So over the past ten to fifteen days, I have looked through the Australian comics I have purchased and read over the past year. Which one has really resonated with me? Or which one honours the traditions of the medium's past or takes it to an exciting future? Or is there one that feels so uniquely Australian that I have no choice but to select it? I really cannot articulate exactly why or what make me make my selection each year; all I know is that it is a personal one and is purely subjective. The recipient wins no worldly acclaim or even a memento on the announcement of the 'award'. The only comics I have and shall exclude from consideration are those that I have published, as I do not wish to show or appear to show any bias. On that score, I am safe this year. I published no comics in 2017.
That is not to say I haven't been involved in the medium. Although I may not have attended any conventions and few gatherings, I still have an active interest in the local comic scene: I was honoured to have assumed the role of Lead Judge in the Ledger of Honour deliberations (for the Ledger Awards), and I was so excited to have presented the 'Dead Set' Ledger to Rosalie Gibbs, on behalf of May Gibbs' family. I remain on the Board of the Australian Cartoonists' Association, and have continued to edit their journal Inkspot, managing to keep it to a more-or-less quarterly schedule throughout the year. I worked with three designers this year: Chris Barr (two issues), Cam Winks and Judy Nadin (one each). Here are the past four issues:
However, the one comic that is nationally distributed (The Phantom) has shown that even a magazine that has been going for decades can still make improvements. This year, that comic included more locally-produced stories and covers within its pages than ever before. Frew has also taken to expanding their presence within the community, by publishing new titles and having management and artists appearing at fan-events like Supanova. This has been the most pleasing aspect of this long-time Australian comic publishing house. I admit that I have been fairly critical of Frew in the past, but this year, I can do nothing except lavish praise: that they have actively sought to include more works by local artists and writers pleases me no end.
From a retailers perspective, I suspect things are not all that rosy. It seems that where 2016 saw some growth and expansion in the rural (that is the non-metropolitan) area of Australian comic shops, there seems to have been a contraction in some capital city centres in 2017. Comics Kingdom in Sydney shut up shop, and there were some financial difficulties expressed publicly by Ace Comics and Games in Brisbane over the past twelve months. Fan disquiet about another retail outlet in Brisbane, thought to be a result of changing personnel, was also expressed in social media. Whether these are a result of narrow product choices being available to readers (that is, superheroes) with too much of the same type of stories offered by publishers, or an inability of some stores to be able to attract new comic readers, or whether too many publishers are printing larger amounts of variant covers in order to appeal to the collectors, rather than the readers or perhaps there are other factors in play, I have no real opinion. Could it be that there are too many comic stores in the capital cities? Perhaps a question for another time....
In any case, today is 5th January, the birth-date of Monty Wedd, one of Australia's greatest comic book writer and illustrators. Were he still alive, he would have been 97 today. Reason enough, then, to celebrate what has been good in Australian comics over the past twelve months. Reason to announce what is the first Australian comic award for the year. Here are some that came into my consideration:
Giant-Size Phantom's cover artwork by Glenn Lumsden was masterful: it really evoked the covers of a bygone era, yet was modern in its application. The internal pages sought the same goal as Kid Phantom: to take Frew characters to a new audience. However, the characters -- the Shadow, the Phantom Ranger, Sir Falcon, and Catman -- are all from Frew's Golden Age of Australian comics! With the third edition, John Dixon's Crimson Comet's first issue was reprinted. I must confess to some involvement in the selection. I was able to speak to John's family when Frew were seeking to reprint the tale. Still, for mine, the best reprint comic published in Australia in 2017.
