Comic book writing experience #2 – A White Australian creating Indigenous characters

Welcome to the second installment in my series of blog posts that will highlight the various issues and obstacles that confronted me on the road to creating my first ever comic book series.

This will no doubt be the series’ most controversial topic – that being that I am possibly the whitest guy on the planet and yet I decided to write a comic that features several Indigenous-Australian characters.

While I have undertaken quite a lot of research on the subject matter, I am by no means an expert, so apologies if I have misrepresented Indigenous culture, beliefs or history in this post.

MY FIRST COMIC BOOK SERIES

I’ve yet to announce major details about my comic book series nor have I released any sneak previews of the artwork. This will all happen pretty soon once I’ve decided how I will publish the series. I can say though that the first issue is currently being pencilled and that my creative team is extremely talented and a hell of a lot more experienced than myself. These guys have worked for publishers like DC, Dynamite and Zenescope, plus my header and logo designer is a world famous graffiti artist. Among us, we represent four different continents. So yes, I’m incredibly blessed to work in such a team, especially for my first comic…

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?

Without giving too much away, I can say that our series is a little like Bladerunner and Almost Human meet V for Vendetta.

In a future where death is not always the end, a brokenhearted Aboriginal-White Australian detective, whose country has been decimated, challenges the world’s most powerful corporation in a clash to save his people from almost certain extinction.

INDIGENOUS CHARACTERS/ THEMES

As you can see, the protagonist is Aboriginal-White Australian; however there is a bit of a twist given that he is half-Aboriginal but has for the most part rejected his Indigenous roots. While the cast of characters is quite multicultural, it does include another two major Aboriginal characters: a male, and a female who is a quarter Aboriginal but identifies solely with her Indigenous ancestry. This problem of cultural and racial identity will be explored as one of the themes of the series.

While there are Aboriginal characters and the comic’s themes link in with the invasion of Australia, the story is also about how individuals respond to death and loss and how this shapes who we are.

WHY THE CONTROVERSY?

Many Australians do not recognise the ‘invasion’ of Australia

The series may be controversial for several reasons. Firstly, the plot parallels the destructive effects of the British invasion of Australia on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island populations and the extent to which they are continuing to suffer.

This dire situation is not sufficiently acknowledged in mainstream Western media. My story focusses on injustices committed against the Indigenous population and although I don’t want to dismiss the many Australians who support the Indigenous cause, you just have to scroll the comments section of an online media article about Aboriginal injustice to understand how unapologetic many Australians are about the treatment of the original owners of our land. There are huge debates in Australia about these issues, such as the argument about whether Australia was “settled” or “invaded,” whether Australia Day should be moved to a different date (i.e. should we really celebrate a day that many Indigenous mourn?) and whether or not former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was right to formally apologise to the Indigenous population for the government’s treatment of the First Australians. This isn’t the place to go too far into these issues but I do highly recommend this fantastic documentary series if you’d like to learn more about Indigenous culture since the arrival of the British:

First Australians

I am a White Australian writing Indigenous characters

So why is it so controversial for me personally to be scripting a story which features several Indigenous characters and themes? Well I am white Australian (I use the concept of ‘white’ very loosely, as it can be argued that ‘white’ is a social construct with no grounding in reality), and my multicultural background and experiences will never change that. When I walk down the street in Australia, people see a white man. As they do when I apply for a job, walk into a bar, and so on. You get my drift.

Why does this matter? While I am not of English extraction (phew!), I still represent White Australia and all of the suffering that we as a nation have inflicted on the proud owners of the land. There are huge issues related to someone who represents the colonisers writing about Aboriginal characters and stories. Many of these stories are incredibly painful for the First Australians to relive and I can only imagine that it is even more painful when these stories are told by non-indigenous. One of the main issues pertains to cultural misappropriation, in that creators can use Indigenous characters to add a bit of multicultural spice to their product, but without bothering to consult the Indigenous community or to correctly represent the characters. Indigenous-Australians are often poorly represented in comics and in media as a whole, and when they are, the characters can be stereotypical and offensive. Some great articles have already been published on these issues so I will cease my rambling…

INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS IN COMICS

Cleverman – The First Aboriginal Superhero?

The Wombat to Kaptn Koori – Aboriginal representation in comic books and capes

WHY ARE INDIGENOUS CHARACTERS SO DIFFICULT TO WRITE?

Indigenous Australians are not homogenous

A common misconception about Indigenous groups in Australia is that they are homogeneous. For one thing, the definition of ‘Indigenous’ includes Aboriginal groups but also Torres Strait Island groups. These larger groups are then divided into a multitude of smaller groups, each with their own customs, beliefs, cultural artifacts, traditional stories, clothing and so on. I had to undertake a hell of a lot of research to make sure that I didn’t mix up the features of these groups. There are a couple of pages in my story that feature a group of Aboriginals just before the British arrived in 1788. They are Kooris from the Sydney area, so I had to ensure that their images were consistent with what is known of the people from this area at that time. For example, I learnt that (historically) groups in the Sydney area did not use didgeridoos but that some did use boomerangs.

