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.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Word Balloons 10, October 2009


Welcome to the tenth issue of Word Balloons, which comes to you in glorious full colour. And what better person to feature as our interview subject this issue than Douglas Holgate, who has a deft hand with a paint brush, be it sable or electronic. Whether I persevere with the colour remains to be seen as the price was more than I had been led to believe, necessitating a rise in price to $6.00. Whilst this may not affect overall sales that dramatically $5 is certainly a lot easier when it comes to dealing through the mail or in person. Consequently, those who want to pay via sending bank notes in the post can still do so via a AU$5 note.

“Comics aren’t just for kids, but I think we can get a bit obsessed with that at times.”
An interview with Douglas Holgate.

Conducted by Philip Bentley, September 2009.

Douglas Holgate is a prime example of someone with a passion for the graphic story medium who has taken his craft and applied it to a variety of commissioned work, be it in toy designs, children’s book illustration or political cartooning.

In this interview we cover all of these topics as well as his youth in Sydney, the Australian comics scene of the late 1990s and early 00s, the ups and downs of small-press publishing and how to be a creative freelancer in the modern world.

PB: In 2003 you did Tales From Under Your Bed [TFUYB]. Was that a return to cartooning?
DH: Yeah, but in a way, I see it more as the start of my cartooning.
PB: Was it also a statement of intent from you? It’s just that as well as it being a step up in your art, it was an all-ages strip. And both that and a cartoony style were in the 70s and 80s seen by many as something of an anathema. It looked as if you were nailing your colours to the mast and saying this is what I believe in.
DH: That was part of it, but it was probably a culmination of a few things. I had started a new job at a company called Creata. They were a merchandising and promotions concern where I was basically designing toys to be given away in places like McDonalds. So I was working in cartooning every day turning either the McDonalds characters, or those they had acquired rights to use, like Pixar and Disney, into toys. So TFUYB was the first real comics work I produced during that period and the style just clicked into place. It felt more natural and came more easily. It was also the result of being in the Australian comics community for a few years and forming some opinions about where comics seemed to be heading and where I felt they should be heading. Genre-wise it was saying that there weren’t enough comics being made for kids any more. How are you going to get the next generation interested in reading and making comics if you aren’t providing them something to be introduced to when they’re young. And I still believe that. I agree that comics aren’t just for kids, and it’s great that they are maturing and are finally grabbing the spotlight as a critical form of literature, but I think we can get a bit obsessed with this whole notion of validation and lose sight of the forest for the trees. A kid doesn’t start with The Watchmen. We seem to go to extremes in comics. From either censoring ourselves to almost death in the 1950s to seeking more literate works today. There needs to be a balance.
PB: TFUYB was also nicely packaged.
DH: That was probably another statement. A somewhat belligerent belief that just because it’s self-published it doesn’t mean it should be at the expense of quality production. You can still produce something of quality that people would like to pick up without compromising your artistic integrity.

* * *

PB: At some point you moved to Melbourne. When was that and why?
DH: Around the beginning of 2003. I’d lived in Sydney for more years of my life than not and wanted a change. My folks had moved here about five years earlier. The job that I was in at Creata was a good career and well-paid, but it wasn’t satisfying. It had a lot of grunt work associated with it and it wasn’t what I wanted to do as an illustrator or cartoonist. The whole point of moving here was to start freelancing.
PB: How did you go about getting your name out there?
DH: Friend and Sydney illustrator [and some time comic artist] Craig Phillips [Flinch], alerted me that his agent in the States was looking for new talent. So I sent them some examples of my work, they liked them and picked me up. At the same time I hit the ground running and sent out portfolios to anyone and everyone I could think of, from book and magazine publishers, to animation and advertising studios. But for probably the first two years of my freelancing the majority of the work I got was off my own bat. The first six to twelve months I was working for companies doing very similar toy and merchandise design jobs to what I was doing in Sydney, with some spot illustration on the side. Only two publishers initially replied to my mail outs, Random House and Penguin, and really only with a form letter to say that they had put my portfolio on file and would get in touch at a later date if anything suitable came up. At the time I thought that probably meant that they had thrown it in the bin, but that’s not true – they actually had put it on file. [Laughs.] So to all aspiring illustrators and cartoonists out there: don’t lose heart. About eighteen months later I got a call out of the blue from Random House offering me the illustrator’s job on the Horror High books. Those were my first commercially published books. And things have grown and grown since then.

