A History of the scene
Tale-Trader The Legend of Twarin
Hellblazers Delano and Ennis
This article was written for a horror magazine a few years ago, but never published (the Melbourne-based mag was bought by Americans, who were less interested). Although it only covers up to the beginning of Dee Vee and self-published Bacchus, thus missing the likes of Captain Koala, Quay-line and the rash of very interesting titles in the last year or two, I feel it is still a useful look at the formative influences on the scene. The air of optimism in which this was written was not really borne out by subsequent years, however, as many of the titles mentioned herein as on-going, weren't. Nonetheless, after attending SupaNova this year (2002), I can once again say the future looks pretty good (for what that is worth).
An update may be forthcoming, time constraints pending. In the meantime, you can also check out my Comics Gallery in chronological order.
by David Carroll, 1996
If you've been following the progress of Australian-made horror fiction recently, a lot of this is going to sound familiar. The names have been changed, but it's the same old story — trying to match the large proportion of the Australian public who are interested in this sort of thing with the enthusiastic locals who want to prove their vision is as relevant, or more so, than the imported stuff.
Science Fiction, role-playing, movie making, all are pretty much in the same situation. And to various degrees the situation has improved somewhat in the last couple of years. There have been successes, and there are support structures being put into place to encourage future work. It's just that sometimes the goal seems farther away than ever.
So all this could be a parable of the creative endeavours of us all. More likely, it is a history of a number of talented individuals and the comic books they have been producing.
There are a lot of them. They're all pretty weird (and if there is a defining attribute of Australian art, weird — perhaps better defined as a pragmatic surrealism — is the one), quite a number are downright horrific, and, believe me, whatever your tastes, there's something out there you're just going to love.
In the BeginningMost people's idea of comics are American superheroes. It's a genre that grew out of the pulp fiction of the 1920s, and was properly defined at a time when the US was achieving both its domination over popular art in the Western world, and its heights of paranoia about it's own cultural successes. McCarthyism and the whole mood of the time affected comics for longer, and more profoundly, then any of the other arts. EC Comics had been ground into the dust. Superheroes was it. And very safe and patriotic superheroes they were too.
It wasn't until the mid-Eighties or so that things began to change. People like Frank Miller were showing the US that superheroes didn't have to be safe or patriotic. More significantly, England regained its angry voice of last century, and right alongside Clive Barker and James Herbert, Alan Moore started showing the US a thing or two about what the mix of word and picture is capable of. And at the same time — maybe it was cosmic rays or something — three comics started production in Australia that have pretty much defined the local form ever since. Between Fox Comics, Phantastique, and Cyclone! Australia we have the bitter-sweet/slice-of-life anthology, horror, superhero and talking animal genres covered, and a bit more besides. Only Cyberpunk was missing (and it wasn't absent for very long). They were not the first by any means, titles such as Ink Spots and Reverie existed not too long before these, and others go back a lot further, but they do seem to be the first real blossomings of an actual scene.
Fox came first, edited by one David Vodicka, coming out of Melbourne in 1984. It was the most 'literary' of the three (don't you love that word?), an anthology of short pieces, vignettes more than stories, that managed a surprisingly consistent feel over it's broad subject range and vast number of styles. Lots of satire, childhood reminisces, secret scientists, All Along the Watchtower Bar & Grill and the occasional zombie were to be found in this 'quiet and seemingly apolitical magazine', as an editorial puts it. Fox Comics lasted some five years and twenty-six or so issues.
The other two came out of a group of Sydney based comic fans called Oz Comics. In 1985 they were working on an idea called Sunburnt when financing was arranged to set up Phantastique under the control of Frank Maconochie and Steve Carter. At about the same time another section of the group was arranging alternate funding, and Sunburnt became the first issue of Cyclone!. The void created by the work on Phantastique was solved by the inclusion, in #2, of The Southern Squadron — 'Australia's own Super Trouble Shooters'.
