Sam Wallman and Eloise Grills are both well known and much loved in the Australian nonfiction comics scene. Their respective new books, Our Members Be Unlimited. And big beautiful female theory (Affirm Press) mark the first time with a mainstream publisher for each of them. Traditional publishing offers these authors the potential to reach new audiences and gain wider critical attention.
Affirm and Scribe have established themselves as notable small publishers in Australia. Holding their own on the Australian literary award circuit.
Wallman’s journalistic examination of unionism through comics is Scribe’s second extended graphic narrative. (The first was Two Week Wait: An IVF Story, written by Luke and Kelly Jackson and illustrated by Mara Wild.) Grills’ deeply personal exploration of self is Affirm’s first nonfiction foray into the world of adult graphic narrative.
Nonfiction Graphic Growth
Graphic narratives are a growth area in mainstream book publishing. Australian readers purchased more than a million graphic novels across 25,000 unique titles during 2020, generating A$23.1 million in sales.
They are receiving critical attention too. In 2022, Stone Fruit by Lee Lai was the first graphic novel shortlisted for the Stella Prize. After Mandy Ord’s When One Person Dies the Whole World is Over made the longlist in 2020.
Safdar Ahmed won the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Book of the Year. And the Multicultural NSW Award for his graphic narrative non-fiction, Still Alive. Notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System; Ahmed has also been shortlisted. For the Eve Pownall Award, the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s award for non-fiction.
These mainstream short listings and prizes show that books using the visual-verbal. Strategies of graphic narrative are being recognize alongside traditional prose novels and narrative non-fiction. And the once ubiquitous headlines about comics being no longer just for kids are nowhere in sight. This phrase has been a regular mainstay of comics criticism, managing to insult comics and children at the same time by suggesting anything colorful or using a visual, illustrative mode was for children and therefore not worthy of critical attention.
Nonfiction Crossover Appeal
Indeed, Ahmed’s short listings in both adult and children’s categories demonstrates the crossover appeal of comics. Literary judges, publishers, librarians, teachers, academics and the reading public are all becoming more aware of the form.
We’re becoming a more sophisticated readership, accustomed to what the Victorian Curriculum Authority calls multimodal literacy which also includes film and animation, even dance where more than one mode in the text conveys meaning (such as text and image in comics).
We’re employing back-and-forth reading strategies; closely attending to details. Navigating gaps by making inferences and connections. We’re developing the skill to read nuance in the disjunctive form of comics, and to reward sophistication and accomplishment.
In Australia, most comics creators are self-taught, apprenticing themselves through creative experimentation, reading and research, and engaging with informal networks and communities of practice. These can form around communities and events such as zine fairs, Melbourne’s Sticky Institute and the Comics Art Workshop, a residential retreat run by a collective for local and international graphic storytellers.
Comics creators may have studied creative writing and even come across a unit in graphic narratives. They may have degrees in visual arts or graphic design. Some have no tertiary qualifications at all. For the most part, learning happens through the process of making.
There is no formal training in Australia for publishers of comics and graphic narratives. I’m not sure whether any informal communities of practice exist. As graphic narratives have boomed in children’s, young adult and adult markets overseas, in Australia we seem to have a gap when it comes to publishing longform graphic works.
Safdar Ahmed is publish by Twelve Panels Press, a passion project set up by children’s publisher Erica Wagner, formerly of Allen & Unwin, academic Elizabeth MacFarlane and comics author and editor Bernard Caleo, to address the absence of a specialist graphic novel publisher in Australia. Many of our talent creators end up being sign and publish overseas. Rachel Ang, Tommi Parrish, Campbell Whyte, Simon Hanselmann and Lee Lai to name a few.
It’s heartening that small publishers are willing to take a chance on comics acquisitions despite the long lead time and the cost of producing illustrated texts.