The rest of the interview can be found in Word Balloons 10.


My Life in Comics Part VIII– Fox Comics, the early years 1984-86.
by Philip Bentley

This chapter deals with the small press beginnings of Fox Comics, a magazine that was the brainchild of David Vodicka, but which I played a hand in directing. In the course of its run from 1984-91 it provided an outlet for many Australian comic creators, such as Dillon Naylor, Greg Gates and Neale Blanden. As well, it had a decided international flavour publishing works from New Zealand’s Dylan Horrocks and the cream of the 1980s British small press scene such as Eddie Campbell, Glenn Dakin and Ed Pinsent.

In Chapters 4 and 5 (WB 5 & 7) I related the at times tortuous path of producing the Australian comic anthology Inkspots in the early 1980s. Whilst not without its twists and turns the saga of Fox Comics was far less angst ridden and, frankly, became something of an antidote to the Inkspots experience for me, as well as a bulwark to the dramas that were occurring at Minotaur at the same time (see Chapter 7, WB 9).

The fourth and final issue of Inkspots was released in August 1984. Earlier that year, in April, the first issue of a modest, A5 photocopied anthology entitled Fox Comics had appeared with little fanfare. Its editor/publisher, David Vodicka, was then barely seventeen and still at school, yet he had had a presence in Australian comic fandom since his early teens through his involvement with a couple of similarly entitled fanzines: the Fox Comics Catalogue, a one-man zine and the Fox Comic Collector, produced with Lazarus and Mitchell Dobelsky.

By early 1984, after seven sporadic issues, the three editors of the Fox fanzine were running out of steam. As with most Australian comics, works about them in this country tend also to be labours of love as there is little interest from local fans and enthusiasm can only be sustained for so long. David Vodicka, however, saw that there was the possibility of spinning a comic magazine off from the fanzine.

* * *

To begin with Fox Comics utilised the ‘shelfstuf’ of a number of local cartoonists, augmented by Martin Trengove’s Roscoe the Dawg strip. Many other Inkspots alumni appeared in the Fox although for most it was more of a cameo performance. The only artists to really make the transition between the two magazines were Greg Gates and Darrel Merritt. Consequently the Fox’s most prolific contributors had not appeared in Inkspots. Three of the more notable of these from the early issues were Ian Eddy, The Big Simp and Paul Harris.

The third issue of the Fox marked the beginning of what would become one of the magazine’s defining aspects, the inclusion of artists from the then fomenting British small press scene such as Eddie Campbell, Phil Elliot and Ed Pinsent. Perhaps it seems strange that English artists should feature in an Australian magazine, but I don’t remember the matter being an issue. I can only assume that like me David was more interested in publishing comics in Australia, rather than Australian comics.

* * *

As time went by we began to receive unsolicited submissions from around the country and overseas. This meant that in nearly every issue we were, able to introduce new artists. Yet there is, to my eye, a consistency to the look of each issue that has something to do with a continuing coterie of contributors, as well as the fact that a lot of the strips had an ‘off the cuff’ style, predicated by our preference for shorter strips to showcase as many artists as possible. To call it a ‘Fox style’ would be to go too far given that each issue was an amalgam of submitted work, but there was still an agreeable element there.

The rest of the article can be found in Word Balloons 10.

Also reviews of Bruce Mutard’s The Silence “one of Australia’s leading creators working at the top of his game”, Tom Taylor & Colin Wilson’s The Example “a thought-provoking vignette with some inspired use of panel arrangements” and Star Wars: Invasion 1 & 2 “well-crafted entertainment”.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Word Balloons 9, May 2009


In his interview this issue Bernard Caleo suggests that we are “at a really interesting point where we are about to swing into a new, greater appreciation of the [graphic story] medium”. Whilst I don’t know if I share his belief that we are quite at the tipping point, I have noted in these pages, over past issues, that there has been an encouraging interest in the medium by local book publishers, which has sparked and equally heartening number of articles and reviews in the mass media.

