Indigenous Australians in comics
A look at how graphic depictions of Indigenous Australians have changed over time
4 August 2015
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be aware that the following blog post contains comic book images that may be culturally sensitive and considered inappropriate today.
At the Library, we’re really proud of our Australian comic collections. Our local comic publishing industry is much smaller than in other countries, and many Australian creators are only ever published overseas, so capturing Australian comic history is a challenge and a passion.
The history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in comics, like any form of publishing that touches on Indigenous people and cultures in Australia, has a long and tangled history that reflects the values and attitudes of the times.
Before I came to work at the Library, I once saw some Bible passages in comic form, translated into different local Aboriginal languages. I was really excited to see some comics in traditional language, but a little disappointed that these were all stories that came from outside Australian cultures. The Library holds some examples of other stories translated into various Indigenous languages as readers for children. For example here’s a translated Kriol version of Paul White’s Jungle Doctor story, Bigbala wol—Christian ideas, African themes, and Australian Kriol language.
There were several comic book series published in the 1940s and 1950s that included a cartoon strip featuring Indigenous characters—particularly children. Sometimes they retold traditional stories. One of the stories in a 1942 edition of Challenge comics was The Adventurous Journey of Yoonecara: an Aboriginal Legend. A Modern Comics issue also from the 1940s includes the story How the Stars Were Made, Rolla-Mano and the Evening Star - an Aboriginal Legend.
Perhaps one of the best-known comics from this period entirely based on Indigenous characters is Eric Jolliffe’s Witchetty’s Tribe.
Another Jolliffe comic with an Indigenous Australian as one of the main characters was Tom Flynn, Pearl Diver: an Adventure Comic. Jolliffe also set other comics in rural/outback areas with Indigenous characters forming the “background cast”. One of the most popular was Callaghan’s Kids.
Some strips pop up on back covers, or side-panels, and were just part of mainstream comics in Australia. Today, you’d have to stumble across them like I did with Kayo Comic, no. 4, to even know that they were there.
Over time, sexual health became a hot topic and comics were the perfect way to show examples of conversations, situations and decisions. The Gotta Know series by Streetwize Comics is a great example from 1992, where there is a whole community of expectations and insecurities that come packaged in any sexual relationship.
More recently, Inception Strategies has put out a lot of titles, including the highly celebrated Condoman, that slip sexual health and community health messages into superhero stories. These have been designed with community needs in mind, and have some gorgeous art. They’ve got very high production value compared even to some mainstream comics, and it’s very easy to get lost in the stories.
Condoman was the focus of an exhibition at AIATSIS earlier this year.
Often superhero comics appropriate “ethnic” flavours to add interest to a white cast, without any consultation or respect for the cultures they borrow from. It’s a problem of representation that affects any minority group in popular media. Warren Ellis’s Planetary features an issue that anthropomorphises Uluru, in a way that does not seem consistent with the stories told by the Aṉangu. It also refers to Uluru as Ayer’s Rock, which shows this comic is more concerned with its target audience, than reflecting an Indigenous Australian landscape.
Comic juggernauts Marvel and DC have used some Indigenous Australian warriors/superheroes in various issues of Justice League, X-Men, and The Avengers to name a few. I found an interesting list on religious figures in comics, but there's a lot of discussion about Indigenous characters in comics out there! It is clear that there’s a mystical value of pre-colonial Australia adding flavour to comics written by and primarily starring white people who are not Australian. But as the entire comic industry changes over time, these stories do seem to be moving away from exoticism, and more towards representation.
With the increasing diversity in mainstream superhero comics, for example Miles Morales as an African and Latino American Spiderman, it’s awesome to see Wandjina The Thunderer take the lead in his current incarnation. Wandjina appears in issue no. 1 of Grant Morrison’s Multiversity. Once a very white-looking character designed to resemble Thor, using an Indigenous Australian name, Wandjina appeared in 2014 as a proper Australian superhero. Wandjina is a leader for superheroes displaced from their homes in the Multiverse.
Another current publisher, Magabala Books is an Indigenous publishing house that’s been supporting Indigenous creators. They’ve published a series of graphic novels set in historical Broome. Ubby’s Underdogs follows an Indigenous Australian girl Ubby, and her gang of Indigenous Australian, Maori, white immigrant and Chinese immigrant Australian friends. The art is very full of motion and energy, and the story just grabbed me.
My absolute favourite of all recent Indigenous comics has to be Neomad. Neomad was created by Sutu with over 40 young people in the Ieramugadu (Roebourne) community. Neomad is sci-fi punk, with bright colouring and some absolutely amazing panels. We hold the trade paperbacks in our collection, but it's also available as an interactive digital comic in the iTunes store. Made in the community, by members of the community. Love Punks, Satellite Sisters, spaceships and traditional knowledge are all part of one of my favourite comic books ever!
Comics are a fantastic way to tell stories that don’t just entertain, but that give the reader a strong sense of place. They can paint a thousand words with body language and expressions, and share a lot more meaning than the written word. Characters that readers can connect with are something that many Australian comic fans take for granted, and there are so many amazing stories that the visuals of comics are uniquely suited to represent. I hope that the representation of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders continues to grow in comics.
I’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg with all these titles, and there’s a lot of Indigenous themes in comics all around the world, so I hope this post inspires you to read some great comics, especially comics by indigenous creators.