Oh to be in Melbourne, now the Writers Festival is here (throwing a spotlight on comics)....
Drawing Them In
By John Bailey. From The Age; August 21st 2011.
I had to share this with you, dear Comicoz web-reader, and I must offer my thanks to the Australian Cartoonists Association for alerting me to it. Read the article (in its entirety) here:
Stylish, sophisticated and ambitious, the modern comic is coming soon to a train station near you.
Step on to a train this Friday morning and you might be confronted by a change in your fellow passengers. Nothing dramatic, but something will have shifted. They'll still be listening to their iPods, sipping their coffees and reading their comic books. Wait - there it is. Why are so many otherwise respectable citizens reading comics?
This year the Melbourne Writers Festival is putting the art of the comic firmly in the frame, starting with a free graphic newspaper to be distributed at train stations across town. Drawn from Life features the contributions of 27 artists from Australia and overseas. Melbourne cartoonist Oslo Davis is the curator.
In Japan, Davis says, it's the norm to hop on the subway and see everyone from grandmas to teens to salarymen racing through the pages of comics the size of a phone book. ''You can't believe they can read it so fast,'' he says.
''They'll get through a whole big block of manga in their 45-minute train trip.''
If we're not as comic-literate here, we're learning. There's been a mini-boom in graphic novels in Australia recently: Nicki Greenberg's cartoon adaptations of Hamlet and The Great Gatsby have been must-haves for any hipster coffee table, Bruce Mutard's two novels, The Sacrifice and The Silence, have drawn comparisons with Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer prize-winning Maus, and Eddie Campbell's epic, semi-autobiographical collection Alec has been described as a ''high-water mark in the graphic novel's short history''.
This year's MWF features 18 events centred on comics and graphic novels. Festival director Steve Grimwade says the focus ''represents a strong creative form that's really finding its feet in Melbourne''.
Through the work of local artists, the festival is challenging people's ideas of what great literature is, he says. ''Right now, to have artists like Shaun Tan, Mandy Ord, Nicki Greenberg, Bruce Mutard all releasing books through major and independent publishers shows that the form is really getting a much greater foothold,'' he says. ''It's not easy to break new ground.''
From the political satires of newspapers to the best-selling collections of Leunig to Shaun Tan's Oscar-winning The Lost Thing, cartoons are a part of most of our lives. That's where Drawn from Life sets its sights: on the everyday worlds of its creators.
It wasn't an easy ask. ''Some people really struggled with it,'' Davis says. ''It's like an essay writer suddenly having to write fiction or vice versa.'' But that challenge was part of the project's appeal: ''I wanted people to get away from the fiction or political cartoons … and do something that was a bit more 'this is my life'.''
One contributor who didn't find the task daunting is Mandy Ord, a Melbourne-based comic artist whose second graphic novel, Sensitive Creatures, has just been published by Allen & Unwin. Her work is always inspired by her real life, often drawing on the humour and irony of everyday encounters that go awry.
''When I was younger I was working some pretty crappy jobs and wasn't always the happiest human,'' she says. ''I would vent a lot of frustration in my comics … people who read it maybe got this idea that I was loud and rude and
in-your-face and people would behave a certain way thinking that's how I would be.''
In person, Ord is anything but the belligerent, frustrated Mandy of her comics; she's bright-eyed and articulate and seemingly confident in herself. But comics offer her a way of holding forth the anxieties and anger we all harbour.
''We're all like that: we've got some rage boiling in us that no one can see,'' she says. ''There's a distance between you and the world when it's channelled through your art form. It's not like I'm sitting in front of you telling you my deepest, darkest secrets. That would be pretty confronting. But to do it through a medium makes it more of a curious thing, being curious about what it is to be human.''
It was while working in a comic store that Ord first came across the great [US] autobiographical cartoonists of the '80s and '90s - Chester Brown, Julie Doucet, Aline Kominsky-Crumb. It confirmed to her that writing about her own experiences ''wasn't being too self-absorbed'', she says. ''I worried that it was a bit egocentric to be going 'me, me, me' but it's more about looking at yourself as subject matter, as if you're a specimen. Plus, people read them and
say, 'I relate to that. Listen to what happened to me.' I love that.''
Perhaps the turn towards autobiography isn't surprising, given the amount of time comic artists spend on their own. "Shaun Tan is the most lauded children's book illustrator in the world right now and he works out of a spare bedroom in his house and doesn't talk to anyone,'' Davis says. ''From that space he won an Academy Award, drawing on a table half the size of mine.'' ''I don't share a studio with anyone,'' Ord says. ''It is very solitary. It suits this medium because you need the space to not get distracted.''
It's rare that a comic artist survives solely from their cartooning work, Davis says. Ord has a part-time job at an organic greengrocer, which helps stave off any loneliness her creative endeavours might entail. She also experienced a more collegiate atmosphere when the National Gallery of Victoria recently turned its attention to the medium, installing eight comic artists, including Ord, in a five-week-long workshop at Federation Square's NGV Studio. The cartoonists spent their days crafting new works and hanging them on walls for visitors to peruse and discuss with their makers.
Cartoonists sometimes have to contend with those who don't understand the complexity of the medium. While at the NGV Studio, Ord got into a discussion with a man who implied that comics can't be, you know, art. ''He liked paintings,'' she says. ''I said, 'Sure, it's a personal opinion but I actually really consider what we do an art form.' We had a really good chat. ''I didn't agree with 80 per cent of what he was talking about but I don't mind that.''
''I think the stigma is there because there's acceptable cartoons,'' Davis says, ''the Tandberg style of political cartoons, for instance, which are serving a role and the style isn't so much the thing. It's more a political line or satire. It's adult, it's about big issues. Then you have zine makers who scribble and photocopy and staple together stuff. The two worlds are completely different. As different as a play to a movie.''
It's a skill to read a comic, he says. ''You get a sense of the panel, you learn to read the text quickly. The words and the pictures blend together, almost like cinema. ''The visual language is something that needs to be learnt as well. A raised eyebrow or an angle or a sound effect all contribute to the storytelling, so it's not just speech bubbles and pictures. There's something else going on that people have to get used to.''
Drawn From Life will be distributed around Melbourne on August 26. A panel discussion on the project will run at ACMI the next day, featuring Oslo Davis, Jim Woodring and Peter Arkle. One of the festival's keynote events will be a projection of Shaun Tan's The Arrival, accompanied by a live orchestral ''sonic-scape''.
For more details of Drawn From Life from the Melbourne Writers Festival click here.
Comicoz is Nat Karmichael's publishing imprint. Nat is committed to preserving a permanent collection of Australian comic and comic strips. He feels that there is a need to recognise comics' contribution to and depiction of Australian culture.
Since 2011, Nat has self-published over twelve comic-related books and was Publisher-Editor of
Oi Oi Oi! -- the last series of nationally-distributed comic books of original stories to appear on Australian newsstands. He is a member of the Australian Cartoonists Association and edited the Association's journal Inkspot for 14 issues from late 2015. For numerous years he was the Lead Judge in the Ledger of Honour Awards for the Comic Arts Awards of Australia (formerly the Ledgers). These days Nat dreams of retiring from his occupation as a Clinical Nurse in the Psychiatric Emergency Centre in Queensland's largest public hospital, so that he can spend more time with his long-suffering wife and their six children and fourteen grandchildren. And perhaps publish some more comic-related books.
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