By Jonathan King
A seismic event in the world of New Zealand comics occurred when Bob Kerr and Stephen Ballantyne published Terry and the Gunrunners in 1982: we had our first graphic novel (several years ahead of the popularisation of the term). We just called it a comic – but it was beyond thrilling to read a book-length, rollicking adventure unmistakably set in New Zealand. (That Tintin himself got a cameo on one of the final pages of the book was even more mind-blowing.)
The New Zealand comics scene has certainly grown in the 40-ish subsequent years and, while no one's getting very rich, there are probably more comics creators in New Zealand than ever before, reaching wider audiences – with some able to work at it almost full-time.
My new book for 8-12-year-olds, The Inkberg Enigma, did take about three years of full-time work (requiring the support of Creative NZ and a very patient, in paid-employment spouse) so I think it'll be some time before I could jump straight into another one.
But there are some extraordinary comics creators who are finding new routes to get their work out into the world and who are building audiences both here and abroad in previously unimaginable numbers. Wellington writer/artist Rachel Smythe has been publishing Lore Olympus, a modern retelling of the relationship between Persephone and Hades, on an online platform called Webtoons for almost two and a half years. Her comic has a gobsmacking 3.9 million subscribers, has had more than 300 million views and recently announced a partnership with The Jim Henson Company to produce an animated series from it.
Also on Webtoons is another Wellington cartoonist, Jem Yoshioka, whose ongoing Circuits and Veins comic is a story featuring a romance between two women - one human, one an android - that has more than a million views and tens of thousands of subscribers.
In Auckland Michel Mulipola successfully combines making comics, wrestling and making comics about wrestling – with his own international following. He is a key contributor to the Headlocked wrestling comics universe, and publishes his own stories in English and Samoan. Katie O'Neill's Tea Dragon Society started life as a webcomic and is now an award-winning series of books published internationally.
Of, I guess, an older generation (my own) are comics-makers putting out books: Sarah Laing's Mansfield and Me intertwines her own life with the writer Katherine Mansfield's; her Let Me Be Frank collects and updates her webcomics – about the real-life amusements and anxieties of being a 21st century New Zealand person, parent and creator.
Dylan Horrocks' The Magic Pen is (kind of) a sequel to his acclaimed Hicksville (named one of the best graphic novels of all time by Rolling Stone). Horrocks looms large over New Zealand comics, not least because of his inspiration and enthusiasm for so many others: his encouragement played a huge part in me finding the confidence to publish comics – first online, then in a book. Horrocks currently teaches at Victoria University's School of Design, gently nudging a new generation towards "the ninth art".
I'm honoured to be in such great company and I continue to draw huge inspiration from the vibrant world of New Zealand comics and encourage everyone, young and old, to seek them out.
Jonathan King is a Wellington film and comics-maker. His graphic novel for kids The Inkberg Enigma (Gecko Press, $30) is out now.