Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Passionate Nomads

Second Shore’s other publication to date (in collaboration with Paper Tableaux) has been Passionate Nomads a graphic story collection containing four tales of women who travelled, lived and loved in the Middle East of the nineteenth century. It is written by myself, with sequentials by some of the finest comic artists in Australia and New Zealand. With a forward by Dylan Horrocks. 44pp, $15.00 + $1.00 post.

Passionate Nomads comprises:
The Amorous Adventures of Jane Digby Her passionate peregrinations through ten countries and as many lovers as told by those who knew her. Twelve self-contained one page strips by twelve artists: Jason Badower, Stephen Campbell, Andrew Finlayson, Greg Gates, Chris Johnston, Jared Lane, Angelo Madrid, Darrel Merritt, Bruce Mutard, Michael Nason, Maria Pena, and Martin Trengove.
The Odalisque and the Tumbler A glimpse behind the curtain into an Ottoman harem. Art by Maria Pena.
Scenes from my Life Lady Isabelle Burton recounts tales of her colourful life at the side of her husband, the explorer Sir Richard Burton. Art by Darrel Merritt.
Mektoub The short but remarkable life of Isabelle Eberhardt: romantic and mystic of the Sahara. Art by Maria Pena.

Samples of the strips can be found at http://www.users.on.net/~dmerritt/nomads/gallery/Introduction.html

Passionate Nomads or its participants gained four Ledger Awards (Australian comics' equivalent of the Oscars) in 2006:
Best Book- Passionate Nomads
Best Story- "The Amourous Adventures of Jane Digby"
Best Writer- Philip Bentley
Best Design- Darrel Merritt

The introduction follows below…

The stories in this book detail journeys made geographically, culturally and spiritually by four remarkable women. At a time when Western women were largely excluded from intellectual and social discourse, these women pushed the bounds to live more fully and passionately. To do so, they took a step outside of their own culture and embraced elements of trans-cultural identity, even if, at the same time, they remained within another discourse, that of Orientalism: the way the West has perceived the East as dark, mysterious and exotic.

For me, personally, the work also represents a journey that I wasn’t really aware I was on until recently. As a devotee of the graphic story (or comic) medium, I have long been interested in works which push the boundaries of the art-form. During the 1980s, I sought to make a contribution to this cause through contributing to, and helping to publish, two Australian ‘alternative’ comics: Inkspots (1980-84) and Fox Comics (1984-1991). Whilst at times, in the former, we allowed readability to be sacrificed in the pursuit of ‘Art’, with the latter, I discovered that innovation could be combined with a satisfying story; that boundaries can be pushed thematically as well as via technique.

It was thinking such as this that led me, in the late 1980s, to begin producing graphic story biographies on the four women whose lives were documented in Lesley Blanch’s The Wilder Shores of Love (1954). There was no great agenda in choosing this book or subject – it was the one that was to hand and I liked her colourful turn of phrase. But I was also interested in dealing with a genre rarely attempted in the comic medium. As a challenge, I decided to write the strips using four different narrative techniques. I started fairly simply, utilising an aside from the life of Aimée Dubucq de Rivery, which, drawn by Maria Pena, saw print as “The Odalisque and the Tumbler” in Fox 16 (1987). From there things became more involved. The strip on Isabel Burton detailed her entire life as a first person reflection, whilst that on Isabelle Eberhardt, not only covered her entire life, but drew on biographical sources other than Blanch as well. As chance would have it, the latter strip, “Mektoub”, also drawn by Maria, appeared first, in Fox 23 (1989). The piece on Isabel Burton, “Scenes From My Life”, passed through a number of artists before reaching Darrel Merritt. Unfortunately, he had not completed it by the time the Fox was discontinued in the early 1990s. Instead, it was printed in another local anthology, Cyclone Comics Quarterly 3 (1994).

