Disclosure: I create comics and have had a shimmery involvement with the indy Melbourne comics scene since the late 1990s. I know some of the team behind this film and am acquainted with almost everybody on screen (ok not the crowd scenes but then again ....).
Bernard Caleo is our tour guide. Not only a fan of the form and its local living patron saint, he also produces his own comics AND is currently working on a long form comics narrative of his own. As clarity begins in Rome he has avoided conflict here and elected to focus on four figures from the Melbourne scene to talk about their life, art and books. Along the way we pick up much about the local scene but also about what it is to work in this form.
Right, so a bunch of talking heads in a figurative circle jerk, then. Well, no. Directors Caleo and Daniel Hayward have clearly thought about this. There is a lot of talk. There has to be. This is neither sport nor concepts so weighty that they must be all talk (eg politics or environment) but here there must be more and is.
Straight up we get photography morphing into comic drawing as the principal subjects and interviewees are introduced. This happens throughout has more functionality than its gimmickry would suggest. The moments of comparison of real scene to drawn panel from Bruce Mutard's The Sacrifice tell of real industry in the artist's approach. Not only do the drawings look like their inspiration they are clearly interpreted rather than traced. The difference is the artist.
The artists are interviewed in their workspaces also relieves the talk as our eyes roam the walls of the studios blutac-ed to the last millimetre with pictures. There is no difficulty taking in the flow of the relaxed conversation while also absorbing the sketches, first tries, notes and one-offs. I just characterised the talk as feeling on the easy side but in fact the tenor of the questions allows for a lot of autobiography and the sight of clear lines of convergence. Showing the artists drawing lines is a must and also included here.
Bruce Mutard's scripting and scene sourcing are fascinating. Nicki Greenberg's tale of the conception and execution of her Great Gatsby adaptation is compelling and instructive (she toiled away knowing that her complicated and taxing efforts might well be supressed and rendered null by the Fitzgerald estate). Mandy Ord's development around rather than through the traditional comics upbringing (ie Footrot Flats rather than superheroes) provides a refreshing prespective. Pat Grant's first hand account of the Cronulla riots and subsequent observations about his own culture render his book Blue inevitable rather than creative.
We meet these people. There were a lot of fellow practitioners in the audience of this screening and their thoughts were all but audible: why wasn't I asked? I've been working on what is perhaps the finest rival-anihilating work of sequential graphic narrative on the face of the earth and it all its history and prehistorical period. Yes it is I who will genuinely lead this despis-ed form from the captivity of general spite through the wastes of indifference to the land of milk, honey and collegiate worship that shall after all be my promised and deserv-ed land. Ok, that was just me thinking that but the question was asked and answered well by Bernard in the Q&A. Limiting the coverage to four artists allowed more depth and focus. I'll take that one step further and add that these four are of such easily distinguishable individuality that it is impossible to confuse them. The sense that if there is a comics community in Melbourne it doesn't suffer from the conformity of the clique.
But the clarity and flow don't last all the way through. The film shifts gear to cover the Caravan of Comics tour by a number of Melbourne-based comics artists to The U.S. and Canada. As the crew (which includes two of the four we've been following) move through various conventions and public events talking and selling Melbourne comics we are dropped into home video shaky cam and Blair Witch editing and what now feels like too many interviews which involve too much similarity to each other. This does pick up and we get back to a smoother surface but it feels busy rather than expanding and when it appeared my first thought was: what's that doing here? Relevant as it is it jarred.
While I was easily engaged by the profiles of the four principals I was less taken at some points. I know Bruce Mutard and admire his work and I know that his moving house after decades in the same situation was a major life point, the footage of it, as a viewer of a documentary, made me wonder what the time was.
While Bernard, who at comics events can incite large groups of friends and strangers alike to shout themselves hoarse cheering like Her Majesty's 39th Bristol Fusiliers, starts too stagey he does take his presentation down to acceptable cinematic levels. His effortless enthusiasm is infectious and provides a current of constant energy whenever he is on screen or driving what's happening there. Less so is the occasional hasty edit between soundbites, particularly early on which can feel breathless rather than energetic.
That aside, I can happily inform you that this film made me want to draw and write comics. It made me edgy to do so and indeed when I got home I fired up the ol' Cintiq and sketched out two pages of part 3 of Fibula that were giving me trouble. Last time anything like that happened was after I saw Crumb for the first time.
So, yes, worth the ticket and the choctop. I was expecting gluey video of a lot of backslapping. What I got was cinema.