas. His children’s strips often see him deal with such ‘gross themes’ as the various bodily functions – areas which delight many children, but dismay many adults. And then there are his Christian comics...a statement that has probably sent most readers moving forward to the next interview. It must be said that this is not a genre that has produced any great works in the medium in the past, nor are there huge prospects of it occurring in the future. Yet Dean’s strips have appeal thanks to his very individual adaptations. There is some-thing about a Rankinesque track-suited Jesus talking to a guy in a footy jumper and beanie about daisies that works for me. But Dean’s qualities for an interview are more than his unusual art and stories. Whilst he may not make a total living from his work he still makes a partial living as a cartoonist working for one of those hidden areas of comic production: children’s magazines.

PB: You’ve ploughed a dual career as a cartoonist and social worker. Could you talk through what led you to both?
DR: I initially did an art and design course in 1989-90, then I started freelancing. Always got bits and pieces of work but never enough to survive on. Initially I was working part-time in a library, but I decided that I wanted to do something that was more meaningful. So I started working for the Salvos as a youth worker, then a social worker, and now I work part-time at a needle and syringe programme, driving around at night handing out clean injecting equipment.
PB: What led you to try and become a cartoonist?
DR: It was always something that I was going to do. As long as I can remember that’s what I wanted to be. So I didn’t feel I had to worry too much about studying at school. [Laughs.]
PB: Did you draw comics as a kid or youth?
DR: Yes, although I don’t recall finishing many. I was big on drawing superhero parodies. I remember drawing a comic about a superhero termite and another one called Plastic Pig about a pig who was, you know, plastic. [Laughs.] If you look at my stuff now I obviously haven’t moved on very much. To an extent I have reached the goal of being a professional cartoonist, but it doesn’t support me totally financially, and I can’t see that happening in the near future.
PB: But it sounds as if you’re perfectly happy to have the social work job. It’s not like it’s a job that you hate.
DR: No, I love what I’m doing now. The needle and syringe programme I adore. It probably sounds as if it could be a bit dodgy, and I suppose it can be at times, but it’s not hard work. Everybody’s happy to see you. [Laughs.]
PB: A lot of your kids’ cartoons concentrate on what you could call ‘gross themes’, as with your characters Grossgirl and Boogerboy. This is clearly a recognisable trend in kids’ books. So how much of your interest in it is self-generated and how much is trying to tap into the market?
DR: A bit of both, but primarily it’s because that’s what I find funny. I like the sort of humour where you start to laugh, then catch yourself and think “I shouldn’t really be laughing”. [Laughs.] But I do want this stuff to be published, so I am aware of making it marketable.