Phantastique was to have a short and turbulent life and, as a venture, cannot be counted a success, as Steve Carter readily admits. Steve had a clear idea of the product he wanted to create, which was at odds with a number of others in the original group. So there was compromise from the start, and financial pressure as well (which we'll go into later). Adding somewhat considerably to these internal woes was the external reaction — this was essentially an 'underground' 'zine that was being shipped into newsagents, and the mainstream had some trouble coping. In short, Phantastique was campaigned against vigorously by Fred Nile and John Laws, 'exposed' on national TV and banned in three states. Financing was withdrawn, and with two issues of material left unproduced, issue four was the last.
Having said that, there's a lot of stuff in the issues that makes them worth tracking down. With the other comics it is possible to see the smoothing out process as styles settle down and the better ideas come to the fore. Phantastique never got the chance, though you could say that the later SCAR material was forcibly distilled from this comic in much the same way that the Southern Squadron naturally came out of Cyclone! and, as we shall see, Zero Assassin came out of Issue One. So there are a lot of evolutionary lines of development for more recognisable characters to be seen therein, and other stuff as well: some early, and quite different, David de Vries work (such as the adventures of Brutal and Frank), some nice clean art and good story-telling from Des Waterman, even a story from Leigh Blackmore.
Cyclone!, meanwhile, was having an easier time of it. Perhaps the biggest difference between this and the two other magazines was that Cyclone! deliberately went for character-based stories, leading to on-going series, a format that didn't fit as well in Fox, and which was actively discouraged by Phantastique. Cyclone! was created by four different people with four ideas: Gary Chaloner with Harry and the New Heroes, which quickly became The Jackaroo, Tad Pietrzykowski with Dark Nebula, Glenn Lumsden with the 1940s Southern Cross, and then David de Vries with The Southern Squadron — a four member team of superheroes.
As it was initially conceived, Cyclone! was continued for eight issues, the different characters and stories running throughout. By that stage the comic was successful enough to split up into various component pieces — Cyclone! was renamed The Southern Squadron, and both The Jackaroo and Dark Nebula got their own titles.
So, if each of these titles was a wellspring to later work up to the present day, let's look in more detail at why they worked, and what they spawned.
AnthologiesActually, Fox is atypical because anthology comics have not generally proved themselves to be successful in the long run. Looking at some other examples, we can see why.
We have already mentioned Cyclone!, which ran four distinct stories arcs before splitting up. There are more examples along these lines. Eureka! is a comic that came out of Brisbane in 1988, edited by Ian Gould and containing three very different storylines — Rip Rory, a rather detailed space opera, Verity Aloeha, the saga of a (mostly half-naked) model in a Wonderland-type fantasy, and Hedrax, very Manga SF. It looked pretty good, but only lasted three issues. In 1993 a comic actually called Anthology appeared out of Melbourne, edited by Damien Shanahan, with six Mangaesque/cyberpunk stories by various people. It had only the one issue. Best known is Sam Young's (wonderfully titled) Issue One from 1992, starting with the editor's Zero Assassin and Cyberswine, as well as the fascinating looking Island. In its eight issues it featured a lot of other stories as well, but always Zero Assassin, and mostly Cyberswine. It was no real surprise to see these two get their own title.
Most anthologies are brought out for financial rather than creative reasons, and it is the rare editor who can keep their own title going, and work on other people's ones as well. This process can sometimes be quite deliberate. A recent title is Tales of Fantastic Fiction, in which the editors present five distinct story lines. The idea is to discover the most popular amongst the readers, and concentrate on that (The King Returns gets my vote from #1, though In The Nick of Time and The Streetcleaner also show promise). The South Australian Cold Angel seems to have a successful anthology format going (more Cyberpunk, with some innovative ideas), but makes the financial investment the responsibility of the contributors (that is, you have to pay to get in, and any profits are later shared). Despite this arrangement, which may be seen as rather off-putting, they seem to be doing pretty well.
So why was Fox different? Simply enough because the editor seemed concerned first and foremost with actually editing. Being able to coordinate a large range of talent, and all the normal fiddly details of publication, is not an easy task. David Vodicka carried it off for a long time.
Interestingly enough, perhaps the first real replacement for Fox has just appeared in the last couple of months. It's called DV, or Different Voices, and is edited by one Marcus Moore out of Brisbane. I don't want to push the Fox comparison too far, since the editor hasn't seen the older title, and only time will tell if DV will succeed. I hope so — issue one was excellent, and the comic promises the first regular to home to Eddie Campbell's Alec in a long time. More on that later.
