Interview: Bruce Mutard

Melbourne cartoonist Bruce Mutard launched his first project under his publishing imprint Fabilaux, Art Is A Lie by Carol Wood and Susan Butcher, at Melbourne's Homecooked Comics Festival earlier this year. Art Is a Lie is currently available via an Indie Go Go campaign.

Collecting material originally published in Artillery magazine as well as unpublished comics, Art Is A Lie employs the comic styles of many masters of the art-form to present the truth about art and the artists that make it. I asked Bruce a few questions via email about Art Is A Lie and his entry into publishing with Fabilaux.

Matt Emery: What motivated you to enter the heartbreak and sorrow of publishing comic books?

Bruce Mutard: Aw, c’mon, think positive! Well, look, obviously I’m not in it to make money, so it’s a case of wanting to publish Art Is A Lie in particular, since I knew Artillery were unable to do a collection, and neither could Carol or Sue, yet I wanted a collection of it. But the quality of the work was so amazing, I knew there’d be plenty of other people who’d appreciate it as much as I do, and hopefully, among Artillery readers, who’d been chortling at Dead or Alive (the name the strip goes under) for the past nine years. So, it’s a case of putting my money where my mouth is. I will not have my heart broken by this, and how can putting out comics be sorrowful? It’s spreading the joy, even if it’s only fifteen copies.

Emery: When did you first encounter Carol and Susan's work?

Mutard: Coming across their self-published Pox, probably the first or second issue way back in the mid 1990’s. I can’t recall if I saw it in a shop, or we started trading our comics via reviews in other comics and zines in that mail-trading pre-internet era or what. But Pox always stood out for it’s rambunctious, acerbic, intelligent satirical bite, which appealed to me immensely in the days when I was much more an underground cartoonist than the *ahem* serious graphic novelist I am now. Now that I’m an *koff* artist, I can appreciate their wit and talent in Art Is A Lie so much more. Maturity does have its pluses, so long as one doesn’t overdo it. 

Emery: Can you talk a bit about the material in Art Is A Lie and its original publication? Do you have a favourite piece in the book?

Mutard: I have a one sentence summary: Art Is A Lie is a collection of one page satirical biographies of famous artists, done in the style of famous cartoonists. But that’s not entirely accurate, as there are five strips of two pages or more, including an art alphabet done like Edward Gorey mixed with Ambrose Bierce. There are also a few of fumetti, one with Carol and Sue, and others featuring models on sets, all made and built by Carol; she’s an amazing model-maker. The one quality I am totally in awe of is the depth of the girls knowledge of pop culture and ephemera, particularly that which is nostalgic. They have amazing collection of breakfast cereal toys which in themselves, are of amazing quality; it’s hard to believe they used to come with Weeties and Corn Flakes. There are thousands of pop-cultural and art references in Art Is A Lie, such that probably only someone like Jim Bridges would get most of them. My favourite piece is Tom Kat Of Finland. I mean, who else could have thought of doing a biographical piece of Tom of Finland as a Krazy Kat story and make it work? But then there’s Frida Kahlo as a Betty Boop cartoon (there is a resemblance), Marcel Duchamp in a Dick Tracy story, The Van Eyck brothers as a Spy Vs Spy parody… there are NO weak entries in this book. 

Artillery is an American art magazine with a refreshingly insouciant approach to Art, not taking itself or the art world too seriously. Like all art mags, it’s dominated by ads for art exhibitions in galleries, mixed in with content, which can be new takes on famous artists, revision of a movement, or speaking to contemporary artists about their work, art theory, movements, ideas and what not. And… they have Dead Or Alive. It runs on the smell of an oil paint and turps soaked rag out of the editors house in the hills of LA. 

Emery: Were you involved much in an editorial capacity with Art is a Lie?

