March 2012

Martyn Pedler


Not In My Backyard: Pat Grant's Blue

"Australia does not have a wealth of comic art history," Pat Grant writes in the back of his new graphic novel Blue. "As a matter of fact, this country has a bad record when it comes to any kind of history. Our way of writing history is to destroy old things pertinent to our landscape and experience, and to import readymade mythologies from overseas."

A childhood of comic books in Australia means spending all your leisure time in other places -- deep space or the center of the earth, Gotham City or Neo-Tokyo -- and almost none here at home. We absorb so much popular culture from the United States it's amazing we still have our own accents; the first time I walked through LAX it was like I'd just stepped inside the television and felt perfectly at home.

Grant's Blue starts with a shy young boy approaching three other children building a sandcastle -- a keep to stop the "savage horde" -- on the beach. He wants to join them, but first they need to know if he's "local." This isn't the story of the sweet kid. It's the story of Christian and two friends, soon thirteen-year-olds, and how they react to foreigners arriving in their small beach community. "They're from some other country," one kid explains. "Like, near Africa or some shit."

You might not know that Australia is experiencing a "crisis" of asylum seekers coming to our shores. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, recently visited Australia and said that compared to refugee problems around the globe, Australia's debate "has been very politicized and is out of proportion... as the number of people coming to Australia are small by world standards." And yet these refugees somehow cast a shadow so colossal it has terrified a nation. It's like a story that'd usually be set in the Hundred Acre Wood.

Blue was inspired by Grant's experience with the Sydney's 2005 Cronulla riots, when a protest over recent attacks on "locals" turned into nights of violence against those of "Middle Eastern appearance." (It's impossible to discuss these events without a pandemic of scare quotes.) Some young men took to wearing the Australian flag as capes in the days that followed, turning themselves into bizarre superheroes fighting for Aussie Pride, White Skin, and The Way Things Used To Be.

The life story of Blue's narrator, the now-grown Christian, is shown through a montage of surfing and friends photos mixed with slogans like YOU FLEW HERE WE GREW HERE, WE'RE FULL, and the Australian flag cradled by the words SUPPORT IT OR FUCK OFF. A shared popular culture is not quite a shared history, and Australia often enjoys a safe, smug distance between us and the world's worst. These slogans, though, have become horribly familiar here over the past few years. Seeing them hand drawn in Grant's loving illustrations of India ink was like splinters catching in my eyes.

Blue isn't interested in preaching, though. Grant spends most of his pages on showing the kids having their own adventures, stealing from local businesses, making each other laugh with gross dares. They hear there's a dead body nearby after being hit by a train -- "There's strips of skin and, like, whole organs and heaps of fucken blood and chunks of flesh and shit everywhere" -- and how can they resist? If this sounds familiar, it's no doubt because of the Stephen King novella The Body, turned into the movie Stand By Me. Grant admits he was worried about using such a similar story, but it's something that really happened to him when he was young. He gambles authenticity will trump familiarity, and for the most part, it does.

But did I mention the arriving foreigners are blue? And they have tentacles snaking out of holes in their misshapen bodies? This is nothing new in comics. It's a medium that's often been more comfortable telling stories about race through metaphor. In fact, when intergalactic superhero Green Lantern was infamously asked by a black man why he spends so much time helping "the orange skins" and the "purple skins" but not the "black skins" back in 1970, he probably should've answered: "Because in comic books, sir, there are so many of them and so few of you."

Blue's arrivals don't look remotely human. We never understand their words; our teenage heroes never play with one of their children and realize: maybe we're not so different after all! They stay strange, always other. The kids wonder if calling these arrivals "blue people" is racist. "Maybe," Christian's mate answers. "They are blue though. How can it be racist if it's true?" It's the same kind of justifications that let World War II propaganda comics portray the Japanese as buck-toothed, slit-eyed monsters -- but here it's used for the opposite effect. (And Christian and friends can't see that the way they're drawn with rubbery limbs, stubby teeth, and misshapen heads makes them look a little inhuman, too.)

Grant's dialogue is keenly observed and the cast's grinning, scowling, spitting faces are enormously expressive. Where Blue succeeds most, though, is its sense of place. He gives the fictional town of Bolton its own history, and some early pages are just evocative, postage stamp-sized panels of the Australian beach -- until the last is covered in blue, alien ink. The new arrivals have changed Bolton forever, and its every surface is soon covered in indecipherable squiggles. Christian tries to fight it with white paint but it's doomed to fail. He's ignored his own lessons of childhood, and how he and his friends refused to play in the places they were meant to. Everyone makes their home their own, and that's exactly the way it should be.

This alien language is now part of the Australian landscape; it's just another vivid color on the page. And the same enormous swells that tempt the kids to wag school and grab their surfboards are the same swells that bring these strangers across the ocean. In Blue, the waves are bigger than all of us.

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia.