Friday, May 30, 2008

Sim and Tan

No, I haven't converted this blog to a personals column and that title is not a misspelled self-description. Even though I have turned 40 since last posting (the excuse I will use if quizzed about the length of time in between posts), there has been no change to the pallid man-about-town complexion that I have always happily worn.

But there's plenty to report, so let's get cracking:

This evening, I and my family were at Readings in Carlton for the launch of Shaun Tan's new book from Allen & Unwin (one always feels the need to preface those last three words with 'the good folks at'. Because they are.)

This book is not strictly (or even loosely) 'comics': it is a collection of illustrated stories. But I want to write about it here, in this 'thoughts about comics in Australia' blog, for a couple of reasons:

1 given the success both local and international of 'The Arrival', Shaun Tan has put 'serious comics from Australia' on the global radar. "What Shaun did next" should be of interest to comic bookers. One of the great things about the success of 'The Arrival' is that Tan was not known as a maker of graphic novels/book comics before that point. 'The Arrival' is something of a departure in form, if not in content/theme for him. Primarily he is known as a maker of picture books, although for him this does not mean children's books. As he said tonight, he makes books '... not for children, but I try not to exclude them."

2 'Tales from Outer Suburbia' is another book from Allen & Unwin (those good folk) which continues the story of their commitment to a 'graphic story' line. Again, although TOS is not in itself comics, Shaun Tan's post-'Arrival' reputation means, I reckon, that readers will be seeing/reading the stories with 'comics' lenses in their glasses. And so there's a nice two-way street where Shaun Tan is directing the traffic: in one direction come comics-heads like myself for whom his work stretches and breaks fondly-held definitions of what comics 'are' and 'aren't' - it forces us to recognise family similarities with other forms of illustrated writing. And in the other direction come readers for whom 'The Arrival' introduced a deployment of the frame-by-frame narrative technique in an unfamiliar, deeply affecting way. Shaun blows his whistle *bleeeep!* they get comics, then *bleeep!* I get picture books. Smiles all round, and the road rage meter drops ten points.

Other than Shaun's speech, which he peppered with comments from letters that children have written to him over the years in response to his books, the other great treat of the night was the launch speech, from illustration master Ron Brooks, who looks a bit like this:

Ron had come from Tasmania across Bass Strait (he rowed, apparently) to launch Shaun's book, and I was delighted that he had. Not only did his speech extoll the virtues of Shaun Tan's 27 under par ( I think I have that right) minigolf game. Not only did Ron acknowledge Shaun's poetic skill in both the writing and drawing arenas. But also, after the launch, Ron Brooks signed our family copy of 'The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek', a book that he illustrated and Jenny Wagner wrote and which was published in 1975 by Penguin Books. I was seven then, and it was the perfect book for me. Still is.

Wrap up: a great privilege to hear two Australian masters of illustration and story talk on the same night. I recommend both 'Tales from Outer Suburbia' and 'The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek to you all.

Okay, better get some sequential narrative in here or the natives will get restless. Wednesday saw me sidle into 'Classic Comics' in the city and pick up this comic:

Yes, this is Canadian Dave Sim's ongoing comic book apr├Ęs his monsterpiece 'Cerebus', and it's another frankly astounding project. If we can rely on Sim for anything, it is to confound expectation utterly, while not seeming to do so out of wilful perversity. This book is, at face/cover value, a parody of fashion magazines, (One recalls that the 6,000 page, 26 year 'Cerebus' project began as a sword-and-sorcery comics parody) featuring lots and lots of exquisitely rendered pictures of women dressed in haute couture. But really, it seems to me that in 'glamourpuss', Dave's out to explore two interlinked aspects of comics themselves:

Technique Dave Sim has always been interested in the physical culture of making comics, the nibs (Hunt Crowquill), the brushes (sable), the ink (Indian) and the ways that these are deployed to make sequential pictures. Of course every comic artist is interested in this, but Dave's keen on discussing it, in writing about it. In 'Cerebus' this was part of the editorial, but in 'glamourpuss' it's in the text.

Tradition He is upfront about trying to imbibe the styles of the 'photo-realist' newspaper comic strip men of the mid twentieth century - Alex Raymond, Stan Drake, Al Williamson, Neal Adams. As well as drawing the magazine models in the photo-realist style that he has gleaned from these greats, the book also has direct copies of frames from their comic strips that Dave has re- drawn and inked. He has a lot to say about the declining quality of the reproduction of these strips, by which means detail has been lost over the years as they have been reprinted.

