By Ben Kooyman
“The Aboriginal people of Australia are the longest surviving culture on Earth with over 60,000 years of stories known as The Dreaming. The Dreaming is the spiritual realm that binds the past, present, and future together. It is inhabited by incredible creatures and spirits. At the head of this realm is the Cleverman, a powerful man who is the conduit between the dreaming and the real world.”
Cleverman is the comic book spin-off of the ABC’s popular and critically acclaimed television series of the same name. Set in a near futuristic Australia, the series revolves around the Hairypeople, an Indigenous tribe with super-strength and hirsute qualities. The Hairypeople are socially ostracized, classed as “dangerous sub-humans” by the government and authorities and dubbed “rugs” and “subbies” by assorted rednecks and racists. Yulu, a Hairyperson, fights competitively to earn money to support her family, but when she refuses to take a dive she’s ratted out by her shady employer and sent to a containment facility, from which her brother must rescue her.
Cleverman #1 is scripted Ryan Griffen, the television show’s creator, alongside Wolfgang Bylsma. While knowledge of the series will likely enhance the reading experience, in my own case, as someone largely unfamiliar with the show, it wasn’t a prerequisite. The introductory text quoted above succinctly establishes the fictional world, the class system is quickly sketched, and protagonists and antagonists are clearly delineated. The comic is illustrated by Emily K. Smith (of Broken Line, reviewed here) and the artwork is solid, albeit closer to the streamlined compositions of television than typical Australian comics fare. There’s a Steve Dillon-esque visual clarity to the artwork, with plenty of long shots showing characters in full profile to firmly establish geography and environment.
Cleverman interprets Indigenous Australian history and folklore through the prism of superhero stories, so it’s fitting that the television series should spin off into comic book form. Like those other famous comic book outsiders, the X-Men, the Hairypeople are segregated from the rest of society based on their superpowers and appearances, with corrupt powers seeking to contain them. Where the X-Men comics echoed the American civil rights movement (with Professor X and Magneto mirroring Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in their differing approaches to fighting oppression), Cleverman finds analogies and metaphors for the ongoing struggles of many Indigenous Australians in contemporary Australia, notably their exploitation, persecution and incarceration. In this respect, Cleverman serves as timely reading (and programming).