I haven't yet mentioned what a fine time I had at the New Zealand Comics Weekend, and since a whole other weekend has happened since then I had better do so, if only to avoid further confusion.
The centrepiece of the whole affair was an exhibition at the Ron Barber Gallery in Wellington. This is not the world's largest gallery, and half of it seems to be a workshop in which Ron makes picture frames. But what it lacked in size, it more than made up for in having lots of comics in it. When I arrived, these comics had not yet been attached to the wall, so a small group of hardy volunteers spent a pleasant afternoon assisting curator Tim Bollinger in achieving this.
I have, at times in the past, expressed a certain degree of ambivalence about hanging comics in art galleries. At a certain level, it seems to fall into the same category of endeavour as writing about music or dancing about architecture. Tim had, however, got around the essential difficulty of the process by putting the valuable originals behind perspex and providing many colour photocopies of the whole comics for people to read. Along with some of Trace Hodgson's original 1980s artwork for Shafts of Strife and Robert Scott's Every Secret Thing, the exhibition displayed some of the very earliest New Zealand comics from the 1940s. We also had a very large selection of local comics for sale. It was very impressive, and a mighty throng assembled that evening for the opening.
The weekend in question was the same weekend the Armageddon Expo was also taking place in Wellington, and it was instructive to compare the gallery throng with the sort of throng you get at Armageddon. Our throng had more people who were interested in seeing some New Zealand comics, and fewer small children who were only interested in Dragonball Zed, or whatever it is that small children are obsessed with these days. It was particularly notable that complete strangers picked up comics, read them, and bought them in large quantities, which you don't get at Armageddon without a great deal of salesmanship. And salesmanship cannot be said to be one of the areas at which New Zealand comics creators excel.
I think there's a lesson here that can be applied more widely. Most comics creators in New Zealand are doing small print runs on photocopiers in the mini-comic format. The contents vary widely, but hardly any are about superheroes, and many are autobiography or other kinds of personal expression. You can try and sell this sort of thing in a comics shop or at Armageddon, but it's a bit tenuous. Instead I think comics creators should be looking for new audiences, whether it be in art galleries or cafés or alternative markets or wherever. But this is a problem about distribution, and distribution is a Hard Problem.
The evening after the grand opening, the assembled comics creators drifted inexorably towards Robyn and Richard's flat, bearing cake and pie and ice-cream. We didn't originally intend to gather at that particular flat, but an attempt earlier in the evening to draw comics at Draw's flat failed when it became apparent that there would be many people in Draw's lounge, and Draw's flatmate probably wouldn't be able to sleep in the next room. We provided a propitiatory slice of banana cake and proceeded to Robyn and Richard's.
I have thus far neglected to introduce Robyn and Richard, but they were very much the centre of the whole weekend, having done the lion's share of the organising. I'm speaking here of a very large lion, whose share of wildebeest, or whatever it is that lions share when they want to represent the degree of effort put into organising a weekend of comics-related festivities, would be notable for its largeness. They live at the top of a remarkable and more than somewhat disturbing series of flights of concrete stairs running a considerable distance up one side of the Aro Valley, and their house was soon filled with comics people. With our assembled talent, we drew many fine jam comics.
Quite a few years ago now, I drew up a page with 24 small panels on it and photocopied it many times to facilitate rapid comics production. This layout seems to have become the Standard Funtime Jam Comic Grid, and it works well for jam comics that are basically a series of gag panels linked by a theme, a type of jam comic that's fun to create and easy to contribute to, but has no narrative. By some of the stricter definitions theorists bandy about it is doubtful whether such a thing could even be called a comic. I have taken to calling such comics Evil, as opposed to Righteous jam comics which have a story. I don't necessarily mean to imply a value judgement about these two kinds of jam comics by using the terms “Evil” and “Righteous”, but it is possible that that ship has already sailed.
