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Towards an Australian Graphic Novel: A response to Meanjin and Comics

Almost a year ago I wrote a piece for Meanjin called "The Written Image" about the Australian graphic novel and the developing long-form comics created in Australia. This was followed by a response blog post criticising my article as "defensive and dismissive of comics". From inside comic culture this reading might have some weight, but the article sought to introduce a new audience to Australian graphic novels.

I started writing about comics in 1993 when I chose Australian comics and the censorship campaigns of the 1950s as a history thesis topic. The history department was reluctant to take it on and suggested doing it over at the freewheeling postmodern English department. A confused English professor wrinkled his nose and asked "Do you mean a thesis about Ginger Meggs?"

Nope, I was looking to research what happened in the mid-1950s that damaged the development of Australian comics for years to come. Most Australian states introduced censorship laws to tackle what had been called "a flood of blood" of American comics. The campaigns against comics were muddled with comics blamed for destroying everything from literacy to morality but also included strange bedfellows like Australian comic artists who saw their industry threatened by "sin in syndication".

In the Meanjin piece I talked about "so-called horror comics" because at the time few horror or crime comics actually existed in Australia. The pamphlet I've reproduced here (comics as "vile mind poison" could be a marketing slogan today) had to source examples from pulp fiction and penny dreadfuls to find shocking images. Titles like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror were released in the USA which was the source of the moral panic that swept the world. My article mentions Japan because it is one of the few countries that didn't introduce censorship laws. Manga has developed into a diverse adult literature while elsewhere comics were hampered by a self-censoring industry.

Self-censoring? Yep. In most nations comic book publishers saw the storm of parents, educationalists and churches and opted to protect their markets. The Comics Code Authority in the US is the most obvious example which appeared in 1954 and pushed out comics that featured horror or sex. Entertaining Comics - famous for Tales from the Crypt - dodged the laws by creating Mad Magazine - as a magazine Mad could push the limits more than a post-war American comic. Robert Crumb and underground artists carried the torch for adult comics in the 1960s but it's not until the 1980s that graphic novels aimed at a new audience.

In Australia our moral panic was dealt with by censorship laws. Fearing the loss of their licences that prosecution under the new laws would bring, publishers self-censored. The censorship laws that were put in place were later used against books and magazines, but comic books largely ducked prosecution.

Australia has only just developing graphic novels - impressive longer form comics aimed at older readers are being produced by Australians like Nicki Greenberg or Bruce Mutard. Many of these artists currently creating books come from a community of comic creators that began in the 1990s, working on books that have taken years to create and get published. The Wheeler Centre has an upcoming event spotlighting some of these creators. But there are many more who've created great comics that deserve larger readerships. Getting these creators an audience beyond their community will be a real sign that Australian comics have grown up.

In a strange coda, the 1950s closed with comics as school textbooks (like the second image here). More than selling out, they'd become part of the education system, tagging comics as the stuff of school children for generations of baby boomers. In 1954 Meanjin was in the grip of the moral panic, publishing "Comics and Culture" by Norman Bartlett who feared that "comics and sex books ignore community or any other values and exploit appetites, impulses and passions." Literary journals have come a long way in how they see comics.

Illustrations from a pamphlet "Let Us Work To Ban Trashy Comics And Books Which Poison Our Childrens' Minds", authorised by the Trades and Labor Council of Qld, 1952, and educational comic Flynn of the Great Heart, cover image of by Arthur Hudson, published by Australian Visual Education Pty, 1958.