Comics and Roses – a review of two events, Monday 10 March

Comicsville, featuring Adrian Kinnaird, Dylan Horrocks, Jonathan King and Robyn Kenealy

My first Writers Week event today (Monday) was Comicsville, a panel discussion at the Hannah Playhouse on New Zealand comics. It was chaired by Dylan Horrocks and featured Adrian Kinnaird, Jonathan King and Robyn Kenealy; cartoonists all. I also spotted Alison Bechdel in the audience, and later saw that she had tweeted a drawing she’d done of Horrocks.

As with Sunday’s session with Bechdel, it was slightly pp_robyn_kenealystrange to have a discussion about comics without having any of them on display, but conversation was lively nonetheless. I was particularly glad to be continuing my trend of discovering interesting female authors: today’s ‘find’ is Kenealy (right). Deeply involved in the fan community, she spoke intelligently and with academic insight about the place of fan-fiction and the nature of self-publishing, very hot topics in the publishing world today. Normally, being drawn to an intriguing new author, I would immediately go and buy the book, but she said very openly that she is not trying to make money from comics and only self-publishes, mostly online. You can find her work here and here.
The book that was available for sale, though, is the new and very colourful From Earth’s End by Kinnaird (left). It’s a history of New Zealand comics and a snapshot of Kiwi cartoonists today. Flicking through my copy, I was immediately struck by the dearth of women: apart from Kenealy, apparently we pretty much just have Sarah Laing, and that’s about it. Surely that can’t be right? What about Li Chen, for example? (Closer study reveals that Chen is mentioned on page 88, but is not one of the thirty cartoonists with their own dedicated chapter.)

Being a word geek, I was particularly interested to learn from Horrocks that ‘graphic’ comes from a word meaning both to draw and to write; and that comics in te reo Maori are pakiwaituhi, which similarly indicates a story both drawn and written. This came up after a very lively discussion of the term ‘graphic novel’, which apparently has become a posh, literary term for comics generally – a rather back-handed compliment, as it implies comics need euphemising.

Overall, I left feeling that New Zealand comics are in an interesting and fruitful state, with digital publishing reaching new audiences unbounded by geography or paper distribution. Lots to look forward to.

A Rosie Glow, featuring Graeme Simsion (with a little bit of Catton comparison)

My third Writers Weekpp_graeme_simsion event today (Monday) was A Rosie Glow; Lynn Freeman in conversation with Graeme Simsion, author of the New York Times bestselling novel, The Rosie Project. Unlike previous sessions, this felt very much like a standard author talk pitched explicitly towards increasing book sales.

And indeed Simsion admitted that, since publication, his life has become one long publicity tour – full credit to him for still seeming engaged and genuinely pleased to talk to fans. The fact that this was the second time that Freeman had interviewed him on this topic, though, unfortunately intensified the feeling of stale, recycled material.

It was perhaps a rather cruel and unusual act of scheduling to put Simsion’s talk on the Embassy Theatre stage immediately before Eleanor Catton’s extraordinary New Zealand Book Council lecture (entitled “Paradox and change in fiction”). In many ways, Simsion’s and Catton’s lives could be seen as parallel: they are both relatively new Australasian authors who have rapidly become life-changingly famous and, based on the success of one novel, are both now able to be full-time professional writers. But of course they are very different people.

Simsion spoke a lot about his protagonist, Don Tillman, and how he has a Twitter account in which he tweets in Tillman’s voice, and how there is a Tillman sequel planned. Catton didn’t mention The Luminaries or any of her characters at all, and instead spoke with calm but ferocious intelligence about huge ideas, ranging from the way fiction requires both ingenuity and insight in order to succeed, to the nature of space and time in narrative.

Simsion appeared happy to basically keep writing the same book until its popularity ran out – and, indeed, since it obviously ain’t broke, this is a perfectly cromulent strategy. Catton displayed a dizzying intellectual ravenousness that seemed to eat up subjects ranging widely within her chosen field of literature and beyond. When a member of the audience asked when she plans to publish a book of essays, she responded simply “soon”.

Once again I have ended a day of Writers Week events inspired and buzzing. Bring on tomorrow!

by Elizabeth Heritage, on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Book Review: From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics, by Adrian Kinnaird

This is available in bookstores now.

When I was growing up in the 1970’s I read a lot of comics.  Every Wednesday, I tottered cv_from_earths_enddown to the dairy to buy a copy of Whizzer and Chips, which was only 3 months behind its newsstand release in the UK.  Later, I became obsessed with Commando and War Picture Library comics; their artwork intricate and compelling; the action, explosive! With an occasional Phantom and the Beano my education was complete.  By 10yrs I knew all about WWI & II, English Cockney Rhyming Slang and even had a rudimentary understanding, and distaste, for the Thacherite politics that Britain gripped the country at that time, thanks to the very rude Viz comics. Tintin and Asterix supplied in both English and French ensured my European exposure was upheld. And of course, there was the flood of Marvel and DC titles from America.

white_fungusAll this guaranteed I knew all about the Northern hemisphere, but it wasn’t until University that my awareness of local culture and history really awakened. Cartoonists like Tim Bollinger, publishing his twisted little cultural sideswipes in Salient, challenged my sheltered beliefs and perceptions. Bollinger was prolific and went on to become an editor and contributor to the stoner mag White Fungus. He also and wrote and researched extensively and enthusiastically about the history of New Zealand comics.  And then there was Tom Scott in the Listener and Chris Knox in the student rags and on music covers.

