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Turning a new page

Perth's small but thriving comic scene is a place where independent artists are beginning to make their mark in new and diverse ways, writes Ruth Callaghan.

Sarah Searle – self portrait.

Perth's small but thriving comic scene is a place where independent artists are beginning to make their mark in new and diverse ways, writes Ruth Callaghan.

No — really, picture this.

Because that is what comic artists do: inking a place in the imagination that can’t exist without their art.

A world away from the comics powerhouses of DC and Marvel, the dark streets of Gotham or the alien-plagued skies of New York, Perth’s burgeoning comics scene is having a moment.

Distant voices are independent voices

'Bigger than Ben Hur' is how ECU Associate Professor Stuart Medley describes the first Perth Comic Arts Festival, hosted at the university over winter.

Not, of course, in the same league as the comic cons, held around the world and culminating in the San Diego Comic Con, which now attracts 130,000 annual attendees.

But for a first-time festival, it had considerable success: the event started as a week-long intensive course for high school students interested in comic design, rolled in masterclasses by respected illustrators, and culminated with a symposium by Australia’s leading comic academics.

It also featured exhibitions of local comic artists and a market day where local makers and traders could meet, display and trade independent comics.

“Locally the scene is still small but it is growing — and it is growing thanks to the independent publishing press,” Medley says.

“People like to share what is in their minds and it tells a story about what it means to be human.”

Perth’s foothold in comics has not come overnight.

Back in 2013, an ABC documentary traced the journey of two Perth-based comics publishers as they trekked to San Diego Comic Con to try to build their share of the 10 per cent of the comic market fought over by independents.

The publishing house, Gestalt, has become significant in Perth’s comic scene.

It has given vital work to local artists, and demonstrates the diversity of good storytelling that comics can offer.

Gestalt’s award-winning comic series The Deep has been turned into a television series, and the publishers are now reversing that process with Cleverman, the critically acclaimed ABC TV series, which is now being published as graphic novels.

Medley says there are a host of other notable Australians in the space, including former Perth author and illustrator Shaun Tan, now based in Melbourne.

Among a host of accolades, he won the AngoulĂȘme International Comics Festival Prize for Best Comic Book in 2008 for his graphic novel The Arrival, and an Academy Award for Best Short Film in 2011 for his adaptation of another of his novels, The Lost Thing.

Sydney comic artist Nicola Scott is known for her work on Wonder Woman, Melbourne authors Tom Taylor writes X Men comics for Marvel, while another former Perth artist, Ben Templesmith, now lives in the US where his works include comics on Doctor Who.

The distance of Australia can act as a barrier for many hoping to work in comics full-time, but Medley says there are advantages to being outside the DC and Marvel bubble.

Comics remain cheap to make, he says, which makes them open to different voices and different stories — and that’s a trend even the major comics houses are starting to recognise.

“You don’t have to be a white middle class American guy to create these,” he says. “What you need is time.”

How the lizard plans its day

Soolagna Majumdar didn’t come to the mainstream world of superhero comics until she was an adult, after first being introduced to comics from other cultures.

“As a child I was introduced to a string of religious comics that came from India that were beautifully illustrated and I could pick out the words I knew in Bengali,” she says.

“Then I came to Japanese Manga (as a teenager) and it was the very first time that through the layout and format and the way artists use devices that I was able to have my tumultuous teen emotions be cohesively represented to me on a page.

“I never really knew I was making comics until it just clicked one day. When I was younger it just made sense for me to combine words with images.”

With a sense of humour that spills on to the page, Majamdar says she tells the stories she wants to tell and isn’t bound by someone else’s expectations of what she should be saying — in part since the returns for independent comics are so low.

“It’s an outlet for narrative freedom for me because there’s not the weird demand and expectation,” she says.

“You don’t really have capitalism telling you what will sell so you can tell whatever story you want. There’s no real loss or gain either way and if gains do come in, it’s just really great.”

Her work does challenge stereotypes but it is also highly personal.

“I did one piece on the feminist and sexual awakening of Marge Simpson. The next was on white fear in the face of women of colour having a fun time,” she says.

“And the next was on how a lizard would plan out their day if they had to.

“Everything’s political but let me be clear – I make comics because it is a reflex of how I can communicate what’s going on in my mind at the time.”

For Mujumdar, it doesn't matter particularly where a comic is produced if it can transcend boundaries — and that makes Perth as strong a location for her work as any other.

“I make it a point within my own work to see how much I can communicate without words,” she says.

“If you are a good visual communicator, no matter what language you know, if you can communicate your feelings coherently through images that’s a universal language.”

A still life in drawing

Sarah Searle is a local artist who grew up in the American state of Maine, worked for a while in Boston, and moved to Australia at 28.

While comics jobs can be inconsistent — she has also worked as a graphic designer and in the games industry — she’s spent the past few years, working on graphic novels and short stories under contract.

“There’s a low bar for entry as anyone can make a comic and there are hundreds of thousands of comics made by all kinds of different people,” says Searle, who describes her work as quiet and reflective.

“Anyone can put it out there and start establishing a reader base, but actually making a career out of it is really challenging.”

Searle considers herself lucky to have started her career in the US, where she still has a New York agent who keeps her in touch with publishers and editors, but says the Perth scene is blossoming.

“These days I focus pretty much entirely on comics,” she says.

“Right now, I’m starting on a story of a young adult memoir of an experience I had in high school – but I also have a submission on pitch to some publishers but it is more of an epic fantasy story.

“I’m constantly amazed by the strength and passion of the local community. It is a very small community but it is very enthusiastic.”


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