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Comics: Classic to cutting edge

Comics: Classic to cutting edge
The Australian Comic Arts Festival (ACAF) 2018
2 October 2018

ACAF is a three day celebration of comics and graphic novels with an Australian focus. This year it showcased Indigenous storytelling, the changing roles of women as creators and as comic book heroes, and creating a uniquely Australian narrative. The market day provided rich pickings for the National Library collection, and an opportunity to promote legal deposit  and the edeposit service.

Special guest Ryan Griffen, creator of Cleverman, noted that comics are one of the most diverse forms envisioning different worlds. In recent years Australian creators have delivered successful examples of cross media storytelling: Neomad, The Deep, and more recently, Cleverman among them. All three illustrate growing diversity in the superhero genre cutting across film, television and sequential art publications.

Neomad, first published as an interactive iPad comic with input from more than of 30 young people, meshes traditional Indigenous culture with futuristic adventure. The hardcopy version won Australia’s top comic book award, the Gold Ledger. Comic historian, Philip Bentley, said the panel had been “impressed by the work’s cross-cultural nature, visual verve and mix of ancient and modern elements” For more see Monica Tan’s interview. The Deep features a multi-ethnic family with universal appeal. From graphic novels to a major animated television series, author Tom Taylor told MTV news that “The world is a diverse place … We simply wanted a unique cast of heroes who aren’t from anywhere… The sea is huge and covers the globe, and so do the Nekton family.”

More recently Cleverman expanded from TV series to comics, succeeding in spite of being up against it on 3 fronts: genre, political and black. It encompasses genocide, the stolen generation, domestic violence and strong women and girls. Ryan Griffen gathered the Dreaming stories from around Australia – with permission from elders to re-tell them – and constructed a multilayered, futuristic context for a wider audience.

He noted that we’re only scratching the surface of indigenous stories, and stressed that white authors need black editors to avoid instances of storytelling without respect. He added that elders in traditional communities are already on the back foot as so much has already been taken from them; they fear that the stories will be stolen or destroyed. It’s important to let people know there’s a respectful way to tell these stories in reaching out to a wider community. Using Western media, and placing them into pop-culture setting creates interest from a wider audience. Griffen maintains that we need stories that are people of colour driven that reach out universally, adding that oppression is universal and the audience will always find an ‘in’ from their perspective.

Ywarru artist and writer Brenton McKenna (Ubby’s Underdogs), explained that it can be difficult telling stories with spiritual significance for Indigenous people in a wider culture where very little is held sacred. He also commented that there are also often challenges to finding your own stories: “you can’t just Google it!”

He relayed how comics provided him with a bridge to literacy, as well as offering insights into his experiences conducting workshops in remote indigenous schools. While the reception to McKenna’s comics workshops in city schools is typically enthusiastic, receptive and fun; his first attempt in a small remote indigenous community was so difficult that he almost gave up. For these students, English is a second/third/fourth language and they retain a strong sense of culture and bush survival skills. They were hostile to the ‘teacher out the front talking’ model. Brenton quickly realised that the best way to connect was to sit down on the ground amongst the students and start drawing; no introduction, no talking. On the first attempt, it took an hour to get a response as the students recognised Marvel superheros and warmed to the process of drawing and sharing stories. Typically, in the two weeks following the workshops, these kids start drawing their own comics.

Liesl Mitchell pictured with Brenton McKenna

Women: creators, representation

From 1940s to the 2000s women have had a hand in Australian comics. Pioneer creators, (e.g. Moira Bertram, joint winner of this year’s Ledger of Honour) and characters such as the Sydney private investigator in The Judy O'Neil comic, were exceptional for their presence in a male dominated sphere.

More recently the stunningly original work of Mandy Ord, Nicki Greenberg and Queenie Chan has risen to prominence. Young women creators are now challenging all sorts of stereotypes e.g. Hail, from Miranda Richardson and Rosanna Lam, is a superhero comic responding to current conceptions of strength, gender and mental illness.

On the final day of ACAF18, Nicola Scott was joined by was joined by writer and editor Karen Beilharz (Monsters, Kinds of blue and Eternal life) and Mythmaker Media Head of Production Robbie Miles for a panel discussion of women comics creators, representation and the crossover with film and television. Nicola’s career as a comic book artist spans 18 years, from Phosphorescent Comics in Sydney to the American industry with IWD, Dark Horse, Image and DC comics. Her wealth of experience has included first hand exposure to sexism and gender bias within the industry, alongside insights into the rich perspectives women bring to the genre.

Cover art by Nicola Scott

Nicola believes that female creators construct great male characters – complex, vulnerable and likeable. Robbie Miles added that the majority of top film editors are women: “Males make the footage, females make the film.”

The panel noted that the visual literacy of audiences has developed exponentially over the past 20 years; people are more sophisticated in their understanding of characters, story and meaning through symbolism, cues, references, short hand and non-linear narrative. The speakers expressed the hope that over time audiences will increasingly welcome diversity. While there are few older women characters in comics or film, Gen X is pushing the age bracket back and telling women’s stories.

Robbie commented that we need superheroes as metaphors, models and inspiration; a view echoed by Axel Alonso, Marvel’s editor-in-chief 2011-2017, who stated in The Washington Post that female comic book readers are looking for content they can related to - modern female superheroes: “women with rich interior lives, interesting careers and complicated families who are defined by many things — least of all their looks

Telling Australian stories in comics; where do comics fit in the Australian narrative?

Comic artist and academic Dr. Paul Mason spoke about Australian comics historically, and the tensions inherent in telling authentically Australian stories in an American-grown medium dominated by the hero genre. Even with growing diversity in the US market, Paul stated that the majority of comic book heroes are men of violence crusading for righteous reasons. They don’t typically challenge the status quo of power structures and government.

Paul’s work, The Soldier Legacy and Kid Phantom, showcases heritage made current. The Soldier Legacy, his Bachelor of Animation Honours project, evolved into an Australian Action/Adventure/Superhero comic book series, published by Black House Comics.

Paul is currently working on the latest iteration of the Phantom: Kid Phantom, for Sydney-based Frew Publications, the world record holder for continuous publishing of The Phantom comic books, having done so since 1948. Although The Phantom is an American creation, the character isAustralia’s favourite comic hero. He has no superpowers but is “practical, no-nonsense, fiercely egalitarian, just, honest, wry, quick-witted, unflappable, solitary, courageous, loyal … we recognise in him our national character, our Australian Legend.The legend and the Phantom

Paul Mason at work on Kid Phantom

The National Library views comics and graphic novels as an integral part of Australian culture, and part of our literary and artistic heritage. These stories increasingly represent the diversity of Australian experience and we need to preserve them for the community and future generations. It was a privilege to meet some of Australia’s best comic artists and authors at ACAF 2018, and to hear them talk about their craft.


Webb, Charles (2011) Exploring The Deep with writer Tom Taylor

Tahir, Sabaa (2014) MS. MARVEL: Marvel Comics’ new focus on women ‘characters and creators’ aims to defy the ‘scantily clad’ cliche


Look beyond the mainstream