A Treasury of Melbourne Comics

Pepi Ronalds takes us on a tour of Melbourne’s locally-made comic book scene - up alleyways, behind hidden doors and down in the tunnels below Flinders Street Station.

I am yet to ride an elevator and walk though a basement in search of illustrated treasure, but for now, my hunting has me at the dead end of a Franklin Street laneway – feeling somewhat confused. I see wheelie bins, a few upturned milk crates. Two street artists are decorating the laneway wall in the 2pm light of a Friday afternoon. ‘Am I in the right place for comic books?’ I ask.

The artists point to a huge roller door that holds a tiny door within. I duck my head, narrow my shoulders and lift my feet to get into the warehouse beyond. I turn right and walk tenatively past higgledy artist studios until I find what I am looking for. It’s the Silent Army Storeroom, one of a handful of places in Melbourne where you can buy locally drawn comics.

Panel from *Coma Toes* by Jase Harper.

Panel from Coma Toes by Jase Harper.

For the cost of a paperback I climb out with over a dozen handcrafted comics. Among them is Coma Toes by Jase Harper. This passport-sized publication in black and white takes me on a day in the life of a protagonist awoken from a long sleep. He steps outside to find an overgrown and abandoned town. The comic has virtually no dialogue (just one sigh). It’s delightful to watch this mellow, bearded character make the most of what becomes a not-so-lonely story.

*Mr Ray's Grave Thoughts* by Marc Pearson.

Mr Ray's Grave Thoughts by Marc Pearson.

Being alone is part of Mr Ray’s Grave Thoughts by Marc Pearson. It’s a larger book with more weight – a format that somehow mirrors the depth of its story. Pearson portrays Mr Ray with a round head and wriggly mouth in panels backgrounded by dotty, jiggly details. Ray’s moods are evoked through vignettes of everyday life and stylistic changes to the way he is drawn. This modest book captures all the loss, the oddness and banality of losing someone close. It’s a story that grounds me, and I take time to smell the roses before returning to the city on my hunt for more comics.

I’m now in the tiled and boxy lobby of a Lonsdale Street office building waiting for an elevator. An abandoned office-supplies pamphlet opens lightly by the gust blowing under the door. The elevator opens and I step into its gleaming interior. It spirits me upwards to All Star Comics, another source of Melbourne (and international) art.

Panel from 'Panic' by Brendan Halyday.

Panel from 'Panic' by Brendan Halyday.

In the locals’ corner I pick up Brendan Halyday’s Graphic/Narrative No.1, which includes the title story, ‘Panic’. This is Halyday’s first chapter in what will be a multi-part series that explores his experience of anxiety disorder. ‘It can so easily start with the little things…’ he tells readers. The moment-to-moment and scene-to-scene transitions between panels effectively build the anxiety (along with details such as ragged panel edges and angst-filled lines). Halyday employs an ink-washy style that also brings warmth to his scenes. This is a story many will relate to and there’s something Australian about its settings. ‘Panic’ includes other stories based on the realities of everyday life.

Panel frm *Strange Behaviour* by Marijka Gooding.

Panel frm Strange Behaviour by Marijka Gooding.

Marijka Gooding’s graphic novel, Strange Behaviour also draws on stories from life, but it plays with perception and convention too. It’s narrated by Binks, a kind of six-inch Gooding who shares stories from Melbourne and beyond. ‘I often find myself an unsuspecting observer to some rather … STRANGE BEHAVIOUR,’ she says on the opening page. It’s behaviour she observes and retells with both curiosity and empathy. Melbournians will recognise scenes (and maybe even characters) in these stories. Just holding the larger-than-A4 novel (which is printed on heavy stock) makes me feel smaller – a little like Binks. It’s her I have in mind as I pass Hearns Hobbies (where one of her adventures is set) en route to Flinders Street Station. There, at Sticky Institute, I will find more comics for my treasury.

I head down the steps from Flinders Street into the relative darkness and slightly dank smell of the Campbell Arcade (Degraves Subway). Scanning past the tide of determined commuters, I look for the window of ‘Sticky’. I see the warm light glowing behind strings pegged with zines and comics. Once inside this bedroom-sized store, I spot more comic creations by our growing mine of local talent.

Panel from 'Times Like These' by David C. Mahler.

Panel from 'Times Like These' by David C. Mahler.

Coracle, by David C. Mahler, includes comics about moments, dreams, friendship and even philosophy. Mahler’s combination of words, subject and scenes intermingle sweetness and melancholy. Some stories are dialogue- or action-driven, while others work from poems and prose composed by Mahler. Illustrative detail (like craters on a distant moon) conveys sensitivity and brings energy to the pages. Mahler’s work cherishes moments, such as that described in the single-page story, ‘Times Like These’.

Not too far from Coracle at Sticky is Clint Curé’s (Q-Ray’s) Confessions of a Rookie Filmmaker. Now in its third issue, this autobiographical series shares tales of boyhood, love, fatherhood and growing up (in the context of Q-Ray’s interest in comics and film). It’s humorous and bold with swooning, cussing, and a lot of misadventure. ‘You’re never going to grow up!’ the mother of his daughter declares in a panel of ‘It’s more Complex than that’. His approach is honest and self-effacing. The stories are engaging, sometimes cringe-worthy, but certainly a lot of fun.

*Confessions of a Rookie Filmmaker* by Clint Curé.

Confessions of a Rookie Filmmaker by Clint Curé.

My treasure hunt for comics has taken me on a great adventure through Melbourne. I’ve been along an alleyway, up an elevator and into a bedroom-sized shop in a basement. I’ve bought dozens of gems for my treasury (these are just six of them). Am I in the right place for comics? It certainly seems that way.

Portrait of Pepi Ronalds

Pepi Ronalds is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. She's currently researching and writing a book about rebuilding and recovery in Japan after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.