One thing that should be mentioned here is the independent, or underground comic scene. Neither of these descriptions are particularly useful — after all, you can't really say any of the other comics we've been talking about are mainstream, and the work of SCAR and the TISM comic, as two examples, blur the distinctions even more — but they nonetheless convey the right feel. These are comics like Sick Puppy Comix, Never Was Toejam and Small Intestine, which produce some excellent collections of work that'll never see the inside of a newsagent — or that many comic shops either. There are undoubtedly lots more of the same out there, Vexed Comix, Little Black Book and Alcoholocaust are examples of titles I haven't seen copies of, whilst 'zines like the varied Eddie are also good sources of material.
And lastly, I also can't fail to mention Dark Horse Down Under, a three issue anthology edited by Gary Chaloner for one of the more prestigious American independents. The selection of talent seems a little conservative (this was 1994), but it nonetheless covers a good range of material and is well worth the read.
Weird SF, Furries, and other OdditiesDavid de Vries says there's still a big niche waiting for anyone who can produce a good Australian Superhero comic and get it out into the newsstands. But despite the success of Cyclone!, and its offspring, local comics have a large and distinctive lack of muscles and latex. It's not a total lack — there is Bodine Amerikah's Niteside and the Rock, which we'll get to later, and the occasional less serious effort such as the current Pizza Man — but there's nothing that's going to make DC or Marvel nervous.
Which is possibly the point. The situation is a lot like that faced by local film-makers — they are not competing with the factory fodder of Hollywood, but are coming up with, and finding success in, other styles.
I also suggest that, unlike local film, comics here are a lot freer in their options. There are no powerful funding bodies pushing cultural enrichment and such bullshit, for one. So, from Cyclone! on, and The Jackaroo and Southern Squadron in particular, (Dark Nebula doesn't quite fit the pattern, but was always too generic for my tastes), what is the result of this supposed freedom of choice?
A lot of people in the last decade or so have tried to add reality to the superhero genre. Most people — Alan Moore, Mike Grell, Frank Miller, even James O'Barr, come to mind — do it by taking the cliches and making them traumatic. The Southern Squadron did it by taking the cliches and making them funny. And like the best comedies, if the jokes are backed up by realistic settings and characters who can see the situation and react as the audience would (or would hope to), then you can slide into deadly seriousness and take that audience right on in with you. It's tricky to pull off, but David de Vries and company did it with style.
The Jackaroo did similar things, this time moving between the (possibly) more realistic worlds of Kings Cross crime and outback Dugga Dugga, and with a straighter face. It's also a sensibility that drives a lot of other titles, though with a different set of cliches. Mostly weird SF, and talking animals.
Australians have a thing for talking animals. Don't ask me, I just report the facts. Even Cyclone! had a Space Ranger Platypus (called Flash Damingo, you'll be glad to know).
The more obvious examples are Bodine Amerikah and Jason Paulos' Hairbutt the Hippo, John Horvath and Sam Young's Cyberswine ('Part Machine, Part Cop, Full Boar!'), and Michael Michalandos and Tim McEwen's Greener Pastures (the adventures of a bored Guernsey Stud), which play fast and loose with detective fiction, cyberpunk and Sydney University respectively. Sam Young has said that Cyberswine was a deliberate and heartfelt cry of militant vegetarianism, while Michael Michalandos was more cautious about it all. Certainly beef guilt played a part (these guys beat Gary Larson to it, I might add), but wasn't the initial impetus for the character. In comics you need a character with a strong visual image, so the animal features work in much the same way as a Superhero's suit.
All three of these comics are currently available and on-going. There is also David James' eclectic Rabbit (and my favourite, Zero Rabbit), and various bits and pieces from the anthologies. It is, however, much too scary to contemplate the relationship between this trend and SCAR's Femosaur World...
Closely related are the various titles like John Petropaulos and Mark Sexton's Bug & Stump and the prolific Dillon Naylor's Da 'n' Dill. This has the same visual distinctiveness (two of those four title characters are green, one has four arms, one is more or less a duck. Then there's Stump who is, ah, short, albeit distinctively so) with aliens rocking around causing all sorts of trouble. Both are popular titles (indeed Bug & Stump is claimed to be the most widely read Australian comic, at least for last year), but I'll have to admit that personally, in this case the style is starting to wear a little thin.
