Tuesday, August 10, 2010

GRAPHIC Fantastic!

A few years ago I interviewed US comics artist and writer extraordinaire Colleen Doran of A Distant Soil fame (amongst 100s of other credits including Orbiter, Sandman, and Book of Lost Souls) about her beginnings in comics. She recalled an experience of attending the US Book Expo during the late 80s as a particularly humiliating one. She and other comics professionals were given an "unenthusiastic reception" and were treated like the "scum of the earth" by many of the attendees from the mainstream literary community. In fact the Marvel Comics booth was so deserted as to make it resemble a veritable "ghost town". Doran noted that at that time in American comics history "to announce that you worked in comics was a sign of mental retardation". The Book Expo experience haunted Doran so much that she didn't attend another one for 15 years by which time opinion had changed because comics and graphic novels were trickling into the mainstream book market and publishers were beginning to comprehend that comics were accessible across all genres and markets through the graphic novel format and were also commercially viable.

This was especially noticeable in 2003 when Doran, Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Coraline), Jeff Smith (Bone) and Art Spiegelman (of the Pulitzer Prize winning Maus) were invited to attend the American Library Association's Conference. The reception was overwhelming and there were standing room only talks in a huge ballroom venue, as well as long lines of enthusiastic librarians who waited patiently for over an hour to get their books signed. The feedback about graphic novels was gratifying − librarians, who were the real movers and shakers driving this phenomenon – identified graphic novels as the most widely circulated books in their respective libraries. Moreover, reluctant readers were being converted, children were returning to school and public libraries, and the most telltale sign of their popularity was that graphic novels were the "most stolen books in the library system".

Now ... how does this relate to the local scene and to GRAPHIC – last weekend's Sydney Opera House event focusing on comics, graphic novels and animation? Well, there have been echoes of Doran's experience in the Australian comics scene. When we started in comics in the 1990s we noticed a great divide – readers of comics and graphic novels attended conventions such as OzCon and Supanova in droves. Their warm feedback was rewarding not only to us but to other local creators who were passionate about publishing their works, yet were doing so in virtual obscurity in the "real" world. To admit you worked in comics to "normal" people was tantamount to putting a target on your back. We all swapped tales of woe about the reception we received not only from people who went to 9 to 5 jobs but also others in the arts community – these reactions ranged from "coldness" to "silent treatment" to "raised eyebrows", "smirks", and at times "scorn" and "derision" amongst endless repeats of the phrase "get a real job!"

Last weekend, all that changed ...

There was a buzz about GRAPHIC well before it was held. This was evident through social media but also through conversations we had with our other comics colleagues. Are you going? What events are you attending? Damn ... I missed out on tickets to X, Y or Z .... We booked our tickets relatively early and covered as many events as we could but even we were out of luck with two of them because they were sold out! Now that's rare.

So here's a little summary of what went on for those people who couldn't make it:

Saturday morning began with the "Storyboarding" panel which was held in The Studio. Audience members sat in intimate groups at small tables in a darkened room that had the feel of a jazz club without the music ... I liked it. 150 to 200 people in the room. Panellists Chewie Chan, Mark Sexton, Chris Georgiou and James Hackett, gave us insight into how storyboarding influences the look and feel of a film and where characters and objects are placed in space. Ultimately the panel determined that storyboarding was not so much about art but about the ideas that needed to be communicated filmically.

Didn't manage to obtain tickets to the "Making Comics" workshop until the very last minute (thank you Jemma and Craig from the Sydney Opera House! We're very grateful). It turns out that Jozef was able to go but I couldn't for the most part because it had been brought forward by an hour and clashed with the "Storyboarding" session. However, I came in at the tail end with artist and Supanova organiser Tim McEwen to the Utzon Room, which seemed suspended over the waters of Sydney Harbour like a barge. Again, there must have been somewhere between 150 to 200 people in the room arranged on long tables – heads down hard at work on their respective creative projects. A comics pro was assigned to each table – I spotted Bernard Caleo, Matt Huynh – amongst others with credentials we haven't met before. Jozef caught up with Jules Faber the President of the Australian Cartoonists' Association who made an exciting announcement about the new ACA Stanley Award for Comics Book Art (to be covered in another blog post). There were two interesting observations I made about the workshop: (1) I saw fresh new faces from across the spectrum (women, men, girls, boys, professionals and amateurs); and (2) seasoned pros were mixed in with newbies listening and learning and soaking up the information as if they were hearing it for the first time. Here ... everyone was humble and everyone was equal.

