On Sunday 27th September 1998, I drove from Sydney to Newcastle to attend the two sessions devoted to the discussion of comics at the inaugural National Young Writers’ Festival. Accompanying me were three active members of the Sydney ‘small press’: Stuart Stratu, Anton Emdin and Ross Tesoriero. With there having been all too few formal attempts to discuss and promote ‘small press’ activity we were impressed with the novelty of the event, its inclusion in a writers’ festival and with the fact that it was actually taking place, if a little curious as to why the organisers had by-passed Sydney and only invited Melbourne and Canberra based creators. Nevertheless we were enthused enough to make the trip as it offered a rare opportunity to meet with colleagues from interstate, many of whom, although familiar with their work, we had never met.
The organizational aspects improved considerably over the next few years and the festival developed, expanded and diversified. Originally called the National Young Writers’ Festival it became part of the umbrella event TiNA, the acronym for This is Not Art. This has become a multidisciplinary event in the week leading up to and across the October holiday weekend and has spread around Newcastle which has become the TiNa Arena. During the weekend the city becomes a catchment area for visiting youth from a range of artistic, literary, music and media fields from all over Australia. I attended five consecutive events from 1998 to 2002 by which time comics discussions had moved into the Town Hall. A high point for comics creators is the annual comic and zine fair held on the Sunday afternoon. This was a busy trading and swapping event first staged in the park across the road then subsequently moved into the Mission theatre with accompanying live music.
On arrival in the city that afternoon in 1998 we easily found the centre of activities laid out in various sumptuously appointed rooms of the Newcastle Town Hall and Civic Centre. There were panels and presentations in the Banquet Room, the Function Rooms and some impressively attired Committee Rooms in the Council Chambers and also at the nearby Wintergarden Cafe. We were, however, unable to find the venue for the discussion of comics, so we asked for that information and were directed out of the main building, out the back and there it was, a modest room with plastic chairs, and an insufficient number of them at that, so a few attendees sat on the floor. No podium, no lectern, no microphone, no monitor, no vcr, no whiteboard, no jug of water, no media nor reporters were present. Furthermore, this was not a seminar but a workshop. Comics were not so much to be discussed as produced and if there was to be any discourse it would be on matters of production rather than on content, or so it seemed. Then I realised how appropriate all of this was in the then current scheme of things. It was the perfect venue at a writers’ festival for the discussion of comics because it indicated just how marginalised the form was. The established, pure literary forms such as the novel and poetry headed the hierarchy. Even emerging word based forms such as e-mail and writing textual content for the Internet and journalism had superior status and were located in the main hall. But comics and zines, not being part of the mainstream, were out the back and out of sight.
Things changed over the subsequent years. We’ve had comics events at the Sydney Opera House with international guests but it was so different back then, so ‘underground’, so beneath the radar. Comics were even made during the event in a ramshackle upstairs, cut and paste graphics studio called Octapod where minicomics filled were produced. At the 1999 event I took the opportunity to do a series of interviews with many of the comics creators in attendance. This became research material for my doctoral thesis.
This is the tenth in a series of posts called Archives of Australian Comics History that document moments in the recent history of Australian comics, particularly alternative comics and the Australian Small Press. I started researching this subject in the late 1990s and it eventually led to my PhD thesis: Ph.D. Macquarie University, Division of Society, Culture, Media and Philosophy, A Study Of Contemporary Australian Alternative Comics 1992-2000 With Particular Reference To The Work Of Naylor, Smith, Danko And Ord, 2003. On completion of the research I donated the materials and comics I had collected to the National Library of Australia: Michael Hill Collection of Australian Comics.
Posts in Archives of Australian Comics History: Comic-Fest Comics in Record Shops Comics Workshops Down Under Ground Getting SMASH(ed)! Imaginary Worlds Symposium International Exhibition of Drawings OZCON Mind Rot Savage Pencils Sick Puppy Comix TiNA Arena MCA Zine Fair 2002 Sequential Art Studies Conference 2nd Sequential Art Studies Conference