by Joshua Santospirito
A review of Fluid Prejudice, various artists, edited by Sam Wallman, Published by Glass Flag, 2014. This review was originally published on the Island Magazine website in May 2014. The website was changed in 2015 so I am reposting this here.
I don’t know if anyone recalls an incredible serialised comics-piece published in Meanjin in 2008-09 titled Their Hooks Hold Deep in Our Flesh: written by Kate Fielding and involving artists Clint Cure, Mandy Ord, Ben Fox and Elizabeth McDowell. It arose out of the context of Rudd’s apology and it detailed a number of histories of the Portland area of the Great Ocean Road since colonisation. Fielding’s foreward stated “a generous, critical and impassioned engagement with our shared histories is both the joy and responsibility of all people”. Fielding and co. walked the talk; Hooks sang songs of history in multiple styles, formats and sources to create an unusual critical historical account woven from multiple voices.
Six years is a long time in the small but rapidly maturing world of Aussie comics. It’s 2014 and Melbourne’s Sam Wallman has willed a remarkable anthology of history-comics into existence entitled Fluid Prejudice. “The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice” said Mark Twain. The focus of this anthology is under-represented and marginalised histories. Historical narrative shifts focus, not only because of the stories being told, but because of those who hold the pen. Perhaps the corrective biases of those whose ink flows in these pages will hold the mainstream narratives to account.
Tasmania is one of many places which is regularly left off the map of Australian discourse. I have personally been scouring for some time to uncover local comic-makers, so I was ecstatic to discover a strong Tasmanian presence in Fluid Prejudice. Leigh Rigozzi and Michael Hawkins, as ex-Tasmanians, each offer up wonderful pieces relating to their Heimat. Hawkins’ piece is in his trademark elastic and watery tone. There are two pieces on the thylacine, one from Frances Howe (who is a new name for my list) and another by Karina Castan, who uses impressionism accompanying a moody poetic language, finding a rarely achieved tone in modern graphic narratives. Wallman has dug deep in linking us with Tasmanian artist’s past in Andrew Clifford and Udo Selbach. Both men are linked to Julian Scrivener’s Crypto from times long gone. Their works are published here again, two decades on, linking us directly to the zine history of Hobart.
Comic-form has traditionally been the tool of the subversive and, as you’d expect, FP contains a number of activist works. McDougall and Collins’ account of The Free Speech Fights of 1933 in Melbourne is a hoot; a satisfyingly long piece with caricature keeping the storytelling light, punchy and entertaining. Follow this up promptly by another similarly political piece named Australian Panic, by Geoffrey Guilfoyle, whose wonky lines detail a paranoid depression-era government that attempts to deal with a Communist visiting by boat. In my mind was a quote that was also once attributed to Twain – “history never repeats, but it rhymes”.
But a subtler form of protest is here in this collection – the usual definitions of history are often at odds with the transient everyday. The quiet moments that describe this point are some of the strongest in the book: Gregory McKay’s still drawings of Heyfield and Maffra Houses in Gippsland; Jo Waites’ Melbourne tram-scenes and back alleys; Jennifer Mills’ image of lost war service-women from South Australia’s Clare Valley; Joanna Anderson’s abstracted signs and layered urban objects floating in and out. As always with a curated collection, the reader’s mind tries to grab at why a piece was included – these inclusions remind us softly that history is all around us and that definition is never definitive. The term becomes almost as malleable and wobbly as Wallman’s human anatomy.
Perhaps the most challenging inclusions are the pieces by Katie Parrish and David Mahler. Parrish’s piece engages her extraordinary visual language in service of a seemingly banal tale of a man at a brothel. Mahler’s two page work My True Love seems to be a personal piece about desire, though in an interesting change in focus, projects to potential sexual futures. Initially, these two pieces stood out as odd in this collection, demanding some time. Was this an exploration of private sexual histories? Wallman’s own piece on page 129 was perhaps more clearly about the presence of homosexuality throughout Australian history. Perhaps because I don’t know if I fully understood their inclusion, it was these two pieces that were ultimately the most rewarding in the collection, prompting me to reflect on the marginalisation of sexual accounts of human history. What is sexual behaviour if not a founding stone of humanity? Italian erotic comics-maestro Milo Manara has been telling this for years in very elegant ways, though I hadn’t listened until now.
Wallman’s curatorial presence is impossible to overlook. He has done well to take in comics from an incredible variety of women and men, from different ages and times. In particular there is the inspired addition of Edward Wilson’s comics from 1842 (yes, comics) taken from the Pictures Collection of the State Library. To engage so many styles in one object is an exercise in patience; most likely frustration. One can’t help but marvel at the way in which he has managed to mould this rabble to somehow sing their different songs together. HOW HAS HE DONE THIS? It is my sad fate to always wish to understand the magic. I suspect one ingredient of the glue that holds the anthology together is the beautiful abstracted pieces, in particular those of Ingo Giezendanner and Udo Sellbach. These fragmented and quiet pages afford the body of the book with the moments of silence which are needed to digest the other disparate stories. What do they themselves have to do with History? As the book travels onwards – you discover more of these pages. By the end it is clear that Giezendanner’s slow reveal is that of a foamy sea with a small boat sighted on the horizon; an Australian view. The hint of malevolence about this ocean leaves us all to ponder our story and who we may have become.
Kate Fielding is bloody right. We share the responsibility of the past that binds us together. She adds later that “to tell the diverse stories that comprise our history it is not enough to simply turn the same tools to a different task. We need a multitude of histories to be sung, danced, played, written, spoken and drawn.”
This inky song and dance is worth the telling.
Fluid Prejudice is one of the featured books at
Her Majesty’s Favourite Really Great Graphical Festival
Hobart, June 5-8
Obviously you’ll have to go and read Fluid Prejudice, edited by Sam Wallman.
Do yourselves all a favour and seek out this stuff
- Meanjin Volume 67, number 2 (2008)
- Meanjin Volume 67, number 3 (2008)
- Meanjin Volume 67, number 4 (2008)
- Meanjin Volume 68, number 1 (2009)
Crypto – various, note – difficult to track down
Bio – Joshua Santospirito is an award-winning comic-maker, illustrator, writer, musician who lives in Hobart, Tasmania. Josh’s graphic novels The Long Weekend in Alice Springs and Swallows Part One can be snaffled from Sankessto Publications.