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May 17, 2015 | by  | in Features |
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A few weeks ago, the City Library hosted the annual Comicfest event, which aims to spotlight the work of New Zealand comic artists—from political cartoonists to longform comic writers—and encourage aspiring artists and writers to create and share their own work. This was why I was here. Ever since I learnt that drawing comics was a thing you could do, every spare moment I had, I would be drawing my own. Unfortunately, when academia hit, the drive to create suddenly left. But comics never left my mind nor my hands throughout school and university. I figured if I was going to be making comics in New Zealand now, I’d better know whom I was following.

So, with that in mind, allow me to make what you are bound to think is a pretentious statement: I think comics are the greatest art form to exist.

They’re elegant in their simplicity, the perfect elemental fusion of words and pictures. They don’t get enough respect as an artistic medium, on both an institutional and a public level. Comics overall are still seen as a low art, something trivial or disposable. But what comics lack in respect, they make up for in the passion of their creators, and it’s that enthusiasm where the medium thrives above all others.

The headier definition of what a comic is can be found in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which defines them as “sequential art narratives”. While a film is technically a set of still images in sequence, told over time and occupying one space (a screen), a comic is a narrative told over space (pages).

To break it down further, there are distinctions between a comic, a comic strip and a cartoon. Comics are several panels over several pages, while a strip is just a few panels. A cartoon is a single image, usually with a caption or some words, but it stands alone, where comics and comic strips at least tell some sort of a story or a cohesive narrative. Like any art, comics are a conversation, intending to convey a specific message by the artist, and they have their own unique visual language of panels and boxes, bubbles and balloons. How an artist decides to convey their message is up to them. Comics are best suited for storytelling, while a cartoon is best for making one definitive statement; a cartoon can never say “on the other hand”.

New Zealand comics come in all forms, and have been around for as long as the print medium was established. Technically, a New Zealand comic would be called a kōmeke, the Māori transliteration of “comic” or waituhi whakakata, from the Māori words for “ink” and “humourous”. I assume the English equivalent would likely be something like “funny pages”. Pikiteia Press, a blog spotlighting New Zealand comics, takes its name from the transliteration of “picture”. Pikiteia Press cites the emergence of a New Zealand comic history as beginning with Noel Cook, one of our most prolific comic artists.

Born in Foxton in 1896 to an Australian mother and a Māori father of the Ngati Toa tribe, Cook began his career drawing political cartoons for the Listener and the New Zealand Herald. But he was a storyteller at heart, referring to his time in the first World War as his “great adventure”. Cook later moved to Australia and then England to do illustrative work, writing and drawing comics of every genre, from “boys’ own” adventure stories, to funny animals to sci-fi comics like Adrift in Space, set in the unthinkably distant future of 1990.

New Zealand comics aren’t really well known outside of their own community, at least in print. We’ve been awarded and recognised internationally, a recent example being Dylan Horrocks and his recent graphic novel Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen, but our comics culture remains relatively insular. This is very quickly changing as artists switch from print to purely digital as a quick and cheap way to get comics out to the public and the world at large, like the monthly political comic The Pencilsword, drawn for the Wireless by Toby Morris, and Moth City artist Tim Gibson, who publishes on the Comixology digital comics app.

The refrain is that it’s never been easier to get into and make comics now. The trouble is that everyone is making comics now. This oversaturation doesn’t really extend outside of the sphere of those who write, draw and read comics exclusively. Comics as a medium overall aren’t as “recognised” an art form. When I describe what I do at Salient, I say that I’m a feature writer first and, oh, I also do a comic. For me, I clarify that feature writing is my actual job whereas the comic is just a side thing, something else I get done in the week to stay creative and published. I kind of hope that people see me as a cogent and sophisticated writer and not just an okay artist with a penchant for shitty puns. There’s still something of a stigma, especially if it is your only job. Comics are a thing you do on the side, not a sustainable career; they’re something that sits at the end of your conversational CV.

This stigma was summed up best by Tim Bollinger, former Salient comic artist and editor of the international indie arts magazine White Fungus, who noted “comics are a popular art form unpopular in New Zealand”. There’s a paradoxical quality to liking comics. You can easily find a community or even just one person who is as into them as you, but you feel united against institutions.

Over the history of Western society, the cultural elite have both rejected and then gradually come to accept every medium of art in equal measure, from the novel to the outsider art piece, from television to film. Comics have never really had that privilege. They’re a mere distraction, cheesecake for the brain. The best the medium can hope for is to be like one of the Time-beloved, critically upheld pieces like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the latter of which is the only comic to date I have got both of my parents to read. These are all great stories that can only be told in a graphic format, and great ones at that, but they’re ambassador fictions. They exist, at least in conversation, to convince institutions that comics have merit as an art, so long as the superheroes are reduced to ineffectual men in tights and the funny animals are not funny and instead serve to contextualise complicated feelings about conflicts we would feel too squeamish to depict with humans.

