The comic Blue is set in a picturesque Aussie seaside town called Bolton. There are two successive images that tell the story of that town in a nutshell. On one double-page spread, we see Bolton as it used to be: barefooted teens, quiet roads, a take away joint boasting ‘Australia’s Best Pies’. On the other spread, we see Bolton as it is now: cracked walls covered in graffiti, ground strewn with garbage, certainly no pies, and the whole place overrun with strange, tentacled creatures.
The unnamed creatures, we learn, first arrived in Bolton on dinky little homemade boats. As the narrator of the story explains, “That was when things in Bolton started going downhill.”
If the sentiment sounds uncomfortably familiar, it’s because the unfolding story of the fictional Bolton is also the story of Australia, particularly Australia’s complex relationship with newcomers to our shores. The theme has been percolating in the mind of artist Pat Grant since he witnessed the Cronulla race riots on December 4, 2005.
“It was one of the big turning points of my life,” Grant says. “Because I’d always grown up by the beach I thought I understood that culture. I was so shocked to see this thing come out of the same culture I came out of. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
Those thoughts found an outlet in the 96-page comic Blue. In bold, fluid lines and a palette of mostly blues and greys, Grant follows the journey of three wagging high school students who walk along a train line to see a dead body. Along the way, Blue gets at the rotten core of Aussie nationalism and beach culture.
What’s immediately apparent in Blue is how well the visual language of comics is suited to represent notions of ‘otherness’. Even the palette serves the theme: the comic gets its title from, naturally, the colour of Bolton’s unwelcome residents. It's not easy being blue. “Visual metaphors are what comics do really well," says Grant, "blending seamlessly into the story and not necessarily having to be explained so much. That’s what’s going on in a lot of [Australian artist] Shaun Tan – Shaun’s whole career is in finding visual metaphors to explain something, an emotive feeling of difference – or in Spiegelman’s use of mice and cats and dogs as a metaphor for cultural difference in Maus.”
In what is surely a sign that he has done something right, Grant has managed to offend the right-wing libertarians at Infidel Bloggers Alliance, who suggest Blue was the work of an “Orwellian moonbat”. But Blue also has its supporters, most notably the acclaimed Tan, who lived around the corner from the Brunswick studio where Grant worked. It was Tan, who worked for six years on The Arrival, who reassured Grant that it was okay to take his time on the comic. “It was really nice to have someone say don’t worry about being slow – just make the work good.”
Still, as Grant says, six years is a long time to get the unsettling ideas of Blue out of his system. “I’m finally ready to move on from it. From all this uncomfortable stuff.”
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