More conventionally SF, but just as weird, it Fil Barlow's Zooniverse, which has had a number of incarnations, most of which I've missed. Skunge NYPD has at least a nominally human protagonist, but an over-sized serial killer working for the Scumbuster Division of the New York Police seems to fit here as well as anywhere. It's actually not as bad as it might sound (but the people who compare it to Tarantino don't appear to have seen any of QT's movies — or possibly read the comic, for that matter).
And then there's the title put out of Brisbane by Trudy E. Cooper, Doug Bayne and Danny Murphy... 'Platinum' seems a popular thing to call an Aussie comic — there were ads for something called Platinum in 1988, and 1993 saw an issue or two under the same name (reasonably good-looking SF). But neither is Platinum Grit — the most addictive thing to hit the comic shops in ages. It's about a guy and a girl — and past that the explanations get a little hazy. Jeremy is a completely ineffectual (but lovable) dork who inherits a Scottish castle. Nils is drop-dead gorgeous and has dialogue that leaves scars. The castle crashes into Greenland.
'There are no messages in PG. It's just the story of two people who are fucked-up, and their fucked-up relationship', says Trudy. It also manages to have its gleeful way with everything from Highlander to noir fiction and, yes, weird SF. Stay tuned for more.
SCAR issue: Horror and Dark SFAnyone who thought that horror comics in Australia weren't going to survive Phantastique's messy gestation didn't have to wait long to be proved otherwise. The serious side of the equation remained, and is just as strong these days, if a little different in focus.
First, of course, there is SCAR, the team of Steve Carter and Antoinette Rydyr. Antoinette joined Steve for issue two of Charnel House, his personal follow-up to Phantastique, and they have remained pretty indivisible ever since. Getting to grips with their work isn't the easiest thing in the world — just finding it is often tricky enough — and the content can also be a little off-putting. 'Contains prolonged, graphic scenes of gratuitous, cruel and relished violence, and explicit sex and mutilation', is the fairly accurate blurb on Charnel House #5 — they obviously don't mess around. They also cause a lot of controversy, even (or perhaps especially) in the horror community itself, so it's worth taking a little time to see where they're coming from.
A lot of horror is about seduction, the lure of the dark side. Even the mundane has a seductive quality in most horror fiction, it lulls and draws the audience in, to take it unawares. That doesn't happen in Steve and Antoinette's work. There is no appeal to your sensibilities to lessen their blows; as they pile rape upon bloodshed upon distorted vaginal imagery, your reactions are pretty much what you take in with you. It is certainly likely to elicit a reaction of some kind.
But comics are a narrative medium, and once you get past such tricks that sort of thing can be, and often is, very boring. SCAR have not avoided this completely — in particular their political work, where their targets are obvious, often comes across as simply petulant and pointless. And yet there's a lot more going on. Charnel House, for example, follows an anthology format, and just in the issues I've seen there are a number of very effective vignettes, moments where reality does intrude into the equation. In The Ride a women is raped and killed by three men because 'she knows too much' — all shown graphically, of course, but the unspoken thoughts of each are shown throughout, making it a nasty and intelligent character study. Work like Poor Bitch, the first comic they had self-published in the US, shows a deceptive and brilliant simplicity that hides a very knowing social sense, which also comes out in a lot of their humorous work (the now defunct Adventures of Slugman definitely had its moments). In fact the two are often in the horror genre only as a kind of default. They cover a fair range of stuff, surreal and savage SF is one speciality, for a lot of markets.
Lastly, writing considerations aside, it must be said they are among the two most proficient artists working in Australian comics. Their normal style for narrative art is simple, well-composed and effective (if not evocative — no seduction, remember), whereas some of their more experimental, one-off material is just stunning. These two take a lot of flak, probably give out more, and aren't to the general taste (or mine, a lot of the time), but their dedication to their own vision is both admirable, and getting them results.
