The Perth Comic Arts Festival

I was really honoured to be a festival guest at the Perth Comic Arts Festival last weekend, which was held at the WA State Library and Museum. It was a really wonderful event. The PCAF Committee should be very proud of the event. It really seems like, they have the most wonderful community of comic creators and fans there. 

I was there representing ALIA Graphic Novels and Comics and spoke at a panel on Saturday. It was odd to be on stage with Eleri Harris, an editor and creator I admire who just recently received an Eisner Award for her work with The Nib, and Josh Santospirito a creator and advocate I have admired for a long time and only met in person the day before. 

It was also odd to be speaking to an audience composed in large part of Australian comic book creators. People who I greatly admire. I usually promote their graphic novels, work to elevate their profile and sometimes interview them for the ALIA Graphic Podcast. But I was invited to represent ALIA Graphic Novels and Comics and the work we do, so I was there ready to speak.

Our panel discussion covered a lot of ground. 

  • Editing comics, residencies for comic creators, building community and readership through library events and workshops, including library comic cons like King Con!, Comic Gong, and others.
  • Advocating for comics in literary spaces. Literary awards and journals very often exclude comics. However, literary journals and awards often work a launching pad for authors, so what options do comic creators have?
  • Comics in libraries and the work of ALIA Graphic. Advocating for comics in libraries and schools. Raising their profile in general and of Australian titles and creators in particular, including ALIA Graphic's Notable Australian Graphic Novels list, webinars, etc.
  • Fighting back book challenges at libraries and defending comics and graphic novels through ALIA's Freedom to Read Committee.
  • Eleri also spoke about her first hand experience when one of the comic anthologies she edited was challenged in the USA.

It's great to have artists in the audience who can summarise the panel talk in infographic visuals. The first one, on paper is from Aśka. The others, on the WA State Library's window, are from some other artist - sorry, I don't know who.

All the panel talks on Saturday's Academy Day were really amazing. The comics and Culture panel with Brenton McKenna, Chris Wood and Scott Wilson was outstanding. All three of them are Australian Indigenous comic book creators and their thoughts on comics and culture were really interesting. They talked about living and working in two worlds. Scott Wilson talked extensively about the culture protocols with First Nations people. There are stories where Elders have the authority and you need their involvement and guidance. But he encouraged other creators to create stories that include Indigenous characters. He just stressed the importance of making sure they check with their local Indigenous people and ensure they approach them with respect and in a spirit of collaboration.

The romance in comics panel was really lively. They talked about the current trend for YA romance now, but also the struggle to keep romance books ‘clean’ for young readers and the risk of bans when depicting physical intimacy on the page. Sara W. Searle said that publishers always push for YA romance for girls, but it’s not just teenage girls reading comics. Romance books are a big genre but publishers are reluctant to publish romance graphic novels for adults, probably fearing depictions of physical intimacy.

There was a discussion about how unfair it is that romance books are hardly ever challenged but graphic novels with depicting physical intimacy are discouraged by publishers and, if published, often the target of challenges.

We also enjoyed comic readings from a few creators. This is something that I would definitely love for libraries to adopt. The readings were fascinating and it was beautiful to hear the creators themselves reading and interpreting their comics. There was a bit of everything in those readings. It really struck me how the audience responded to Marc Pearson's hilarious comedic reading and people were visibly moved, even cried, with Josh Santospirito's non-fiction account of his family's migration story.

I'm home with my son today. He's picked up something at school (thankfully, not Covid) and I'll be going through all the comics I collected at the Perth Comics Arts Festival Market Day, which was an outstanding success. The market hall at the museum was absolutely packed with families. 

There's such a wide range of comics here, including comics created by children through the Milktooth school of art and stories. Something, that I will have to write about in a different blog post, because their work is incredible and so inspiring. Something that I think libraries could tap into, a club for young comic creators.

And finally, I would like to mention, the Comics Battle Royale. This is such a fun and beautiful event to watch! Once again, four comic book artists had to battle it out, creating comics in front of the audience. With Campbell Whyte as MC and audience participation, including four kids drawing some panels together with the artists, the battle royale was a resounding success. 

After the battle royale I had to gather all my belongings and run to the airport to get back home with a huge smile in my face and filled with positive feelings. Thank you to the PCAF Committee for inviting me and to all the festival guests, creators, and everyone that I had a conversation with. It was an illuminating and beautiful weekend. I look forward to keep working on this field and to continue advocating for Australian comics. You're a wonderful community. ALIA Graphic sees you and we're here for you.

