At the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2013, the American cartoonist and graphic novelist Chris Ware described comics as “a working class art form” and the “art of the people” as he reflected on the increasingly literary and politically aware nature of the form.

That egalitarian spirit of graphic storytelling can be said to infuse the group exhibition StoryGraph at the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art (NCCA) in Darwin. The three artists on show—Joshua Santospirito, Jonathon Saunders, and Beth Sometimes—all, as Santospirito puts it, “deal with concepts to do with postcolonial Australia through the medium of comic art.”  These artists engage with Australia’s socio-political milieu on various levels, even as their mediums and visual languages contrast with one another.

Tasmania-based Santospirito presents his celebrated and influential 2013 graphic novel The Long Weekend in Alice Springs on Bristol boards hung on the NCCA walls. Similarly, Sometimes, who lives in Alice Springs, displays her zine The Tender Unravelling, 2016, an innovative meditation on day-to-day life in the town. Darwin’s own Saunders shows a screening of his unique animated web series, Zero-Point, 2018, which is about an Indigenous superhero in a post-human world. With these works, StoryGraph offers a portrait of various aspects of Australian life, from policy and governance to small communities and services.

“The works we’re presenting in StoryGraph are tied together in several ways other than just the form of comic art and the geographical ties of living in the Northern Territory,” says Santospirito, who used to work as a psychiatric nurse in Alice Springs.

“We are all touching on the cultural interface of white and black Australia.

“Beth Sometimes’s work is an abstracted diary of experiences, conversations, and fragments of her life in Alice Springs. Jonathon’s incredible animated genre piece discusses Australia Day, Canberra’s domination, and sovereignty. Its ambition is impressive and while it might be compared with ABC television’s Cleverman, 2016, it has a totally different treatment which has more in common with Japanese anime, which is exciting.”

Saunders himself adds that Zero-Point is a meeting between his love of comics and animation; an analysis of important, perhaps unanswerable, questions about modern Australian existence.

Jonathon Saunders, Zero-Point, detail, 2018.

Zero-Point was a love letter to all the things I enjoyed in my youth,” he says. “Shōnen anime and manga, superhero novels and graphic novels, sci-fi, thrillers, and action films. I also wanted to have a cool superhero that just happened to be Aboriginal, not an Aboriginal superhero. I chose the name first, because I thought it was cool, and shaped his powers very loosely around the concept of zero-point energy.”

The first season of Zero-Point sees the hero confront terrorism on Australia Day, uncover government conspiracies and learn about the mysterious death of his father, the original Zero-Point.

“I wanted to touch on issues facing modern Australia and the world in general, especially in regards to terrorism, Australia’s contribution on the world stage, and British nuclear tests on Indigenous land. The character of Zero-Point himself is a bit of my own experiences as an Aboriginal man.”

Santospirito’s The Long Weekend in Alice Springs is a non-polemic work that strives to understand the challenges facing Central Australian communities. The work is a reflection on culture and community, with particular emphasis on the Jungian idea of the cultural complex. The award-winning graphic novel is based on an essay of the same name by the writer Craig San Roque, which Santospirito was attracted to because of its refusal to prescribe or proselytise.

Joshua Santospirito, The Long Weekend in Alice Springs, detail, 2013.

“The essay was one of the first pieces of writing by a Central Australian that I had come across that explicitly stated that it had no answers to give,” he says. “This piqued my interest immediately. Craig’s writing had an open attitude and an exploratory tone that spoke to me on an emotional level that I felt was true, and gave me permission to not understand what was happening on an intellectual level.

“To put it more succinctly, his writing was a form of therapy for a lost frontline worker. To better understand these emotions I began to draw parts of the essay, with no intention of it becoming anything other than a form of meditative exercise. However, it became a book.”

The Tender Unravelling by Beth Sometimes might also be described as a meditative exercise, a lovingly assembled diary made up of black-and-white sketches and handwritten text. The zine expresses a warmth and compassion for the people of Alice Springs (and Sometimes herself is actually depicted in one panel of Santospirito’s graphic novel).

Indeed, if there is one thing above others that unites these three artists, aside from working in the general graphic arts domain, it is that deep and ongoing connection with the landscape and culture of the Northern Territory.

NCCA – Northern Centre for Contemporary Art
May–31 May

Preview Words by Barnaby Smith