Racism isn’t a simple thing to write about. It’s difficult to push readers to acknowledge their own complicity in a racist culture without also pushing the kind of buttons that make us curl up like echidnas. On the other hand, a book might have an anti-racist angle which does nothing but reward the reader for finding themselves morally superior to the characters within it. Anyone writing about these issues, particularly anyone white, has to have thought deeply about the subtleties of how racism works in daily life, on the smallest of scales as well as the larger political arena. I imagine this kind of muscular balancing in dangerous territory is a little like surfing. Blue makes it look easy.
The story is built around three kids wagging school who go to look at the remains of a body on the train line – the body of a blue person, the mysterious tentacled creatures who are moving in and taking over the fictional coastal town of Bolton.
Grant has written about being at Cronulla during the riots and the experience has clearly informed his work. Anyone who came of age during the Howard years (and on into the Rudd and Gillard years) with the endless boat-people obsession and flailing at ‘solutions’ will recognise the story in these pages as foundational to our national narrative. It is a story of turning away.
The prologue, in which a (white) Sydney girl is rejected by sandcastle-building beach locals, is a familiar humiliation which most readers will relate to, drawing us into the story as our own. Bolton is a community that does not accept outsiders. Its inhabitants are wonky-faced drongos, povvo, try-hard kids who think of themselves as ordinary Australians.
They’re comical figures, but not quite caricatures. Pat Grant is a careful observer and has an ear for dialogue that is generous with laughs but could be lifted directly from life. The teenagers’ interactions are permeated with unease. Their awkwardness and status anxiety are familiar, clearly drawn as the root of much of their fear of outsiders. He’s framed this story as a remembered narrative from a wiser adulthood, so it comes with a degree of self-reflection, but also nostalgia. The ignorance of these characters is something they might, with luck, outgrow.
Choosing a small and familiar-seeming beach town helps us situate this story in an iconic Australia – Bolton stands in for the battleground that Cronulla became, but is also recognisable to anyone who’s spent time in larger Australian coastal towns like Wollongong and Newcastle. Grant’s surfer comic oeuvre equips him to toy with the iconography of these towns, with their bush tracks, beaches, rusted industry, and fish and chip shops. In his imagery, we are tossed from familiar to unfamiliar sights with ease.
In choosing to depict the outsiders as radically unfamiliar blue people, Grant has taken a risk that they might be hard to relate to. They are sympathetic figures, their point of view never expressed as they glide silently on striped tentacles through a world recognisably our own. Perhaps the odd formality of dress does it, or their relative seriousness compared to the monobrowed bogans of Bolton. The fact that they are hard to relate to draws out our own prejudices. Does Bolton look uncared for, dirtier now? What kind of judgements do I make about that and why?
Nostalgia offers us a little additional distance from which to safely observe our own culture. Through the lens of a 90s childhood, Blue leads the reader gently down to the mouth of a tunnel. It takes us to the edge where, like Christian, Muck and Verne, we are too afraid to look further. The other turning away in this book is a turning away from the blood and guts of it, the brutality simmering under the surface of everyday xenophobia. Grant’s restraint here is commendable, but it is also a choice which eases the experience of the book and makes it more accessible than unsettling.
Grant takes care to protect his young characters from true evil. Direct bigotry is depicted in slogans – the ‘we grew here, you flew here’ stickers which adorn the kids’ bedroom pinboard – whereas the narrator expresses more subtle observations such as ‘You can’t even get a sausage roll in Bolton these days.’
When Christian yells ‘Go back to oogetty boong-land you ugly blue dickhead’, it is to a blue youth who has moved well out of earshot, and obviously a result of being challenged by his peers’ gaze. The casual cowardice of teenage racism, its performativity, is depicted honestly and without embarrassment. It is subtly linked with the closed parochialism of surf culture, the ‘locals only’ attitude and the handing-down of secret knowledge about good surf spots.
What the graphic novel form can do very well is put scenes and associations together without the controlling nature of text; an image uses the more reserved judgement of framing, of witness. The composition is very gentle, and I particularly like the pacing of this story – its wide silences, its hesitations. The ridicule inherent in the comic arts is used to great effect here, and readers who are acquainted with Grant’s zines will enjoy his signature humour, at once coming from and poking fun at the bogan culture he writes about.
There are moments of heartbreak, too. A big tough girl who no longer goes to school declares her purpose with an abandoned machine: ‘I’m trying to break this.’ Grant knows a simple piece of dialogue can give us all the pathos and pointlessness, neglect and boredom of an outer suburban childhood (as well as a healthy nod to Shaun Tan). His landscapes are a quirky treat, with shades of the comic traditions in which he has steeped himself and his own bounding illustrative energy replete with fond Australiana. The banksias alone are worth the cover price.
Every book has a singular provenance. Grant has given us help here by attaching a personal essay on the history of surfer comics in Australia, which (as well as bulking up this book with literary seriousness) gives us an opportunity to contextualise his work properly – as a part of a surfer-comic tradition, as referencing an antipodean suburban/small town 90s childhood, as a product of pop-cultural informants like Stand By Me. He even has the good grace to interrogate his own authenticity in these traditions.
Steeped in zine culture, Grant has made a point of calling Blue a comic book and not a graphic novel, but I fear this work has already dragged him kicking into the mainstream. It’s one of those books that contributes to the entanglement of differing forms of expression, without making that entanglement its sole purpose. It has the potential to reach a much broader audience than other Australian comics, and a younger and less bookish audience than many novels. Blue is a rare treat, a nourishing and engaging work of fiction which moves gracefully over challenging waters.