Julie Ditrich: On Mermaids and Momentum
by ANTHONY N. CASTLE
Julie Ditrich and Jozef Szekeres have mentored many in the Aussie comic scene after founding the ASA’s Comics/Graphic Novel Portfolio. In fact, I first met Julie and Jozef chatting at a Comics Masterclass event in Sydney. With their characteristic wisdom and generosity, they later looked at some of my work, revealing decades of industry know-how. Back in the 90s, Julie and Jozef reimagined mermaid mythology for the fantasy series ElfQuest. Now, after years of supporting other creators, they’re back as Black Mermaid Productions™, releasing new books with their classic characters in Elf~Fin: Hyfus & Tilaweed.
JULIE: Hyfus and Tilaweed first appeared in a six part comic book series called ElfQuest: WaveDancers that was published in the USA by Warp Graphics in 1993-4. The creators of ElfQuest opened their doors to outside talent around that time and we (our co-writer at the time – Bruce Love – included) decided to send in a submission about a group of sea-dwelling elves for a “what if” story in an anthology project. The series went on to sell over 180,000 copies of six issues and was extremely successful. We ended up in a contract dispute with the publisher for several years so the next three series were never published.
After the original characters reverted to us, we were still receiving mail and emails from fans asking us to resurrect the characters. Jozef came up with a name that honoured the combined elfin and mermaid aspects of the characters. We liked it, so named the race “Elf~Fin” (with “fin” being the significant part of the word). We unpicked the threads and then plucked the characters out of the previous universe and inserted them into an entirely new one of our own design and making. There is new lore, new mythology, new language, and a whole bunch of new characters.
I recall reading the rather dark Hans Christian Andersen fairytale The Little Mermaid when I was young. The Little Mermaid falls in love with a prince, selling her tongue to a witch for the ability to walk on land. Once in the land of men, she is mute and every step feels is like a dagger in her feet. Ultimately, she is rejected and dies. No singing lobsters there. Still, even in the Disney context, the mermaid archetype comes to represent longing, burgeoning sexuality and a great sense of displacement, and these themes seem at play in Elf-Fin.
Andersen’s The Little Mermaid was a great influence in our cultural upbringing. As with all great literature, many points of view can be overlaid on the work to allow it to make sense to its audience’s needs. One angle of the story of the little mermaid can also be allegorical to the speculated life of Hans Christian Andersen as a gay man, who wrote passionate love letters to significant men in his life. Like the mute Little Mermaid, Andersen could not tell the world of his own homosexual love for the people of the world, but the original manuscripts showed his feelings clearly. The Little Mermaid story may have deeper pathos than its story context.
Yes, the tale is tragic and we always wanted to plunge in and change the ending, and one day we may, but it can be hard with such a powerful and well-distributed Disneyfied interpretation anchored out there with the masses as the perceived new originating source of this story. There’s another wonderful version by US novelist Carolyn Turgeon who reinvented the story in her book Mermaid. (Carolyn very kindly endorsed Elf~Fin: Hyfus & Tilaweed for us on the back cover of the first issue.)
As you’ve identified, Elf~Fin does contain similar themes of longing, which features in the first issue, as well as burgeoning sexuality and a sense of displacement which ripple through the story from the second issue. However, Elf~Fin doesn’t have the sensibility of The Little Mermaid. The latter is a delicate fragile story: Elf~Fin is more epic and has a different energy that traverses multiple plotlines over at least three books. Ultimately we will be exploring contemporary themes about human nature albeit skewed through mermaid characters in an oceanic world.
The Elf~Fin Treasury Edition is a great product with remarkably lush, painted art and a rich world of romance and fantasy. I was tempted to say that the standard of this book was high for an independent team, but that might be an odd assertion given your experience in the industry. Do you guys see yourself as independent creators or seasoned publishers?
