Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Word Balloons 13, October 2011


The ‘unlucky for some’ thirteenth issue of Word Balloons marks a partial change of tack for the magazine. Following the completion last issue of my recollections of ‘my life in comics’ this issue sees the unveiling of not one, but two replacements.

The first will be articles by myself and others. Some, as Dann Lennard’s here, will be of a nostalgic bent, others will deal with issues relevant to the form. The second replacement will be interviews of a more historical nature where I will track down past proponents of the field. My especial interest is with those creators who were active during the interregnum period of the 1960s & 70s, post the collapse of the local industry but before the rise of the more fan-based titles of the 1980s and 90s. It is an area largely overlooked and ripe for exploration.

Towards that end this issue’s historical interview is with Fysh Rutherford, the writer of the brief but legendary newspaper strip Iron Outlaw. These historical interviews are meant to complement those with contemporary creators, such as this issue’s conversation with Mandy Ord.

As a result of these changes I have decided to stick with the thirty-two page editions. I would much prefer to charge either five or ten dollars, and I don’t hear anyone pushing for a return to the black & white format. That said, in all likelihood I will be cutting back production to once a year (around April-May) to allow space to undertake other endeavours.

In news of a more personal vein, Greg Gates, who will be known to many readers, either personally or via my recollections, has recently announced that he will be moving to Adelaide for family reasons towards the end of the year.

Greg has made a significant contribution to the Australian comic scene in general and the Melbourne one in particular over the past forty years. Had it not been for Greg’s insatiable desire to meet and converse with other comic aficionados it’s fair to say that the course of comics in this city would have been quite different.

By introducing himself to those he saw buying comics, first in newsagencies and later at Space Age Books, Greg formed a network of friends that inevitably led to the creation of the comic anthology Inkspots and the Minotaur emporium. He has also been instrumental in perpetuating the monthly Melbourne comic meetings, which have been running continuously for over twenty years. As well he has been an informal mentor to a generation of artists, doling out praise and criticism in just the right measures to inspire these people forward.

Greg has also been a great supporter of this magazine, always ready to provide an illustration here and a cover there, sometimes at short notice.

So Greg’s cheery countenance will be missed around the Melbourne comic traps, but our loss is Adelaide’s gain.

“I like stories where people take that risk and reveal things.”
An interview with Mandy Ord.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, September 2011

From self-published mini-comics to square bound books from major publishers, and a slew of contributions to magazines of both a comic and literary bent, Mandy Ord has trodden a path that many would like to follow, but few have achieved.

Seeking to uncover how she has gained such apparent success, this interview follows her life from Sydney, to Canberra and then Melbourne, seeking to understand the forces driving her to wish to commit her life to paper.

Mandy gives insight on the creation of her one-eyed alter ego, explains how baring your soul can be empowering and describes some of the challenges of teaching the medium. Through it all Mandy’s passion for comics is self-evident.

PB: Over the course of the last ten years or so you have concentrated on autobiography. It really could be said that you have just done instalments of one strip, that of the One-Eyed Girl, for want of a better name. What is it that drew you to continue with autobiography rather than other genres.
MO: Well that had to do with working in a comic book store.
PB: Really?
MO: Yes, I worked at Impact Records for two years. [Canberra’s first comic store that branched out from merely carrying records. Ed.] I was in charge of ordering all the alternative titles from Fantagraphics etc. So I used to order a lot of different books for myself. That’s when I discovered the various artists out there doing autobiographical work; people like Mary Fleener, Julie Doucet, Seth, Chester Brown, Joe Matt, Denis Kitchen etc. I also liked Charles Burns, even though he didn’t do autobio. But seeing all this work sort of confirmed that autobio was a legitimate way to tell stories. I like stories that are real. I know some may find them trivial, but you will find with any genre that it will appeal to some and not to others.

PB: Do you find it challenging to bare your soul?
MO: No. I have something of a confessional streak. I will be talking to someone and find myself revealing things even though I didn’t mean to. A voice in my head will be saying “Shut up”, but I just go ahead. [Laughs.] I like stories where people take that risk and reveal things. Often the sort of things people are reluctant to reveal are the things that others will best relate to. But within telling your own story there is a degree of control. I do try to be sure that I’m certain about what I’m putting in a story before I publish it. There’s a lot that I don’t tell. That would be the advantage of doing fiction – you can deal with various human conditions without mentioning names or referencing anyone. Although it’s not as easy as that. If I’m reading a book I will often wonder if any of the author’s friends have asked “Is that character based on me? [Laughs.] But I feel confident when I tell stories about my life, because they deal with events that I have experienced and processed.