Recently the Australian has run two pieces that are worthy of comment. The first of these, “Picture this: the future of fiction” (Australian Literary Review 1/4/09), by long time student of the form Cefn Ridout, is an astute look at recent publications, both here and abroad, wrapped up in a longitudinal commentary on the medium’s development worldwide. The second “In a superhero-free world” by Fiona Gruber (5/5/09) was written to mark the launch of Gestalt’s Flinch anthology (review next issue), but also to highlight a new Star Wars storyline produced by local creators, and Flinch contributors, Tom Taylor and Colin Wilson.

Whilst these are positive pieces, they are still both variants on the ‘comics grow up’ articles that have been appearing in the mass media for at least the last twenty-five years. Whilst it is gratifying that the media is willing to acknowledge that the medium is capable of a wide range of subjects, I can’t help wondering if it isn’t time for a change of tack; essentially for articles on comics to ‘grow up’, or beyond, the ‘comics grow up’ angle.

Back in the 1970s the only sort of article you were likely to get out of the mass media regarding comics was one slanted to their collectability. A favoured question of journalists then was “Do you read them, or just collect them?” Moreover, the journalists appeared to have their angle already worked out and were just looking for some appropriate quotes to slot in. If you tried to move the interview into other areas, like how not all comics were for kids, you were likely to get a short shrift.

An example of this is an article in a suburban news-paper from 1981. As well as some wildly skewed text, it contained a photo of my then partner in Minotaur and Inkspots, Colin Paraskevas, standing in front of the new comic racks at Minotaur holding a copy of Inkspots 2. Colin’s intention was to try and get some publicity for either the publication or store, but the journalist had other ideas. The article made no mention of either entity and captioned the photo “Comics have always held a strange fascination for Colin Paraskevas.”!

Not long after this, in I think 1983, the Age ran the first of the ‘comics grow up’ articles that I can recall seeing. Penned by the budding journo Richard Guilliat, who has gone on to make a name for himself as an investigative journalist mainly for the Sydney Morning Herald, it primarily used a then current story line in Captain America that had, I think, something to do with corruption in high places, to demonstrate that comics could deal with more ‘serious’ themes.

As the 1980s progressed, and more significant changes were wrought in the medium by the likes of Miller, Moore and the Bros Hernandez, these articles began to appear more frequently, both here and abroad. Whilst it is pleasing that some journalists had realised that not all comics were either for kids, or the preserve of collectors, these articles still marked the medium out as in some way separate from most other creative art-forms. Reviews of new plays or poetry collections, for example, do not generally contain a complete history of the form. There is an assumption that the reader, even if they don’t have a complete knowledge of the medium’s development, can still appreciate a new work regardless.

In that way I find the slant of Gruber’s article refreshing in it’s willingness to only give a smattering of the back-story and instead to concentrate on the specifics at hand. This is not to criticise Ridout. Having written my fair share of these sorts of articles over the years I know that the ‘comics grow up’ angle is a convenient hook on which to hang an article. Further, I realise that it is only natural to want to use your knowledge of the medium in an endeavour to make a favourable impression on the casual reader. But I still look forward to the time when comics are treated like any other art form. That, at least, may be in the process of occurring.

“Formally I’m qualified to talk about Tintin, that’s it.”
An interview with Bernard Caleo.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, April 2009.

Prior to this interview I would have described Bernard Caleo as a trained actor with a great passion for comics. But as a consequence of our discussion, I see that the opposite is, technically, more accurate. Regardless, though, ‘passion’ is a most appropriate word when talking about him.

Bernard is a great advocate for the graphic story medium, both in this country and generally. Through his own strips, either alone or in collaboration, his editorship of the anthology Tango, or even some of his theatrical work, Bernard seeks to convey his love of the medium, both to fellow aficionados and to the general public.

In this interview I seek to explore his roots, his collective oeuvre, his publishing ethos for Tango, his theatrical leanings, both his ‘day job’ as an ‘applied’ actor and his singular two-man play based on Alan Moore’s comic Miracleman , and finally the parallels between comics and the theatre.

