An isolated workshop off the Tasmanian coast gives Australian comic artists the chance to work on their craft and build connections amid an industry that has largely forgotten them.
The comic book artists camp in the Penitentiary. Their rooms are without electricity; their beds comprise a row of bunks built along a wall. Their location – Maria Island – has limited mobile phone coverage. At times little creatures scamper across the floor and Tasmanian devils squabble underneath the verandah outside. Maria is an island, off an island, off an island, reached by driving an hour out of Hobart, then taking a wind-swept ferry across the winter green Mercury Passage. Maria was once a convict colony, among other things – now it’s a National Park. There are no shops, no cafes, no neighbourhoods to wander through (not populated ones, anyhow), and the ferry doesn’t run every day. In some places the wind blows so hard that trees grow horizontally.
It’s November 2015 and we’re on the island for the inaugural Comic Art Workshop (CAW). The workshop, a fortnight long residency, was devised by cartoonist Pat Grant, and Elizabeth MacFarlane, a Melbourne University creative writing lecturer and co-director at Twelve Panels Press. CAW is focused on developing graphic storytellers. ‘There’s never been any institutional support for the art form in Australia,’ says Grant. CAW aims to help build this.
Fourteen artists have joined Grant and MacFarlane on the island, along with two master artists (Leela Corman and Tom Hart from the Sequential Arts Workshop in the USA). I’m here for a few days as a keen observer, hoping to write about what I see and hear (I paid my own expenses). Coming to such an isolated place was an extreme move, but no one is complaining. ‘I can make comics at home in my studio by myself. I can’t have 18 comics makers at hand to critique work, learn process or talk about works of art and comics theory,’ says resident Campbell Whyte. The leaves above us rustle as we look over Darlington Bay.
Almost all of the artists at the residency work without the security of a publisher – Australia has so few, and their scarcity is fuelled by the relative absence of home-grown comics in bookstores (as well as profiles and reviews pages). But if you know where to look, you’ll find hundreds of locally created, self-published comics and graphic novels. ‘The practice in Australia is incredibly healthy,’ says MacFarlane. ‘But the industry is too small.’ The economics of graphic novel production are partly to blame. It can take years to produce a first draft, and printing is expensive. But the deeper challenge for Australian comics, says MacFarlane, is that ‘it’s just not in the Australian culture like it is in other countries’.
If you know where to look, you’ll find hundreds of locally created, self-published comics and graphic novels.
In Europe – especially France and Belgium – comics are considered the ‘ninth art’. In Japan, there are entire institutions, and a thriving industry, dedicated to the sequential arts. But in Australia, one cannot yet obtain a degree in comic arts, and opportunities to access funding are even more limited than those for visual artists and writers. Our local comics have a chequered history. Postwar restrictions on imports created a thriving industry – soon smothered in the 50s, when the restrictions were lifted, and it became cheaper to import comics from overseas. The countercultures of the 70s helped push things along a little. But in the 90s, when popular culture became the focus of academic studies, our comics were largely ignored in favour of landmark graphic novels from overseas artists such as Art Speigelman and Marjane Satrapi. In a 2003 essay, titled ‘The Social Construction of Comic Books as a (Non) Recognised Form of Art in Australia,’ Adam Possamai cites eight Australian popular culture texts – all of which ‘make no mention of the [sequential arts] medium.’
For some, literary or alternative comics represent a kind of underground – where faults, typos and rough edges are expected – many believe comics shouldn’t have the rigour of institutions behind them. But this isn’t a position that MacFarlane shares. ‘I’m in an institution, obviously, and I do a lot of my creative practice and my teaching in institutionalised settings. I believe that it helps people to become better at their practice. Why not comics as well?’
The Penitentiary includes a shed-like Mess Hall. The long wooden tables are festooned with sketchpads, empty mugs, brushes, inks, scripts, comics-in-progress and graphic novels. Sometimes rain crashes on the corrugated iron roof, and wind rattles the doors. Here the artists eat, drink, talk and tinker. They show one another how to improve their painting technique, or to loosen their grip on the pen. They share their love of comics, and discuss the challenges in making them. ‘A comic takes a really long time to make,’ says resident Eleri Mai Harris. She always seems to have a pen, a brush, a sheet of paper, a jar of water and her watercolours before her. Panels unfurl one-by-one. ‘No one ever gets paid properly for the amount of hours they put in.’
‘It’s very hard to edit a comic,’ says MacFarlane, who publishes graphic novels under Twelve Panels Press. ‘You’re hyper aware of the fact that any change you suggest to an artist, you’re basically saying, Can you please do a day’s work?’ But much of the published work she sees needs a good edit. ‘Too often there’s more focus on the technicality of the drawing and less focus on the narrative,’ she says.
