Friday, May 7, 2010

Word Balloons 11, May 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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