To qualify anything as popular or unpopular is an exercise in subjectivity. Political cartoons are certainly populist, a visual summary of people’s fears and gripes with the political elite or with situations beyond their control. If art is a conversation, then political cartoons are ones held between your mates at the pub, full of vexed exasperations and colourful metaphors, while the backbenchers eavesdrop and don’t understand what’s so funny. Political cartoons are by nature satirical, and good satire must aim to punch up at those above our social standing. That’s why they tend to be the most well-known style of comics, to both the plebs that read them and patricians they mock. More people read the Dominion Post on the reg than they do Tintin or Superman.

Political cartoons get held up as serious political commentary. In New Zealand, and abroad, they have a vestige of institutional acceptance by being collected and displayed in national libraries. But I couldn’t help but wonder whether these cartoons were only collected for context, to sit alongside the articles that “actually matter”.

Dr Melinda Johnston, the research librarian for cartoons at the Alexander Turnbull library, moderated a panel at Comicfest on the distinction between cartoons and comics.

“The Alexander Turnbull Library is the home of the New Zealand Cartoon Archive, which, in itself, suggests a kind of institutional acceptance of political editorial cartoons,” she said. “We collect these cartoons for a number of reasons; one key reason being that they offer an important insight for researchers looking to use them as historical evidence of cartoonists’ viewpoints and of the feelings and beliefs of their readers.”

Does this mean that political cartoons are only preserved as artifacts for sake of a completionist history, rather than preserved for their own merit as artistic expressions?

“I prefer to think that doesn’t mean that they cannot also be appreciated for their artistic merit,” says Johnston. “I also think that cartoonists today still have a valuable role to play by encouraging viewers to engage with current events and societal issues and to question the veracity of the news that is published.”

While political comics will always be recognised on an institutional level, there is currently no comics archive that exists in the same manner. However, Johnston added that there are advances being made to rectify this, with published comics being collected as part of their the National Library’s Legal Deposit scheme.

I asked Robyn E. Kenealy, artist and writer of Roddy’s Film Companion and its spinoff The Darkroom, which appeared in Salient, if she agreed with Bollinger’s statement on the dichotomy of New Zealand’s reception to comics.

“I think that if New Zealand has an art culture that is distinct to NZ, then it’s definitely one of pronounced DIY—take Flying Nun as an example,” says Kenealy. “Artistic expressions—or, those that are recognised—that are ‘unique’ to New Zealand tend to reject anything too ‘mainstream’. Which is partly because New Zealand is a really little country with a really small local market—there just aren’t enough people here to support a local comics ‘industry’ by being paying readers.

“In order for New Zealanders to participate in ‘popular’ mediums—or really, in ‘popular’ industry, I think—they have to be setting their sights on an overseas market. Which, in my personal opinion, tends to fuel an assumption that anything aiming at a popular market is just not very New Zealand.”

But will comics ever have institutional acceptance in New Zealand as a quote-unquote “respected” art form?

“Absolutely. I think they already have. That’s taken place in what I’d tentatively term the ‘literary’ sphere. There are a few cartoonists in New Zealand whose work is respected and known about through channels like the NZ Arts Festival, or through literary events, awards, and discussions. Dylan Horrocks is the most obvious example, in that he’s been a writer in residence, and awarded internationally… there’s an emerging sense that while comics might not be ‘popular’ in NZ, they’re definitely—at least becoming—respectable.”

Kenealy is currently the artist of Steve Rogers’ American Captain, an autobiographical comic drawn and published on her tumblr, which asks the question “Who is Steve Rogers when he’s not Captain America?”. While his films either play up his stark black-and-white views being out of touch in a morally grey present, or cast him as the morally upright leader of the Avengers, Kenealy portrays Steve Rogers as the perpetually anxious outsider. The comic is a set of slice-of-life vignettes, a welcome break from blow-out superpower punch-fests. Steve in the comic draws what Kenealy imagines he would draw as a coping mechanism to deal with his new life, which plays into her interest in superheroes as inherently damaged characters.

“Many, many hero origin stories are rooted in extremely traumatic events—take Batman’s parents being murdered in front of him, Iron Man waking up in a cave with a car battery in his chest, the Hulk… well, all of that. My interest is in the fact that hero narratives tend to sort of weave together personal trauma and the traumatic nature of imperialism, in that so much of the selling point, the humanisation of the characters is this horrendous personal stuff, while they’re deployed, as characters, in nationalistic, super-normative stories about might making right and men having to do what they have to do.

“I’m being very pretentious. Well, I’m also writing a fan comic about a character whose superhero name is literally Captain Nation-state, so maybe my pretentious reading of events is a tad warranted.”

And maybe that pretentiousness is perfectly warranted in comics. There’s always a fear that attempting this sort of material is too high-minded for a low medium. But whether we want to gain institutional acceptance from the patricians or try to build a more solid comics industry, whether you want to make big political statements or shitty puns, we won’t get anywhere by shutting up and letting our ideas and thoughts stew within us. Everyone has a comic in them. And I think I have a lot more comics in me yet.

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