‘Australian comics have been around for decades. But it has been in waves and visibility has always been a problem. I’ve been in it long enough to see several waves come and go,’ says Bruce Mutard, who has been making comics in Melbourne for over 20 years. ‘This wave, I’ve been saying for a long time: it will stay. This has legs. What we’ve got now is the comics culture I always dreamed of.’ Mutard’s dreams involved comics being made and embraced by a diverse community, being in mainstream bookstores and libraries, considered by arts and funding bodies, studied in academia and included in literary and arts festivals. ‘All of that has come to pass,’ he says.
Still, being a comic book artist in Australia has its limitations. That’s why the annual Caravan of Comics has veered onto the scene, taking six Australian comic book artists on tour across the US and Canada. The artists include Mutard, Mirranda Burton, Scarlette Baccini, Gregory Mackay, Marijka Gooding and Dan Hayward. They’ll be heading to the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (a hub of independent comics that yields audiences of 10,000 to 12,000) and the International Comic Arts Forum. They’ll make appearances at leading publishers and will also be screening the film, Graphic Novels Melbourne. The Caravan (it’s metaphorical by the way) is supported by a grant from the Australian Council of the Arts, a crowd funding campaign and a wad of cash from each artist’s pocket.
While our comics-culture is at an all-time high, North America offers our artists an economy of scale not available here. ‘I personally know nearly everybody in [Australia] working on comics,’ says Mutard. By contrast the US/Canadian communities are far larger, with more opportunity. These are the countries to go to for a career in mainstream comics, and their indie scene holds similar potential. Describing just one of the hundreds of events held in these countries each year Mutard says, ‘It was a shock in many ways… You needed days and days to get through all that.’
The Caravan is in its second year with a near new line up of artists. There’s a lot goodwill and enthusiasm behind it but Mutard, and fellow Caravanee, Gooding, temper their expectations. ‘One of the interesting reports back from last year was that sales were a little underwhelming,’ says Mutard. ‘I’m not really expecting massive sales or making a name for myself overseas,’ Gooding says. ‘Just one person over in Canada owning my book would be a nice idea.’
‘It’s an exhibition in the old sense of the word – to expose, to show to make aware of,’ says Mutard. Face-time is driving this trip, which recognises that technology has its limits. ‘As much as the internet exists, [the chances of an international comics fan finding Australian comics] is like trying to pick one star out of the milky way in the sky,’ says Mutard. ‘You have to be interested and pointedly looking for Australian comics or otherwise you won’t find them.’
At the events, our Caravanees hope to meet other artists (including indie heroes like the Hernandez Brothers) and swap their work. ‘That will be one of the best things about it,’ says Mutard who is quick to eliminate any fan-ish elements. ‘I think our material’s certainly on a par with theirs so we should be able to talk to them and meet them as peers.’
At in-store appearances for leading publishers Drawn and Quarterly, and Fantagraphics the Australians are the only focus (and the reason for the events). Mutard believes this is an important aspect of profile-raising. ‘Audiences like a human touch – the sense that there’s somebody there.’ But this will be among the challenges for newcomers like Gooding, ‘I am still slowly trying to get over the idea of talking about myself. It’s really hard. I’m the first person to tell someone when I think I’ve done something stupid. I make fun of myself quite a bit,’ she says. ‘You’ll be good at it by the time we finish the tour,’ Mutard replies.
Although our own culture has begun embracing comics, Mutard believes that finding international audiences is central to the development of Australian artists. That’s why he encourages younger artists (like Gooding) to participate in the Caravan, which he hopes will be a year-on-year event. ‘[Pursuing an international audience] is still the only sure way you can get through if you’re good enough. There’s no getting around that.’
Pepi Ronalds is a Killings columnist. She has been published in Meanjin, Open Manifesto, A List Apart and more. Her blog, Future of Long Form was an Emerging Blog for the 2012 Melbourne Writers Festival. She’s on Twitter and Facebook, and has a website: pepironalds.com.