But there is also a lot more than that going on. In fact the late Eighties saw a pretty interesting sample of the pure unrepentant horror form that seems influenced by Phantastique's existence, but otherwise is quite separate. An interesting case is Pounding Tales, created by Tim Pigott, Miles Ferguson and Peter Pound (who was in fact to have material in P#5), it was a punkish anthology that got up to seven or so issues before the new decade. Not adverse to horror content in itself, the same people put out a number of one-off specials, the likes of Cargo Zombies and Family Slaughter. Both were based on screenplays written by Tim ('the comicbook of next year's smash-hit movie', CZ promises, somewhat optimistically) and combined good solid (if rather inconsistent) artwork with a pretty interesting take on their subjects, the first being mad scientists in the PNG jungle, the second a more ambitious tale of commercialisation, sex, family get-togethers and, of course, more zombies.
It could be fairly said that the majority of Australian comics concentrate on the immediate worries of character and situation rather than on long-term unfolding plots. These two are quite atypical in that regard, but there are others. Perhaps our most ambitiously written comic also appeared at about this same time, Chris Sequeira and Kurt Stone's Pulse of Darkness, 'an Australian Gothic chiller'. Coming from the days before the vampire craze hit in earnest, this was to be a six-issue series exploring vampirism from pretty much every angle there was, each issue being a complete story with its own distinct motifs and influences (and inker, but that was sort of an accident...) With so much potential and a good, polished first issue, it is a great shame that the need to cut costs forced down the print run and quality of subsequent issues, bringing the series to a halt after number four. #5 was also drawn, and there are currently rumours that the full package is being considered for printing as a single volume, so we may be lucky yet.
Chris Sequeira is also responsible for a character which started in Phantastique and has been printed on and off ever since, including his own title for an issue or two — Rattlebone. Chris says he knew there was something special about this character, a skull-faced private eye and a noir setting, when he first appeared, and he has certainly had a measure of success. There has even been a twenty-five minute long Rattlebone film that somebody has made. I haven't seen it, but I'm told the make-up is quite impressive. Both Chris and Kurt are still working in their respective fields of writing and art, as readers of these pages will have undoubtedly noticed.
Bodine Amerikah was a contributor to Pounding Tales and would later go on to do Hairbutt the Hippo, but Niteside and the Rock is his most ambitious and distinctive creation. Nominally a superhero comic, the sheer energy and outrageous edge of the art and writing, plus those good ol' adult concepts, which Australians seem to have a knack for, pushes this beyond the normal fodder. It could be said a lot of the smaller comic titles tend to put too much detail in their art, making it crowded and messy — here Bodine packs it in and gets away with it. The series didn't last that long, but after the universe ended in issue three, I guess there was nowhere else to go...
But one comic that did come back, and rather unexpectedly, was Cyclone. In 1992 Gary Chaloner relaunched the old title with a brand new look and gorgeous production values that make the three issues completed the most professional product created locally. Back in its old anthology format, one of the stories continued the adventures of Flash Damingo (you remember, the platypus) with some stark and sharply-defined linework, but it's the other two that are of most interest. The Undertaker (the adventures of Morton Stone and his dog, Crypt Toe, 'a necropolyptic comedy in six parts') and Doctor Moth (just exactly what this one's about is an interesting question. Tea, latex and chocolate cases make appearances) are paeans of insanity and black humour, with painted artwork from Ashley Wood that is more reminiscent of Dave McKean and the like than anything produced locally. Great stuff. But once again the old forces are at work and the series didn't last long — by number three we really only had The Undertaker left, inked instead of painted (though still in Ashley's distinctive style) and some Zooniverse, looking just a little like filler. Number three was the last.
There are other examples of horror as well, mostly one-offs. Two I've seen from the late Eighties are Dillon Naylor's 'third generation EC-influenced magazine' Done to Death, and Neil Walpole's The Fright Stuff. Most recently is Blue Smoke, a series of short but effective vignettes exploring the nastier side of suburbia. Backed by some good artwork (mostly from the prolific Greg Gates) it conveys its despair with some tight writing from David Bird, and a companion, White Meat is expected.
It may be clear from this that horror has had some proponents but no real impact in the Nineties. But another, closely-related field is having a better time of it — these are the comics that seem influenced by the World of Darkness Goth and Punk milieu and, in particular, cyberpunk.
