But what about comics? After all this is the city that came oh-so-close to being known as Batmania – true fact.
Well, there’s certainly a lot to enjoy here for the curious comic book aficionado. For starters there is a thriving independent creative scene within the city. From several conversations I had over the course of my weekend in Melbourne, names such as Nicki Greenberg, Bruce Mutard, Tom Taylor and Ben Hutchings repeatedly cropped up. Notable too is that these comic creators were often mentioned to me by other writers and artists, happy to see fellow Australians making their mark in the industry. There was a wonderful sense of supportiveness from within the community, which is what inspired this piece and my desire to spotlight some of the great books being produced in this part of the world.
Oh, I returned to Sydney with a mighty haul, yes I did.
My guide during my weekend in Melbourne was Jason Franks from Black Glass Press, a comic writer and artist in his own right, responsible for the likes of horror anthology Kagemono, action rampage McBlack and satirical series The Sixsmiths published by Slave Labour Graphics. Several pints of Mountain Goat may have helped speed things along, but Jason kindly agreed to ferry me about the city and introduce me to the monthly comic creators meet at the Prince Alfred hotel.
More on that shortly.
Firstly though, we wandered down to The Sticky Institute, located in Degraves St subway. The shop itself is accessible from the street just opposite Flinders St Station and down a flight of steps. Sticky proudly claims to be the ‘ardent defenders of ‘zine culture, long armed staplers and DIY ethic’. There is a great range of ‘zines and indie comics available therein. Sticky represents a fantastic stepping stone for aspiring graphic artists and comic creators. Amateurism is encouraged, as well as experimentalism, which can help iron out technique, not to mention gauging the kinds of audience that is out there and willing to read what you have to offer. Places like Sticky come as a great relief from the monolithic nature of the increasingly commercialised comic industry as a whole.
(Oh and that coffee shop I mentioned – directly across from Sticky. Another reason to go investigating).
The following day my own personal Virgil took me further down into the Melbourne comic underworld… actually that sounds too sinister. Yeah, Jason invited me along to the pub and I said hi to the folks there. On the first Saturday of each month, comic book writers, artists and aspiring professionals meet, drink and exchange titles of interest at The Prince Alfred Hotel, 191 Grattan Street, Carlton, which is on a direct tramline out of the city centre.
Upon arriving, I was immediately greeted by the affable Greg Gates, something of an unofficial MC at the event. He gave me a little more information on the history of the meets and some of the personalities who attended. Over ten years ago, an American artist named John Weeks began the first series of meetings in Melbourne. Greg continued “It was at one of our oldest pubs in Bank Place, in the heart of the financial district, attended by about a dozen of our ‘arty’ comickers including Jo Waite, Mandy Ord, Nicki Greenberg and M.P. Fikaris. It was a real ducks out of water scenario amongst all the suits on their end of week Friday night piss up.”
Jason then takes up the tale. “I started going to the meets in the middle of 2007, when they were held at the Stork on Elizabeth Street. It was usually between eight and twelve people, I think. I remember Colin Wilson, Greg Gates, Phil Bentley, Bobby N., Trev Wood, Tom Bonin, Dave Cunning, James Andre, Paul Bedford, Mike Nason and occasionally guys like Angelo Madrid, Jo Waite, and some others. The first time I showed up, I was quite intimidated – there were some tough looking dudes in that group, lots of shaven heads and biceps compared to other comics guys I used to hang with. But when I introduced myself everybody was very friendly. “”Hi, I’m Phil.” “Bobby.” “Colin.” ‘
From there the meetings moved on to two further venues with attendance peaking and troughing over the years until the new home at The Prince Albert was found. An average of thirty or so folks turn up on the afternoons and even the bar man is on the square. I had a pleasant chat with him about comics while he served me a pint. Greg proved to be an affable host, telling me stories featuring some familiar names and even showing me some of his own work, collected in Strange Worlds: The Art of Greg Gates. He also recommended ‘further reading material’ such as Mandy Ord’s Rooftops and Bruce Mutard’s Sacrifice, which are both books set in Melbourne. I was also shown some very interesting work by Simon Hanselmann, an artist whose work was being shown at the Inherent Vice exhibition in Federation Square. The particular book that I saw is called Hypnotic Midday Movie, and frankly, it looked amazing.
Overall, I came away from the meet feeling quite positive about the comic scene in the city. Folks were friendly, there was genuine interest in a wide variety of examples from the medium – you were just as likely to discuss superhero comics with someone as you were Dutch comics set in WWII (there were a couple lying around in the pub) – and there was a supportive atmosphere towards everyone as well, from veteran professionals to amateurs starting out.
For my last day in Melbourne, my wife and I found ourselves standing outside an unassuming location for a comic store. All Star Comics was launched by Mitchell Davies and Troy Varker six months before I showed up on their doorstep. The building itself is surprisingly officious, just another innocuous office block off Lonsdale Street. Once inside though, we discovered All Star to be a warm, brightly lit and very well-stocked store. There were also some very imaginative promotional posters on display by artist Tim Hobday, whose work gives the store an eye-catching brand presence both online and through their advertorial listings. What’s most impressive about the business, though is their policy of giving all titles displayed an equal footing. Mitchell talked us through it as follows:
“The market is already so full of choice from the US, both major and independent releases, that we want the books we stock to hold their own against everything else that is on the shelf. And we want them to sell because they look interesting and are in fact quality books, not solely because they are local.
We also wanted to help support local artists by buying the books from the creators outright. This made the most sense to us because we are just treating these books the same way we do the US titles. We don’t sell those books on consignment, so why would local books be any different?”
The two lads had previously worked in another Melbourne store, and were frustrated at how Australian books would become buried beneath the imports. Their approach upon setting up All Star was to give these overlooked titles as good a chance at finding a readership, as well as providing local creators with as much support as possible so that they can concentrate on the important things – such as putting out more books.
Mitchell’s enthusiasm was quite infectious, and I left the store burdened down with titles such as Rombies by Tom Taylor and Skye Ogden from Gestalt Comics and Handball Heaven by Ben Hutchings, which winningly challenges the everyday surrealism of Bryan Lee O’Malley.
By the time I made it to the airport, I had a bag weighed down with comics and a notepad full of names. In the weeks to come I am hoping to make contact with some of the talent down here in Australia and shine a spotlight on the great work being done. It seems Melbourne is quickly becoming my comic book Mecca.