* * *
PB: There’s a strong interest in social justice in your faith, isn’t there?
DR: Yes.
PB: Which is an element you don’t tend to associate with the more evangelical side of Christianity. You do describe yourself as ‘born again’ don’t you?
DR: Yes, yes, yep.
PB: Which, again, is a style of faith generally perceived as being from the fundamentalist side and holding to a strict interpretation of the Bible; something which you clearly are not that concerned with given that you are happy to portray Jesus in a ‘No Nukes’ t-shirt and set the Last Supper in McDonalds.
DR: Gee, er, I don’t know…it’s hard…I mean the biblical narrative of the life of Jesus isn’t written in a conventional, lineal, non-fictional way. I guess I believe in the ‘vibe’, but I can’t say whether I take all the Bible literally or not. I think it’s essential that we look at the life of Jesus and his teachings in a modern setting. You need to be able to find some meaning in it for our lives today.
PB: But there are certainly many people out there who believe that, whilst it should perhaps be applied to today, it shouldn’t be clothed in the look of today.
DR: I don’t know that I’ve taken it so far out. If Jesus was alive today I think he would wear a ‘No Nukes’ t-shirt. [Laughs.]
PB: The most stringent criticism of your work has come from fundamental Christians. In particular, one website from the US. Some of the more memorable comments include: “made me physically nauseated”; “To put a ‘style’ or spin on God is to re-make Him into our pre-conceived image instead of the true image as revealed in Scripture. The Bible calls that idolatry.”; “There is true awe about Christ so where is the reverence in this art.”.
DR: It’s ironic because the story that they highlighted was one of my tamer healing stories.
PB: I think it was more the depiction of Jesus that they objected to. You stated at the time that you felt both shocked and hurt by the attack. And even more so that it should come from Christians.
DR: Yep.
PB: I guess I have been a little surprised by your surprise given you have played so fast and loose, as it were, with tradition, and moreover have had at least one other negative experience in the past. [In a youth edition of the Salvation Army journal War Cry, in 1997, a cartoon of Mary and Joseph as dreadlocked, pierced and tattooed produced, according a report in the Age, letters expressing “disgust, shame and revulsion” (16/1/97 p. A4).]
DR: But I was and I still am. Yes, it’s set in modern times, and yes, I have a quirky drawing style, but I didn’t feel that it pushed the boundaries so much to provoke that amount of vehement criticism.
PB: It’s hard to know if they could have reacted much worse. I guess I just thought that if you were going to go down that line you would have been prepared for some ‘slings and arrows’.
DR: But I wasn’t. What I found most distasteful about the comments was that it’s, once again, Christians bagging Christians. I was also shocked by the ferocity of the attacks. It’s okay if people don’t like my work, but one guy cursed me with the ‘pox’ for goodness sakes. I’ve been checking my skin ever since waiting for an outbreak. [Laughs.]

The rest of the interview can be found in Word Balloons 3.

“I’ve still found a small niche in the corner of the market.”
An interview with Colin Wilson, Part II.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, May & June 2003, January 2004 and updated before publication.

In the initial instalment we firstly dealt with Colin’s youth in New Zealand, his involvement with the seminal New Zealand comic Strips , and how he became interested in French comics. After his move to Europe in 1980, we followed his peripatetic path from London to Paris to Amsterdam to Brussels, and watched his career grow from drawing Judge Dredd for 2000AD, to producing his own comic series “Dans L'Ombre du Soleil” [Into the Shadow of the Sun] for Glenat, and then his big break being offered “La Jeunesse de Blueberry” [The Youth of Blueberry] a spin-off of one of France’s most popular comic characters, Lt Blueberry. In this installment we cover the highs and lows of working on an iconic title, the reasons for his move to Australia in the mid 1990s and how he has combined working on comics for four separate markets since then: France, UK, Italy and US.

PB: Despite your stated preference for working in the French market, over the past few years you have worked on two series for DC or its affiliates: The Losers 26-28 in 2005, and then in 2006 the five part Battler Britton [and at the time of printing is at work on a Star Wars story for Dark Horse]. So what has changed?
CW: Well, I’m still happier in the French market, but having seen what the competition is like there during three months in Europe, early in 2006, I’ll take the work where I can find it. With so much material being published in Europe, it is now very hard to launch and sustain a successful series there. And unless you are selling big numbers, the publishers will happily let a title drop because they are always looking for the next big thing. It is also ironic that by sticking with the work-for-hire model the US market actually pays better than the French.
PB: I assume that the fact that both these comics are written by Britons has something to do with their appeal for you?
CW: Yes, and also that they are not mainstream comics.
PB: So how come you were asked to do them?
CW: On The Losers, the regular artist, Jock, was doing both pencils and inks, and I imagine he needed the occasional break. So they have used other artists to do the occasional story-arcs within the overall framework of the series. My name probably came up because of my previous connection with the writer, Andy Diggle. We had worked together when Andy was the editor of 2000AD and have talked about doing something together ever since. In my usual fashion I initially declined, [Laughs.] realising that it would require twenty-two pages a month, but in the end I was able to do it and I had a lot of fun with it. It was done in a completely opposite manner to the slow, laborious way of doing European comics. It opened up a lot of possibilities to me artistically, that I didn’t think I was capable of. I discovered that I could have fun working quickly and taking short-cuts.
PB: What about Battler Britton?
CW: The link with that is more to [a previous project] Point Blank as it is for the same publisher (Wildstorm) and editor (Scott Dunbier). He got in touch towards the end of 2005 with the proposal of working with Garth Ennis, which would have been interesting regardless, as long as it wasn’t something like the Punisher. When I heard that it was a WWII story, in fact a WWII aviation story, I knew it was up my alley, but that it should be a revival of a British strip which I remember from my childhood was a great opportunity. One of the original artists on Battler, Ian Kennedy, was initially approached, but he’s quite old now, so it was passed on to me. I was a great fan of Kennedy back in the 60s and got a real charge when one of my first strips for 2000AD, in the early 80s, appeared in the same magazine as one of his. So this is something of my artistic tribute to what I have learnt from him, as the whole series is a tribute to the IPC war strips.