At the low-tech/mystical end of things are the likes of City's Angel, Zxenith, The Agent of Light and Mist of Devlin (Disciple, which came out with City's Angel, also looks the part thanks to an incredible cover, but is actually more generic sword and sorcery). All three are promising, though I believe CA won't get to issue two as its creator (and the Disciple cover artist) Xander Black has moved on to Issue One — the company that is. I like the idea of Zxenith, though the concept isn't exactly original (an out-of-work Magician's assistant discovers her true potential — and lots of nasty enemies) and the execution of the (currently) two issues is a little rough. It does has its moments, so perseverance may pay off. The Agent of Light is more polished, but also needs a bit more innovation. But Mist of Devlin was quite a surprise, the creation of Wyin Law out of Melbourne, it had a level of writing that matched the artwork, not an easy task. More Eastern-tradition magic, but the intricacies are deftly handled, and I'll be fascinated to know where it goes from here.
Then there's the actual cyberpunk. There's not actually a great number of titles... David Heinrich's much advertised Earth came out in 1994, looked great and disappeared quickly. Doing better is the Cold Angel anthology already mentioned. But there's also Zero Assassin, which is pretty much a movement all on its own.
As I've said, it was created by Sam Young, though Max Autohead seems to be his moniker of preference these days, and came out of the Issue One title. There are many good things to say about this one, but a good sign for an SF title is that it is always playing round with its technology and ideas, and has a lot more going on then just the various hits of the title character (though there are quite a few of those as well. Have you noticed he always seems to kill the people that hire him? Can't be good for business...) It has its genuine moments of frisson, and some great art from various people (the new colour issues look very nice indeed), some good human characterisation, lots of violence, some sex and a bit of the necessary weirdness to boot (loved Mick Rave and the Rad Weeds). In short, it's doing pretty well for itself, and is looking good for that future it's so cynical about.
Well, since I think I've now proved my three originals don't have a great deal to do with what came after, what else is there?
One quite justifiable way people have come up with for selling issues is to produce a comic that ties in to something popular. These can get pretty weird at times — 1992 saw David Heinrich's Champion Comics — the official comic of the Australian Football League (which still manages to include some odd tangents out of the expected reality of people kicking balls around), and there was even a GI Joe Australia title (not a concept I personally think much of, though the issue I have seems competent enough). Glenn Lumsden and David de Vries also worked on a very professional-looking graphic adaptation of Paul Jennings' Round the Twist short stories (though of the two issues drawn, only one was printed).
All reasonably good ideas, none of these examples worked out particularly well, for one reason or another. It is still too early to tell if the latest try is going to do any better — but I hope so, because Mark Sexton and John Petropoulos, of Bug & Stump fame, are also putting out a TISM comic, and it's great.
Actually, #1 was visually arresting, inventive, told you lots about the band, and was still managed to be a bit boring. But it sold incredibly well, and made way for #2, and they don't get much better than this one. With that wonderful combination of passion, nihilism and simple cleverness from TISM's songs, plus great art and a flair for layout, this one needs to be read. Don't look for it in the newsagents though, it's been recalled by the OFLC due to complaints (and if the complaints were about the drug use, they missed a (very) large point). Let's hope #3 will a) exist, and b) be unrepentant.
Perhaps less spectacularly, but doing reasonably well, I believe, is Dillon Naylor's take on an apparently real band, The Fireballs (they were real enough on Recovery this morning, anyway). In the issue I have Satan gets raised and lots of fun goes down. In this general trend, Greener Pastures got a bit of publicity last year when Sydney band Headache used Trevor (the bull, that is) prominently on their posters and Brown Lounge album cover.
A related strategy which doesn't get a lot of attention but has produced some successes is comics made to be included in mainstream(ish) magazines. Those ubiquitous boys from Cyclone were doing a series called Bodyguard for Penthouse in the late Eighties, and SCAR have done well in this market, including Lorena Quasar and Slugman in Picture Sextra and The World. I recently saw the collected strips of something called The Adventures of GonadMan, taken from a surfing mag, though I think we're getting a little off-topic by this stage.
