Still Alive – Graphic novel

Still Alive is my first graphic novel. You can pre-order a copy now from Twelve Panels Press.

Small parts of this graphic novel began as a web-comic which went online in 2015 called ‘Villawood: Notes from an immigration detention centre’. That comic was made for the progressive media organisation GetUp!, with support from a crowdsourcing venture aimed at funding alternative journalism on the refugee issue. Later that year the lovely people at 12 Panels Press asked if I would adapt it for print publication and it’s since taken over five years of solid work.

However the actual genesis of this book goes back a decade, when I started visiting the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre with some friends. That saw the beginning of my activities with the small, not-for-profit community art organisation Refugee Art Project which my friends and I helped to found, and for which I still volunteer. Some of that experience is depicted in this book, including artworks made in the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre by refugees who were then detained. Refugee Art Project has fostered some wonderful friendships and a strong sense of community over many years, which is the wellspring of the stories and collaborations that make up the work.

I dedicate this to my dear friend, Ahmad Ali Jafari, who died of a heart attack inside the Villawood detention centre in June 2013. I commit it to everyone who has suffered as a result of Australia’s cruel border policies, their families, friends and communities. Ahmad was a lovely man and a cherished friend. I recently unearthed this watercolour sketch of him drawing in the visitors area of the detention centre.

Here also are some scans of Urdu ghazals which he wrote down on napkins in the centre.

Being an Afghan refugee who had lived for many years in Quetta, Pakistan, he spoke fluent Urdu alongside his mother tongue of Hazaragi. I translated some his poems in collaboration with his Urdu speaking friends in the visitors area of the Villawood Detention Centre sometime in 2013. Here they are with English transliteration of the original Urdu.

You can read a little more about Ahmad and the circumstances surrounding his death in a eulogy that I wrote for him in Overland magazine.

Below are some blog entries and notes which help to give context and explanation to the some of the themes and imagery found in the book.

The Horror Aesthetic

These pages are from final part of my graphic novel in which I ruminate over the pessimism and moral despondency that Australia’s deeply cruel border policies can inspire. Visually it recalls the scene from Hellraiser in which Frank Cotton escapes hell by lifting himself through the floorboards of his brother’s house. (I’ve removed text from the second of these pages so you get the idea.) I think it’s fair to say that for me, the aesthetic language, tropes and quirks of the horror genre helps mediate subjects which feel almost too difficult to confront or even represent on their own. Also, I’m not sure if it’s possible to adore a movie as much as I do Hellraiser, making it an automatic reference and visual resource.

The Last of England

This white on black illustration is clearly a swipe from ‘The Last of England’ by the 19th century British artist Ford Maddox Brown. Brown’s painting shows middle class English families travelling in search of better opportunities. It may have been inspired by the departure of his friend Thomas Woolner, who in 1852 departed for the goldfields in Australia, and returned to England a year later to set himself up as a sculptor and art dealer. In the background we see someone who looks like a merchant waving his fist as though to curse the motherland for driving him away. Brown’s style was clearly influenced by the pre-Raphaelite movement, who invested ordinary scenes with a deep naturalism that also conferred an epic mythological or religious sensibility. The circular frame presents the scene as through a telescope. My interpretation swaps English migrants for Afghan refugees, which I see as a type of high-culture jamming. I want to ironically reference the empathetic lens through which Australians historically view the nation’s long history of migrant settlement from the British Isles and certain parts of Europe during the periods of colonial invasion and under the White Australia Policy. Many of those who voted Brown’s painting ‘England’s 8th favourite picture’ in a BBC poll of 2013 would no doubt have supported Brexit.

