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.