PB: So when and how did the notion to produce your own comic arise?
BC: Towards the end of the 1980s I was broadening my interests in comics. Then I fell in love. In 1990 my girlfriend went to England and I followed. Rather than just occupying myself with being in love, I decided I should do something while I was over there. I found an ad for the London Cartoon Centre who were offering a ten week course. So I wrote a letter in strip format, and they replied saying “Why not”.
PB: What was the course like?
BC: There was a lot of basic stuff about page layout, photo-copying technique, brushes and nibs. But it was also a prod towards doing your own comics. And that’s when I really began to join some dots about how comics are a great way to tell stories. Significant for the ideas about creating comics that were buzzing around in my head, was the friendship I had made with this guy, Brendan Tolley, [who I had] met at a life-drawing class just before I left Australia. It was clear from the beginning that he was a strong draughtsman. During my time in London we had a constant communication via weekly letters, this being the time before email. Both of us were awash in ‘heartbreak soup’, to borrow Gilbert Hernandez’s phrase. During one of my rambling letters to him I suggested that we should collaborate on a story set in Melbourne. I have always been fascinated by the city as a place, as an architecture, as a culture, as an idea, as an history. So that’s how the Yell Olé! strip began to develop. When I got back, sans girlfriend, I had plenty of time on my hands and a lot of energy to devote to a project. So we leapt into it. At it’s heart it was a strip that was trying to mythologise, to enshrine, to explore the shape, the physical material of Melbourne.
PB: It was clearly trying to deal with issues relevant to a spirit of place split into two loci: the city in Yell Olé! and the country in The False Impressionists [the succeeding series].
BC: And The False Impressionists is rooted in more of an historical perspective. It’s attempting to be a White Man’s Dreaming sort of story.

PB: You are probably best known for editing Tango, a somewhat annual anthology of romance strips. How did that come about?
BC: In 1996, Tolley and I were part of a zines and comics exhibition that was part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival. There were a couple of parallel publications, one of which basically contained rants by the various creators. I was asked to write something on the intersection of comics and zines and by the end of my rant I had painted myself into a corner. I had defined the difference between comics and zines, then said that I thought comics had a great future in this country as they weren’t hidebound by genres as comics in other countries are. Then I said that, since the demise of the great anthology Fox Comics, and in the absence of any ongoing anthology, what we needed was a new one, and that somebody should do that. I then realised that that somebody probably needed to be me.
PB: One of the most notable things about Tango is that it includes work by people from outside the established comics community and sees this, I gather, as part of its mission statement.
BC: Absolutely. In the course of writing that essay I had decided that what we needed was a book that showcased Australian comic work. But not just by people in the established comic culture. If you were a songwriter and you wanted to have a bash at comics I was interested. I wanted that interchange of ideas because I see that as one of the steps to developing a more robust comic culture. To bring people in and help them fall in love with the medium.
PB: Whilst that may be one of its strengths, it also could be said to be one of its weaknesses, as you have experienced comic creators rubbing shoulders with neophytes who are learning as they go.
BC: Tango was never set up to be the best of Australian comic book makers. That leads to its unevenness, but also, in my mind, to its charm. It’s very accepting, it’s very embracing. For me, it’s an important part of the texture of Tango.
PB: There’s going to be a best of Tango coming out from Allen & Unwin. I’m interested in hearing the selection criteria. Are they going to be the same as Tango regular?
BC: We’re actually changing the title to The Tango Collection because I felt the draft title ‘The Best of Tango’ cut across the ethos of the anthology. It will be around 200pp released in December 2009 and will feature stories from the first eight issues. I hope to have the next ‘ordinary’ issue (Tango 9: Love and War) out around the same time to capitalise on cross-promotion. Erica Wagner, who is the publisher at A&U in charge of the graphic novel push, will have a hand in the selection, as will the editor Elise Jones. I have provided a rough cut of strips, they have said yes yes yes, no no no, and then I have provided more names, and so on.