My Struggle with Crohn's Disease wasn't your normal comic fare. At 28 pages long, it had more of a zine feel about it. In fact, it was released as a Mini-Comic of the Month (and I forget which month now) and would have been a difficult topic to write about. The artist/writer Safdar Ahmed said he was "pretty embarrassed" about it (it is clearly an autobiographical comic), but felt "it's time to address [the topic] and put it out there". More power to him! It was an attempt to show an aspect of his life, but showed a whole lot more. It showed an Artist sharing a most personal and human struggle, and as a piece of work it showed the potential for the comics medium to educate as well as entertain. It was one of the more powerful comics I read in 2017 and I commend the piece most highly.
However this year, the Annual (edited by Bruce Mutard and published by his Fabilaux imprint "under the auspices of the Ledger Awards Organising Committee') was printed as a wonderful glossy 96 page book, and that featured about forty pages of comics. Let me repeat: forty pages of comics! There was no way I couldn't consider it! I'm uncertain as to whom one ought to lavish the praise -- the Committee or Bruce? The editorial inside said "some [of the comic creators] are new to the scene, some are veterans" but all were included "just because". I hope no-one quibbles about those selected, with some of the artists' work appearing already published by Bruce. The book carries a wide selection of differing artistic styles, to please even the fussiest fans of the medium. From a personal viewpoint, seeing Gary Chaloner's new work that had been slated for the long-delayed ninth issue of Oi Oi Oi! was a little bitter-sweet, but I was able to live with it. Really the whole publication was just a scrumptious delight.
Which is not the word I shall use to describe Chris Gooch's main foray into being published by a major oversea publisher. Bottled, put out later in the year by Top Shelf Productions, runs for almost three hundred pages (well, two hundred and eighty-seven to be precise) and tells its tale within six chapters. There are some who will marvel at Chris' storytelling ability, but for mine I was impressed by the pacing of his story: he does not hurry it along, using many wordless panels (even over a full page) and with only minor variations in some sequences.
I noted on Facebook that although many Australian readers were aware of the book, many admitted to not having read it. Of that, I have two things to say. One is that I won't disclose any spoilers here, and secondly, you really have to read it. I went to Squishface Studios in late October and found that despite Chris working at the studio, there were no copies available for sale there (apart for a sample copy available for perusal). It must be the first time I went to Minotaur specifically looking for a certain book! (Which they had, by the way!)
There will be some who may be put off by the limited colour palette on show within the story. After a while, I didn't notice the varying shades of red, with the blacks and whites -- I was too engrossed in Chris' tale. Bottled is the crowning achievement in young Chris Gooch's comic storytelling to date. I only trust that the commercial success of his work follows, so that Chris is encouraged to develop more stories in the future and so the world's comic aficionados can look forward to more work from this talent in the future.
And we certainly hope there will be a future. With the latest barbs and taunts being carried between the North Korea and the Americans Governments, one wonders what it will all lead to. Perhaps it was the generation I was born in. My parents lived through the (Second) World War and its spectre haunted my growing up, with the fear that the Americans and Russians would perhaps one day strike each other with their weapons of unspeakable horror. Of course, the fears proved to be all unfounded, with tensions between those countries easing. But the older I get, the more concerned I am that the horrors of a nuclear war (or rather, the aftermath) have been 'forgotten' or are thought to be too remote a possibility to even be considered seriously not only by the 'younger generation' but especially by politicians.
When younger, I read about what it was like to live in a nuclear explosion. There were not a great deal of books, but there were some that I read that I can recommend: When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs and My Hiroshima by Junko Morimoto (who I have just learnt passed away only a few months ago). From a comic perspective, Keiji Nakazawa's ten- volume Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima is worth seeking out. But the most powerful volume (for me) was John Hersey's Hiroshima (initially serialised in The New Yorker, but later released as a paperback, and still available). Or you can read it all here online (click to be taken to the link):
Now I do need to disclose here that I once published one of the stories reprinted in this fine anthology. ('Merry Christmas' in Oi Oi Oi!'s Special Nostalgia Edition.) My reasons for selecting this book? I'll return to talk of it another day. (It is, after all, almost 2 in the morning ....and I need to work later in the morning at 8!)