* * *
PB: Given the unique position you occupy in the international comics industry the question that arises is whether it’s possible for others to follow your path, or has your experience been a one-off combination of being in the right place at the right time?
CW: Of course it’s possible. You’ve got the language problems and all the other annoyances, but the European market is big enough that if you’re determined enough to overcome the obstacles there’s room there to succeed on many different levels.
PB: Do you need to go over there and live?
CW: I would think so, at least to begin with. It’s no big deal to do that. But you need to meet the industry half way. You have to realise that no matter how good you are you’re up against some pretty fierce competition. The standard is very high. You have a couple of universities turning out twenty to thirty graduates a year with a degree of comic creation of one sort or another. So you’ve got to convince editors that they should be investing in you. They won’t know your background, your reliability, your output. They aren’t going to want to make a commitment in you if you are going to disappear back to Australia, or wherever. You’ve got to be prepared to stay there for a time. For me, in the 1980s, that didn’t seem like a big comm-itment. I didn’t go over there deliberately planning to do it, but I’ve still found a small niche in the corner of the European market wherein I can work twenty-five years later. You can do anything if you’re determined enough. You've got to be believe in yourself; that you can do it. But it’s not going to happen overnight, you’ve got to be able to put in the time.
PB: And you’ve surely got to be able to speak French.
CW: It certainly would help. There are ways around it.
PB: Having a partner that does; business or otherwise?
CW: It worked for me. [Laughs.] I’m still amazed at how little cross-fertilisation goes on. It’s not just the language barrier, it’s the cultural difference as well. But there are some favourable signs. The deal between the successors to Les Humananoïdes, Los Humanos, and DC may lead to more interest in Americans working in Europe.
PB: NBM still bring stuff out…
CW: …and probably Dark Horse too. So inevitably I think you’re going to get younger artists having the realisation that I had when I first saw Jean Giraud’s work in the late 1970s; something along the lines of “I didn’t know you could do this in comics. I want to go and work over there”.

The rest of the interview can be found in Word Balloons 3.

Also reviews of Sure Shot Presents 1 “Crab Allan – Gothic Boogaloo” by L. Frank Weber “John Woo directs Tintin”, and Sure Shot Presents 2 Mandy Ord’s “Ordinary Eyeball” “[someone who is] developing into this country’s finest exponents of the graphic story”.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Word Balloons 2, Jun 2006

Editorial: Philip Bentley

“The graphic story is coming of age. In America, Japan, France, Italy and all across the world, unique and creative new stories are being told, and outstanding stories of the past are receiving fresh recognition. Once, the graphic story could be found only in children’s comic books. Today, it appears in mass circulation slick magazines, hardcover books and paperbacks, underground ‘comix’ and the limited edition experimental magazines, as well as in the four-colour comic books and the newer black-&-white graphics. There is nothing more powerful, it is said, than an idea whose time has come. The time has come for the graphic story and the great promise of the first ‘Golden Age’ of comic books is about to be realized.”