PB: You mentioned that you acted at University.
BC: I started out doing a Science Degree in 1986 and ended up with an Arts Degree in 1994. Really, I spent only a minimal amount of time studying during that period. Most of my time was spent in the Theatre Department, which is an elective facility like the Sports Union. I basically just did show after show after show because I loved it; the milieu and the people. Out of that came many great friendships, lovers etc. One friendship, in particular, was with Bruce Woolley. I introduced him to comics and he introduced me to various aspects of theatre. He had trained in the Lecoq style of theatre making. That is a French form that goes beyond purely acting, incorporating elements of puppetry, music and multi-media. And it was that training that made Bruce say, when he was reading Miracleman, “Hey Bernard we can make a great play out of this.” To which I replied “Bruce…you’re absolutely out of your mind! It’s a superhero comic book; it’s got flying people and bombs. You can’t do that sort of thing on stage.” So naturally we did.
PB: I have to say that initially I was dubious, but to your credit, with little more than a couple of dodgy wigs and some stackable boxes, you make the audience ‘believe that a man can fly’. This despite the issue of copyright, in which it must be the most complicated comic title ever.
[The saga of Miracleman is long and winding and readers interested in following it twists and turns are encouraged to access the Wikepedia entry.] It works because you take an unlikely situation and make it succeed by turning the perceived weakness into strengths. By taking a deliberately low-tech approach it becomes part of the process. But it’s clever how it is part spoof, part homage. The respect you feel for the work comes through. I think it’s the most successful thing of yours that I’ve seen.

The rest of the interview can be found in Word Balloons 9.

My Life in Comics Part VII: Minotaur–the 1980s
by Philip Bentley

In this instalment I deal with the saga of Minotaur from the opening of the first shop in 1980, though five relocations, to when I left the business at the end of 1989. As with my recollections on the latter days of Inkspots it is a salutary tale of how naïve idealism can be put to the sword on the altar of commercial enterprise.

In the last chapter, I detailed how in 1977 Greg Gates, Colin Paraskevas and myself established the Melbourne comic retailer Minotaur. Although initially begun as a mail order concern, our plans had always been to progress to a shop when it had grown larger and we had resolved the issue of where it would be best located. The city centre had always seemed the optimum position, but we feared the higher rents here would be prohibitive, and we were unsure if an inner-city shop could draw customers from all suburbs.

It was Colin who solved this conundrum, suggesting we investigate warehouse space in the city centre that could double as a retail establishment. Admittedly, the first few places we looked at were less than inspiring but then we found a ground floor location in Tattersalls Lane, a small thoroughfare running between Little Bourke and Lonsdale Streets, between Swanston and Russell. Housed in a crumbling tenement, whose upper three floors contained artists’ studios, it was centrally located without commanding a premium rent.

The premises opened for business on Thursday 11 September 1980 and initially traded Thursday to Saturday. For customers we relied on circulating our mail order clientele, word of mouth and some small ads placed on the comics page of the Sun. This was never going to produce a stampede, but numbers and sales did gradually climb over the initial weeks and months.

Although I had my reservations about the premisis due to it’s crumbling nature, to a person any former customers I have spoken to regarding these times remember the location fondly. They equate the circulative route one had to take to gain access – up the lane, into the stair-well, through the fire door to the shared lobby and finally into the shop – as akin to following the fabled labyrinth to a cavernous treasure trove. And certainly there were many unusual items displayed; the product of three years sourcing stock from around the world: commercial comics both old and new, alternative comics in a variety of formats, French albums, fanzines, art books, prints and portfolios.

We moved to the Mid City Arcade in May 1981. We would be there a bit under two years: another nine months in the original shop (16) and about a year over the arcade in a double shop (11 & 12). In mid-1982 we re-opened shop 16, initially to sell rock books and records, then, after the latter proved to be not a success, added a range of books and merchandise about films and TV series with an SF or adventure slant. By early 1983, though, even with two stores, Mid City Arcade was becoming too small for us. So when Colin spotted an old pizza restaurant for rent in Swanston Street, between Little Bourke and Lonsdale Streets, it wasn’t long before we were engaging in another round of renovations and removals.

The rest of the article can be found in Word Balloons 9.

Also reviews of Black House’s The Twilight Age 0 & 1 by Jan Scherpenhuizen “the narrative and layouts are competently handled, but both pencils and inks display an inconsistent level of quality”, The Dark Detective: Sherlock Holmes 0 by Chris Sequiera, Tim McEwan & Phil Cornell “there is no denying the verve with which the work is produced.”, and Pat Grant’s Lumpen Proletariat 5 “his stories are funny and engaging, his art detailed yet clear”.