As the jam comics circulated, mostly one-pagers on the regulation 24-panel grid, it became apparent again that Righteous jam comics are hard with a group of more than two or three people. They tend to follow the same pattern as a Philip K. Dick novel, with a beginning in which everything makes sense at the start, a middle in which all conventional notions of narrative, character identity and fixed reality break down, and an end that makes sense again and draws things to a sort of half-conclusion that leaves you none the wiser as to what was going on earlier. I'm not sure what Pilip K. Dick's reasons were, but I think that somewhere in the middle of a jam comic it becomes very difficult to carry the weight of the established story logic, and people get tempted to just throw in more weirdness, especially if they don't think the comic will come back to them, which would requrie them to justify themselves.
I'd assumed that this was just an unavoidable problem of jam comics with a large group, but partway through the evening Ari began circulating a new comic with only six panels on its page. This seemed to work very well - there was more room in each panel, and the characters were more consistent, and everyone seemed to get very excited about it. This has led me to suspect that the Funtime 24-Panel might not be the ideal format for Righteous jam comics, and I've photocopied up a few six-panel blank pages to test this idea in future.
It is, of course, possible that the comic in question only made sense because there weren't enough panels to get up to the not-making-sense part before the end of the evening. But I think Ari is onto something.
On Saturday afternoon we saw a small but perfectly-formed lecture series in the Aro Valley community centre - Darren's lecture and Dylan's lecture. This can legitimately be considered a series, since one was given after the other instead of both at the same time. I highly recommend this, by the way, as an organising principle for any occasion involving two or more lectures.
Darren's lecture concerned the history of Funtime Comics, from its inception as a small university club for people who wanted to watch dodgy imported anime and receive discounts at the local comic shop, to its current status as a staggering global media empire that almost bought its own photocopier on TradeMe, only it turned out not to be a very good one. Along the way he explored the ups and downs of small-press publishing, comics workshops and weekends, and the vital role of animal biscuits in the Funtime enterprise.
Dylan took a different tack, covering in considerable detail the history of comics in Cornucopia, a country he did not in any way make up. The degree to which comics have shaped the history of this real nation was fascinating, from the early folk history of the traveling skritori to the epic diplomacy of the nonfictional cartoonist Emil Kopen that led to its unique status as the world's only communist monarchy, to the moving and truly existent struggle of modern comics artists to break out of the state-sponsored controls on art. Dylan also had available the second volume of his Atlas series, which tells the true story of his own adventures in Cornucopia, a real place.
After a short interlude during which Darren returned to entertain us in the guise of his alter-ego Mopy, a stand-up comedian with the weakest grip on comedy since Fozzie Bear, we embarked on the big event of the weekend, the Eric Awards for New Zealand Comics.
New Zealand comics awards are traditionally small affairs held in a hard-to-find side room of Armageddon, an event which I have already noted is not typically attended by a high proportion of people interested in local comics, nor indeed of people willing to sit still at an event with lots of talking and not many explosions. So it was a considerable cultural shock to see the crowd at the Erics, all decked out in their finery and settling in to make an evening of it. I had spare finery with me from the wedding of my cousin Nathan, which I had fortunately attended the weekend before. There was a TV camera, with one of those special overhead boom microphones. And further massive sales of New Zealand comics. I believe much of this razzmatazz (for it was both razzmic and tazztical) was due to the organisational efforts of Robyn, who, to judge by her comics, clearly has an interest in things Hollywood.
Most exciting of all, however, was the presence of Eric Resetar himself, the man who began New Zealand comics in 1943 with the work Tim was displaying in the gallery across the road. Mid-way through the festivities Mr Resetar took the stage for an interview with Tim, and we all listened with rapt attention as he recounted the story of how it all started. He received, as you might expect, a standing ovation.
Apart from a short burst of folk-singing towards the end, those were what I consider the highlights. If you would like to see some pictures of the weekend (and you would - go on, I dare you), they are here.
It is possible that many remarkable things also happened on Sunday, but I had already committed that day to a train journey from Wellington back to Auckland. I highly recommend this to anyone contemplating a trip between the two cities, as it travels past a great deal of impressive scenery, the extraordinary feat of nineteenth-century railway engineering that is the Raurimu Spiral, and the house I lived in in Mangapehi when I was four.