I recently wrote a foreword for The Tango Collection – a big fat book of comics about love by over 50 Australian cartoonists (plus a few New Zealanders, including Jared Lane, Tim Molloy and Toby Morris). The comics are selected from eight issues of Bernard Caleo’s love comics anthology Tango, each issue of which is organised around a theme (Love & Death, Love & Food, Love & Sedition, etc). The book is published by Allen & Unwin and is available now!
You can read my foreword below, or else just buy the book and read it in the comfort of your own (or a loved one’s) soft warm bed…
COMICS: A LOVE STORY
If comics had a muse, she’d have crooked teeth and freckles and wear thick black-rimmed glasses and old fraying cardigans, sensible shoes and embarrassing shirts her mother chose. She’d also have deep-green eyes and piercings galore, a hidden tattoo, a deliciously dirty laugh.
In social situations she’d be awkward and graceless, always saying the wrong thing and then mumbling and blushing and just making things worse. But the really cool kids would love her anyway, because however clumsy and weird she can be, she’s also crazy and smart and beautiful.
At noon you’d find her at the mall, wearing Hello Kitty and eating junk food and queuing to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster for the seventeenth time. But on moonlit nights she would sneak out her bedroom window and run wild through the night, joining wolves and tigers and stray feral cats to prowl and howl and leap and hunt, through empty lots and jungles and bright endless fields, drinking blood and making love and sprouting wings to fly up into the star-filled sky.
She’d exasperate and irritate and disappoint and enchant and take your breath away. She’d be whispering poetry one moment, and talking trash the next. The sex would be fantastic, but a little scary. Sometimes, you’d just wish you never met her.
Such is life with comics – the ‘Beautiful Artform’, as Melbourne cartoonist Neale Blanden puts it. The bastard child of literature, art and junk culture, comics have usually flown below the radar, emerging only as commercial events and collectables, or as scandal – in the 1950s people burned horror comics; fifty years later, Australian customs officers banned From Hell, drawn by Brisbane-based Eddie Campbell.
This, for the most part, has been fine, for those of us who love comics. Down there in the shadowy nirvana of obscure art, we’ve been able to explore unsanctioned byways of creativity and imagination and keep them happily to ourselves. We were the chosen few, keepers of treasures unimagined by the rest of the world – least of all by the literati and the connoisseurs. In short, it was a secret, passionate, private affair.
These days, of course, things have changed. Our secret muse is now something of a celebrity, and hardly a month goes by without some new graphic novel getting a mention in the New York Review of Books or Artforum.
Comics once read by a few thousand people are being turned into films by people like Michel Gondry. And cartoonists like Chris Ware, Dan Clowes and Robert Crumb are fêted by the art world with exhibitions, dealers and lavish coffee-table books. This is, you understand, what we always dreamed of; at last the whole world understands what we’ve been saying for years. They finally see what we’ve always loved about our strange, quirky object of desire and are giving her the recognition she’s always deserved. At last, people get it.
But… well… things have changed. I mean, the love’s still there – don’t get me wrong. But sometimes it’s hard to share that love. When you see your special girl being swooned over at literary festivals and art galleries, at the Biennale and at Cannes (and you can remember when the beautiful people used to laugh at her funny teeth and strange personal habits!), it just feels kinda weird. And there are times when you can’t help but think maybe she’s changing too. A little self-consciousness in the way she flicks back her hair, the new designer glasses, occasional references to Derrida or Borges in the things she says…
You hope it’s just a phase she’s going through, part of the first flush of excitement at being discovered. After all, as soon as you’re alone with her, it’s still the same. All the old insecurities and fumbling awkwardness comes back, and you realise this is part of what you love about her: the flaws and the childishness, the stupidity and downright ugliness that sitbeside – or even inside – her undeniable beauty and brilliance. This, you decide, is what sets your love apart, what makes it different to the summer affair she’s been enjoying lately with that elegant, smart, cosmopolitan world.
Which is one of the things that make this book so great. Bernard Caleo (who’s had a very special relationship with the muse for many a year) has assembled a big fat stack of stories that demonstrate a lot of what’s special about comics. Not just the obvious stuff that everyone’s read about in magazines and seen on gallery walls; this is comics as they really are when no one else is looking, comics below the radar, comics that grow in the secret quiet places in our lives. Comics full of memories and dreams, stories silly and sad and beautiful. Comics that might have been drawn by your neighbour, or your workmate – who you never even knew could draw, but what a surprise: they’re really good! Because one of the great things about comics is the people who make them.
It takes all types, of course, but in my experience, a higher than normal ratio of cartoonists are really nice people. They’re a little bit crazy, maybe, but you have to be to fall head over heels for the comics muse – and even crazier to stick with it long enough to actually make the things. Comics look easy – and in some respects they are. I mean, plenty of really great cartoonists are far from natural draughtsmen; a certain level of looseness is quite acceptable in comics circles. But take a look at just about any random page in this book. That’s a lot of drawing, right? At least two or three – sometimes nine or ten – separate drawings on each page. Comics are easy to start; not so easy to finish. And to get really good at this takes a lot of dedication. Cartoonists don’t just draw; they write, they design, they tell stories… I know cartoonists who watch movies over and over, studying the way pictures are used to transition from one scene to another. Who spend years practising inking letter-forms as neatly (or as expressively) as possible because, as a friend once said, lettering comics ain’t writing, it’s drawing. Who conscientiously try out every inking tool they can find (pens, felt-tips, brushes, brush-pens, crow quills, dark pencils, charcoal, paint), never resting till the right one comes along. Cartoonists have long conversations about things like cross-hatching, whiteout, the virtues of different brands of paper and eraser – I apologise, but it’s true. We can be really boring when we get going.
Another thing about comics people is their powerful appreciation for all kinds of forgotten byways and junkyards of culture and art. From Michael Camilleri’s wonderful take on Marvel Comics-style fight scenes (‘Limpid Biscuit’) to numerous references to zombie movies and children’s picture books, this book is best appreciated with a totally open uncritical acceptance of our whole culture – the high and the low, the fair and the foul. Because it’s all part of the bubbling dream-soup we grow up in and live in and write and draw about. Comics soak up our dreams and nightmares, wherever they’ve come from, and then shape them into something personal and meaningful and often very beautiful. And for years, Tango has been putting it on paper for the rest of us to read.
In here, you’ll find some of the most memorable of those comics, by cartoonists from Australia and New Zealand – from the haunting hallucinations of Jo Waite to the methodical precision of Bruce Mutard. There’s humour, joy, pain, pleasure and queasy recognition to be found here. Stories of sadness and loss, domestic familiarity, youthful passion, perversity and lust. Because Tango is, after all, a romance comic. Love, like food, can deliver nausea or bliss in equal portions. And isn’t that what life is all about?
So enjoy this serving of comics as they are known to those who know them best: small, secret stories that will slowly creep into your mind and haunt your dreams. Here’s your chance to meet that fabulous muse everyone’s talking about in an intimate, friendly setting, away from the art world poseurs and the literary celebrities, where she’s able to relax and be herself – quirky, candid, playful and real.
But be careful. You just might fall in love…
Buy THE TANGO COLLECTION, edited by Bernard Caleo, published by Allen & Unwin.