Review: From Earth's End - The Best of NZ Comics

By Robert Smith

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The cover of From Earth's End.
The cover of From Earth's End.

From Earth's End: The Best of NZ Comics
By Adrian Kinnaird
Published by Random House

The story of New Zealand comics isn't one of large corporations and iconic characters, it's a story of idiosyncratic artists with distinct styles and unique creations, doing their own thing.

It's a story that involves a huge cast of outrageous talents and idealistic publishers. It's a classic example of the Kiwi isolationism sparking the do-it-yourself work ethic, and it's a story of malevolent nuns, and kung-fu masters, and Maori legends, and All Blacks on Mars.

And it's a story lovingly collated together in Adrian Kinnard's excellent From Earth's End: New Zealand's Best Comics. This 450-page bumper edition is both history lesson and cultural snapshot, lavishly illustrated and ridiculously informative.

The book's first section is the history of the form in Aotearoa, and the DIY ethic is right there at the start.

US comic books attracted massive audiences in the 1940s, but they were far too frivolous to be imported during wartime, so Kiwi artists created and self published their own crudely energetic work,

This built up into a surprisingly large industry in the 1950s, which then collapsed in a cloud of censorship and bad business decisions. Kiwi comics were reborn in seventies in the pages of the country's student rags, and while the comics that followed never matched the sales numbers of previous years, they attracted a vast variety of different artists to the medium, who were more influenced by things like the local music scene than Superman or Batman.

Kinnaird's book is particularly exhaustive when it comes to dealing with the modern era of NZ comics, covering topics like the tragic story of the brilliant Martin Emond and the rise of the graphic novel in detail. But with many pre-1960 comics simply lost forever, there is still an impressively thorough tale to tell of the early days.

While there have been efforts to bring this history together in the past - notably from comics creator/scholar Dr Tim Bollinger - From Earth's End is a readable and informative recreation of the early days of this mysterious and marginal artform, and the mysterious and marginal people who worked in it.

The cast of characters in this story include musicians like Chris Knox and celebrated artists like Dick Frizzell, and modern artists who have made waves on the international stage such as Dylan Horrocks, Roger Langridge and Colin Wilson, but also mysterious figures like Harry W Bennett, who was incredibly prolific before vanishing in the mid-fifties, or Eric Resetar, who self-published his own comics as a teenager in the 1940s, and was rediscovered by a new generation in the 200s.

But it's not just a history lesson, with more than three-quarters of the book devoted to a sweeping representation of the smorgasbord of Kiwi comics, from all generations. Short profiles of the creators are followed by several pages of their work, showing off all sorts of different styles and methods.

It's another acknowledgement of the past, but it's also a portrait of the Kiwi comic scene as it currently stands, and a premonition of its future, with today's local artists taking to the internet to spread their artistic wings and gathering a global audience.

There is some repetition in the book, as the same anecdotes crop up in different places over and over again, and some of the lovely artwork that made it to the comic page is too small to really drink in, and anybody with any knowledge of local comics will probably find some favourite artist is overlooked, but these are really minor issues in a book that is beautifully designed and long overdue.

While super-hero blockbusters based on American comic pull millions of people into the cinema every week, the history of comics, and New Zealand comics in particular, remain a mystery to most, and From Earth's End goes some way towards rectifying that, while still remaining incredibly entertaining. It's essential for anybody who has had a passing interest in local comics, and a beautiful book in its own right.

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