The remaining work is generally made up of individual visions, in genres that would perhaps have more success if they made it out of the usual circle of comic readers and creators. These can be incredibly ambitious affairs. Tale-Trader: The Legend of Twarin is billed as Australia's first Graphic Novel, and at 120 finely detailed pages it may be right. This one is a bit tricky to comment on since it's not really my sort of thing, and it's already at the centre of a running flame war between its creator, Talnon, and various parts of the industry over the supposed suppression of local female talent. Basically, it seems to achieve what it set out to do admirably well and, as usual, reducing the complexities of the gender wars into a broad trend of malice is a pretty silly idea.
There are also a number of more intimate works, small press comics that don't share the usual fixations. I have nothing but admiration for Brendan Boyd's philosophical journey in his Heartland comic and companions, and the incredible Gerard Ashworth's philosophical nightmares from a large range of titles, Electric Ferret, Weird Stress Kittens (more animals!) and the like -- but I can't say I'd actually read either of them.
I'm not entirely sure if Bruce Mutard's Street Smell ('the lowbrow comic for highbrows') fits anywhere in particular, but around here sounds about right.
And finally we come to Eddie Campbell. Opinions differ as to whether he even counts, but is nonetheless Australia's most successful comic writer and artist, having originated in Scotland but lived in Queensland for the past ten or so years. He has been snared by the mainstream on a couple of occasions, including a short writing stint on Hellblazer, and his best known work is From Hell, Alan Moore's examination of the Jack the Ripper murders, including Eddie's incredibly evocative (and exhaustively researched) art-work. Other work he is known for is Alec, a series of semi-autobiographical (some more semi than others) vignettes, but perhaps his most significant work was first published by Dark Horse as Deadface, the 'adventures' of the Greek god of wine, Bacchus, 4000 years old and feeling his age. This comic covers a lot of ground, examining ancient and modern mythology, alcohol consumption, and superpowered battle scenes just for starters, all in a wonderfully practical manner. Recently, with his cut of the sale of movie rights to From Hell (he hopes it's a good movie...), he has moved into self-publishing, and the comic Bacchus both continues the series and reprints older material. All of this work is on-going (From Hell is almost finished...), and I'm a serious Eddie Campbell fan, so what can I say but check them out.
The FailuresAn examination of the local scene would not be complete without a look at the forces at work preventing its full potential from being realised. In one word: distribution, though it is a bit more complicated than that.
Most people currently go through one of the top three distributors to get their comic to the people who will hopefully be able to sell it, the newsagents. The trouble at the moment is that these three all seem to be trying to cut back on comics as much as possible -- reducing the print runs of their current titles and not accepting new ones, and only provide erratic coverage anyway (if you've tried to find Bloodsongs at your local shops, you know what I mean -- I know #6 seems to be the only one that reached Sutherland). And without serious advertising, what does get out there is likely to be ignored, anyway. It does work to a certain extent -- the only copy of Cold Angel I've seen in Sydney was at a newsagent I wandered into quite by chance -- but not well enough. There are various horror stories to be told as well, such as the pulping of unsold stock, though perhaps the worst is the false information and general confusion from distributors that played a major part in the demise of the four Cyclone titles. I know of several people, Platinum Grit for example, that are simply giving up on the idea.
The alternative is to sell to the comic shops, which allow much more cost-effective advertising, an audience that is more open to experimentation, and hopefully some support from staff. The trouble here is the only distributor that will service all the comic shops is Diamond -- shipping from the US (recently Blind Dog Distributors in Australia were trying to provide the service, but are reported to be having financial difficulties). Obviously most titles are not able to afford this, which reduces the equation to personally approaching as many shops as possible.
Some groups of artists are currently experimenting doing just that, each handling their own city for the group as a whole, whereas Steve Carter's Comic Nasties and Eddie Campbell actually print in the US or Canada and import -- and then have to put up with cries that they are selling out (not to mention problems with customs). It's not an easy situation. Fox certainly provides a cautionary example here -- from issue 23 on they were published by the US company Fantagraphics, but it didn't catch on in the States and folded very soon after.