Yet in the early 80’s proper comics, and indeed graphic art in general, had faded away for me. There’s no doubt that a strong tradition of editorial cartoons has existed in Aotearoa since the early settlers first grumbled in the press.  But where was the rich and diverse writing in pictures that had already evolved in print? Where were our versions of Tintin, or tintin_ils_ont_marche_sur_la_luneCaptain America or Maus?

Well, it turns out that there was a thriving undercurrent of artistic fervour bubbling under the surface. It was dry-humoured, subversive and savant in nature. And it had been there all along. But it was an existence that was never taken seriously, or remembered with any reverence or fondness. It wasn’t taught in schools or exhibited in museums, at least not until lately. Unless cartoons were linked to politics, or historical events, they were forgotten.

In his literally graphic introduction Adrian Kinnaird explains that “until recently they (comics) were content to exist as a cultural outsider… patiently waiting for readers to discover their hidden depths and storytelling potential”.  His book is a rich and extensive curatorial effort uncovering not only our now forgotten early artists but the more recent award winning, internationally recognised creators as well.

tee_wees_adventuresImage from the blogFrom Earth’s End’ The Tee Wee Adventures by D. Price from The Auckland Star newspaper, May 2nd, 1931. Copyright the D. Price Estate 2013.

Kinnaird reminds us of the early pioneers like Noel Cook and D. Price, who was responsible for our own local version of the Katzenjamer KidsThe Tee Wee’s Adventures. I was also surprised to learn of the vast array of comics published locally, especially up until the 1950’s when censorship took hold and fear that the genre was corrupting young minds. I was blissfully unaware of the thriving industry in the 1940’s that produced immensely popular titles such as Supreme and Crash Carson. Censorship pretty much wiped that out. Like waves on a sandy beach, the industry just dissolved away.

Then enter the 1960’s, with our own local subversives who emulated Robert Crumb. Colin Wilson, for example, swung between the psychedelic and twisted to the impressive fantasy art similar to Boris and the pages of Heavy Metal.

cv_hicksvilleThen there was a new wave, running off the underground music scene nurtured by punk and Flying Nun – Chris Knox, not content to just make music on an 8 track in his bedroom chose to serve up Jesus on a Stick!  And they kept coming.  Tim Bollinger (of course) and Chris Slane – who may have been responsible for our first true graphic novel: Maui.  And there was Dylan Horrocks, who created Pickle and the Hicksville series and Simon Morse, who like me, was one of Wellington’s first comic book shop brats. We bought all the big names – Alan Moore, Howard Chaykin, et al – and in Morse’s case, redefined them in local terms.

Not content to be just a chronological history, Kinnaird also includes introspective features, including a section devoted to one of the genre’s greatest archetypes, Dick Frizzell. He rounds off the final chapters with an ‘in studio visit’ with Ant Sang (Shaolin Burning) and a ‘master class’ with Jonathan King, who takes us through the creative process that took Black Sheep from a simple four panel story concept to a feature length film. The relationship between film and comics in later years has made the careers of many Kiwis – including Weta artist Greg Broadmore (Dr Grorbot) whose brilliant hyper-retro art work steals enthusiastically from the golden age of Buck Rogers.

Making this extra special is the generous abundance of full length facsimiles of artist’s works. It would be hard to talk about the incredible art and research in Chris Grosz’s tale of pioneer warrior Kimble Bent without some clear examples of his work. Alongside these generous reprints (some in their entirety or close to it) is a detailed, but accessible biography of the artist. This is essential, as it would be hard to appreciate the impact of Martin Edmond, whose work crosses over into clothing and commercial tattoo work for example, if you didn’t have the full picture.

I guess if I had a quibble, it would be the size of the book, which whilst a good approximation of a stock standard Marvel or DC product, makes the reading of some of the reprints a little hard on the eyes. But that’s really minor compared to the immense research and wealth of knowledge Kinnaird has amassed.

Graphic novels are now very much the accepted norm in our libraries, with entire walls of shelving dedicated to the genre, even space in the Dewey System. Many mainstream movies begin as comics, especially those with social comment or a level of fantasy than can only be expressed as a combination of visuals and words. Kinnaird almost deliberately avoids editorial and portrait cartoons. These have been well covered by books like AK Grant’s The Unauthorised Version. He wants to tell the bigger and more advanced picture.  It’s also a global story, as comic conventions, such as Armageddon (here in NZ) and ComicCon (in the US) become part of the mainstream events landscape.

What is the future for NZ Comics? Kinnaird foresees that it will be bright, interactive and, as always, a little bit bleeding edge. This is a fantastic book, and I use that word in its comic book ‘sense’ and in my own. The level of research, the full prints of stories or sequences, and the respect Kinnaird clearly has for his topic and the artists who work in the genre is very clear. He knows his stuff and it shows. Comics are for everyone, Kinnaird argues, not just to be read by the dwellers of damp boy-caves and grimy flats. I can imagine this to be just a slice of an infinite conversation that is finally being held in full daylight.  Long may it continue!

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics
by Adrian Kinnaird
Published by Random House
ISBN 9781869799953