by Stuart Medley
Art by Soolagna Majumdar
The Australian Comics Symposium was a one-day conference held at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, on Friday 29 June 2018, as part of the inaugural Perth Comic Arts Festival (29-30 June 2018).
This event was the first comics-focused festival in Western Australia. For many years Perth has been on the annual circuit of two major Australian pop culture events: Supanova and Oz Comic-Con. Both events have provided paid-for opportunities for local comics makers to show their portfolios and sell comics and comics-related art. However, both have a modus operandi similar to San Diego Comic-Con, in that they feature TV and film celebrity appearances and foreground the sale of pop culture merchandise. It was a stated aim of the PCAF organisers to have the focus on comics and to see what appetite there was in Perth for such an event. The inaugural PCAF was a big success with most of the visiting artists and scholars declaring it the best comics event they had been to in Australia. The market day attracted hundreds of visitors. Vendors all reported having done more business than at the big pop culture conventions. PCAF was covered by the national broadcaster (ABC) on its television news and reported in the state newspaper, The West Australian.
Day 1 of the festival was the Australian Comics Symposium. This day was divided into four sessions. It was the express interest of PCAF to discover what comics scholarship is being done in and beyond academia in Australia. Papers from independent scholars, historians, collectors, critics and other interested parties were invited and received. The symposium papers are summarised as follows:
Keynote speech: Dr Elizabeth MacFarlane, This is the Scholar that Comics Built: Creativity and Devotion in Comics Scholarship
MacFarlane’s paper considered comics criticism and scholarship in the contexts of Australian comics, the history of Australian literary criticism and the shifting focus of what constitutes research and new knowledge according to major Australian research funding bodies. The paper argued for criticism and scholarship that is embodied: that doesn’t pursue a separation between the critic’s words and their person, just as a speech balloon is connected to the body of its speaker in comics. The richly creative and interdisciplinary nature of contemporary comics scholarship reflects a wider contemporary turn away from defining and placing boundaries on disciplines and towards “boundary crossings” between conceptual frameworks and fields of research.
Session 1: Australian Comics as Hall of Mirrors
Leonie Brialey, Varieties of Sincerity and Irony in the Work of Michael Leunig and Mary Leunig
Michael Leunig is arguably Australia’s best-known cartoonist. His sister, Mary Leunig, also a cartoonist and artist in her own right, is not as well known, although recently her work is being published with more frequency. Both present visions of political and personal cartooning that comprise a kind of yin and yang of Australian attitudes towards politics, history and activism.
Anthony Castle, The Rise and Fall of Ginger Meggs: The Australian Child as Working Class Trickster
The character of Ginger Meggs no longer functions as an understanding of Australia’s self-image but is now an icon noted for its historicity. The working class trickster child is relegated to the past, with the current disadvantages of racial minorities, refugees and the LGBT+ community still lacking representation. Perhaps the true larrikin character of Australia’s 21st century will be found in such a demographic.
Emmet O’Cuana, Creatures of the Night: Religious Morality in Superhero Comics
Is there something authoritarian about a moral crusader who wears a mask and operates outside the law? Is there something Nietzschean about a superhuman who defends the moral status quo? The genre’s roots in American comics means its symbols are often related in their criticism of military expansion or domestic policy. But this ignores how superhero morality is rooted in Anglo-centric Protestant values; in WASPiness and Western notions of class. And it’s this set of moral concerns that’s helped the genre to spread across the English-speaking world. Australian superhero comics are not simply borrowing American genre tropes to capitalize on the commercial success of stories about costumed vigilantes. They reflect the colonial heritage of the whole British empire.
Session 2: Emotional Resonances
Debra Dudek, Silent Sequences and Strategic Empathy in Shaun Tan’s The Arrival and Pat Grant’s Blue
Dudek suggested that silent sequences in Blue and The Arrival reach readers by portraying bodily gestures and facial expressions on both human and non-human creatures. In particular, both narratives represent fear in a familiar landscape in order to invoke recognition and invite assistance.
Paul Uhlmann, Lines of Doubt, Fear and Tenderness in the Works of José Luis Cuevas and Tommi Parrish
Competing realities unfold within the slow time of the narrative so that the reader momentarily enters into the lives of others. Uhlmann sought to reveal an alternative narrative layer for each artist in order to comprehend what attitudes might inform their drawings of life and humanity.
Emilie Walsh, Women’s Voice in Australian Comic Books: Autobiography and Sexuality
When it comes to addressing the theme of sexuality, autobiographical graphic narratives have been a place of choice. So, Walsh pondered, what are the specificities of the medium that make it an interesting place to represent sexuality as a theme in autobiography? “Graphic,” in “graphic narrative,” could be understood as “explicit.” This paper explored these questions through a variety of recent examples, specially focusing on how the Australian scene has responded to these themes.
Session 3: Comics in Other Places
Camilla Andersen, Comic and Creative Contracts
Since the inception of the idea a few years ago, much has happened in the Comic Contract space and Professor Andersen showcased some of the work from this nascent field, in using comic strips in legally binding contracts. Supported by the former Chief Justice’s findings at the closing address of the recent Comic and Creative Contracts Conference, there is now no doubt that as long as the meaning is clear in context, visual and comic contracts are legally binding. Some of the challenges of visualizing law were discussed and many of the advantages of these types of contracts were demonstrated.
