CAB: Collaborative Auto-Biography

Yesterday in the post I received a copy of CAB: Collaborative Auto Biography, a series of short anecdotes and stories from residents of Cabramatta rendered as comics by Matt Huynh – a project intended in a large part to show stories about the area that don’t involve heroin.

I ordered the book mainly because I wanted to see mainly what comics were being made about the Australian experience (a way of procrastinating away from scripting my own comic) and I was struck by a couple of little things and one major thing.

I was a little dissapointed that the comics fell into the trap many autobiographical indie comics do (and their is a surfeit of this genre) where all events and situations are described in captioned narration, leaving artwork as a merely compliment and neglecting the medium itself. This is a bugbear for someone as fiercely formalist towards comics as me 1. That said, the project is using the words of others so it may have been inescapable. Perhaps Huynh’s other work which I am yet to get to is not so (in the interview above he does echo a phrase of Scott McCloud’s, who is more formalist than I’ll ever be).

I did like the way the artwork, whilst distinctive, still had genetic traits I associated with Australian illustration rather than aping American indie conventions. Sometimes parts of an image would remind me of the children’s illustrator Craig Smith,  a similarity that had greater significance than I thought.

Because what struck me the most is that the stories resonated with an Australia I knew far more than most Australian art ever has. Not because of any particular brilliance, but merely because most Australian art, if it was dealing with an Australia that existed at all, it wasn’t one which I knew, or which I grew up in.

Every one of the stories in this collection is told by an Australian of Chinese, Vietnamese or Filipino descent. They all take place in a predominately Asian suburb. In the same period in which most of the stories are set I was living in Maitland – predominately Irish in origin with a smattering of other ethnicities (the largest I can remember being Koori). Either there is a commonality to the totality of the Australian experience that only a tiny percentage of Australian art gets at, or there is a commonality to the experiences of Cabramatta and Maitland that is not in the majority of Australian art.

I’m leaning towards the latter, particularly when I reach for other examples of works that resonated. The first two (but not only) examples that came to mind were the children’s book series I Hate Fridays (illustrated by Craig Smith) and Summer Heights High. The common feature amongst Maitland, Cabramatta and these two is a non-idealised portrayal of outer suburban childhood 2.

Huynh is a member of the Asian Australian Arts Association, and (whilst it is never stated as such) he may be trying to rectify the neglect of Asian Australian experiences in Australian art. He is doing a good job, but I think he is rectifying the neglect of a far greater proportion of the Australian population. He notes that Cabramatta is only portrayed in terms of drugs and crime, but this is a continuation of safari journalism towards Western Sydney that, as Dianne Powell documents, has existed throughout the post war period. Apart from that, Western Sydney only exists when the political class calls on their imagined seat of Lindsay – a land of whinging families whom are obsessed with boats and willing to sell their vote for whomever gives them a plasma and a larger McMansion. This is a myth to inspire scorn or false solidarity based on the purpose of the Journalist.

The outer suburbia which is not a dangerous and crime ridden place, nor filled with imagined political demographics, or is simply not within driving distance of the meida organisations based in Sydney, simply does not exist in journalism or art.

But again, assuming that the minority of works that resonate with me is a product of their subject matter rather than mere quality (i.e, that many of those other works resonate with some Australians of different upbringings), it does present a rather interesting proposition – that the socioeconomic experience of one’s childhood (or at least childhood peers) transcends ethnicity in this regard. “Class” is a greater divider than ethnicity, at least in art. If “class” doesn’t seem a great divider, I guess fears about cultural harmony are unfounded.

1 By way of analogy, if I felt the same way towards film I would be placing emphasis on cinematography and editing over the script and acting – use of the medium over the content therein.

2 Socioeconomically and in terms of built and natural environment, Maitland can be considered outer suburban.

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About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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Don Arthur
13 years ago

This reminds me of Harvey Pekar’s stories.

I know what you mean about using the medium. It’s the difference between a story with pictures and a comic. You want the narrative and emotion to flow from the graphics and dialog, not from a short story with the paragraphs stuck in boxes above a drawing.

I’m a big fan of Scott McCloud.

As for movies … I get irritated by films where the narrative detail seems to have been filled near the end of the process. The big ‘hero’s journey’ structure is there, the action sequences and special effects are there, the period/superhero costumes (or whatever) are there, the stars are locked in, and then a bunch of people produce some half baked story to make it all hang together. I think screenplays matter.