Mutard: Not really. Carol and Sue work as a team, so they tend to edit by bouncing ideas off one another. Susan once told me that Carol is the one who comes up with all the craziest ideas and she slowly whittles them down to what’s actually able to be done. They both write and draw, with Susan tending to do the art that looks tighter, and Carol, the looser. The only time I asserted editorial authority was one time I visited them after a long break and was blown away by this magnificent model monster horror lab as if from the 1930’s Frankenstein movie. The detail in it was amazing. Carol then told me that they were thinking of doing a fumetti wherein they would tell the story of how they come up with their ideas. I promptly told them that I was herewith asserting editorial privilege and demanded that they do that strip otherwise no book would be published. They delivered. Boy did they deliver. They had to reanimate John Constable and then re-kill him to do it, but it was worth it. 

Emery: Are future Fabilaux publishing plans in the pipeline?

Mutard: My plan for Fabliaux is to publish niche works, so books that I don’t think have a huge readership, but nevertheless should appear in print. The reason for that is to keep a lid on the scale of the operation so that I can continue to spend most of my time making comics, which is what I think I do best. Sales will mostly be done online, via crowdfunds and tables at comic festivals and book fairs, so nothing mass market. I will probably publish my long hidden graphic novel Alice In Nomansland, which is definitely niche. I am also wanting to publish a collected Pop Culture and Two Minute Noodles by Dillon Naylor and the amazing list of artists who’ve drawn those characters. I’ll probably only publish one or two books a year to start with. 

Word Balloons: Oi Oi Oi! #1 and Dailies #4

Australasian Comic reviews by Philip Bentley

Oi Oi Oi ! #1 (ComicOz, 2014)

Dailies #4 (Silent Army, 2014)

When local comic production spluttered into life again in the 1980s after a lull of around 20 years, non-themed anthologies were the initial mode of choice. From Inkspots to Fox Comics and on to Ozcomics and Cyclone, anthologies were seen as a way to showcase the greatest number of creators in the shortest amount of space. However all of these publications struggled to reach their market which wasn’t that big to begin with. Newsagent distribution proved an expensive and wasteful procedure, while local comic shops (and their patrons) were fairly disinterested.

Since those times we have had the brief ‘golden summer’ of the 1990s, when local comics seemed to gain some sort of foothold only to lose it just as quickly. Later in the decade Deevee, a non-themed anthology, sustained itself for just under 20 issues, primarily through overseas sales, by anchoring itself with a creator with international clout (Eddie Campbell). Deevee, though, was the last of its kind. Since then the preference has been for themed anthologies or single story books. The received wisdom has been that anthologies, whether themed or not, do not sell that well despite them being popular with creators for providing an outlet.

So it is interesting that over the past few years a few significant non-themed anthologies have re-emerged. I welcome this as personally I feel this mode has a lot to offer. The two above come at it from different directions, so a comparison is revealing.

Dillon Naylor

Nat Karmichael’s Oi Oi Oi! seems a throwback to the 1980s with its emphasis on its Australian roots and newsstand distribution. In other ways it has gone beyond these times by proposing a quarterly schedule and paying contributors. But that some element of the 1980s is present may not be that surprising given Karmichael also made a contribution to anthologies in that decade by being involved with The Australian Comics Group (one issue, 1982). Later he published a magazine reprinting the newspaper strip Air Hawk (six issues, 1980's-1990), with a softcover collection in 2011 and a second volume in hardcover of Air Hawk in 2013. He followed it up this year with one of another newspaper strip, Monty Wedd's Ned Kelly.  

Since the cessation of Tango in 2009 local comic aficionados have lamented the absence of a substantial anthology to showcase the burgeoning talents this country has been producing. So Karmichael is to be congratulated at having a go at providing it. The results though are mixed. From a perspective of the work alone Karmichael has been wise enough to largely use established creators so there are no duds to be found. That said, to me, the book is largely lacking any inner cohesion. Now I admit this is a fairly abstract element and there are no rules about how you achieve it, but for me the best anthologies have any inner synergy where the works spark off one another to produce something that is greater than the sum of its parts. For me this element is absent here.

