Stories From Australia’s History is a series of books aimed at late primary (or elementary) school level, which prominently feature 12 pages of comics as a pedagogical tool. Comics as a means to crossing the bridge of student ennui and bringing history to life? Who’d a thunk it! There have been 18 books in the series so far, of which I did the comics for 7. Written by Melanie Guile.
Sections:“Prisoners-of-war” and “Dark days on the Burma-Thailand Railway” Find it
Sections: “Bound for Botany Bay” and “The struggle to survive” Find it
Sections: “Grand plans” and “Rivers in the desert” Find it
Sections: “First steps towards sainthood” and “A nest of crosses” Find it
Sections: “Unknown, trackless land” and “The battle at Anzac Cove”
Sections: “The attack at Gallipoli” and “An incredible journey” Find it
Sections: “Women fight back” and “The fight continues” Find it
Commissioned to adapt prose short stories from past issues into graphic story form. The challenge was to take at times wordy stories set in a particular historical context, then make them both visually interesting and relevant to todays readers, rather than as a historical curiosity. Fortunately, the editor Jeff Sparrow gave me broad leeway to adapt the stories, even bringing them into contemporary times.
Published in Overland #200.
With some surprise I received an email out of the blue from the editor of Overland, to adapt a short story from the literary magazine’s first issue, into comic form for their then, upcoming issue #200. Moreover, it would be in colour. I love nothing more than being asked to do something different, so with relish I tackled it. To accompany the story, I was also asked to write a short explanatory article on what my methods were, to which you may read, here:
John Morrison’s ‘Nine O’Clock Finish’ is not a naturally visual story, having, as it were, a single setting in the cargo hold and deck of the Nestor and a time frame of perhaps half an hour, wherein a small gang of waterside workers debate the merits of direct action versus negotiation. It could have transferred to the stage very well; Morrison’s original even sports a Greek chorus, with a couple of blokes commenting from the side as they stand by an idle winch.
A graphic story is visual, so I had to make it interesting beyond being eight pages of panels with talking heads. There were a few possible ways of achieving this: shifting the scene; manipulating the point of view or frame; or changing the ‘acting’ of the characters. Since Jeff, Overland’s editor, thought the original had currency in today’s workplace environment, particularly on the waterfront, where many of us have heard little since the heady days of the 1998 dispute with Patrick stevedores, I decided to bookend the original with a contemporary scene that directly relates the past to the present.
As for manipulation of frame and ‘acting’, I have long tried to give readers a reason to read the pictures so that they are not merely identifiers of who is speaking or narrating. The graphic story frame operates like the proscenium of a theatre or the frame of cinema: it encloses a time and space that is presented to an audience – or reader, in this case. Thus I, as artist, stage the scene using the formal properties of visual art such as figure/ground, scale, line and colour. My aim is to create a vivid sense of time and place, so that the reader sees past the hand-drawn image and disappears into the drama of the story. The film director Robert Wise used to argue that a director has done his job if no one notices his technique, but Brecht and Godard would have it otherwise. At times, I agree with them.
A reader should have cause to go back and re-read a work, picking up detail that was missed on the first pass – the body language of the characters, their relationship to one another – using the same cues as they would in real life. After all, the story is set in a time and place that Morrison experienced first hand. It is not history but historical; not a documentary but a human drama. That is where art and life connect: at the level of shared experience. If I have done my job well, then I hope the reader will be moved in some way..
Published in Overland #204.
This strip was an adpatation of THE BIRTHDAY, by Gwen Kelly and originally published in Overland back in about 1954.
The original centred around John Weston, a teacher in late 40’s, early 50’s, who is in the process of making decisions about where his grade six students [all boys] should go after that year: tech, high or opportunity class. The boys had sat IQ tests and had these correlated with age. Most were dull, with only two being suitable for high school, one of whom, Martin Cooper, whose age was not known. Upon being asked, Martin simply didn’t know. He thought he might be 12. Martin comes from a dirt-poor family of 8, with a transient father, and lived with all of his elder relatives all crammed into three rooms at the back of a house off a lane. John knows Martin is a bright spark and very curious – a natural for high school and even capable of achieving his leaving certificate, but the Head of school denies it because the family needed Martin to do a trade and earn a quid. Opportunity was denied by patronising, but well meaning, authority.
