[16 October 2002]
The summer sky in Sydney is a crisp, empty blue. That line is partly a lie, because the sky has a wide range of creatures and machines in it, from sparrows, magpies, and pigeons, to the white underbellies of domestic and international airliners that rumble past, and the drifting helicopters with their invisible blades. But yet, despite those things, it’s not hard to imagine Sydney’s summer sky as empty it’s a wide stretching thing, an inverted desert, barren for imaginary use. You can spend weeks not looking at the sky, safe in the knowledge that it will never change, that nothing will happen in it, because nothing does. Every child knows that monsters will not appear in Sydney, as they crawl into Tokyo’s harbour; that asteroids only plummet on American cities; that aliens visit small towns around the world except Australian ones, and that Superman lives in the giant American city known as Metropolis, where his colours can be seen patrolling the sky daily.
Superman is the icon of comic book heroes, a fiction that for years now has sold better in the minds of people than in the actual comics he inhabits, and that is no different in Sydney. People know who Superman is, just as everyone knows Batman, and to a lesser degree perhaps, the X-Men, the Hulk, Daredevil, and a range of other comic book characters that seem to reside in giant cities in America. But the actual comics of these creations are a niche market in Sydney: the majority of people do not buy comics, and this is represented in the fact that there are hardly more than a handful of stores in Sydney, most of them located well and truly away from each other to avoid competition. My local comic store, The Phantom Zone, is located 15 minutes by car from me, while reaching the next store, in any direction, involves at least 40 minutes of travel.
Walk into any comic store in Sydney, and the first thing that you will notice about the comics, is that they are predominately American: you’ll find DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, CrossGen, and some of the more prominent independent publishers, such as AiT/Planet Lar and Fantagraphics. In a Sydney comic shop, the titles from these publishers crowd along the walls: a sea of brightly coloured worlds, retailing around $6.50 for a comic and $30 to 40 for a graphic novel or trade paperback. The curious customer will recognise names and titles and images as he or she drifts along the shelves, and that same customer may take a moment to consider that the titles that aren’t recognised immediately bare a slight similarity to the ones that they do. As the customer continues past them, they will find the second largest section of comics, that being translated Japanese comics. This section is dominated mainly by small trade paperbacks, like Astro Boy and Sanctuary and Dragonball Z.
At this point, the customer might very well pause, tap a foot on the floorboards, and turn to look back over the bright covers, and at the clerks who lean around the counters, and ask, “Where are the Australian comics?” The answer, depending on the store, is they can be found on that corner there, or that shelf there; the latter directing the customer to a single shelf, beneath independent American comics. In a niche market dedicated to American product, Australian comics have become a niche market within a niche market a poor fate for anyone hoping to make money from their art, I am sure you will agree. The comics are creator-owned, and are mostly in black and white, and appear sporadically; their release dates are measured in years and clusters of months, rather than monthly. The customer searching for Australian comics in the Phantom Zone in any given week in September, for example, would only be able to find six titles; the most recent of these being The Witch King, a horror comic by Christian Read and Paul Abstruse, which was published in April of this year.
Australian comics are, by and large, not superhero comics. They’ve more in common with black and white independent comics like Eddie Campbell’s semi-autobiographic Alec series, and one could even go as far to say that Campbell is one of the greatest influence upon the Australian comic scene. Campbell is a Scottish born creator who has spent the last 15 years living in Queensland, and is probably best known as the illustrator of the graphic novel From Hell, which was written by Alan Moore and turned into a film last year that starred Johnny Depp, though the film had very little in common with the graphic novel beyond the fact that if was about Jack the Ripper.
But Campbell is also known in the comic industry for his long running Alec and Bacchus series, which he publishes through his own imprint, Eddie Campbell Comics. Both series are black and white, and have very little to do with superheroes, but it is the Alec series, with it’s mixture of offbeat humour and rambling stories about life that are told through anecdote or remembrance, that have had the strongest influence on the Australian scene, and one can find, in the Sydney comic stores, a collection of black and white anthology comics that are testimony to this. In the anthology Diggsville, there is a short strip by Christian Read and Scott Fraser which provides the perfect example, a story about Henry Rollins, growing old, and sex told in the frame of an email, though the end product is quite below Campbell’s standard.
It is, however, incorrect of me to portray the Australian comic scene as the home of the black and white, semi autobiographic, slice of life comic, no matter how skewed a view of the genre it presents. There is also a collection of comics that fall under either the science fiction umbrella, such as the very poorly titled and conceived Killeroo(though with that said, it does feature some of the finest art being produced for a comic published in Australia) or under the Japanese manga style that has become a genre in and of itself now, and which can be found in Gary Lau’s Knight-Edge. The biggest problem with these titles, and which generally isn’t found in the previously mentioned genre of comics, is that these comics are generally not at a professional level: the writing is undirected or cliched, or the art is messy, ill conceived, and unable to convey the story. But this is hardly a surprise when one considers that they are self-published comics, and the majority of self-published comics throughout the comic industry are more about practicing ones skill and establishing oneself before going to a publisher to try and make money.
A conversation with most the unestablished creators I’ve mentioned here will have them talk about the promised lands of America or Britain in the same way that a half starved lion licks its lips when it sees a bunch of pudgy tourists pass its cage they want to be on the other side of the bars, unrestrained and eating well. There is nothing wrong, of course, with trying to make money from your art. Establishing yourself in the independent/self published press has been long practiced in comics, which has a much healthier opinion of self- publishing that anyone associated with prose. (Take, for example, that most of the independents are in fact self- publishing, and receive praise for doing so, and thus bare the title “Independent Publishers”. While in prose, such a situation has the less glorified position of being called “Vanity Publishing”.)
In Australia, however, there is no major publisher of comics to work for, and thus no chance that Australian made comics will break out of the small corner in the comic store and into the newsstands across the country as publishers like Marvel and DC have done. That is why America and Britain are very much the Promised Land for Australian creators: exposure, money, and, oddly in an industry that has its fair share of financially broken creators, security, is a possibility for comics creators. However, with this attitude, a huge hole has been created in the Australian comic scene, and it has naturally been filled by American comics which, of course, further fuels the desire of Australian comic creators to work in America, where their favourite creations are located.
Is it any wonder then, that the Sydney sky is empty? The situation I have described to you is not unique: the arts in Australia, on a general level, suffer from the same problem of being a niche market within their own country, and with creators believing that there is more money and more exposure abroad. (They are helped in this belief by publishers, and agents.) It is not a unique situation, perhaps because the comic medium has always lacked a certain amount of credibility. But as things stand, the Australian comics will always be a tiny percentage in the comic store, and the creators will always been looking to enter the American skies, where they can add to the already fantastic images that exist, up there.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/peek021016/