The Fox’s demise also put paid to any thoughts I had of completing the quartet. Indeed, at this time, my own life took a divergence from comics. I left the comic shop I had helped to found, Minotaur Books, and entered university as a mature-age student. For ten odd years I had only a casual interest in comics. Then, around the turn of the century, I found my interest growing again. Despite feeling a bit like Rip Van Winkle, I found that re-entering the field as an uninformed outsider was a liberating experience. In the interim, David Bird, whom I had worked with on the Fox, had started his own small comic company, Paper Tableaux. Inspired by a collection he published of another Inkspots/Fox alumni, Greg Gates, [Strange Worlds, 2003], I realised that I too had a collection of my own to hand; although it needed the addition of the final biography to complete it. Thus, without really intending to, I found myself returning to comics writing.

Ironically, my trajectory at university had seen me end up with a MA in history, and go on to practice as a professional historian. However, I quickly realised that there was a difference between the history I write for a living and these works which I see more as drama than documentary. Whilst I have generally endeavoured to remain truthful to the ‘facts’, with time, there has still been a subtle shift in orientation. With the final story, “The Amorous Adventures of Jane Digby”, I have not let the ‘facts’ impede the narrative. In fact, I have found the ability to alter events to suit to be a pleasing antidote to the straight-jacket imposed by history writing.

The other distinctive element with the Digby strip, is how it has been adapted. Drawing comics is a labour intensive activity, and since there weren’t great prospects of financial remuneration from this project, I could see it taking years to produce if it was undertaken by an artist working on it after-hours. Given that biography lends itself to an episodic structure, I came up with the notion of producing a series of self-contained, one-page strips which could be illustrated by separate artists. Inspired by a trend in current TV documentaries, I decided to have each page narrated by a different person who had known Digby, as if they were being interviewed about her life.

Unless you are a writer/artist, the process of comic creation is going to be a collaborative affair. Anyone who has collaborated in any endeavour will know how it can be both frustrating and rewarding. Whilst the ideal outcome is a synergistic melding of talents, there is always the danger of the results will display the worst of both worlds. This has certainly been the case in comic strips I have worked on. In some cases the story has been given flight by a sensitive adaptation, in others, artists have trampled all over the script. In this case though, I was proposing juggling no less than twelve artists in a format that, to the best of my knowledge, has never been tried before. If it worked I would hopefully gain an integrated number of takes on a shared subject, if it didn’t, I could end up with a collection of uncohesive pages.

In choosing artists, I initially tapped into to old Inkspots/Fox network and was gratified by the number who were prepared to participate. However, from the outset, I had decided that I didn’t want this to be a comic version of the Return of the Magnificent Seven. It needed contemporary artists as well. In choosing these, I was swayed both by work seen and recommendations from those I knew. Undoubtedly, there were many more that I could have approached, but having been out of the loop for over a decade I admit to being self-conscious in approaching strangers out-of-the-blue.

As the work has progressed, the book has become something of an outlet for local artists who have something to prove. Australia only had a commercial comic industry in the 1940s and 1950s, pre-TV and when war-time import bans prevented US comics from being locally distributed. Since that time, aspiring comic creators have largely had to be satisfied by whatever amateur and semi-professional publications were around. Until recently, working overseas really required you travelling and/or living there. Hence, a whole generation of potential writers and artists have either ceased creating or have moved sideways into allied vocations, such as graphic design or storyboarding. But many clearly still feel they have unfinished business with the field. Moreover, over the past few years, the communications revolution has made it more viable for local artists to work for overseas publishers from home. Therefore, there is now a younger generation looking for exposure. These two groups have come together to work on this project.

This work also makes a contribution to a small, but to my mind important, genre of comics which for want of a better word I have termed ‘naturalistic’; that is, stories, be they fictional or not, that are set in the real world, but aren’t necessarily autobiographical or slice-of-life. These days I can summon up little enthusiasm for the larger-than-life tales that have been the mainstay of English-speaking comics for much of their existence. For me, ‘naturalism’ is a viable means of pushing the medium beyond its current bounds.

The book has also gained an unexpected resonance as a result of the troubled times in which we live. Twenty years ago I could not have predicted that stories involving the sympathetic treatment of Arab-European relations, including cross-cultural marriage and conversion to Islam would come to possess a heightened political dimension. That it has demonstrates, I feel, how much we still live in the shadow of our xenophobic Victorian forebears.