It may seem difficult to believe this sort of thing once existed, but it did. My own father went through the same experience; only he was given the chance to go to Perth Boys H.S. He squandered the opportunity, being more interested in playing cricket and dancing.
My aim with the adaptation was to make it relevant in a contemporary context where opportunity can still be denied, but in different ways: poor resources, teachers under siege or unmotivated to teach ‘rough’ kids; temporary contracts; NAPLAN; the education bureaucracy and teacher union intransigence on teachers salaries, performance, tenure, seniority and so on. Point is, dirigisme can stifle opportunity for student potential. That and social conditions around the kids at home are major factors.
It is in pencil as I was in Italy when I drew it and simply ran out of time to ink the story by the deadline. Thus, I worked up the pencil with a lot more tone and precision than I normally do.
An adaptation of a short story called Paper Children by Elizabeth Jolley, originally published in Overland #89, back in 1982. It is about an Afghan woman, Asal, who is an obstetrician, anticipating meeting her daughter whom she gave away for adoption just as the communist regime of Najibulllah imploded and the country descended into the mujahedeen civil war that resulted in the dystopian regime of the Taliban. The daughter, Kinah, wound up in outback Western Australia, a place barely imaginable to someone who grew up in Kabul and studied medicine in Kiev. In the original story by Jolley, the woman, Clara, was an obstetrician in Vienna, who gave her daughter Lisa, away for adoption just after the Anschluss of 1938. Her husband, being a Jew was in mortal danger, as was Lisa, according to the Nuremberg laws.
This story was intriguing in that the structure was very modernist: shifts in time were not signposted, and multiple first person viewpoints that included the anxious imaginary scenarios of both Clara and Lisa of their first real meeting in more than quarter of a century. This structure was difficult to compress into the 8 pages I had been allotted, so I altered the setting. I also prefer to adapt prose stories to the comics’ medium in a non-literal way – a springboard to something contemporary and relevant. My other stories for Overland in the past two years were the same.
The first graphic stories ever to appear in this prestigious literary magazine, though reviews of graphic novels have appeared previously. 2048 was my imagination of a dystopian future where the climate change evangelists have won power and translated their current agenda into legislative action. It is pretty dark and cynical.
A tabloid sized, full colour newspaper of comics from some 20-odd contributors that was produced in conjunction with the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2011. The task was to produce a half page story drawn from ones own life, to which I produced an oblique strip based on a trip I made to Sydney and Perth early in 2012. It’s made up of almost non-sequential observations. In doing this, I was intrigued to use visual corollaries for words, so that readers must read the pictures and slowly assemble the idea, making their own story from the pieces I provided. The title, Cookies, refers to a reversal of ‘that’s the way the cookie crumbles’, which means: life going in unexpected directions.
He is interested in using the comics medium as an adjunct to communicating the experience of patients to medical professionals, who may, as we all know, become a bit offhand in their bedside manner. They are human, but patients are not bags of organs, blood and bone to be forensically inspected, either. In this strip, the Doctor asked me to convey a patient’s experience, of which I have a bit, particularly when I suffered an eating disorder. The compression of the experience into such a small space was not optional. I have done another strip that tries to convey the inner experience of living with an eating disorder, here.
For those of you whom the Satanic forces have not alerted to the presence of The Sixsmiths, then I shall do so. Co-created by Jason Franks (McBlack, Kagemono, Bloody Waters among many credits) and J Marc Schmidt (All You Bastards Can Go Jump off A Bridge, *), The Sixsmiths is more or less Home and Away with satanists instead of the atheist irreligious feel of that show. Yep, it’s got angsty teenagers, insecure adults, a satanic coven of ordinary people who go about living ordinary lives. That’s what I loved about Volume 1. As a reader, you’re constantly thrown by these quirky satanic references that are all quite sensible and based on fact. It’s a book of some depth that does not take cheap shots at the satanists or Abrahamic religious alike.
For Volume 2, Jason has decided to have each of the chapters drawn by a different artist. I have recently completed my pages, to which I hereby give you a preview of the first and last page only. They have not been lettered yet. This will be all you’ll see until the book comes out, when of course, you will go and buy it. You can get a preview of some of the artists by going to the blog for the books, here: http://www.thesixsmiths.com/wordpress/
When will the book come out? I don’t know. Probably late next year.