The best kept secret, Stuart Baker

From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics
Adrian Kinnaird
Random House, $60.00,
ISBN 9781869799953

I’ve read comics since I was very young. I travelled into history with Asterix and to the moon with Tintin. But it wasn’t until I moved to New Zealand as a teenager that I really fell into the world of comics. I devoured anything and everything I came across: from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus to off-the-wall trash with titles like Battle Pope. I went to the Armageddon conventions and even worked at a comic shop. But, despite all this travelling in the realms of comics, I have always felt guilty about one gap in my knowledge. I didn’t really know anything about New Zealand’s comic book legacy, and a part of me suspected it didn’t really have one. So I am grateful that Adrian Kinnaird’s book From Earth’s End has finally hit the shelves and cured me of my ignorance.

Starting on an unknown beach, Kinnaird (in a self-drawn introduction) gives his opinion on why New Zealand’s isolation lends itself so well to the creative mind. Is it really surprising that, with a wealth of great novels, films and music, we wouldn’t have great Kiwi comics, too? Using the incoming tide as a visual metaphor for censorship, he employs space and juxtaposition well. He demonstrates a clear understanding of comic book form and establishes his authority to judge and discuss which comics are New Zealand’s best.

His well-researched, lavishly illustrated book is divided into three sections. The first is “History”. There is enough detail here to pique interest without confusing a reader new to the subject. A passing knowledge is certainly beneficial, but not being able to tell your Batman from your Robin won’t keep you from enjoying From Earth’s End. The focus is on the original creations of cartoonists, rather than work-for-hire projects like Superman, and Kinnaird explains the pivotal events in comics history, such as the release of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, before examining how these affected the local industry. He covers the rise of the syndicated newspaper strip in the early 1920s, through the “wasteland of the sixties and seventies” to the digital era of today. I was surprised to find the impact New Zealand’s comics made, even in those early years, with Foxton’s Noel Cook arguably creating the first science fiction comic strip five years before Buck Rogers. Kinnaird knows how to spin a good yarn, picking out the poignant details in the lives of our early cartoonists while keeping the entries concise. The rarity of most of the comic books reproduced in this section makes the quantity of artwork displayed astounding, but I wish some of the material had been presented in a larger size, so it could be fully enjoyed.

The “Comics” section shines a light on some of our eminent creators, with a short biography, followed by a sample of their work and an explanation of the piece by the artist themselves. There is a focus on contemporary work here, but Kinnaird has cast his net wide when it comes to style, with everything from social protest comics to children’s stories, mature thrillers, slice-of-life and even abstract experiments. The largest section of the book, this really gives the selections room to breathe, which especially benefits items like the beautifully coloured double-page spread from 1980s Eco-Warrior Captain Sunshine. The reading experience is something akin to a visual wine-tasting, and if there’s any vintage you particularly enjoy, Kinnaird has provided an essential reading list next to each cartoonist’s biography.

There are some real gems amongst the work profiled, including a previously unpublished Switchblade story ‒ the only one of comic book length produced by the late Martin Emond. Switchblade could be described as Calvin and Hobbes meets Punk, and Emond’s iconic artwork sent Hollywood producers scrambling to license the work. The talent on display is undeniable, and I imagine the inclusion of this piece alone will be enough to make some fans  purchase the book. Kinnaird does a great job of transmitting the sense of excitement and discovery that attended many of the texts in their original cultural context, and there are certainly one or two I’m not sure I would have enjoyed, had I come across them in isolation.

The final section addresses the industry’s relationship with other media in New Zealand culture, and is by far the shortest. This is not for a lack of crossover. Kinnaird notes earlier that New Zealand demonstrates “great blending”, with local artists proficient in one field also excelling in another. Several of our film makers and musicians are featured here for their comic world creations, and cartoonists, such as Ant Sang (Shaolin Burning), have diversified into producing animations like bro’Town.

The division of the three sections at times seems rather arbitrary, and occasionally leads to repetition. But it does keep the information clear, avoiding the need to flick between pages in an attempt to clarify something. The division also allows the showcased comics their own space, without breaking the flow of the history section.

In the postscript, Kinnaird addresses the unavoidable question: “Where is Footrot Flats?” The answer is that he deliberately limited his scope to comic books, defined as “dramatic narrative presented as sequential artwork”, excluding comic strips where the focus is rather on humour than narrative. It’s a thin definition, and several comics in the strip-format are in fact represented, but at nearly 450 pages some cut-off point was required. There is little here on the history of comic strips and, in Kinnaird’s concluding words, “Let’s not even get started on political cartoons!” Similarly, he does not delve far into animation, but there are other books for that. I hope From Earth’s End is successful enough to warrant a second volume. There is plenty more to be explored in the history of comic strips and their relationship to comic books.

Profiling the best of an entire country’s comic book output is a monumental and necessarily subjective task, even when the country is as small as New Zealand. But, despite inevitable omissions (and a few puzzling inclusions), Kinnaird has proved himself equal to the task. He demonstrates care and respect for Kiwi comics and their creators, some of whom have become internationally recognised artists. The purpose of this book is to help New Zealanders rediscover their comic legacy, to join Kinnaird “at Earth’s end and celebrate one of our nation’s best kept secrets”. The secret is out now and is one every New Zealander should let themselves in on.

 

Stuart Baker studies ecology, film and creative writing at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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Posted in Art, Graphic novel, Non-fiction and Review
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