The Sunbaker

Here’s another swipe, this time from Max Dupain’s iconic image of the Sunbaker (1937). In the late 30s Dupain’s image was seen to reference the early nationalist trope of the heroic bronzed Anzac who fought in WWI, and has since become resonant of Aussie beach culture more generally. My drawing depicts an exhausted man lying on the deck of a boat, an incident described within the long and arduous journey of refugees who come from Indonesia to Australia. I use this reference to hopefully play against and subvert the meaning of the original — to reframe its contribution to the national imaginary of the heroic ‘battler’. It isn’t that I love the iconography of Australian nationalism and want to be in on it per se, but feel it can’t hurt to reference (and in doing so reorient) these symbols to tell other stories.

White on Black Images

Here are some white on black illustrations from my graphic novel Still Alive. They were done with a white pen on black paper, which I hope evokes the German expressionist woodcuts and 1930s silent comics that I adore (without trying to mimic the technique), of people like Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward. 

One of these swipes a lithograph by Kath Kollwitz, who did lots of powerful images of grieving mothers and widows after the First World War — to make the point that private contractors like Serco regularly abuse their power over women and children.

Some of these are rejects that didn’t make the final cut. The drawing of the guy in the cell and the woman silhouetted against a fence were left out because they felt too literal — too evocative of Agamben’s sometimes overused notion of ‘bare life’, which is a powerful touchstone for thinking about sovereign violence and biopolitics but which can also efface the agency of the very people who are subjected to that violence.

This is a woodcut by Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack (1893 -1965), a German Bauhaus artist who was deported to Australia from the UK during the Second World War as an ‘enemy alien’. In Australia he was sent to internment camps in Hay, Orange and Tatura, before eventually being granted citizenship. In those camps he was able to practice art and teach other internees the Bauhaus principles of self-knowledge, economy of form, and the reform of society through art. ‘Desolation’ (made in the camp at Hay) is one of the most poignant images from the history of Australian interment. 

The Australian Government’s propaganda comic

In November 2013 the Australian government released an 18 page silent comic on their Customs and Border Protection website to dissuade asylum seekers from coming to Australia. The comic is mean-spirited and misleading. It tells the story of a Hazara Afghan man urged by his family to travel to Australia for a better life. He undertakes the journey via a people smuggler, only to end up in the custody of Australia’s border regime where he is transported to a detention camp (presumably Manus Island) in which he struggles to cope and falls ill. The central message is: ‘If you go to Australia without a visa, you will never be settled there’. 

True to the policies of both the Liberal and Labor parties, the comic peddles a misleading narrative about Afghan asylum seekers. There is no mention of the threats they face from the Taliban and other militant organisations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. No mention of their precarious status in Iran. No reference to the insecurity that has kept millions of people in neighbouring countries for decades. The comic essentially gaslights refugees to justify Australia’s cruel and small minded policy of mandatory and indefinite detention. 

In the spirit of media-jamming I swiped some images as source material for my graphic novel, which I hope tells a more accurate story of why someone leaves their country. Here are some panels from the government comic alongside my appropriation of them.

A SERCO ad

Here’s 2 pages which didn’t make the final cut of my graphic novel Still Alive. The text quoted in these pages is from a Serco job ad for a ‘Detainee Service Officer’ at the Villawood detention centre on an employment website from 2017. Serco has overseen management at the Villawood detention centre since 2009. They are a multinational company who also run private prisons in Western Australia, Queensland, New South Wales and Adelaide, and have been implicated in countless human rights abuses, including several Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody.

After Serco abused some asylum seekers in Scotland in 2019, a high court found that because it was not acting as a public authority it was therefore not bound by human rights obligations. Judith Robertson, chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission said: ‘Governments should not be able to divest themselves of their human rights obligations by outsourcing the provision of public services’. The same transferral of responsibility happens here, with the Australian government acting in cahoots with private contractors to abuse the rights of people in detention.

Detainees can be roughhoused and degraded and their complaint system doesn’t work. Last year Home affairs tried to suppress the release of Serco’s immigration detention centre operating manual, knowing it would lead to human rights complaints, which they claimed would ‘intimidate’ Serco personnel. However we can, responsible individuals, companies and institutions need to divest from and sanction such toxic, abusive and morally vacuous contractors.