With only a few words changed the above could easily be taken for the opening of one of those ‘comics are no longer for kids’ articles that pop up from time-to-time in the mainstream media. However, as you have probably guessed, this is not where it hails from. Rather, it was written by the American Richard Kyle in the editorial for the first issue of Graphic Story World (GSW), in May 1971 – nigh on 35 years ago! I have used it here because the sentiments expressed, both this in extract and GSW itself, are relevant to the contents of this issue and the philosophy behind Word Balloons in general.

The positivist tenor of Kyle’s text may, in the light of the less than glorious path that the medium has taken since, seem a little quaint. But as well as perhaps an optimistic mien Kyle was simply picking up on the zeitgeist of his era. There was a belief abroad that far more than the graphic story had come of age and many expected the whole of western culture would soon be morphing into something more liberated. The reasons why neither society nor comics changed as much as expected are many and more than I can adequately handle here. However, the issue of the development of the medium will be an ongoing theme of the magazine as it has been an issue of enduring interest to me.

Apart from all of this I have mentioned GSW because I have resuscitated the issue of the term ‘graphic story’ as a synonym for ‘comics’. According to Paul Gravett (in his book Graphic Novels – stories to change your life, Aurum 2005) it was Kyle who came up with both the terms ‘graphic story’ and ‘graphic novel’. I’ve always liked the former, despite the fact that some have seen it as pretentious. The problem with ‘comic’ is that it neither fully describes the medium (which isn’t all funny) and is also another term for ‘comedian’. I know that I am stretching the pretentious banner by the use of the by-line ‘graphic story arts’, but this, again, was the subtitle of GSW and the term ‘comic arts’ very much puts me in mind of the craft of being a stand-up comic.

Over the course of its four year run (1971-74) GSW championed the cause of international comics especially those from France. The Australian fan John Ryan was their Australian correspondent and handled local subscriptions. It was undoubtedly as a direct result that I came into contact with French comics at Space Age Books (see the My Life in Comics article this issue). This interest led to a friendship with Colin Wilson, the subject of this issue’s interview. See how everything is related!
In the world of the graphic story Colin Wilson occupies an unique position. Born in New Zealand, a country which has had little in the way of an indiginous comic industry, he nevertheless found himself drawn to working in this field. Rather than aspiring to the USA, as has been the norm in Australia and New Zealand, though, he was attracted to the European market on the strength of the diverse and literate comics produced there. Turning a wish into reality, he moved to Europe in 1980 where through a combination of luck and hard work he ended up drawing one of France’s most popular characters, the Western hero Lt Blueberry. Since the mid-1990s he has lived in Australia, working on projects for four of the worlds largest comic markets: UK – Judge Dredd & Rain Dogs, France – “La Plombe du la Tete”, Italy – “Tex”, and America – Point Blank (with Ed Brubaker), Battler Britton (with Grant Morrison) and Star Wars: Legends (with John Ostrander).

"No-one really told me to go out and get a 'real' job."
An interview with Colin Wilson Part 1.
Conducted by Philip Bentley May & June 2003, January 2004 and updated before publication.

In the world of the graphic story Colin Wilson occupies an unique position. Born in New Zealand, a country which has had little in the way of an indiginous comic industry, he nevertheless found himself drawn to working in this field. Rather than aspiring to the USA, as has been the norm in Australia and New Zealand, though, he was attracted to the European market on the strength of the diverse and literate comics produced there. Turning a wish into reality, he moved to Europe in 1980 where through a combination of luck and hard work he ended up drawing one of France’s most popular characters, the Western hero Lt Blueberry. Since the mid-1990s he has lived in Australia, working on projects for four of the worlds largest comic markets: UK – Judge Dredd & Rain Dogs, France – “La Plombe du la Tete”, Italy – “Tex”, and America – Point Blank (with Ed Brubaker), Battler Britton (with Grant Morrison) and Star Wars: Legends (with John Ostrander).

