Reflection: 2017 Ledger Awards

By Ben Kooyman

The Ledger Awards serve to honour excellence in Australian comics. The 2017 ceremony was held at St James Hotel in Sydney on Friday 16 June. Among the evening’s victors, the Gold Ledger went to Small Things by Mel Tregonning; Silver Ledgers were awarded to Australi, written by Timothy Wood with art by Pius Bak, and Past the Last Mountain, written by Paul Allor with art by Louie Joyce; Bronze Ledgers went to Negative Space, written by Ryan K. Linsday with art by Owen Gieni, and The Spider King, written by Josh Vann with art by Simone D’Armini; and a Platinum Ledger was bestowed to Michael Fikaris for outstanding service to Australian comics, while Paul Wheelahan and Celia May Gibbs were added to the Ledger Hall of Fame. Congratulations to these winners and all the shortlisted works and creators for their striking contributions to Australian comics.

I had the privilege of serving on the Ledger Awards judging panel, and wanted to highlight some of my own favourites from the judging process.

Tim Molloy’s previous Mr Unpronounceable titles scored Silver and Bronze Ledgers in previous award seasons, and while his latest work Mr Unpronounceable and the Infinity of Nightmares didn’t secure a gong this time around, it was shortlisted and I rated it high in my own personal rankings. To quote my previous review here on Australian Comics Journal: “If Mr Unpronounceable and the Infinity of Nightmares was a six page short comic or an industry standard 22 pages, I’d call it a cute little bit of weirdness. However, at 190 pages, it represents a formidable marriage of delightfully cracked imagination, resolute commitment to dream logic, and tremendous work ethic on the part of creator Tim Molloy. As it’s also the third volume in a series … constituting a grand total of 568 pages, I’d say we’re dealing with a staggering saga of high surrealism: think Tintin as essayed by Alejandro Jodorowsky.” It’s certainly not to all tastes, but is very much to mine.

Silver Ledger winner Australi, scripted by Timothy Wood and illustrated (quite wonderfully) by international artist Pius Bak, takes place in a fantastical version of Australia and mixes Indigenous myth and recognisably Antipodean locales with high fantasy characters and trappings. I advocated strongly for this title, feeling that the Ledgers, as an institution celebrating Australian comics and creators, should spotlight works that grapple directly (or indirectly) with Australian content, iconography, issues and settings, rather than works that gravitate more towards settings and stories typical of American comics. Australi does this, and does it very, very well.

Mel Tregonning’s Small Things was the Gold Ledger recipient and a clear frontrunner amongst the judges from the outset. Tregonning’s book is an exercise in completely visual storytelling, sans dialogue but elegantly and soulfully expressing through images alone a young boy’s constant, overwhelming anxiety and gradual, empowering recognition of those same crippling worries in others. It’s impeccable, exquisite and ultimately uplifting work. Sadly, Tregonning took her own life before completing the book, but her finished work is a potential all-timer. To borrow (with thanks) from fellow judge Sophia Parsons-Cope, “It’s an intensely personal and infinitely relatable story, and I hope that it brings the catharsis its readers yearn for, or shows empathy in the hearts of those who haven’t experienced the daily drudge and quiet trauma of mental illness”.

The shortlisted The Invisible War: A Tale on Two Scales, created by Briony Barr and Dr Gregory Crocetti and scripted by Ailsa Wild with Dr Jeremy Barr, tells parallel stories across its two titular scales. The first is of Australian nurses toiling in Europe during World War One, treating the sick and injured troops. The second is of bacteria waging their own war against diseased and vulnerable human bodies, focusing around a nurse’s case of dysentery. This dual narrative is perfectly suited to the comic book format, and The Invisible War threads history and medical science into an entertaining and educational narrative. Like Australi it also grapples with specifically Australian content – the nation’s ambivalent role in international conflicts, memorably dramatized in such previous works as the films Breaker Morant and Gallipoli – and I loved artist Ben Hutchings’ clean retro art style and vivid renderings of germs in action.

Burger Force (script and art by Jackie Ryan) centres on Mercury, a likeable idiot slacker who is recruited to join the staff of fast food restaurant Burger Berserker, which turns out to be a cover for Burger Force, a secret intelligence agency. I initially had some misgivings about Burger Force: the visual storytelling comprises black and white photoshopped photographs, somewhat akin to Tony Harris’s work on Ex Machina, and I didn’t take to this art style on first read. However, on revisiting the book following high praise from fellow judges, I was impressed by Ryan’s compositions, the expressiveness of her ‘actors’, and the ‘production value’ crammed into each shot. But more importantly, I responded to her witty script and story, which reads like the lovechild of Grant Morrison and Hal Hartley, with the spunk of the former and tart humour of the latter.

Leonie Brialey’s Raw Feels is another title I initially underestimated; again, I’m glad I was in the company of wiser judges, whose high praise forced me to reassess Brialey’s comic. This self-published work is an ambitious-in-scale, DIY-in-execution philosophical look at depression and comic-making as therapy. It makes a fascinating companion piece to Ledger winner Small Things, reading like an adult variation on Small Things childhood fable and dramatizing (or perhaps anti-dramatizing) how childhood funk can curdle into adult fugue. Where Small Things is text-less and its narrative is communicated through the texture of Tregonning’s artwork, Raw Feels is text-driven but complemented by its simple artwork. But that simplicity is deceptive: there’s tremendous artistry and craft here in Brialey’s expressive and emotive linework.

There are lots of other great comics among the winning and shortlisted titles, as well as some terrific titles that didn’t crack the shortlist. Some of these we’ve covered on Australian Comics Journal previously. I was a fan of Monsters, the anthology assembled by Karen Beilharz (see review here). Reviewer Amy Louise Maynard was a fan of Miranda Richardson’s Hail (see review here), and I’ll second that praise: if Australia has to produce superhero comics (and it really doesn’t, but the reflex is always there and is perfectly understandable) then this is the version of those I want to see. I would encourage all readers to download and peruse the 2017 Ledger Awards Annual, which serves as a lovely celebration and final word on the 2017 victors, and would encourage all creators to enter your work into consideration for future Ledgers: visit the Ledger Awards website for further information.

About Ben Kooyman

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