Of book challenges, attempts at bans and advocating for comics in libraries

The fact that Maus is being removed from school libraries and there are attempts at banning it should give us serious pause for thought. Why is this happening now, when this book was published decades ago? Like it or not, and there are come critical voices, there's no doubt that Maus is an outstanding work of non-fiction in graphic novel form that explores a deeply personal and, at the same time, universal story around genocide, trauma and the author's relationship with his father, who survived the genocide, Nazi Germany and Auschwitz.

Pen America published an interview with the author recently. In the interview, Art Spiegelman, makes some really great points that are highly relevant for us as librarians. He mentions how librarians and teachers participated and were complicit in book bans in the 1950s. It's an uncomfortable truth, but one that we need to acknowledge and be aware of. Then he says:

I think that book banning is not the only threat. I mean, there are many threats right now, where it seems to be, memory is short, fascism is a while back, they don’t know much about it. And, you know, it’s maybe attractive. It’s so complicated to live in a plurality, a democracy of some kind, even if it’s a flawed one, and try to balance out all those needs, and make decisions for yourself. So there’s a desire to keep it simple. And maybe fascism looks simple to them. And it seems to be the direction we’re moving in, more and more in various ways. And not just in America. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. Art Spiegelman 2023

While many see book bans as something distant that happened in Nazi Germany and the USA, I'd like to mention here that Australia was at the forefront of book bans in the 1950s. The Horwitz Code for comics was set up before the Comics Code Authority was created in the USA and there were various literature review boards across Australia set up in order to ban books they objected to. Comics were especially targeted as Daniel Best, author and comics historian explains here

Boards were being formed in almost every state. South Australia was attempting to have amendments to its Police Offences Bill to deal with ‘objectionable literature’ in August, 1953 and New South Wales and Victoria were looking to follow suit. The state leading the way for outright banning was Queensland. Various mothers groups were calling for censorship of both comic books and film. In March, 1954, the Queensland Literature Board Of review was formed and duly announced. Its role was simple – to ban comic books in the state of Queensland.  Once a comic book was banned in one state, other states would unofficially adopt the bans, thus preventing a title from being on sale, resulting in cancellations and publishers either going out of business or looking at other mediums to stay afloat. The Board was up and running and busily banning comic books before the year was out. Daniel Best, 2014 

This year, in Australia, a pattern is emerging. Those who are challenging books and want them out of libraries are targeting books with LGBTQ+ themes and comics. The bulk of titles being challenged are clearly LGBTQ+ books. That is very clear. But they're also targeting comics and they often use images from comics and manga to make their case. 

In fact, eleven publications have been referred to the Australian Classification Board this year. All eleven of them are comics. They are, the six volume collected edition of The Boys by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, three volumes of Warrior Nun Areala Rituals created by Ben Dunn and published between 1995 and 2003, and Crossed Badlands 41 by David Hine and German Erramouspe, published in 2013. 

The ALIA Graphic Novels and Comics blog has all the information here about the decision taken by the board for The Boys (essentially, three volumes have been banned in Queensland and severely restricted in other states, the other three are classified as unrestricted M). The ACB's decision on Gender Queer was appealed and it's with the review board. They initially classified it as Unrestricted M (not recommended for readers under 15) in a decision announced April 3 but we're waiting on the final decision, which should be announced soon. 

Warrior Nun Areala Rituals is only available in one university library and Crossed Badlans 41, doesn't appear to be in any library in Australia.

We know why they're targeting rainbow and pride books. These radical conservative and religious individuals cannot accept people outside their narrow minded dark cave. Anyone who lives their lives beyond the strict and narrow confines of what they deem appropriate is attacked and it's a vicious culture war with devastating consequences.

The LGBTQ+ books they're targeting include picture books and non-fiction books for children. They talk about pornography, grooming and pedophilia, but it's all about erasing any mention of LGBTQ+ people altogether. They want them criminalised, humiliated and gone. We've seen this many times before. Including, as Spiegelman notes in the interview above, by the Nazis, who attacked LGBTQ+ people first.

But why comics? Why again? What is it that frightens them so much about comics? 

I believe there are various reasons but it all comes down to the incredible power this medium that we love so much has. The unique mix of words and visuals on the page, where the reader, not the creator or anyone else, is in total control of the reading process.

In fiction, there are no visuals but the ones you make in your head. In theatre, the actors are on stage telling the story. In film, you can pause an image but otherwise, the film moves at 24 frames per second. You are not in control as a viewer. 

