About a million years ago I wrote a limited comic book series for the now defunct Phosphorescent Comics. I had a passion and need to write a comic, and the story that eventually became Easy Cliches, a sci-fi satire had been bouncing around in my head in various forms for years. Passion is what sustained me through the year and a bit of getting the four issues finished. I didn’t have any money invested in the deal – Phosphorescent were footing the bill for the artist, editing, inking and printing – but I had everything else invested. Due to the lack of resources, getting Easy Cliches finished was a heartbreaker. Art deadlines were rarely met because of the rates we could pay, inking was erratic, and there was no room for revision once the art came in as we couldn’t afford extra delays or to commission new panels. When it finally got out the door it was well reviewed and went on to sell tens of copies.
Australia has always had a vibrant local, independent and underground comics scene, with publishers really coming to the forefront in the 40s after the import of American comic books was banned. After WWII, the Australian publishers really thrived, for a while at least, as they essentially had a captive audience, and released a number of American style heroes and books such as Yarmak, Captain Atom (not the DC one), Crimson Comet, The Panther, The Phantom Ranger and a host of others. Things fell off in the 50s due to recession, the introduction of television in 1956 and the renewed importation of American comics in 1959. With the surge of new titles coming from Marvel in the 60s, things remained flat for Australian comics until the rise of counterculture books modelled after the American underground comics scene and a renewed interest in horror comics. The 80s saw a number of short lived anthology comics popping up, as well as the launch of Australia’s first real super team, the Southern Squadron. Arguably two of the most beloved and long lasting series dominated the Australian comics scene in the 90s, with Platinum Grit and Hairbutt the Hippo scooping awards and winning hearts.
The modern Australian comics scene is a little brighter than the one that saw the rise and fall of Phosphorescent Comics. In its place are outfits like Gestalt Publishing, arguably Australia’s biggest and most successful comics publisher, and Milk Shadow Books, a haven for independent graphic novels. With the ubiquity of the Internet, there’s also the option of self-publishing, either through existing platforms like Comixology and Amazon, or simply selling PDFs through a website.
Mitchell Hall is an Australian independent creator who has just released his first graphic novel, Above the Grave, a genre crossing story of Special Forces soldiers, supervillains, a secretive prison facility and a prison break. Although things are easier now than they have been in a long while, being a comic creator in Australia is still an uphill battle, says Hall. “All of this has been self-funded, working here in Australia you really need a siege mentally. It is you versus the rest of the world and it's every man for himself”.
Hall met his co-creator and artist, Andrew De Zilva years ago while the two worked together in an unrelated job. At the time Mitchell was making a Star Wars fan film and Andrew Was interested in the progress of the project. Even then Hall had ideas for what would eventually become Above the Grave, and after a few false starts told De ZIlva that if the comic was going to be finished he would need his skills as an artist. Hall believed that De Zilva was the only person who could finish it.
So what drove him to make a comic? “I think it's the excitement of putting out a story in this day and age where you can do it with a lot of work”, says Hall. “You can publish your own comic without notes from an editor and with the modern technology available and to see there is a back end. That's exciting.Working in print you're not held back by the restraints of a budget, such as in film and television. You can tell a story, illustrated in one page that would cost thousands to produce.
For Andrew, he has always loved comics and wanted to test how far he could go with his art. I was only too happy to push him! I know for him, this project was to give something to the medium he loves”.
The inspiration for Above the Grave came from a number of different sources, but two definitely stand out. “Two things happened in my past that really stuck with me. I remember as a child watching Spiderman and his Amazing Friends and there was this one scene where the camera panned across a series of Spiderman's Rogue's Gallery behind laser beam bars. That and hearing a news story years later on the radio about an underground prison being built in South Africa”. There’s a pretty direct line from there to Above the Grave, a story of and underground prison in Africa housing supervillain inmates.
As you could assume, there is a lot of information that needs to be relayed to the reader to set up this world of supervillains and prison guards. One of the great difficulties of working in comics is that they are dynamic visual medium, demanding that writers have to be sparing with their text and rely on the art to back up the words and fill in the blanks, both literally and metaphorically. According the Hall, De Zilva was instrumental in paring back and reworking the script to fit the medium. “Andrew really took control of the story, expanded it and did the artwork. So having him come on board and having him handle that combination of skill sets was a huge plus.”
Available digitally through www.abovethegrave.com, the book is a fine example of how independent creators can go their own way. “As a self-publisher, I do prefer the digital medium, because it's easier to show people and it can move across borders and countries so quickly. Readers can discover it, and download it and read it straight away”. That said, there is still a certain magic in print according to Hall. “We have finished out first print run and it will be going out to specialty retailers in Australia and USA and we'll be taking it to comic cons.”
Much like my foray into comics, the experience has been one of learning for Hall and De Zilva, and not always in the most positive way. “What we've learned is to take nothing for granted, no one is here to help you”, says Hall, “The majority of your friends are too busy to read it and you have to fight for every reader out there. It's not about money, you are fighting for people's time and that is what the hard thing is. We're realists, we know we're an unknown quantity to people at this point. We’ve found there are people who like to find new voices and give something new a try”.
That said, Hall isn’t letting the uphill battle stop him from pursuing his dream, but is realistic about the environment he’s working in. “We do have plans for new stories”, he says in parting, “yet with Above the Grave there are no second chances. This has to work and there is no Plan B. We will be exploring opportunities for Above the Grave for the next year”.
If you’re interested in checking out Above the Grave, you can find it HERE for $2.99.