Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Word Balloons 4, Feb 2007


Over the summer of 2006-07 the State Library of Victoria ran an exhibition of Australian comics, Heroes & Villains, curated by fan identity Kevin Patrick. Whilst you can be assured that not everyone will agree with the choice of exhibits, how they are displayed, or the text used to describe them, I personally feel that it was a worthwhile venture as it has brought the graphic story medium into the public arena in a way that is largely positive and affirming.

I admit that as a younger fan I had little interest in Australian comics of the ‘industry era’ of the 1940s and 50s. By the time I started collecting in the early 1960s they had just about disappeared, and when I did become aware of their existence in the 1970s they seemed quaint relics from the past. However, I think I have always had a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to these earlier publications because they were still a part of a commercial industry, whereas the works produced from the 1980s on have by and large been eclectic self-published books. What this exhibition has revealed, though, thanks in part to its thematic nature, is that there are stronger connections between the two eras than I had realised. Consequently I have a greater respect for the comics of yesterday and I feel less apologetic about the comics of the last twenty-five years.

Whilst the industry of the 1940s and 50s was fairly small-scale in comparison to that of the US, it’s cessation in the early 1960s has still had far reaching effects on the medium in this country. As budding comic creators in the 1970s most of us were in awe of many of the American artists. This was especially the case with the ‘new wave’ of creators who had come up through fandom and seemingly had talent and attitude to burn. But rather than all being geniuses, I have come to believe that much of their development was influenced, firstly by having a functioning industry in which to hone their craft, and secondly by having seasoned pros from whom to gain advice. In Australia, we have lacked either and so have had to be our own publishers, editors, and critics. This has contributed to the sporadic nature of the current scene. Time and again I have seen people make the same mistakes as those before them, or try to reinvent the wheel because there isn’t that perpetual pool of knowledge to draw upon. In its own small way I am hoping Word Balloons will add to that pool. Philip Bentley

“A mix of complete ego and complete insecurity.”
An interview with Jason Paulos.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, October 2006.

Jason Paulos has been one of the most successful Australian comic artists of the past twenty years. Much of his output over this period has been of Hairbutt the Hippo, many of these stories written in collaboration with Bodine Amerikah. The various formats the character has appeared in reflect the changing fortunes of the Australian comic scene over this period. Beginning in a series of mini-comics, in the late 1980s, Hairbutt went on to star in a number of self-titled, self-published, news-stand distributed comics in the 1990s, then appeared regularly in Australian Mad magazine, before finally being self-published in a print-on-demand title only available online. More recently Jason has begun to produce other titles in the print-on-demand format: the horror anthology EEEK! and the turn of the twentieth century superhero The Harlequin. As someone working at the coal face for twenty odd years Jason has many pointed observations on comics in this country.