Next was the "Publishing Your Work" seminar with Gary Groth (Fantagraphics publisher and editor of Comics Journal), Erica Wagner (Allen and Unwin graphic novels publisher), comics artist/writer Eddie Campbell (From Hell), and Jeremy Wortsman (Director of the artist's agency The Jacky Winter Group). The various speakers talked about the realities of the submission process to both mainstream book publishers and dedicated graphic novels press, as well as what it was like to self-publish. One overriding theme that emerged was the "adapt or die" business philosophy when it came to embracing digital technology such as the iPad as a platform for comics works. However, the consensus was that there was nothing more sacred than a beautifully realised and designed print book in a slip cover. Oh ... and keep an eye out for Nicki Greenberg's upcoming graphic novel adaptation of Hamlet published by Allen and Unwin under Erica Wagner's watch, which meets that criteria completely (albeit without the slipcase).

The Neil Gaiman reading in the Concert Hall that night was magic. Picture this ... Neil dressed in his signature black reading from a manuscript behind a lectern. Nearby, a chamber orchestra – FourPlay – playing the underscore that matched the shifts in mood within the story. Behind him, a giant screen that projected 35 original pieces by Eddie Campbell that illustrated plot points in the story, "The Truth is a Cave in The Black Mountains" which is set in Scotland about 200 years ago. I had to look up what a "reiver" was – the profession of one of the major characters. Here 'tis (thank you Wikipedia): "The collective name for the predatory clans of the border region between England and Scotland". This "long" short story (or novelette as Gaiman calls it) took a marathon 74 minutes to read. My mind cleaved in two: on one hand I was walking through the freezing Scottish moors and mountains and shivering alongside the characters, and the other part of me reverted to a childhood I never known. I imagined that I lived a 100 years ago and was sitting near a hearth with a warm blazing fire at the feet of a storyteller who was sitting in a brown leather lounge chair. Amazing! ... Oh and by the way, there were 2000 people in the audience!

There were 75 entries in the inaugural Graphic Animation Competition. Canadian Dave Barton Thomas took out the top prize with his entry The Seven Year Twitch.

I was lucky to have been given the opportunity to attend the private after-party and to carouse (as best I can for somebody who doesn't drink) with some of my colleagues. I also got to speak to Neil Gaiman for five minutes and to shake his hand, congratulate him for his reading and let him know which books and stories of his are my favourites (The Graveyard Book and "Snow, Glass, Apples" if anyone's interested). I'm still flabbergasted and amazed that it all happened ...

Sunday morning I attended the Gary Groth Fantagraphics session which was a fascinating look at the history of American comics through his eyes from the mid 1960s to the present. He survived several spurious law suits, came close to bankruptcy on several occasions and got out of it with quick thinking by forming Eros Comix; and has worked with luminaries such as Charles Schultz, Robert Crumb and the Hernandez Brothers. This was a story of grit, determination, absolute focus from the age of 15 and a pinch of what Australians would term – larrikinism. I was lucky to get a few minutes to talk to him prior to the start of the next session and will be sending him information on the ASA Comics/Graphic Novels Portfolio in the next few days.

The wonderfully talented, zen-like and articulate Shaun Tan was also there as a major guest. I wished the scheduling was such that I could have attended The Arrival session with music but it clashed with the Neil Gaiman one. I talked to a few other people who attended and they agreed unanimously that it too had been a wonderful experience. I was also lucky to have been given a ticket (thank you Cefn) to the "Evolution of the Idea" session with Shaun Tan, Neil Gaiman, Eddie Campbell and with moderator Bernard Caleo. The panelists talked about process and entry points into creative works, and Eddie Campbell talked about a new term he had heard while visiting England recently, that being, "authorial" whereby the illustrator takes control of his or her projects. As usual, the discussion was lively and stimulating.

It's our understanding that GRAPHIC will become an annual event, and it's no secret why. Attendances were extraordinary and the content was terrific. Congratulations to the organisers and also a profound thank you.

The Australian comics community is characterised by small hubs of creativity mostly in the capital cities. Many comics creators have worked solidly and silently on their projects for many years with little recognition. It's been our experience that despite being a trifle jaded and a little cynical, that this community also possesses great warmth and a generosity of spirit towards each other.

What the GRAPHIC event at the Sydney Opera House accomplished was to give the comics artform and all its players in Australia the credibility, legitimacy and acceptance in the cultural landscape we've been searching for for a very long time. It also brought to mind the book and movie title "Waiting to Exhale" ... We do believe that right now there is a collective sigh of relief and thank you from within the Australian comics creators' ranks ... that it's finally okay okay to emerge from the shadows.


The Loud One said...


I'm glad you we're able to go to such a tremendous event! GRAPHIC is what the Australian creative industry has needed for a long time coming. With events like this popping up and the newly (re)formed Australians Animation Alliance it seems like our country is getting on board with the rest of the developed world.


Black Mermaid Productions said...

We couldn't agree more. We're also interested in the Australian Animation Alliance so we'd like to hear more and will Google it today.