Photo by Anna Brown
Bernard Caleo is, in the largest of understatements, a comic book enthusiast. Along with This Is Roller Derby director, Daniel Hayward, he has recently released a feature length documentary Graphic Novels! Melbourne! on the still burgeoning but acclaimed comic and graphic novel culture in Melbourne. The film highlights the endeavours of artists Nicki Greenberg, Mandy Ord, Bruce Mutard, and Pat Grant as they bring their work from paper piles to print. The film has been accepted into the flush ranks of the renowned international comic festival, Angouleme, and will be screening its international premier at the event on the 2nd and 3rd of February. Until then, it’s showing at Cinema Nova on the 23rd of this month and in Sydney and Hobart in late March.
A sketch from Mongrel, Caleo’s twelve part comic series that questions whether Australia really exists
Outside of his work on Graphic Novels! Melbourne! Caleo seems to use the comic world as some kind of sustenance, breathing in various activities to keep him going. In 1997, he launched his own publisher Cardigan Comics that he uses to publish various projects; he also teaches comics classes and workshops to insight the uninitiated. Primarily a performer, he has astutely worked comic art into his performances via kamishibai, a Japanese story telling method which literally translates into ‘paper theatre’. Couturing stole away some of his holiday time to chat to us about his ventures. But we don’t feel that bad, he was probably thinking about comics anyway.
How long has Graphic Novels! Melbourne! been in the pipeline?
Daniel is really the film maker so for the last few years he’s had his ear out for anything comic related. Last year he was filming the talks/performances that I gave at the Readings book shop on comics and we decided to make a documentary about them also. Melbourne city helped immensely by allowing us an art grant and we began immediately. We focused on graphic novels because if we were to encompass comics in the film as well it would have to be a week long. ‘Comic’ is a loaded term because of what people associate with it so we based the documentary on four externally published Graphic novel makers. Then three months ago we found out the film was accepted into the Angouleme festival in France. Angouleme is like the Land of Oz to me, somewhere in dreams not reality – I was thrilled.
Will you be traveling to France for the premier?
Yes we are. Me and Daniel are going to take the film on tour around a few places in Europe too.
A fight between Australian and British soldiers in Bruce Mutard’s ‘The Sacrifice’
Why is the comic scene flourishing in Melbourne? What differentiates our scene from other places in Australia or the world?
The weather! Other places in Australia are sunny enough for you to have something better to do than sit inside and draw all day. There are a few publishers that will do comics but by and large there isn’t money to be made making your own comic books here. There isn’t an industry for comics in Australia so you have to do comics for comics, you have to do something that enriches the culture. Comic makers in Australia don’t tend to make a living off their work so they all have varying day jobs, backgrounds, and muses which helps us not to get stuck in a comic ghetto with a singular path. These things allow us to be more focused on storytelling and not the special effects.
I understand you run the publishing company ‘Cardigan Comics’ which published your comic anthology ‘Tango’ and also your online comic ‘Mongrel’. Did you always intend to have such an integrated system?
Not at all it just happened. I was motivated by my love of the comic format and my astonishment at how much was going on. Back in 1997 I never thought of getting my work published by an outside body, it seemed I had more chance of going to the moon so I did it myself. Now I operate through Cardigan Comics because it has become an identity that I can achieve things through and do things larger and larger.
A panel from Nicki Greenburgs graphic novel adaption of Hamlet
What instigated your passion for comics?
In the late 1980’s the guys at Minotaur published the Fox Comics series and Phantastique was published in Sydney. These were early comics that opened the possibility of self-publishing to me. I was also in love with a girl who was moving to London and found a comic course there as an excuse to follow her. There I learned basics of frames and decided I had to learn how to draw. I still can’t draw something in perfect realism but it was the grammar of comics that fascinated me. Everyone has their own accent to their drawing because, just as the word ‘hand’ doesn’t look like a hand, what an artist draws as a representation of a hand might not look exactly like a hand either. An artist’s power in comics is that they give you the grammar guidelines of how things are going to look and then they stretch them.
You have contributed a large amount to the comic scene, do you have an end goal in mind for your work?
I would love to be able to build bridges between Australia and other countries. To supply comics in places like Indonesia or to have someone from Jakarta come and hold comic workshops. I want to integrate comics further into the arts scene because comics tell stories in a unique way. They couple narrative and image to tell the story of a space or land in a light that’s unique to where they came from. More immediately, I want to spur on the interest of ‘unfinished’ graphic novels by publishing a magazine with excerpts from works in progress.
If you were to recommend one comic or graphic novel to spark someone’s interest in the culture then what would it be?
Definitely Blue by Pat Grant. It was published recently in March 2012 and the dialogue is true to the Australian vernacular, it’s incredibly funny and features an essay on its focus of beach culture and nationalism at the end. It’s a very clever and artfully designed book. He has also urged that his publishing company keeps it at a low price regardless of its popularity. He’s kept it at twenty dollars and it is available from Readings in Carlton, or you can read it for free on his website.
Pat Grant, author of ‘Blue’.