Pat Grant, Hard Talks and Raw Feels: What We’ve Learned From Literary Workshopping With a Group of Cartoonists
This paper was a series of anecdotes and observations reflecting on the Comic Art Workshop, a story development retreat organised by Dr Elizabeth MacFarlane and Dr Pat Grant. The retreat introduces cartoonists to the sort of literary workshopping familiar to screenwriters, novelists and playwrights. Cartoonists are less likely to be versed in the traditional rituals of unpacking, interrogating and examining a story as storytellers from more established forms. The “work” that was done looked very different from drawing comics and the “talk” that was generated was remarkably different from any seen among cartoonists previously. The group became intellectually and physically immersed in the problems that stories present to authors, in terms of structure, tone and the politics of representation.
Christopher Markle, The Inexperienced in Australian Comics: An Observation of Outsider Views
As the organiser of the 24 Hour Comics Day Perth challenge, Markle has been privy to the works of many people with little experience in or exposure to the medium of graphic novels. His paper wasn’t about whether the final works were “good” or not. It was about the type of people choosing to work in a narrative medium in which they have no experience. By using examples of work by selected participants, a cross section of the background of these people was presented touching on differences in how people approach the medium practically, but also in terms of gender roles and the effect of previous exposure to the medium. In addition to this, Markle looked at aspects (or poetics) of the medium itself that have affected some of the participants in ways that may not be easily seen by an outside observer.
Artist’s Talk: Michael Fikaris, Comic Arts and the Self-Taught Practitioner
Fikaris, a recipient of the Platinum Ledger Award (Australia’s highest comics honour), explained his career in comics, as one of the driving forces behind the decades-long evolution of the Silent Army project; from publishing local comic book anthologies, through to gaining recognition overseas for Australian comics creators. In more recent years, Fikaris has evolved through working with other art collectives and on community projects. He spoke of painting murals across Europe and Australia as well as embracing small press technologies such as the Risograph printer.
Session 4: The Fall and Rise of Comics
Robert Cook, Open to Comics: How Comics Can Shift our Take on Contemporary Art and Contemporary Collecting
When Robert Cook staged the Comics Tragics exhibition at Western Australia’s state art gallery, he says no one was remotely alarmed or challenged save for a few mainstream journalists. Cook figured that because he liked at least some of the work in the medium a bunch of other people would like his choices too. Cook’s presentation examines how collecting comics (in original and reproduced form) in art museums might extend our ideas of what art is and can be. Cook asks how comics can get us to think differently about collecting and contemporary art. In doing so, he opens up questions about how the fan mindset that underpins personal comic collecting (and production) might energise and complicate curatorial work in general.
Karen Dwarte, Comics in Australian Libraries
This final presentation of the symposium was a great note to end on, with Dwarte giving practical advice on how local makers can get their work collected by libraries and how, through libraries, comics makers can engage directly with their local communities. Graphic novels have become one of the most popularly borrowed and read collections in libraries, which justifies their shelf space. Works by local Australian comics creators, however, have been disappointingly under-represented on library shelves. This presentation examines the reasons for this and outlines how librarians and comic creators are increasingly working together, resulting in benefits to both in having the works of local comic creators in library graphic novel collections. Libraries have begun to capitalize on the excitement of popular culture festivals by hosting their own comic conventions and events, with a focus on local comic creators and on connecting these types of events to promote their graphic novel collections.
Many of the speakers stayed overnight to return and enjoy Day 2 (Market Day) of the festival. Some of our speakers ran workshops for the public. Notable among these were Emilie Walsh’s “Comics for ViewMaster” workshop and Justin Randall’s Tilt Brush in VR demonstration. Market Day also showcased the work of local makers, artist talks, workshops and two substantial gallery exhibitions (Comics West, curated by Bruce Mutard, and Inner Atmospheres, curated by Elizabeth Marruffo). A team from ABC News turned up and spoke with some of the directors and artists and recorded vox pops. A segment was shown on the television news that same night.
PCAF, Next Steps
The Journal of Graphic Novels & Comics has agreed to publish a special edition featuring the papers from the Australian Comics Symposium at PCAF. This edition should see light of day in late 2019.
With the support of ECU, the PCAF directors (Stuart Medley, Bruce Mutard, Elizabeth Marruffo and Alyce Sarich, with help from Campbell Whyte, Sarah Winifred Searle, Soolagna Majumdar and Andrei Buters) intend to run the symposium again in 2020, with the market day and exhibition running each year from now on.
Stuart Medley heads Design at Edith Cowan University. His research interests include communicating with pictures and comics. He is the author of the book The Picture in Design. Stuart has worked as an illustrator for 20 years, including using comics in design thinking. Clients have included the Imperial War Museums in the UK and Showtime in the US. In the 1990s Stuart was contributor and editor of [sic]BAG Comics. He was a comics artist in residence at the maison des auteurs in Angoulême, France in 2013-14. Stuart is one of the directors of the Perth Comic Arts Festival.