For the most part we view ourselves as independent creators who love working on original creator-owned properties and who are starting the next phase of our comics career. To some extent we dropped out of the comics publishing scene during the late 1990s when we were fighting the aforementioned legal battle overseas which took nearly five years to resolve and was emotionally draining. Furthermore, Jozef was doing a lot of commercial animation and illustration, and I was working part-time for the Australian Society of Authors (ASA). Bruce Love decided to leave Black Mermaid Productions in 2003, and Jozef and I then identified that we really wanted to concentrate on creating comics.
Once we had pinned down the Elf~Fin story, we discussed whether we were going to self-publish or find a publisher for the property. We weren’t attached to either outcome so decided to put out some feelers for Elf~Fin around 2008-10 while the artwork was still in development just to see where the project landed. The response was varied. None of these options interested us or felt intuitively right for us. We had always had a very strong vision of what the book should look like, what story was being told, and how it should be told. We also knew who our readers were so we decided the only way to do it right was to become publishers ourselves. It was the most natural thing in the world. I had been the publications manager at the ASA for many years and had edited and managed the book production and marketing process for several titles so now I used those same skills on our book.
You both built the Comics / Graphic Novels Portfolio for the Australian Society of Authors, the first of its kind in the Aussie comic scene. How did the venture come about?
Prior to signing our first comics contract, we had asked the ASA to do a contract assessment for us. The Executive Officer at the time – Lynne Spender who also had a background in copyright law – did our assessment and recommended some additional clauses be inserted into the contract to protect our creative contribution and interests. Those clauses ended up saving 22 characters from annihilation and they are now safely back in their original home with us—their creators.
In 2007 we attended the New York ComicCon for the first time and we were struck at how much the industry was changing. There were many traditional publishers on the convention floor looking for graphic novel talent and properties. The publishing stats were incredible—in seven years, sales of US graphic novels through traditional book stores had escalated from $75 million to $300 million (the figure is even bigger now). We realised that this trend would carry across to Australia even though we were about two to three years behind the US. When we talked about it we felt that even though the Australian comics community could potentially benefit creatively from future opportunities they might also expose themselves to financial and copyright exploitation if they did not protect themselves. Indeed, comics creators were one of the most vulnerable groups of creators in the Australian literary and visual arts landscape.
Jozef and I talked about it as some length, and came up with the idea of starting a Comics / Graphic Novels Portfolio with the ASA that would provide professional development opportunities and contract advice for Australian comikers. During the five years we occupied the positions of portfolio holders we surveyed the comics community, ran professional development seminars at Supanova around the country, released a regular Comics Biz ezine for members and ran the Comics Masterclass weekend event featuring Colleen Doran.
Given these growing opportunities for the Aussie comics community, is it just me, or is more and more talent emerging?
It is not you. We have observed this for ourselves and have commented on it to others and have others comment on it to us. Australian comics talent is like a force of nature gaining momentum and exposure. It is driven by passion for great storytelling and the craft. We believe the economies of digital printing has given us all the freedom to explore and experiment with the medium in print form and is part of this equation. The other part is an awakening and a recognition from the arts community that comics is not on the fringes to be looked down upon but a powerful storytelling medium in its own right.
Elf~Fin’s story consists of six issues overall. What do the future adventures of Hyfus and Tilaweed have in store for readers?
In the first issue we introduced Hyfus in all his splendour and with all his frailties to our readers. He lives in a carefree pod called the Waverin where the only thing to contend with is pod politics and bickering. However, a series of tragic circumstances drives him away. The second issue pretty much exclusively deals with Tilaweed in her domain within a pod called The Faithful. Hyfus and Tilaweed meet for the first time at the end of the second issue but we can’t divulge under what circumstances. We explore big themes of love, passion and betrayal and uncover many secrets along the way. The story progressively gets darker.
Elf~Fin™: Hyfus & Tilaweed #1 TREASURY EDITION can be purchased from the Black Mermaid Productions™ site at elf-fin.com.