Stick figures and story

Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Bernard Caleo interviewed by Brendan Paholski

headshot of Bernard Caleo
Bernard Caleo

Graphic Novelist Bernard Caleo talks comics and graphic novels, influences and illustrations with Brendan Paholski.Bernard is teaching a workshop on Introduction to Graphic Novels this Summer School.

Be honest – how important are illustration skills when you’re writing a comic or a graphic novel?

Honestly? For a comic, not at all. Stick figures are fine. It’s from stick figures and really basic representations that you can build a story, as a comics writer. In fact ‘illustration skills’ can be a bit of a drawback, because you can get obsessed with the prettiness of the pictures, whereas actually it’s the readability of the pictures that’s most important. If they’re good to look at as WELL as being legible, then that is excellent (maybe you could start thinking about making a graphic novel if you have a few years to spare). But they must be readable before being beautiful.

Some sort of design sense is more important than illustration skills: the layout of panels on a page, the arrangement of information in a clear way in a panel…

How do you distinguish between a comic and a graphic novel?

Ahh, the great 21st century comics question. Okay, so first of all, a lot of comics makers reject the term ‘graphic novel’ as prissy and pretentious. On the other hand, it’s a useful label for the place you put comics in libraries and bookshops. Two quite physical determinants of a graphic novel: they are looooong comics: so, say 100+ pages, versus eight pages for a mini-comic or twenty-two pages for a superhero comic. Also: they are often stand-alone stories, versus a continuing episodic story told by some shorter comics. (And I can already think of exceptions to both these “rules”: are the ‘Asterix’ and ‘Tintin’ books “graphic novels”? If they are, they’re sixty-two page graphic novels. Are the series ‘Bone’ and ‘Amulet’ graphic novels – each book in both series a 100+ pages, numerous books in both series. There’s also an idea that graphic novels have “serious” content, certainly true of ‘Maus’ and ‘Persepolis’ and ‘Epileptic’ and ‘Fun Home’, so the “headline” graphic novels, but there’s funny graphic novels too…

Who are some comic writers and graphic novelists you are influenced by and how have they influenced you?

Alan Moore’s writing on the titles ‘Swamp Thing’ and ‘Miracleman’, both from the 1980s, really appealed to me: he had a poetic (some would call it purple) turn of phrase and is a great humanist, and a lovely humourist. I hope that he has infected me with some sense of the ‘build’ of a comics story.

Eddie Campbell’s ‘Alec’ stories were a revelation in terms of using comics for autobiography, as well as building pictures out of a whole bunch of scratchy lines rather than a smooth ‘cartoony’ line.

Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel ‘Fun Home’ (2006) is another autobiographical comic, cerebral and embodied, cool and engaged. Comics and literature as a lens by which to understand one’s life.

George Herriman’s brilliant comic strip ‘Krazy Kat’, from the birth of the comics, 1914 through to the 40s, remains unsurpassed as one of the greatest utterances in the comics form. Vaudeville for the page.

Your comic ‘Yell Ole!’ features humour and puns. Is humour a big part of writing a graphic novel?

I made the comic book series ‘Yell Ole!’ and then ‘The False Impressionists’ with my friend Tolley, and all the humour in those books fell out of our conversations and horsing around together. Humour gives a comic part of its tone, its atmosphere, its feel. I think it’s unavoidable, even if you’re not gunning for a “lotsa laffs” book. If it’s a true work (and a graphic novel definitely needs to be something that’s deeply true, otherwise the overwhelming labour that it requires of you cannot be sustained) then it will include at least part of your sense of humour. But no, I don’t believe that it’s something that you MUST set out to achieve – ie, to make your reader laugh – at all.

In ‘Mongrel’, you reference a few characters (Ern Malley, Dame Edna). How important are pop culture references in your work?

I’d say that Dame Edna is about as ‘pop cultural’ as I get, and it’s stuff like Ern Malley – obscure corners of unpopular culture – which really get me going. I certainly enjoy real world settings and literary references, and I would say that they are the two poles around which the narrative of ‘Mongrel’ circles.

I’m a bit bemused by current popular culture, which I’m somewhat protected from by not watching TV and not having a mobile phone, so it’s a view from a distance. I must confess that while I do like to see comics celebrated in mainstream media, their treatment of this rich and nuance-capable artform is so hamfisted and gross that sometimes it seems better not to court the attention.

One of the problems with comics is that they can become “about comics”, either overtly in the content, or in the sense of cartoonists not looking outside of comics for artistic influences. For my money, the more that comics refer to, engage with, and negotiate history and literature and politics and art, the better that comics become.

Hm. I’m not sure that I’ve answered this last question. But I have had a little rant.

About Bernard Caleo

Bernard Caleo has been making comics since the early 1990s, in collaboration (‘The False Impressionists’ with Tolley, ‘Café Ghetto’ with John Murphy), solo (‘Flâneur’, ‘Mongrel’) and as an editor (the ‘Tango’ anthology). In 2012 he made a feature documentary ‘Graphic Novels! Melbourne!’ with filmmaker Daniel Hayward. In 2013/14, Bernard and writer Alex McDermott are Creative Fellows at the State Library of Victoria, collaborating on an historical comic, ‘The Devil Collects: Faust in Melbourne 1888’.

About Brendan Paholski

Brendan is currently completing a BA in Media and Communications. He is a long-time volunteer and recent Access and Inclusion Intern at Writers Victoria. He’s written theatre reviews, short stories and the occasional CD/DVD review.