The art of comics

Bruce Mutard
Bruce Mutard. Illustration by Bruce Mutard.

Report Anastasia Safioleas
Illustration Bruce Mutard

“I am an author except that I write with pictures, and making comics is very much about allowing the images to convey the bulk of the narrative,” Bruce Mutard (BA(Fine Art) 1998, MDes(Res) 2014) says. It is how the graphic novelist, writer and illustrator describes his practice.

Influenced by the legendary cartoonist Robert Crumb, Jaime Hernandez and the ligne claire (clear line) style of comics pioneered by Tintin creator, Hergé, Bruce Mutard has forged his own successful career in comics. There are his graphic novels, including The Sacrifice and The Silence, as well as numerous short comics appearing in Overland, Meanjin, The Australian Book Review and Cordite Poetry Review, among others. The Monash University graduate lives and breathes comics, art and culture.

“It is what I absolutely adore – galleries, dance, theatre and movies. I’m a major film buff. Film, like the movies by Ingmar Bergman, Tarkovsky, Antonioni and Godard, has been a bigger influence on my work than anything else. When I’m not making, I’m consuming. It makes me get up in the morning.”

So much so, after completing a Bachelor of Fine Art at Monash University in 1998, Mr Mutard returned to attain a Master of Design in 2014, focusing on what it means to write with pictures.

“Comic studies to date has mostly focused on content, not its formal properties, or how comics tell stories with pictures. No one has studied it from an academic visual arts perspective, despite the obvious presence of visual arts elements, so that’s where I want to go.”

For his Masters, Mr Mutard created ‘Words Into Pictures’, an in-depth look at comics that examined the interface between word and image and how they operate on the page.

The research, however, was expressly created to be exhibited. Much like an art exhibition, people navigated comic panels hung on walls, the very antithesis of intimately reading a comic book on your own.

“During my research it came to my attention that comics haven’t been called out for what they actually are. I define the comic as juxtaposed narrative images, with the key signifier being images placed next to one another on a surface. That presence of them side by side is a very significant thing. It plays a lot into how people read them.”

With his Masters now behind him, Mr Mutard is working on his latest graphic novel, The Dust of Life, about an army nurse during the Vietnam War.

He has also formed his own publishing company, Fabliaux, the launch title of which is the brilliant Art is a Lie collection by Carol Wood and Susan Butcher.

“The point of Fabliaux is to primarily publish other people’s work that hasn’t seen the light of day or have been out of print for a long time.

As for my research, it gave me a far better appreciation of what I knew instinctively. It’s given me a better understanding of the techniques and tools of visual expression.”

Ultimately, Mr Mutard is thankful Monash found the more unusual aspects of his Masters proposal fascinating.

“You need a supervisor who asks you lots of interesting and provocative questions, which is what happened to me. You need someone who pushes you out of your comfort zone, going somewhere you haven’t been before – that’s the whole point. Monash University was great for that.”