PB: When did you come up with the idea for Hairbutt the Hippo?
JP: It came to me in a dream. I was in a department store…Myer, and I was called up to the manager’s office for some reason. Not sure why, it was a bit like being at school and being called to the headmaster’s office, but I hadn’t done anything wrong. Behind the manager was a large polished wooden cut-out of a proto-Hairbutt figure. And the image moved. When I woke up I thought: “What was that all about?” It was one of those dreams where everything was highly polished like it was all in CG. But it wasn’t drug induced as I hadn’t started smoking dope yet. I thought I could draw the cut-out like Kyle Baker would. So I based Hairbutt on a character in the Kyle Baker story the “Seven Deadly Finns” who was an enormous fat slob in a black suit and Alexei Sayle. The cut-out became the first panel in the first Hairbutt mini comic.
PB: I guess you weren’t expecting him to be such an enduring character.
JP: Not at all. If I had been trying for that I think I would have tried a different character. To still be working with the same character I created when I was eighteen, at the age of thirty-seven is something many people would probably see as a bit strange.
* * *
PB: In the mid-1990s you started producing a Hairbutt strip for the Australian Mad magazine. Who approached who?
JP: They approached us. They promised that there would be no copyright on the character, which at the time I was concerned about. That led to three years of actually getting paid. I felt that we needed to get our act together a bit, learn our craft more, and be conscious of our responsibility. We tried our best, I guess.
PB: There was certainly a noticeable tightening of the story as for the most part you only had two pages to play with.
JP: That was an initial concern and at first I doubted that we could do it.
PB: Did you have much editorial direction or interference?
JP: Amazingly very little. There was only one occasion where the editor rang and started suggesting plotlines, which horrified me. But I managed to placate Bodine into turning out a strip that incorporated the editor’s ideas, even though the story ended up being fairly mediocre. There was one other instance where I came home, turned on my answering machine, and the editor had left a message: “Jason we’ve got a problem with the words ‘earth-shuddering orgasm’ in the latest strip. Can you ring me and talk?” [Laughs.] I really wish I’d kept that on tape. It’s one of the funniest answering machine messages I’ve had.
* * *
JP: Up until the late 1990s I was still putting stuff on the newsstands thinking that the exposure in Mad would help to sell the newsstand comics.
PB: You would think it would.
JP: Yeah, but what I realised was that Australian comic fans hate Australian Mad, seeing the Australian content as being lame. So it was the kiss of death to put “as featured in Australian Mad” on the cover.
PB: So you’ve now transferred over to a print-on-demand publishing process using Lulu. Can you give a brief explanation of how that works?
JP: Lulu are an on-line print-on-demand company in the States: www.lulu.com. I upload an issue onto their server and copies are printed as they are ordered on-line. Lulu do a variety of small press productions: books, comics, zines etc. They list all works on their site, but sales are obviously conditional on people either visiting it or me directing people there. However, the set-up costs are negligible.
PB: I must say that the quality of the printing and production from Lulu were impressive.
JP: That’s what made my mind up. I didn’t know that there were printing machines that could give you that degree of quality affordably. Ditto with the Hairbutt collection which turned up looking not like a comic, but a perfect bound book. It was a real buzz. I may not have sold that many copies, but because I’ve had no overheads I’ve actually made a modest profit for the first time ever. So it’s not true that you can’t make money out of self-published comics.
PB: With this more recent print-on-demand work like Hairbutt the Hippo: Private Eye, EEEK! and The Harlequin, there seems to have been an astonishing diversity of your styles occurring. Many artists work towards refining their style to a point where they can pretty much replicate it, but you currently seem to be wanting to try significant variations on a theme. For example, in Hairbutt: Private Eye 5 you have one strip in a Kurtzman/ Elder/Wood style and another in a sort of manga inspired style.
JP: Yeah it’s a bit of an ejaculation of ideas.
PB: EEEK! looks like a tribute to Warren comics.
JP: I call it “A love letter to 70s horror comics”. Bad horror comics, and I mean ‘bad’ affectionately as in kitsch. I’m more into the Batman TV series than Dark Knight Returns. In a sense it’s inspired by the failure of horror comics rather than their success: the predictable endings, the comeuppance tales, the nasty humour.

The rest of the interview can be found in Word Balloons 4.

My Life in Comics: Part III- The development of comics fandom in Australia to 1989.
by Philip Bentley

This is the third of a series of articles chronicling my path as a comics aficionado in Australia over the past forty years. These articles have been inspired partially by a sense of nostalgia, but also to record certain aspects of the local comics scene for posterity. These are firstly, the patterns of comic collecting in the 1960s and 1970s, a process that has been irrevocably changed by the arrival of comic stores; secondly, the beginnings of comic fandom in Melbourne and Australia; and lastly, my reflections on the establishment and running of two comic magazines and a shop (Inkspots, Fox Comics and Minotaur). Primarily these are my recollections alone and make no claims to be the authoritative view. This instalment I expand beyond my own recollections and have endeavoured to record all fanzines and prominent events in Australian comic fandom up to the end of the 1980s.