PB: I was amused in the final strip in Sensitive Creatures [Allen & Unwin, 2011] you say that someone had suggested you should “put yourself out there more” as a creator, as of anyone who has produced comics in Australia I’m inclined to say that you have been the most widely published. So I’m just wondering what your strategy for being placed has been. Have you actively submitted work wherever you can?
MO: I actually don’t think I’m very good at actively seeking things out. I tend to have offers come to me. And there’s a ninety-nine per cent chance that I will say yes – unless it’s going to be a lot of work for little reward, not necessarily financial. But I really like appearing alongside other artists in anthologies. And working in anthologies with a single topic is good as it stretches you as a writer and artist. I tend not to go searching for things because whenever I do I seem to be rejected and I find that soul-destroying. It’s like I know I can do this thing, but someone else is sitting in judgement. I’d rather sit at home and do my own work. But it’s not like I’m dependent on comics as a means of support. I have a day job working in an organic greengrocer, and previous to that I have done lots of things.

PB: How do you approach creating a comic story?
MO: I generally write it first. I always work out where I’m going, and where the characters are going visually through the story, allowing for some tweaking as I go along. If it feels wrong and you ignore it, it’s not going to turn out right. The incentive for me is always the story. Forget about the drawings, forget about the panels, just think about the story. Even comics that are rendered in a style I normally wouldn’t be attracted to, if the story is fantastic I get sucked in regardless and put my aesthetic bias aside.

The rest of the interview can be found in Word Balloons 13.

“We were ‘being the change’ at this time.”
An interview with Fysh Rutherford.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, August 2011

For a brief period of time in the early 1970s Australia had its own superhero, in the form of the Ned Kelly-helmeted, golden boomerang-wielding Iron Outlaw.

A full page weekly newspaper strip, it ran for the year July 1970 to June 1971 initially in Melbourne’s Sunday Observer, then later in the nationally distributed Sunday Review. Although in part a super-hero spoof, Iron Outlaw was very much a part of the radical agenda of its day and gained in notoriety by sending up then political figures and societal attitudes.

Credited only to ‘Greg & Grae’ it was in fact drawn by Gregor McAlpine and written by Graeme ‘Fysh’ Rutherford, two friends who had met at uni and created the strip on a whim inspired by the ‘spirit of the times’.

In this interview Fysh explains the strip’s origins, its connection to the radical culture of the day, the reasons for its truncated run and why the two creators never produced any more strips.

PB: How did Iron Outlaw come about?
FR: Greg [MacAlpine] was a talented artist and I liked writing so at some point I suggested we should do something together. There must have been some trigger, I think he had some comics in his folio.
PB: What were you attempting to achieve with it? It presumably was tied in with the growth of radical culture at this time.
FR: It was, but it’s not like we had a well-thought through agenda. To begin with we were both pretty naïve, just interested in drinking and girls and the like. If you had asked us who the Prime Minister of Australia was I’m not sure we would have known. [Laughs.] But we were interested in some of the more creative events happening around the city like the Film Festival. Its director, Erwin Rado, was one of a number of [Continental] European immigrants after WWII that helped to break us from the shackles of our staid Anglo culture. But at the same time there was a growing Americanisation of the country. There was an increasing American content on TV and of course there was also the Vietnam War and conscription; the big raffle you didn’t want to win! Both Greg and I were in the draft, but our birthdays missed being picked. It was scary stuff. So there was naturally a big anti-American sentiment around. Our idea was that there were all these American superheroes so we would do an Australian one and parody the American influence, whilst propagating Australian humour and attitudes. At the same time we decided to stick it up local politicians, as there was a backlash against Liberals, such as [State Attorney-General Arthur] Rylah and [Premier Henry] Bolte.

FR: We came up with a hero who in real life was Gary Robinson, an accountant for Melvern Council, who after becoming concerned with the way the world was going encountered an aboriginal spirit at Glenrowan and is bequeathed superpowers, a Ned Kelly helmet and some golden boomerangs. Gary Robinson resembled and was broadly based on me. I worked at Malvern Council at the time and like him drove a FJ Holden.
FR: We produced some pages, made an appointment at The Age, went and showed our samples and they said “Hmm…gosh…well…this is interesting… Maybe you should go and see this new paper the Sunday Observer”.
[A creation of the libertarian millionaire Gordon Barton, the Sunday Observer, and it’s successor the Sunday Review (later Nation Review), ruffled the feathers of the staid Melbourne establishment of the time by giving a voice to the emerging radical urban left. Ed.] So we just showed up and they said “Okay, we’re looking for some comic strips.”

PB: What sort of editorial direction or interference was there?
FR: Very little. We answered to nobody and told no-one what we were doing. Greg would show up once a week with the strip and I think he picked up the cheque at the same time. But some of the things we depicted now make me cringe. Like the drawing of aboriginal trackers as bloodhounds on dog leashes.
PB: I do read that as satire i.e. you’re drawing the reader’s attention that that is how aboriginals are viewed by society at this time, rather than promoting the idea, but it is fairly edgy and I’m sure that there are those who would take offence at it. But I’m betting that there would have been fewer complaints to this than there would have been to say bare breasts. In one of the later strips there is an aside that “Dawn [Iron Outlaw’s girlfriend and partner Steel Sheila] is depicted nippleless in Victoria”.
FR: That was a joke on the state of affairs here, not direct interference.

