By Ben Kooyman
In two weeks’ time Graphic, a Festival of Visual Storytelling, Animation and Music, unfolds at Sydney Opera House. The festival, now in its sixth iteration, has attracted distinguished participants as varied as Neil Gaiman, Shaun Tan, Kevin Smith, Reg Mombassa, Eddie Campbell, Len Wein, Dave McKean, Grant Morrison, Art Spiegelman, Sarah Blasko, Nicola Scott, and George Miller in the past, and this year’s line-up of guests and events looks similarly impressive. I recently had an opportunity to speak with co-curator Jordan Verzar on the telephone, who gave me the lowdown on this year’s event as well as the festival’s history and contribution to comics culture.
Jordan’s day job is representing artists and musicians and managing musical tours, and I asked how he went from this to co-curating a festival of visual storytelling, animation and music. He recalled that a few years ago he was challenged to organise an Australian tour for American cartoonist Jim Woodring. It was his first experience working with a cartoonist and subsequently, energised by the experience and excited by the possibilities, he began concocting the idea for Graphic. His idea found a home at no less than Sydney’s premiere performing arts venue – as Jordan puts it, “It was given birth by and at Sydney Opera House” – and was nurtured in partnership with his “esteemed colleague” and Head of Contemporary Music at the Opera House, Ben Marshall.
Last year marked my first visit to the festival, and I was struck by its melding of a geek culture gathering – think Supanova and Comic Con – with the weight and substance of a cultural event like an arts or writers festival. I wondered if that hybridity had always been part of the master plan. Jordan was quick to differentiate the two types of events and to define Graphic explicitly as a literary/arts event. He explained that while Comic Con and Graphic share an interest in the same properties and subject matter, Graphic does not possess the same commercial imperatives: as he reflects, it’s “less about retail and more about delving into the material”, with sales and signings only a small component of the event. Jordan also noted that where those geek gatherings take place at convention centres and halls, Graphic unfolds at “the world’s most recognisable arts centre” and the guest appearances on its iconic stages are carefully orchestrated events. He emphasised the care and craft that goes into this, highlighting last year’s conversation with Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller and collaborators Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris as an example.
I was curious which past events and guests Jordan rated most highly, and which ones he’s particularly looking forward to this year. Jordan responded diplomatically to my Sophie’s Choice-style question, stating that “With every year there’s so many highlights”. For further proof, just take a look at this list of past events, confirming Jordan’s comment to be both accurate and a study in understatement. However, he singled out The Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s appearance this year as something to get excited about, noting that Groening has “never done something on this scale at an arts festival before” and that he was attracted to take the plunge “because of the way Graphic was framed and what Graphic is all about”. He also noted that negotiations with and entreaties to guests of Groening’s caliber are often years in the making, with the end result the product of a prolonged, evolving dialogue between artists and organisers. Jordan is particularly proud of the fact that Graphic has developed a “good history with happy artists”, and consequently word of mouth within the comics and animation community is positive and has generated goodwill towards the festival. One early collaborator returning this year for a live via satellite Q&A is Neil Gaiman, and Jordan cites the staging of Gaiman’s The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountain, from Graphic’s first iteration in 2010, as a personal favourite among past events.
As readers should know well by now, Australian Comics Journal is a loud and proud advocate for local comics and creators, so I was obliged and duty-bound to enquire about local works and creators represented this year. Jordan reported that he is “really happy” with the Australian content at this year’s event. I’ll post an article about this content next week, but for now it’ll suffice to say that Jordan is “really excited” about the free talks with acclaimed cartoonists Michael Leunig and First Dog on the Moon, and thinks the State of the Nation panel on local comics featuring Safdar Ahmed, Alisha Jade, James Andre, and Sarah Howell is “gonna be great”. He also heaps praise on Safdar Ahmed’s work in Villawood: Notes from an Immigration Detention Centre (read our review here and interview with Ahmed here), saying it “blew my mind”. Whilst only so much can be crammed into two days of festival – “every year I want more” – Jordan strongly believes there’s a place at the table for Australian comics and creators at Graphic, and is pleased that local talent is represented at this showcase of global graphic storytelling culture. He also demonstrates his local creator bona fides, citing folks familiar to Australian Comics Journal readers like Tom Taylor (read our gushing review of M.I.D.A.S. here), Ben Templesmith (read our take on The Undertaker Morton Stone, drawn by Templesmith), and Nicola Scott (read our review of Torn: Heart and Teeth, featuring a prologue drawn by Scott) as examples of local artists doing exemplary work on the world stage. But Jordan also throws some love at Egg Story, a great comic from an Australian creator, J. Marc Schmidt, which he encountered in London but has not found anywhere on local shelves.
While he’s been a comics reader since the age of four and has an impressive collection, Jordan is also someone who works and thrives in the world of live music and performance, and Graphic is an event which, in his own words, gets “comics off the page and onto the stage”, situating the medium within the wider culture of “visual storytelling”. I asked Jordan for his thoughts on this cross-pollination between comic book culture and other mediums and art forms, as exemplified by past Graphic events like the aforementioned staging of The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains with a live musical score or George Miller and co’s exegesis on Mad Max: Fury Road’s comic book foundations. He stated that he was enthused and “very excited” by that sort of cross-pollination, and thinks there has “never been a more exciting time for mediums crossing over”. He also embraces the many mixed media possibilities available to comics, saying we’ve “only got our big toe dipped into the water [so far] about where comics are going to go”.
Having already occupied much of Jordan’s time and not wanting to stretch his generosity too thin, I wrapped by asking if he had anything to say to Australian Comics Journal’s readership. Naturally, he encouraged readers to track down the Graphic program, book their seats and come along for the shows and huge program of free events on Saturday November 5th. On top of that, he urged local creators to “Let us know what you’re working on and what you’d like to do”, noting that comics creators are typically more reticent to pitch their work than the musicians he usually works with. So, take that as an invite…
Special thanks to Jordan Verzar for the conversation chronicled above. Graphic takes place on November 5th at Sydney Opera House, Circular Quay. For more information about events, guests and schedules visit the Graphic website.