PB: You jetted out of New Zealand in early 1980 with your first port of call being London.
CW: Yes, I stayed with friends for first few months. When the money began to run out I started to think about how I could support myself to stay there longer. I had made contact with Martin Lock, the editor of the British fanzine Fantasy Advertiser. He suggested that I should try out for 2000AD, which, believe it or not, I had never heard of. He put me on to one of their artists, Brian Bolland, who looked at my work and thought I could make the grade there. He invited me to accompany him next time he visited them to deliver work. They liked the look of my work and gave me a ten page Judge Dredd strip as a try out. It went over well enough, but the initial plan was that it would not be printed until the 1982 Summer Special and it was then the end of 1980. Thankfully, they got back in touch early in 1981 and I was soon doing some one-off strips [“Future Shocks”] for the weekly magazine. I certainly wasn’t making a living out of it though and was doing other odd-jobs like making deliveries.
PB: I think you wrote at the time that you worked on the ten page strip for 106 hours over three days with six hours sleep.
CW: Kids, don’t try this at home. [Laughs.] Thankfully, its publication was brought forward and it appeared in the 1981 Summer Special. That was my first printed work for them. Later in the year came my big break when a Judge Dredd story regarding riots [“Block Wars”] was pulled due the race riots that summer, and they asked me to do a replacement strip at short notice.
PB: Then you graduated to Rogue Trooper which Dave Gibbons had started.
CW: Yes. They were looking to create a character to rival the popularity of Judge Dredd. Dave did the character designs and as many of the initial run of stories as he could handle. Dave and I then alternated for a year or so before we both became a bit jaded with the strip. Dave felt it was going places that he wasn’t interested in so he left. Both he and Brian Bolland were more interested in working in the States, which they subsequently did. [Bolland on Camelot 3000 and Gibbons on the Watchmen.] Meanwhile, I was still interested in working on the Continent and couldn’t understand why none of these guys didn’t want to do likewise; they were so close in terms of distance. What I underestimated was the impact of American comics and how Britain was culturally far closer to America than France. So the plan was to go to France and start knocking on a few doors. By this time my partner, Janet [Gale], had arrived from New Zealand. We were living in a squat, having friends from New Zealand stay with us, and seeing them dragged away and put on a plane for overstaying their visa, while I was hiding in a closet upstairs. So we needed to take steps to realise my ultimate goal. At the beginning of 1982, we got the opportunity to stay in a friend’s apartment in Paris, so we left London and for the first six months I continued to work on Rogue Trooper.
* * *
PB: How did the Lt Blueberry venture come about?
CW: François Cortegianni, who was another writer for [publisher] Glenat, had shown some of my pages of Rael [Colin’s first French comic album] to [artist on Lt Blueberry] Jean Giraud and told us that he was interested in meeting us to discuss working on something together. As it sounded too good to be true we were initially sceptical. And in fact the meeting took more than six months to occur in September of 1983. By this time the motivation had moved to [Lt Blueberry writer] Jean-Michel Charlier as it looked like Gir was going to be moving to Tahiti. Thus the prospects for Blueberry were a bit unclear. A new publishing company, Novedi, and magazine, Wham, had been formed in Brussels around the work of Charlier. The plan was for them to be the sole outlet for the number of popular series he was producing. Given that financial stability was paramount the last thing they wanted was for Giraud to become unavailable. So the publisher and Charlier were looking for some way to ensure a constant Blueberry presence in the market. They hit upon the idea of resuscitating the “Jeunesse de Blueberry” [Youth of Blueberry, a series of shorter stories produced in the late 1960s].
PB: You were no doubt unaware of the publishing moves in Brussells when you went for the interview with Charlier.
CW: Completely unaware. We thought I was going to be offered a short story or something. Instead, Charlier and Gir offered me Jeunesse. I initially declined because I was so overwhelmed by the concept of embarking on a whole spin-off series of my own.
PB: Especially as it was working in shadow of the artist you idealised above all others.
CW: Absolutely. The exact words I would use. And with the added disincentive that he wasn’t going to be around. [Laughs.] He was going to be living halfway around the world in the Pacific, rather ironically. I was taken aback and a little bit frightened by the prospect. And it was only through a lot of elbowing and kicking under the table from Janet and François Cortegianni, who was also at the meeting, that I realised that I was being made an offer I couldn’t refuse.