But in comics, you have a unique mix of words and visual where you, the reader, are in total control. You can choose the reading speed. You may stay with a panel for a long time, or quickly glance at it and absorb what's going while jumping to the next panel. You can focus on one detail or move to the previous panel and back to that detail. You can focus on one panel or look at the page as a whole.

You may in fact, look at more than one space and time in different panels at the same time while putting all of that together in your brain and constructing the sequence in your mind. 

And then, there something else. Spiegelman mentions the power of the image and the mix of words and pictures and how, when they combine, something magical happens. Not only do they have bigger impact at the moment of reading, but they stay with us longer. They stick in our mind.

There’s something about pictures. Pictures go straight into your brain, you can’t block them, right through your eyes. You see it, you can’t unsee it. With words, we’ve actually got to struggle to understand the word before you can be puzzled or surprised or enlightened by those words. 

... So basically, it’s because pictures are so strong, it’s words and pictures combined, they’re actually stronger than either one alone. And it’s easier to take information in and study. Unlike a movie, comics stand still. Art Spiegelman 2023

There's also the issue of their high popularity. Comic book sales have been growing and growing in the last few years. At libraries, we can also see how popular they are and how they get kids hooked to reading. Those kids that fill their bags with junior graphic novels and manga turn into life long readers who read a lot and read widely. And life long readers are dangerous you see?

Reading is dangerous for these radical conservative and religious types, because people who read are, generally, more empathetic and better informed. They cannot accept that. The idea of an informed, empathetic community frightens them because they cherish and thrive in an environment of fear and division.

Parents, psychiatrists, teachers, librarians, we were all complicit and active in banning books and comics in the 1950s. There's no denying it and no escaping from it. Thankfully, I'd like to think, that decades later we know better. I'm glad that librarians and teachers are defending comics, graphic novels and LGBTQ+ books from attacks these days. 

Yes, there are still pockets of people in education and libraries who are still prejudiced against comics as a medium. But, graphic novels, as we like to call them these days, are far more accepted and available. We know, that this is a literary art form with wide appeal and merit that we must defend and advocate for. It's up to all of us, we all need to go to our kids school and our public library ready to fight for them.

Comics are also very high circulating items in libraries with a great return on investment ratio. Graphic novel collections are among the best performing collections at public and school libraries, particularly Junior and YA graphic novels. In fact, I was at a library recently and the Junior Graphic Novels shelves looked really empty and sad. I talked to a librarian there and mentioned that it looked like they needed more. She smiled and agreed with me. Then, she proceeded to tell me that about 70% of the junior graphic novels were out on loan.

This is common place in a lot of libraries. Libraries who have a dedicated junior graphic novels section that is current and up to date suffer from this kind of success. Stand around the junior graphic novels after school or on the weekend and you'll see kids empty the shelves and fill bags. The same goes for YA graphic novels. Especially, YA manga.

In libraries and schools, we must talk about the benefits of comics as a medium and their literacy super powers. Comics are multimodal texts, where the reader must use multiple literacies to decode all the elements of the text and make meaning. Here's an example, following and adapting The New London model.

Comics model efficient, economic and concise writing. You can't have long chunks of text, so every word matters. Perhaps, this is why they also have a high incidence of rare words per 1000, which is higher than adult books.

Sadly, challenges to books and attempts at bans are no longer something that only happens in the USA. They've reached Australia and we cannot be complacent. Every library needs a graphic novels champion and we have to be prepared.

So activate your brain. In fact, light up your whole brain and read comics. Because reading comics, as you decode words and multiple visual elements, putting them together to make meaning, more of your brain lights up. This is a joy they can't take away from us. 

Share books and comics. Advocate for them and advocate for LGBTQ+ books and people.

I'd like to talk about Maia Kobabe's Gender Queer but I, deliberately, chose not to, as the book is still with the Australian Classification Review Board. We can talk about it when the decision's announced. And when I do, I should also talk about The Boys by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson. It's a comic for adults and it's now banned in Queensland, but the live action TV series adaptation is available. Total nonsense.

But this blog post is long enough for now. Time to sign and out and read a comic.

This blog post initially stated that seven publications have been classified in 2023 so far, this was wrong and has now been amended to eleven publications, all of them comics, with added information. 

Get on Board With the New Wave of Australian Graphic Novels

The June Incite magazine is packed with great articles. 