Of course, once you can get to readers, you then have to persuade them you're worth reading, and more importantly, worth following up on. Advertising is one solution of course, but it's more than that. One problem is simply that all Australian comics, with the exception of the latest issues of Zero Assassin and Cyberswine, are black and white, and only the Nineties Cyclone is printed on nice glossy paper. This is a problem of perception, because black and white art is by no means automatically inferior to colour (a good example is the recent Batman: Black and White series, which looks gorgeous). But expectations pushed, once again, by the big league superhero stuff make it immediately less marketable. Secondly, it's hard to keep interest in an on-going series if there is only one or two issues a year. This limitation is too prevalent in the local industry, and it comes down to time and ultimately, money -- it's the rarest of people who can make a full time income in the field. Eddie Campbell, Steve and Antoinette, that's it. One of the Greener Pastures team is at the start of taking a year off to devote to the comic, to get round this hurdle. We can all wish him the best of luck (though I'm sure he'd prefer you give the title a go).
If money looms large on the list of problems, there's two extra reasons why it's a bit scarce -- a lack of support from Government or the like, and actual poor business skills on the part of the artists themselves. I don't mean this to reflect badly on the group, but nobody's in this for the money, so the requisite skills to handle all the negotiations involved in printing, advertising (both inside the comic, and for the comic itself), distribution etc are generally few and far between.
The financing Phantastique received in 1985 to get off the ground was a $5,000 grant and a $20,000 loan from the Commonwealth Government's Business Incentive Scheme (Frank Maconochie and Steve Carter were the only ones to assume financial responsibility for the deal, which is why they, and Steve in particular, had control over the comic's direction). Steve admits their own inexperience, plus rigorous and inappropriate controls over the finances from the Scheme itself, made it enormously difficult to manage. After the censorship furore, the loan was revoked and, hardly Phantastique's fault, the Scheme refused to consider further submissions for comic titles.
There have been other avenues, aside from movie deals -- not long after the above events, Pounding Tales received a $2000 grant for their second issue -- but they are few and far between. Sam Young of Issue One won the Nescafé Big Break Award of 1993, allowing him to move beyond the anthology format and giving Zero Assassin and Cyberswine their own titles. And even these two -- potentially Australia's most lucrative commercial property with increasingly slick production values and some rather good ideas -- are denied anything like their full audience, because those who would read it have trouble finding it or, more likely, just don't know it exists.
And The SuccessesAll of which means that real success in the field is still counted in terms of overseas business. It happens.
In fact it's happened to some of the people I've already spent quite a bit of time on. Eddie Campbell is obvious. Steve and Antoinette currently have New World Disorder for Millennium and a number of titles with Eros, including Spore Whores (banned in Australia) and Kill of the Spyderwoman. They also are doing very well with art for White Wolf, mostly for the Werewolf RPG. In the early Nineties David de Vries and Glenn Lumsden also started doing work for the US independents, starting with Malibu's first-ever colour comic (Puppet Masters, based on the Full Moon video series), Eternal Warriors for Valiant, and then a Phantom mini-series for Marvel itself. Out this year is their three part Batman comic for DC. David also has credits on Green Lantern and Black Lightning for DC and The Thing for Dark Horse. He is currently trying his hand at the movie business, and is making some progress, by reports.
There are also some individual successes that are less obvious, not having as much output locally. Jozef Szekeres started work in local animation studios, and has gone on to successful work in the ElfQuest series, as well as work for Image and others. Michal Dutkiewicz has done work for various DC titles, including Batman and spin-offs, among other things.
But the scene as a whole is doing pretty well for itself, too. There are a lot of people working to get round all the problems I've talked about, and also a lot of people simply working on getting their visions down on paper. The OzCon comic convention, held every February since 1992, is certainly the largest genre-related event I've seen held in this country, and is getting people together. It's exciting times, which naturally means there's still a lot of really hard work to be done. And a lot of good stuff to read, as well.
AcknowledgmentsThanks to David de Vries, Steve Carter, Antoinette Rydyr, Des Waterman, Chris Sequeira, Mark Michalandos, Trudy Cooper, Marcus Moore, Mark Ptolemy, Jason Paulos, Eddie Campbell (in '94) and Miles Ferguson (way back in '89) for talking to me about their work. Also thanks to Comic Edge!, the newsletter of the Australian Cartoonist Group for extra info. To track down these titles, your local comic shops are the place to start. After that, the best of luck.
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