Philip Bentley, November 2005.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Word Balloons 7, May 2008

“I want to develop an intimate relationship with the text.”
An interview with Nicki Greenberg.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, 26/02/08.

Without really planning it Nicki Greenberg has become something of the face of literate graphic stories in this country. Following the successful publication of her unique adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby last year she has been feted in the news media and at writers festivals around the country.
To discover the path she has followed to reach this point I have placed her under the spotlight (or beside the microphone) as this issue’s feature interview. In the interview you will read of her multi-faceted career as cartoonist, author and lawyer, her youthful creative endeavours, her path to and through the momentous task of adapting one of the major works of twentieth century literature and what she plans to do for an encore.

PB: Tell us something of your childhood. I’m guessing you wrote and drew a lot.
NG: I’ve been writing and drawing for as long as I can remember. As a child I was constantly scribbling. I was the kid who would get told off in class for doodling while the teacher was talking. And I loved writing stories.
PB: What about comics. Where do they come in?
NG: When I was about seventeen I started drawing these little page long cartoon strips. They were semi-autobiographical stories about my character Bug. I loved doing them and soon started doing other strips, gradually getting more and more into it. What really blew open the comic world for me was when I went over to Canada on a student exchange in my final year of Uni, 1996. Over there (in Montreal) I met other cartoonists and got involved in comic jams and anthologies with them. When I got back I started to meet people in the Melbourne indie comics scene and contributed to various anthologies like The Pointy End, Tango and Silent Army.
* * *
PB: I gather you first encountered The Great Gatsby at school.
NG: I studied it in my Year 12 Literature class. I completely fell in love with it.
PB: Was it always your desire to adapt it?
NG: No, I probably didn’t get the idea until about 1999.
PB: How did the project develop? Were the characters always going to be cartoon creatures?
NG: Yes, but the original drawings were much more detailed than what I ended up with. Although they didn’t look like Edward Gorey pictures they still had that level of line work. I don’t know how many decades that would have taken. [Laughs.] I’m glad that I simplified the characters, not simply because it meant I got the work done in six years rather than sixteen, but because it made the characters look more lively and immediate. Their expressions were fresher and I think it helped the look of the book. So the first step was doing all the character studies. I then did a lot of research to get source material for the sort of houses, buildings, gardens and cars of the period.
PB: Was it always going to be designed like a photo album?
NG: Yes. I love to look of panels on a black page and that’s probably what got me thinking in that direction at the beginning.
PB: Was there a concern with doing it like that that you might lose some of the sequential movement from panel to panel?
NG: I tried to be very careful to make it easy to read. Quite a bit of thought went into the placement of the panels on the page. There’s a lot of intuitive nudging of frames slightly closer together or a little bit higher or lower so that it feels natural to read. I did want to have a lot of black space around the frames, especially for readers who aren’t used to the very compacted nature of the traditional comic page. I wanted it to act as a sort of breathing space for the eye.
PB: Did you look at other examples of comic adaptations of literary works, like Hunt Emerson’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (Knockabout, 1986) or even Classics Illustrated?
NG: No, I didn’t look at anything. Nor did I look at any of the movie adaptations. I wanted to lock myself away with just the text. It wasn’t until I was a good way through it that I read biographies of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I wanted to develop an intimate relationship with the text.
PB: When in the creative process did you find a publisher? I’m assuming that at the beginning you just started on spec hoping to find a publisher down the track. And to begin with you must have needed to maintain quite a bit of faith in it and yourself.
NG: Yes, it’s a bit like Gatsby’s mad dream. [Laughs.] I always wanted it to be published, but I had been working on it for five years before I found one. During that time I had some other books published, but they weren’t graphic novels. In some ways I tried not to think of the possibility of it not being published. [Laughs.] When I first showed it to Allen & Unwin, which was after I had been at it for a couple of years and had done 100 pages of finished work, they were very enthusiastic, but at that stage to put out a graphic novel in Australia was a big challenge. A major problem was the varying copyright periods around the world. It was out of copyright here, but not in Britain or the US, and if they couldn’t publish it in those markets they didn’t think it would be viable. So it was really exciting when a bit later they decided to do it.
PB: What had changed?
NG: I think it was a whole cultural shift thing. Partly it was because the market is more receptive now.
* * *
PB: The next graphic novel you are working on is Hamlet. Why another adaptation? Why another set text?
NG: I love the process of adapting and I find it endlessly fascinating to engage with a brilliant text. You add your own interpretation, but you’re mining something that is very rich. It’s like asking a musician why they keep playing Beethoven. [Laughs.] It’s because it’s something you can draw so much from. I could make up a story of my own, but at the moment I am getting so much out of the dialogue with these amazing texts. Hamlet is an extraordinary play, and one which has been explored and reinterpreted for centuries. It’s inexhaustibly fascinating, because it keeps on making us engage with those huge eternal questions about our existence. Irresistible!