Technique and tradition. These two aspects of course are central to any artform. In Australia, what would be the equivalent of 'glamourpuss'? Doing a book in Norman Lindsay's style say, or Phil May's, while discussing how they managed to achieve the very effects that the pictures, re-drawn by the current day author/artist, are illustrating.

'glamourpuss' is a comic book about comics, and at times smells a bit like an exercise - one wonders how long it can be sustained, but as I said at the outset, it's Sim's specialty to second-guess and to wrongfoot his audience. And his wicked sense of humour is still intact.

(above: self-portait of 'evil genius' Dave Sim from 'glamourpuss' #1. Cop those canines!)

Where will he take it? Impossible to say. Will I keep reading it? Affirmative, Mister Sim.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Age gets festooned with comics talk and folk

Open last Saturday's paper, all 15 kilos of it, and it's choc-a-block with comic book folk: there, on page 7: Neil Gaiman's in Melbourne to talk at a children's book conference (Shaun Tan will speak at it too) and en route, he'll Johnny Appleseed some 'comics is grand' talk.

And there, on page 12 of the A2 section, an article about a book about doodling, but the main picture is of Mandy Ord and her ink-stained hands! You read about 'em here, a couple of posts ago...

The above is a detail of Simon Schluter's photo.

And then on page 27, a short review of Bruce Mutard's 'The Sacrifice' by Owen Richardson. I can't find a link to this at the moment, but it got me pretty steamed, I can tell you. Richardson starts with some good points about comics/graphic novels in general, and then mounts a fair description of Bruce's book in particular (although saying that "... the pictures are in the tradition of the exact verisimititude of the Tintin books..." is spectacularly wide of the mark), but finishes the review (and that's the business end, after all) with a summation which is quite dismissive of 'The Sacrifice'. It's unearned, either by book or by reviewer, and I dispute it.

As I say, the smell of this review has hung around me like a dead possum under the floorboards - I will clearly need to deal with it in another post.

But just to tie this one off to say that 3 fair-sized mentions of comics and their creators in the weekend paper seems just about right to me, and it is what I will be expecting from here on in.

Problems with Money (#1 in a series)

This, after hearing John Carroll being interviewed on Radio National last week about difficulties associated with supported chairs at universities: how does this financing deform research, findings, ideas etcetera?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

'The Arrival' at The Arts Centre

This morning Zebedee my younger son, Mary Anne my mother and I trained it into the city to visit Collected Works Bookshop, where we talked to Kris Hemensley, who runs the shop with his wife Retta. It is always a pleasure to speak with either of them, and Collected Works is one of the reasons that one would live in Melbourne.

Then we headed south along Swanston Street, passing Young and Jackson's Hotel, Flinders Street Station, and crossed the Yarra Yarra River using Princes Bridge. It was like being in a comic book about Melbourne. Somehow, I'd discovered that there was an exhibition of the artwork from Shaun Tan's mesmerising silent book comic, 'The Arrival', outside The Studio, a small theatre at The Arts Centre. And there it was.

What I hadn't realised was that the theatre show of 'The Arrival', featuring actors, projections, moving sets and puppets, was also on, and we arrived just in time to see hordes of school children march into the Studio to watch it. We didn't have the tickets or the time to see the show, but a very kindly usher turned on the television monitoring system so that we could get an idea of what the show was like. It looked GREAT. And when I find a link to the theatre company who produced it, I will post it here.

(Thank you Scott Wright: name of the company is Spare Parts.)

The exhibition is only on until Sunday May 5 - it features digital prints and original pencil art from 'The Arrival'. Of course, to see the work this way, out of the 'flow' of the narrative, is instructive as I found that I was looking at the pictures as 'finished art', rather than 'ongoing art', a topic which surfaced in the discussion with Mandy Ord on last weeks 'Comic Spot'. (see last post)

Above is the sketch that I made from the monitor displaying the show: that's not 3 characters at the front, by the way, but two shadows from the main character. And there's his creature/pet in the right hand window - in the show it was coloured blue. The audience really was spilling all the way down onto the stage. One of the most amazing things, from my attenuated view, was the use of projections of images from the book, on the three main flats and the ramp, to create all sorts of spaces and scales. The flats were made of screens that could be drawn up, across, down. I loved that.