A fascinating look at the rise of Gestalt Comics in a documentary that was two years, thousands of miles and some punched walls in the making.
It is difficult to speak of an ‘Australian comic book industry’ per se, but the rise of comic culture in this country is undeniable. Australia’s attendance at comic book and pop culture conventions has still increased from 18,000 to 200,000 per year over the last decade, thanks to the rise of Supanova and Oz Comic-Con, although it somewhat pales in comparison to the United States. The US has a market size of over $700 million worth of comics and graphic novel sales, and in excess of 100 conventions per year. The San Diego Comic-Con alone sees over 120,000 people through the doors annually. So how does Australia even begin to compete in a market this size? The two-part Comic Book Heroes follows the determined founders of Gestalt Comics as they attempt to raise the profile of Australia’s writers and artists.
For over six years, Gestalt’s founders Wolfgang Bylsma and Skye Walker Ogden have been producing top-quality product for the local market. Their roster includes Academy Award-winner Shaun Tan, the ubiquitous Tom Taylor (The Deep), the Aurealis Award-winning Justin Randall (Changing Ways), Christian Read (The Eldritch Kid), DC Comics legend Nicola Scott (Torn) and science fiction bestseller Kevin J. Anderson (Stalag X). Yet as this documentary shows, sheer talent alone is not the only key to success, and the struggle to get a break in the US is synchronous with the battle to pay bills and getting the publishers to deliver on time.
Comic Book Heroes is a refreshingly frank look at the business of comics in Australia, often showcasing the setbacks as much as the successes of the company. Director and writer Nick Dunlop (of Little Star Productions) makes the story of a start-up business personal, beginning his journey with Bylsma temporarily living in his parents’ home in Perth, while his friend and business partner Ogden works from Tokyo, as he too has just moved in with his in-laws. Bylsma is depicted as a man who demands perfection in everything he does, frustrated by elements that prevent success. A major point of drama in the documentary is the delayed arrival of several debut comics at San Diego Comic-Con, resulting in Byslma punching a wall off-camera. Yet this only highlights just how driven and passionate the co-founder and his crew are about their chosen field, often putting all other aspects of their lives on hold for the success of their creators.
For comic book fans in Australia, it may have been good to see some perspective on the creative process from the writers and artists that we have watched grow over the last few years, but that’s a topic for another discussion. Comic Book Heroes focuses on the voices that shout until they are hoarse about their love of Australian comics. Funny and heartbreaking at the same time, more than anything the documentary highlights the insanely talented and vocal minority that is producing world-class comics that deserve your attention immediately.
Comic Book Heroes airs in Australia on ABC1 on Tuesday 13 and 20 August at 10pm AEST. You can also catch up with it on ABC2 and iView. Watch the trailer below, support Gestalt Comics by visiting their official site.