Both she and Grant come from creative writing backgrounds, where workshopping is a common part of the process. By contrast, they say, comic creators tend to work independently (often waiting until a work is completed before showing it to anyone). An aim of CAW is to help creators improve their story’s structure by workshopping at the point where the narrative is still in flux. Another is to establish a cohort. ‘I would love for these people to keep in contact with each other, continue to share their projects, and receive feedback from each other,’ MacFarlane says before the residency. They deliberately took the cohort far, far away, to remove them from their day-to-day lives and give them space to think. And Maria is a place where you can be creative: ‘There’s art everywhere, the place breathes art; the way the light hits the crumbling buildings, the trees and the animals,’ says MacFarlane. The power of this landscape can be seen in the comics published in CAW’s 2015 anthology Frightful Irregularities.
‘There’s art everywhere, the place breathes art; the way the light hits the crumbling buildings, the trees and the animals.’
Four hours a day are spent workshopping, and several more in preparations. On other days, Corman and Hart present artist talks. Whatever time is left over, the participants spend together. At times they’re bent over their work, at others they explore the island. Here, their talk drifts from waterproof ink and pen preferences to colour wheel theory. They stop to see the sun set behind a wind-bent tree, or a building barnacled onto a hillside. They walk among the pademelons and daytime-waking wombats. They take their sketchbooks, pencils, and pens, working en plein air.
Despite the demanding schedule, there’s time to skylark and get to know each other. ‘Now we’re all best friends,’ Harris says as small group strides up a hill to see some ruins, wisps of hair and jacket flaps blowing in all directions. ‘I think we needed a bit of love, and some hard love too.’ Crucial to their connection is the understanding that they are all comic artists, who focus on improving the work rather than having to justify their practice. The authority of the group was invaluable. ‘When you’ve got five people who are incredibly literate in comics all saying, That’s a problem or, This needs fixing – that’s undeniable,’ says Whyte.
‘I feel I’ve…transitioned,’ says Georgina Chadderton (aka George Rex Comics) with a mock breathlessness. We sit on the Penitentiary verandah after her workshop, the chorus to Bowie’s ‘Changes’ playing in the background. ‘At the start of the residency I was terrified to talk to people. [But CAW] instantly felt safe.’
Not far from the Penitentiary are the old limekilns. They were built in the 1880s, of convict-made bricks salvaged from a demolished jailhouse. They comprise an arched doorway and a wall of bricks laid with their short sides out (not unlike empty comic panels). Time, weather and moisture have affected the wall’s surface; there are lines of mortar, red bricks, blackened bricks and bricks altogether missing. It’s a challenge for the eye, let alone the pen – the residents dub it ‘the impossible wall’. ‘The light constantly changes, and the shadows on the bricks change the depth and feeling of the wall as you draw,’ explains resident Gregory Mackay. But they return, determined to get it on paper. ‘To give an impression of its complexity, or die trying,’ Mackay quips.
Peter Rigozzi is a Heritage Officer at Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife Service (which runs Maria Island National Park). It’s his job to care for the limekilns. He explains that the way the bricks were fired was highly variable. ‘Their strength depends on where they were in relation to the fire,’ he says. Those closest to the heat stand strong today. Those furthest away are weaker, more prone to absorbing the moisture and salt that draws to the surface and gradually erodes the brick away. Hence the mass of multi-coloured brick, sand, mortar and air.
Rigozzi is amused that the artists call the kilns ‘the impossible wall’. It’s impossible from a heritage perspective too. There are only so many convict-made bricks and once in the wall they’re subject to the vagaries of time and weather. No matter what, ‘the impossible wall’ is bound to change.
The Festival of the Photocopier is a celebration of comics and zine cultures. It fills the Melbourne Town Hall – row after row of tables feature self-published works from all over Australia, often hawked by the creators themselves. Onlookers fill every space between the tables and the energy of the room creates a huge din.
Here, in February this year, a mini-cohort of CAW’s residents sit together. Fifteen months on from Maria Island, there’s an undeniable connection between them – genuine friendships have formed and they continue to workshop together. ‘It gave me the sense that I could do it,’ says Chadderton; she’s quit her day-job to freelance fulltime. She’s working on several graphic-novel projects and her process has radically changed – for one thing, she puts far more emphasis on structure before inking her work.
Fifteen months on from Maria Island, there’s an undeniable connection between them – genuine friendships have formed.
Of the fourteen pieces workshopped in 2015, two novels (which had publishers before the workshop) are now complete, another has found a publisher and another yet has self-published. Others have progressed with their stories, and their craft, with support of the wider group. There’s no doubt that Grant and MacFarlane achieved their goals of creating a structurally sensitive, self-supporting cohort – one they’re not about to abandon. They’re committed to running the workshop three times over six years; the 2017 workshop will be held in Jogja, Indonesia in October.
Back on the island, sitting under that wind-bent tree in 2015, Whyte reflected on just how much he gained from the residency, ‘I wonder whether CAW will be quite the thing that’s pointed to as – not a turning point – but almost a milestone in Australian comics culture,’ he said.
It’s certainly possible.