Beliefs about death

I also had to take into consideration Indigenous beliefs about death. If you’ve watched a recent film that features Indigenous characters, you may have noticed that there is often a warning to the viewer that the programme may contain images or voices of the dead. This links in with traditional Indigenous sensitivities to depicting or naming the dead for a specified period after their passing. Although not all groups follow these protocols these days, some groups still do.

When I first penned the characters for my story I named two of them after famous Aboriginal warriors.  I later decided to change their names out of respect for cultural beliefs. I didn’t want to risk offending any of the Indigenous groups. When in doubt best to delete…

Require permission to use traditional stories

My research also led me to realise that if I am to use any specific Indigenous stories, then I must request permission from the traditional owners of these stories. Although I do not plan to use these stories, a spirit from Indigenous Dreaming stories will make a short appearance later in my series, therefore I am still researching whether or not I will need to request permission to use its image. This won’t occur until later in the story so time is still my friend.

This is an excerpt from an excellent article on the use of Indigenous stories:

Who Owns Story by Terri Janke

Intergenerational trauma

What does this mean? Intergenerational trauma is when the first generation of trauma survivors pass down their experiences to future generations. This is particularly significant in relation to Australia’s indigenous population, who were (and still are) the victims of the horrific effects of colonisation; such as violence, loss of their land and culture and catastrophic government policies (for example the forced removal of children).

Read more here:

Intergenerational Trauma

How does this affect my story? While I completely avoided telling specific and personal stories in my comic book, I did touch on some of these traumatic episodes, such as the ‘stolen generations’ and ‘deaths in custody.’ One of my Aboriginal friends, who works in the Indigenous community, warned me that I need to be aware that writing about these harrowing subjects can upset survivors. This honestly wasn’t something I’d taken into consideration when initially plotting the story. When I suggested that I delete the references, he disagreed and said that awareness of these events still had to be raised. He himself is the child of parents who were forcefully removed from their family.

HOW DID I TRY TO OVERCOME THESE OBSTACLES?

I desperately wanted, no needed, to tell this story.The plight of Australia’s Indigenous population disturbs me and I am anxious in general about the rising wave of xenophobia that is sweeping the world. I grew up in an area in Sydney that has a large Indigenous population and I have witnessed the racism and prejudice that many of them experience. I want the world to be more aware of this situation and I have tried to present the characters in an honest and positive light.

The brutal truth is, I’m pissing myself about how this series will be received by the Indigenous communities in Australia. Considering I am not Indigenous myself, it is almost certain that I will be criticised to some point. However, I have carried out due diligence in regards to my treatment of Indigenous issues and I truly believe in my mission, which is to raise international awareness of not only the negative effects of colonisation but to also highlight the absolute strength and resilience of our Indigenous communities.

Although I am no dummy when it comes to Indigenous culture and history, I still had to undertake extensive research. In addition I had my story and script reviewed by several members of the Aboriginal community, who reported that the Aboriginal characters are positive community role models and that I was not misrepresenting their cultures. This is a tricky one though, as Indigenous group in Australia do not necessarily share the same beliefs and customs.

An example of feedback from friends in the Indigenous community is when I showed the very first pencilled and inked page (which was set in Sydney in 1788) to one of my old friends. He told me bluntly that the paint on some of the Aboriginal faces made them look more Pacific Islander than Aboriginal and he went on to describe how Aboriginal body paint should be presented. So we dealt with this straight away. This was a good lesson for me. No matter how well I think I know Indigenous culture or how much research I do, an Indigenous person will always be able to pick these things up better than me. What if you don’t have any Indigenous friends to whom you can show your work? Well honestly, if this is your situation than you might want to reconsider writing Indigenous characters…

In addition to listening to what my friends had to say, I reviewed the established protocols relating to writing about Aboriginal characters and stories. I recommend the below link to anyone who is planning to write stories with Indigenous content :

Ethical Publishing Guidelines

Well I could go on and on about my process and the associated issues but I think it is pretty clear what the main issues were. I by no means believe that my process was perfect or that I’m beyond reproach. For example I would have loved to have spent time talking face to face with Indigenous Elders, however living in Europe made that less of a possibility. My series does though consist of five issues and we are only creating the first issue at the moment, so maybe that opportunity will present itself in the near future.

Thanks for reading and would love to read your feedback!

Thanks to Leroy and Meriam for the reviews and edits.