It’s true a number of the works do address some element of Australiana, but otherwise they have little in common visually or thematically. Cartooning flights of fancy from Rob Feldman and Glenn Le Lievre are juxtaposed with more dramatic works, such as a tale set in 1930s Tasmania by Tony Thorne (making a welcome return to the printed page after a gap of 20 odd years), and one of Steve Carter and Antoinette Ryder’s patented fantasy adventures (considerably toned down from their usual fare). These are leavened with an amusing slice of life tale by Dillon Naylor, a thought-provoking commentary on the medium by Bruce Mutard and the first nine pages of Joshua Santospirito’s renowned graphic novel Long Weekend in Alice Springs. All of these would be acceptable on their own but here just seem to be taking the work in too many directions at once.

Karmichael may have felt that bringing together as wide a collection of styles and stories as possible would help his cause. I’m not sure if this is the case. It depends what purchasing criteria his potential readers use. It’s true that some people use an ‘opt in’ approach where if they see a few works they like they will buy the book regardless of there being some that they don’t. But others use the opposite approach and won’t buy anything that contains a number of strips that don’t appeal.

But again I am not sure what market Karmichael is aiming for. The comic reading community in this country seem more diverse than ever and I’m not sure that many would purchase an Australian comic purely because it is an Australian comic. Judging from his cover, contents and editorial, though, Karmichael may have set his sights at a general readership above and beyond those who identify with being comic fans. This is a big ask given that while comics may no longer be a pariah medium in this country there is still a general indifference to the medium. I have observed some greater interest amongst the literati and Gen Y but I wouldn’t have thought these would have been ones to be particularly swayed by an emphasis on Australiana.


Tony Thorne

Certainly from the perspective of the general market I would have to query the inclusion of Mutard’s strip – probably too self-referential – Carter and Ryder’s – even toned down possibly too violent – and Santospirito’s which reads like what it is – the beginning of a much longer work.

But I do welcome the book’s existence and wish it a long life, even if I fear that like most of its ilk in this country its tenure will be brief.

Dailies #4

The Silent Army occupy what they call the experimental end of the comic scene in this country, in particular Melbourne. Having begun in the early 2000s, from roots in the 1990s, they have some history in the medium and over the years have published approaching 30 different works. Originally a loose collective these days the major organising appears to have fallen to Michael Fikaris, who has been responsible for this journal, four issues of which have been published since 2012.

Originally non-themed this issue takes as its theme Melbourne, although this is pretty loosely interpreted in many cases. Over the 64 pages a variety of artists, both new and established, ply their trade in approximately one page per contributor. Some provide illustrations rather than strips and there are other oddities like strips in untranslated Indonesian.

Michael Fikaris

This brevity does limit the amount of depth contributors can reach so perhaps it is not surprising that the most successful strips, for me, come from established creators such as Jase Harper, Andrew Weldon, Tim Molloy, Mandy Ord and David Blumenstein. Other worthwhile contributions come from a couple of older creators making welcome returns, at least to my eyes, Amber Carvan and Stratu.

Most of these works could be loosely termed ‘undergroundy’ or perhaps ‘indie’ is a better description as there isn’t much here that could be called taboo. How much is ‘experimental’ is debatable, but one man’s experiment is another’s confusion. In my eyes, though, experimentation can be as much to do with the story as with the art. Interestingly, in this regard, I would actually say that Oi Oi Oi ! contains works that are more experimental, or at least novel, in terms of story. Mutard’s exegesis on the comic form certainly fits the bill and how many other works have been set in 1930s Tasmania or prehistoric Australia?

But despite the ephemeral nature of much of this I still would say there is a greater amount of cohesion than is found in Oi Oi Oi! Most of these artists appear to be on the same page creatively and partaking of a similar mindset. Thus it is unfortunate that this is apparently the last Dailies for the foreseeable future as Michael Fikaris wishes to put his energies elsewhere.

Tim Molloy