The rest of the interview covering Colin’s youth in New Zealand, his involvement in the seminal NZ comic, Strips, and his first French album Rael can be found in Word Balloons 2.

My Life in Comics: Part II- Comic collecting in Melbourne, Australia in the 1970s
by Philip Bentley
This is the second of a series of articles chronicling my path as a comics aficionado in Australia over the past forty years. These articles have been inspired partially by a sense of nostalgia, but also to record certain aspects of the local comics scene for posterity. Primarily these are my recollections alone and make no claims to be the authoritative view.

In Part I, I detailed my path collecting comics in Melbourne during the 1960s. In December 1969, however, changes in my interests and the comics themselves saw me give up collecting. For two years I occupied myself with other pursuits, but inexorably I found myself returning to the fold.

A major difference in the form my collecting took at this time was that, whereas previously my emphasis had been principally on Marvels, and more to the point the storylines, now I was more interested in the art-work. I was particularly drawn to comics and creators who were trying to push the envelope of the form. At this time there were quite a few whose agenda was to do just that. Beginning in the late 1960s, with artists like Jim Steranko and Neal Adams, there was an influx into the field of younger creators with high ideals and often talent to match, such as, Barry Smith (later Windsor-Smith), Berni Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, Howard Chaykin, Jim Starlin, Richard Corben et al. Many of them had come up through contributing to amateur and semi-professional comics and the then burgeoning underground comix movement. Their path at the majors, though, tended to be more transitory as their idealism came up against harsh publishing realities.

Comic distribution through newsagents during the 1970s remained similar to the previous decade, with comics on sale on Fridays and distribution erratic. With the surfeit of new titles being published the unpredict-ability of the local release of initial issues became more annoying. Very occasionally a title would begin with the first issue, such as Jack Kirby’s Kamandi (DC) in 1973, but generally it would take three to five issues for new titles to be locally released. There were also some strange anomalies, such as all three of Kirby’s Fourth World titles (New Gods, Forever People and Mister Miracle), and later, X-Men 120, 121 and 125 (1979), all of which had very poor distribution. Whilst most DC superhero titles continued not to be released, as they were subject to local reprints, a smattering were, and more appeared as they expanded their line.

However, the principal change to the collecting process at this time was the arrival of Space Age Books, established by long-time science fiction fan Merv Binns and located for most of its time in Swanton Street, Melbourne. To a naive kid from the ‘burbs, Space Age was a passport to another world – a dim, incense-filled Aladdin’s cave of wondrous delights. SF occupied the left hand side of the shop, with books generally referred to as from the ‘counter-culture’ (alternative ideas/lifestyles, drugs, mysticism etc.) on the right. Comics got a look-in, albeit on racks and shelves surrounding a pillar at the back of the shop.

Whilst the great advantage of Space Age was that they imported limited quantities of new comics directly from the States, and hence carried copies of non-distributed titles, there was never any sense of reliability about the operation. Thus it was common for only between one to five copies of any given title to go on sale. Space Age also began to buy and sell second hand comics charging then current new comic prices (20c) for them, rather than half cover price as was the standard at second-hand shops. Imported new issues commanded an even greater sum (25c or 30c) and premium imported back issues of, say, Conan or the New Gods, might be as much as 50c!

To read the rest of the article purchase Word Balloons 2.

Also reviews of Dylan Horrocks’ Atlas 2 “another deftly told tale full of intriguing characters and intersecting narratives” and Butcher & Wood’s Pox 6 “a cleverly contrived commentary on many aspects of life and popular culture”.