In the previous instalment I detailed the significance of Space Age Books in the Melbourne comic collecting scene of the 1970s. It was also important for providing the location for the first organised meeting of fans in the city, which occurred in 1972.

The rather grandly entitled Melbourne Society of Panelologists (MSP) was the brainchild of John Breden, a member of the Space Age ‘inner circle’, who worked at Technical Books a few doors down Swanston Street (and also sported an impressive pair of mutton chops!) Panelology was a term that had been coined to give comic appreciation greater importance, much as coin collecting had been rebranded numismatics. John was particularly interested in “the comic strip medium as art and communication” and used ‘panelologist’ to differentiate the ‘serious’ student of the form from someone simply interested in cheap thrills.
* * *
The MSP meetings only ran during 1972 and 1973 for a total of eight events. After the cessation of the MSP the organising of fandom fell to the younger generation. Two of these were the twins Steve and John Corneille. They had become the city’s first fan dealers buying and selling comics by placing advertising slips in comics they sold at Franklins second-hand book shop and through the Trading Post. In 1974 they organised a meeting of comic fans, probably orchestrated as a club through Melbourne University, which was where the sparsely attended one and only meeting was held. Two years later one or both of the Corneilles decided to publish a fanzine: the rather prosaically entitled The Australian Comic Collector, or TACC for short. This was one of the first of its kind in Melbourne, or indeed Australia. John Corneille’s other contribution to comics in Australia came through his editorship of the short-lived Australian Marvel reprints Newton Comics. (A full article on the rise and fall of both the comics line and its publisher, the “brilliant, but erratic” Maxwell Newton, appeared in WB 6.)

According the Grant Stone’s article in TACC 5/3 (1983) the first Australian fanzine was John Ryan’s Down Under which began in December 1964. Although Stone is unsure how long it ran Ryan went on the contribute Boomerang to CAPA-Alpha “the US’s premiere APA” (Amateur Press Association). Boomerang ran until 1974 and “much of its material became the basis for Panel By Panel” (Cassells, 1979), John’s history of Australian comics. John, however, died a few months after its release and the book soon ended up on remainder tables (and now sells for a couple of hundred dollars on eBay).

The Corneilles only maintained their connection with TACC for six issues. It was subsequently taken over by another Melbourne fan, Joe Italiano, who ran it for another six issues (1979-80). Joe would later found the Melbourne comic shop Alternate Worlds. In the early 1980s Joe passed TACC over to a collective from Perth comprising Cefn Ridout, Chris de Fries and Gordon Wilkinson-Cox. They published four issues (1981-83) before going their separate ways.

Joe Italiano, in collaboration with Moris Sztajer, was also responsible for organising the first, true comic convention in Melbourne (or indeed Australia). In 1979 they staged Comicon I at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). Their budget, however, was fairly limited and certainly didn’t run to bringing out overseas professionals. This meant that the convention had to exist on a steady diet of local comic strip and political cartoonists between whom and the audience there was an insurmountable gulf.

In 1980 Joe and Moris upped the ante by holding the more substantial Comicon II at the Sheraton Hotel on Spring Street. Although no overseas artists were in attendance they did score an Australian with overseas connections, Peter Ledger, after whom the current Australian comic awards are named. In the following year, 1981, the reins of Comicon were passed to a Sydney collective who ran Comicon III in October. Separate conventions were then held spasmodically in both cities throughout the next two decades.

The rest of the article can be found in Word Balloons 4.

Also reviews of McDonald & Colliton’s After Life “a cautionary tale that speculates on the future both at a personal and societal level”, McDonald & Wells’ Vigil 1 “a laudable concept…let down by the art”, The Dreaming I by Queenie Chan “crisply delineated art, but [with a story that] is a bit underdone”, Mel Stringer’s Girly Pains 10 “sincere and evocative” & Plump Oyster 4 by Ben Constantine “perplexing, disturbing and fascinating”.