Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Graphic Novels! Melbourne!

The stutter of exclamation marks in the title should give audiences a hint as to the sheer effervescence of narrator and 'guide' to the Melbourne comics scene - Bernard Caleo - who along with director Daniel Hayward (This Is Roller Derby), composer Martin Martini, and interview subjects Mandy Ord and Nicki Greenberg attended last night's screening at the Cinema Nova in Carlton. 

Graphic Novels! Melbourne! Bernard Caleo Daniel Hayward Pat Grant poster

Caleo first appears rifling through long boxes in the narrow confines of a comic store, turning to greet the camera and commence this examination of the Melbourne scene, with an emphasis on the last five years in particular. His manner is such that you expect him to lead off with 'Oh, I didn't see you there', - thankfully he doesn't, that would be pure Gorgonzola - but he proves to be a friendly and engaging presence, visiting a small selection of artists in their homes to gain insight into what exactly is bubbling away beneath the surface of Melbourne. First to the topic of discussion - what is a graphic novel? Well a selection of responses are provided - it falls to Scott McCloud to give the most diplomatic response that it can mean a number of different things - but Greenberg and Bruce Mutard simply dismiss the viability of the term at all besides being a needless label for comics. 

The Sacrifice Bruce Mutard

Standing in a kitchen in the same house he has lived in since childhood, Mutard presents his recollections on his first steps into making comics, beginning with fantasy imagery during adolescence and then moving on to more drawn-from-life work following the success of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns as trade paperbacks in Australia. Rather than imitate the American formula for comics success, Mutard is inspired to write more about the place he lives in - the city of Melbourne - and then begins to examine the history of his home with The Sacrifice

Rooftops Mandy Ord

Mandy Ord in turn discusses comics as a personal artifact from her childhood - her father introduced her to the funny pages - and this led to her developing her own style of comic art, with stories focusing on her thoughts and feelings. Significantly Ord and Mutard both draw on their experiences or what they know from their surroundings in their work - producing books that evoke a strong sense of place - and in keeping with that the film has them re-enact individual panels. So Ord's comic based on her dayjob experiences in an organic grocer is recreated with her colleagues on camera; Caleo and Mutard race past the same church the servicemen in The Sacrifice do. 

Nicki Greenberg Hamlet

Marking a fine contrast Nicki Greenberg's literary adaptations of The Great Gatsby and Hamlet takes familiar texts and transforms them into fantastical worlds that appear childlike in their imagery, but are extremely ambitious in the approach to the material. Greenberg discusses in the film how all-encompassing her focus on producing these works was and provides insight into her process of making comics. Pat Grant also draws on rich, fantastical imagery, but focuses on thematic concerns - racism, xenophobia - that belie the cute appearance of his characters. For Grant it was the events of the Cronulla riots that led to him becoming inspired to make comics. 

Blue Pat Grant

These four are the principal subjects of the film, which is edited quite soundly to give you a sense of who they are and what their work represents, while at the same time sketching out an overall feel of the importance of the so-called Melbourne comics scene. The increasing involvement of book publishers is touched on and its consequences for the marketing of comics in stores. Grant is shown speaking during his own book launch of Blue at Readings in such an emotive way, thanking the attendees, that it was hard to not start clapping along with people on the screen! Jordan Verzar's Graphic Festival also appears, as well as examples of live comics performances (one of the innovative aspects of Verzar's programme). Ord, Grant and Greenberg all narrate examples of their work. Another example of director Hayward's editing is how panels themselves are 'read' during the film, which again - in combination with the testimony of the subjects - makes these books very attractive to the prospective Aussie comics fan.

This is an intelligent and well presented discussion of comics in Australia, that serves both as an introduction and a celebration of local participation in the medium. Plenty of familiar faces appear in brief cameos - Bobby N., Jason Franks, Frank Candiloro, David Blumenstein - and there are additional interviews with Shaun Tan and Ben Hutchings. This again emphasizes the communal feel of the scene, as opposed to market driven discussions of genre or consumer popularity. 

Next week the film is off to France for the Angoulême Festival, which will no doubt provide greater exposure for the participants. It is also interesting to note that Australia itself has produced within a relatively recent period a strong and diverse variety of stories within the comics medium, perhaps enough to elicit a grudging grunt of approval from even Bande dessinée readers. Strongly recommended.


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