Perth comic book artists turn heroes in documentary

Until comic book artists break into the American market, they're not going to make enough money to make it a 'day job', says one of the Australian comic book creators featured in Comic Book Heroes.

The documentary, which airs tonight on ABC1, follows two Perth comic book artists who created their own publishing company and are struggling to make 'real' money.

When the series begins, Gestalt Comics is based out of a spare room in Wolfgang Bylsma's parents' home and his business partner, Skye Walker Ogden, operates his portion from under the roof of his in-laws' house.

"It's that sort of industry where if you wanted to be full-time and established, you'd move to the States where more opportunities are there," said award-winning graphic novelist and Curtin University lecturer Justin Randall, who features in the documentary.

Randall, an illustrator for Gestalt, joins Bylsma and Ogden when they go to San Diego Comic-Con in the US, where the comic book market is 35 times that in Australia.

He says it's impossible for most people to survive by working purely on comics in Australia.

"I work full-time...most people have to do that to supplement their [comic book] income," he said.

"I couldn't survive working just on comics."

For Randall, the suffering comes in the form of sleep. After working as a lecturer during the day, he waits until his 18-month-old son and wife are asleep before putting in up to six hours illustration work each night.

But for Bylsma and Ogden, it's a "David and Goliath" battle, says Comic Book Heroes creator and director Nick Dunlop.

"They're so insanely committed to what they're doing, they'll struggle when they've got no money, they're sick, when they have to get to the other side of the world," Dunlop said.

"The biggest issue for them is financial – it's really expensive to print graphic novels.

"It costs them $20,000 to do a print run and the logistics of getting distribution and return dollars on the sales is very slow."

Mr Dunlop, also a comic book collector, says Australia's comic book market – worth $20 million a year – pales in comparison to the US market, which is worth $700 million a year.

And a share of that $700 million is hard to get when 90 per cent of the US profits are in the hands of four companies.

"Marvel and DC... between them they own 70 per cent of the market," he said.

"20 [per cent is owned] by another two large companies and 10 per cent is what the independents fight over."

Dunlop is hopeful for the future of comic book artists in Australia – he says the market is going through a lift, which he attributes to superhero movies and pop culture conventions.

"Australia has Supanova now and OZ Comic-Con - that's new in last 18 months," he said.

"There's been an increased interest in comic books in the general public.

"At Supanova there used to be 22,000 [attendees] in Australia and now there's more than 200,000.

"We're seeing so many comic-based films coming out of Hollywood at the moment."

He also says the internet makes it easy for fans to connect with each other.

"Fans are no longer isolated," he said.

"When I was growing up in 70s I was the only kid in my class who read comics.

"Now if you read them, you may not have anyone in your peer group but you can find [other fans] instantly."

Years of sacrifice has paid off for the pair, who have travelled for Comic-Con four years' running and now have two productions in the works.

"It is paying off for them," Dunlop said.

"They've been [to Comic-Con] four years running and have producer of The Walking Dead looking at adapting one of their books into a program.

"And they have a Technicolor animation coming out in 2014."

Randall, the author of the book that caught The Walking Dead producers' eyes, said it "wouldn't have happened if we did not go there".

Despite the obstacles, Dunlop says the documentary is about inspiring struggling artists to continue with their work.

"This is a story about commitment to a dream," Dunlop said

In addition to Aurealis Award-winner (the Australian graphic novel awards) Justin Randall, Gestalt Comics also has Tom Taylor - another Aurealis Award-winner - and Perth writer, illustrator and Oscar-winner Shaun Tan under its umbrella.

"It's because they're so committed to quality," Dunlop said.

"These aren't crappy 32-page comics for children, these are mature graphic novels and they are really world-class."

He hopes the documentary, created in conjunction with ScreenWest, Lotterywest, Screen Queensland and the ABC, will give a further boost to the industry.

"First of all, anyone who's creative will identify with the struggle," he said.

"Even though you've got no money or encouragement , you're sick, family needs to be fed, you've got to keep going, persistence pays off.

"Secondly, this amazing art is being created in Perth right now, in world-class comic books and we as Australians should pay more attention to it."

Comic Book Heroes airs in two parts, on August 13 and 20, on ABC1.

The story Perth comic book artists turn heroes in documentary first appeared on WA Today.

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