The rest of the interview can be found in Word Balloons 7.

My Life in Comics Part V: Inkspots–the later years 1981-84.
by Philip Bentley

This is the fifth 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. It would be interesting to see more recollections, especially from those in other states.

In this chapter I chronicle the later years of the early 80s Australian alternative comic Inkspots ; a salutary reminder of how creative endeavours can go haywire even with the best of intentions

In the last instalment (WB 5) I detailed how in the mid-1970s Greg Gates, Colin Paraskevas and myself undertook to publish a comic anthology initially with the intention of seeing our own work in print, then as the project progressed including others as well.

One reason the project expanded was that there weren’t any comparable publications in Australia at this time. Indeed, there were hardly any local comics being published period, neither at a commercial, nor even at a small-press level.

Following the release of Inkspots 1, in the middle of 1980, we began to plan the next volume. Whilst the year it took to produce was considerably quicker than the five it had taken for the first one it still seemed to move at a snail’s pace. Again we were hamstrung by all creators working on it after hours given projected sales were not enough to allow us to pay contributors.

I am not conscious that our philosophy for the production of issue two was significantly changed. Certainly, from my perspective, I was still looking for works that pushed the envelope creatively. Instead, changes were made in the production values, with the magazine being printed by a major printer on slick paper and with colour inside the cover as well as out (the interior remained in B&W). Once again there were a great diversity of styles on parade, even more than the first issue. This is something I think I saw as a strength at the time, but now tend to feel took the issue in too many directions at once. Carry over creators from issue one included myself, Greg, Colin, Chris Johnston, Stephen Campbell, Darrel Lindquist, Stuart Mann, Martin Trengove, Phil Lyng & Trevor Sumper. They were joined by Russell Edwards, Tony Crooks, Malcolm English & Ian Eddy. However, the most striking new contributions came from Fil Barlow and Phil Kanlides, both then just eighteen and chock full of talent and confidence.

Inkspots 1 had primarily been distributed through US comic distributors. With this issue we took the plunge by adding the local newsagent distributor Gordon & Gotch. At the time this was not a difficult task to achieve. From memory we gave them 2,000, keeping another 1,000 for overseas distributors and our own sales. Sales were, however, were modest. From memory we achieved a sell through rate of sixteen percent across Australia, peaking in the mid-twenties in Melbourne and Sydney, but dropping into single digits in more far flung rural areas.

Whilst I may not have been surprised by these results it was still a disappointment. Although I think I was more hung up on the ‘comics as art’ ethos than Colin or Greg I was still needled by this perceived failure and for a time became more compelled to achieve higher sales. So our emphasis for issue three became to make the book more accessible by including stories with a greater emphasis on narrative and continuing characters. As time wore on, plans were made, meetings were had, strips were started, but it seemed the harder we pushed the longer things took.

The rest of the article can be found in Word Balloons 7.

Also, reviews of Bruce Mutard’s The Sacrifice “the first in a trilogy of graphic novels that may indeed dare to dream such a thing as ‘the great Australian graphic novel’ exists”, Rooftops by Mandy Ord “an elegy to inner city life and her own idiosyncratic spiritual search”, Skye Ogden’s Vowels “a gem of a book” and Love Puppets by Grug & Mcleod “a romantic soap opera of the best kind”.