I went into Brisbane city on Friday afternoon after work to see if the local comic bookstore was still open. I was surprised to find it was, and even more startled to discover I was the only customer seeking to pick up my current favourite title (presently Daredevil). “It’s good to know that comic-retailing remains an essential service,” I quipped. The proprietor informed me that it wouldn’t be for too much longer, when he shared the most recent comic news – perhaps known to everyone but myself! – that Diamond had stopped distributing comics due to the COVID-19 virus.
Diamond, for far too many years now, have had the monopoly in distributing comics around the world. That they had made the decision not to do so left me stunned. No comics? What is the world coming to? Of course, in my work environment, we’ve been preparing for when it really impacts on our health-care system and there have been some early effects of the pandemic. (I work in the Psychiatric Emergency Centre at the Royal Brisbane & Women’s Hospital.) And although I have been hearing the news of job losses in coffee shops and other retailer establishments, it wasn’t until I couldn’t get my comic fix that I really appreciated the impact this virus was having on the world economy!
The last time American comics stopped reaching Australian shores was back in the 1940s. In 1939, due to our increasing involvement in the Second World War, the Australian Government began enforcing the Import Licensing regulations. This controlled the amount of US dollars (then purchased from England) that could be spent on published comics and syndicated proofs of American comics. This led to a total ban by July 1940. Then, as now, creative people adapted to the current situation, and so was born the Golden Age of Australian comics.
Unlike the Americans, who had introduced the ‘production line’ of comic creating (that has continued to this day), the local comic creators did not have that luxury. Most of the comic artists in Australia handled the complete production of the creative process, apart from the publishing. In his some of his writings of the era, Australian comic historian John Ryan identified those he thought were that era’s “top comic book illustrators”: Monty Wedd, John Dixon, Hart Amos, Stanley Pitt, Vernon Hayles, Moira Bertram and Phil Belbin.
As Australian artists rose to the fore in the 1940s, I feel that now is as good a time as ever, to look at the silver lining behind COVID-19 and see if there are ways of adapting to the current situation and finding opportunities to again begin publishing great Australian comics.
Frew Publications, as the only publishing house still appearing on the newsstands today, is probably in the best position to do so, given that newsagents have not – yet? – been shut down. Frew is one of the publishers that first established itself in the 1940s when businessmen Ron Forsyth, Lawford ‘Jim’ Richardson, Jack Elsen and Peter Wilson formed the company. (The company’s name came from using the first letter in each partner’s surname.) While the company has been primarily been preoccupied with reprinting old Phantom stories, in recent years its owners (Rene White and Glenn Ford since 2016) have been utilizing many local artists and cartoonists for both cover artwork and internal stories, and have engendered much goodwill in the local comic scene.
A recent development in the comic medium has been the development of the online comic. While the comics available for purchase at my local comic shop were not as current as those found on Comixology, I’m not convinced that the major publishers, Marvel and DC, have really been interested in developing the online market. Perhaps that will now change; it’s too early to tell. My feeling is that the profit margins are not as substantial as the physical copies, which carry (for example) multiple cover alternatives that have appealed to the collector in preference to the longer-term benefit of seeking a newer and increasing readership. This, and the myriad of interconnected storylines, along with the practice of publishing multiple titles of a popular character, have for too long propped up the American industry. Perhaps the Coronavirus might bring along a market correction, longer term.
There have been few Australian creatives publishing online, but with physical outlets likely to close up shop (either due to the economic downturn or by Government legislation), and the populous becoming more socially isolated and needing new reading material, the opportunities are there for the taking. My favourite online comic is by a couple of Sunshine Coast creatives, Teloka Berry and Pricilla Wu. A Week in Warrigilla has been running for two years now, as engaging as ever, with over a thousand subscribers.
Here’s a link: https://tapas.io/episode/1008842 – do yourself a favour and check it out!
Comic one-shots and series are also able to be found via the various crowd-funding platforms available these days. Given the reluctance of most Australian comic stores to support the local creatives, many local self-publishers have been increasingly exploring this avenue. I feel that this will be another realm of the future post-COVID-19 comic medium. Dark Oz, run by South Australian publisher Darren Koziol for the past ten years, has been increasingly marketing his comic books by crowdfunding, allowing his comics to reach a greater world market. Here’s the link to his site: http://www.darkoz.com.au/index.html
The post-COVID-19 world is going to bring about the biggest social change we will have ever known, and it is difficult to predict what that world will look like. It’s my belief that the comic medium will be a part of that change, with creative storytellers finding new ways of sharing to those who want to read and listen. There are ways for local Australian creatives to become part of that change, and I have identified some of those opportunities available even today. Comic books and graphic storytelling will not die – they will simply evolve into this newer form and the history of this medium that we love shall continue.