It includes one about the new wave of Australian comics. I loved writing this article and I'm so excited about the future of comics in libraries and of Australian comics. It's free to read for ALIA members on the ALIA Incite magazine site here. However, if you're not a member, you can read the whole article below (click on the images to make them bigger and easier to read).


King Con! A dream come true

The previous two days had been horrendous. Melbourne insisted on cold and rain but we needed a nice sunny Autumn day. It was a chilly morning but the forecast for Saturday May 27 was favourable, as we gathered at the library to prepare the last few bits and pieces. It was going to be a beautiful day in more ways than one.

Everything was ready, we had worked hard for months to reach out to comic book creators, to games experts, to community groups active in different activities and fandom. We knew it was a good program with a good balance of events covering comics, games and pop culture.

We were confident of the program and the work that'd gone into putting it all together. But even the best program can fail. What if there was some other event that we didn't know about? What if only a little bunch of people showed up? 

Did we do enough to promote it? I looked at the poster and smiled.

As the opening time approached, any doubts we had quickly vanished in thin air replaced by a concern. There was an enormous crowd gathering outside, ready to storm the library. 

It was a rush, a wave, a flood.

Had we underestimated how many people were coming through the library's doors? Would we have to turn people away? 

One thing became clear. Our first, little library comic con was a resounding success. Our first King Con! and we had already outgrown the space.

But we have to go back to 2019. Fel, a children and youth librarian, and I thought of putting a comic con-like event at the library. Our dream was to have a totally free event at the library that would bring everything we loved together. Authors, artists, comics, video games, table top games, D&D, LARP, cosplay, pop culture, etc. An event that would bring different fandoms and interests together. And an event for everyone, from little kids, to young adults, to adults. 

We dreamed up the event, put a proposal together and it was supported by management. 

As we started planning the event and we started confirming festival guests, the pandemic arrived at our door. All doors where shut, we had to cancel the whole thing and put King Con! in the back-burner. That was such a disheartening day!

But no one can kill King Con!

Spring was in the air in 2022 when we started receiving some positive signals from management. They said there was a budget, they talked about 2023, and they wanted us to revisit our old plans and start again.

A committee was set up. Fel and I presented our idea and plans. Most of the event was already there, the main events we wanted, the authors, the games, who to contact. The work we had done previously paid off. 

Organising an event like this at the library takes months and even though we started planning in November 2022 for a May 2023 event, and we had an incredible committee of hard working library staff, we all wished we had a bit more time.

More time would be better. Sure. But as more and more people burst into the library, dressed as a Jedi, greeting everyone as they came in and directing them as best I could, I knew that we had created something special.

Libraries are there to serve the community, to cater for a diverse range of people and interests. While I'm proud of what we do every day and the fact that we continue to be a space that offers access to information and entertainment for free (an incredibly rare thing nowadays, where everything has a price tag). It's events like this that I have long wanted to see at libraries. And I have looked with envy from a distance, at Comic Con-versation in Sydney, Comic Gong in Wollongong, Dandy Con in Dandenong and the Comic Con events at YPRL in 2019. 

I've always felt that libraries are really good at having programs for babies, primary school children and adults. But I've always wanted more programs for young adults and programs that bring everyone together.

As the event unfolded, surrounded by characters from Star Wars, superhero comics and movies, manga and anime, fantasy and sci-fi books. 

As I saw a group of teenagers cosplaying Demon Slayer and other anime characters. 

As children laughed with Andrew McDonald and Ben Wood's Real Pigeons talk. 

As people of all ages joined Dean Rankine's comics workshop. 

As people gathered to see the Exodus LARPers battle each other and the Southern Rogue Saber Corps demonstrate their lightsaber fighting skills. 

As people of all ages gathered around tables to have a go at different table top games, Minecraft and VR games, and to go on a D&D quest. 

I knew that the dream Fel and I had was worth it. That the hard work the committee put into putting the whole event together was worth it. 

I didn't have time to feel the emotion in the course of the day. I was busy running around ensuring that everything run smoothly. That I was where I had to be. But at the end of the day, when I arrived home, totally exhausted and wrecked, I couldn't help but shed a few tears. Good tears, of joy and relief. 

We put an event together and the community joined us to party. King Con! is here to stay and we can't wait to start preparing next year's event.

A massive thank you to Fel (my co-conspirator), the whole King Con! committee for putting in 100% and then some more, for management for believing in our idea and supporting it, all the festival guests for fully embracing the event and being amazing all day, and the community for joining the party.