PB: Did you deliberately keep a low profile due to worries that you’d be a target by those in power? The strip was just signed Greg & Grae.
FR: Not really, it was more our inability to handle fame. [In Ferritabillia, Richard Walsh’s annotated reprinting of the best of Nation Review, he calls Iron Outlaw one of the Sunday Observer’s most popular features. Ed.] But then again Greg once claimed that one time when he went to the studio he found a couple of ASIO agents going through it. And there were a couple of blokes in a car parked near where I living in St Kilda for a few weeks. So we were observed.

The rest of the interview can be found in Word Balloons 13.

My Life as a Comic Geek
Dann Lennard

Inspired by ye ed’s recollections of collecting comics in the 1960s and 70s Dann Lennard has committed his own story to posterity. Providing an interesting counterpoint to my own, Dann traces his steps around rural South Australia and Adelaide in the 1970s and 80s, then to Sydney in the 1990s.

Dann is a journalist for Australian Consolidated Press and has published the shrine to trash-culture Betty Paginated since 1992. This article originally appeared in Betty Paginated 30 in 2007.

If there’s anyone I have to thank for my lifelong love of comics, it’s my mum. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of grabbing the big plastic bag from Mum’s wardrobe, removing the musty, crumbling contents and poring over her beloved collection of Australian comics from the 1940s and 50s. I quickly fell in love with the artwork of Keith Chatto, especially his ‘good-girl art’ in the bush soap opera, Bunny Allen, a standout strip in Tex Morton’s Comic (Allied, 1947-50), and Lone Wolf (Atlas, 1949-56).

But my love for comics was influenced from many different directions. Growing up in rural Kalangadoo, South Australia, there were no shortage of Wizard Of Id, B.C., Peanuts and Tumbleweeds paperback collections in the house, courtesy of my older brothers. There were also their Cracked mags and tons of Phantom comics. Best of all, my older brothers had accumulated several 60s-era English annuals: hardback collections like Hurricane, Bronco Layne, Superman and Batman (containing reprints of the original American comics).

Soon, I was ordering weekly English comics from my local newsagency. My fave titles as a non-discerning reader in the early 70s were IPC’s horror-themed humour titles Shiver & Shake and Monster Fun (starring Frankie Stein), followed by the adventure-filled Valiant & Lion.

However, my comic-reading habits were to receive a massive shake-up one day in 1975 when my mum sent me down to the corner store to buy some milk. She also gave me twenty-five cents to buy a comic. Instead, it was a thirty cent comic that caught my eye: The Avengers 2, a black & white reprint published by Aussie company Newton Comics [see article in WB 6]. Despite the lack of colour, it had more pages, plus a pull-out colour poster… that seemed like value for money to me. So I ‘borrowed’ five cents of Mum’s change and bought the mag. Despite getting in a heap of trouble from my parents when I got home, it was worth the hassle as I pored over the cheap reprint, marvelling at Jack Kirby’s artwork (although I had no idea who he was at the time) and the fascinating tale of a team of superheroes bickering and fighting among themselves thanks to the cunning machinations of a creature called the Space Phantom. There was also a creepy back-up tale featuring Giant-Man and the Wasp versus Egghead’s android. I loved that comic. After that, I collected as many Newton titles as I could find, especially The Avengers.

When my family relocated to another country town, Peterborough, in 1977 I discovered two wonderful things – there were two newsagencies and a second-hand bookshop. From Homes Newsagency I picked up my first genuine Marvel comic. Distribution was utterly random but I scored a fair number of George Perez’s Avengers including the Kang/Immortus finale in 143-44.

But the coolest thing about Peterborough was the second-hand store run by Mrs White. It was located in the town’s defunct movie theatre and for a while there it seemed like every week it had a fresh stock of awesome comics for sale from the 60s and early 70s.

My attitude to collecting comics changed drastically in 1980 when I spied my first copy of The Uncanny X-Men. It was issue 138 – written by Chris Claremont, art by John Byrne and Terry Austin – and was the perfect issue to get into the title. Cyclops had quit the team after the tragic death of Phoenix the previous issue and this was a recap of not only his life but the X-Men from its beginnings. I was hooked.

1980 was also the year of another seminal event in my life while on a trip to Adelaide to visit my oldest brother Chris. One evening we went out for dinner in the city centre and afterwards he took me to a trippy second-hand bookshop called Third World in Hindley Street. For a naïve country boy, being inside a shop at…gasp…9.00pm was mind-blowing. After all, Peterborough’s shops closed at 5.30pm! The two-storey shop was overflowing with strange books and magazines (many appeared to have been there since the 60s) and its ceiling was covered with weird and wonderful posters.

In this magical place I bought Masters Of Comic Book Art by PR Garriock. This 1978 book featured art and bios by some of the world’s greatest artists and opened my eyes to the likes of Will Eisner, Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman, Moebius, Richard Corben and Robert Crumb. It was a consciousness-expanding experience. Very quickly, I adopted Eisner, Wood and Corben as my three main comic book idols.

The rest of the article can be found in Word Balloons 13.

Plus reviews of The List and Uncle Silas.