Monday, November 2, 2015

The Heading Dog That Split In Half: Getting whispers down on paper

Folk tales are an inherently oral tradition, they are stories passed down through whispers and rumour over generations, becoming more and more embellished, the more times the tale is told and the more voices that tell the tale.

But they also make fantastic comic stories, with writers and artists bringing an extra layer of artistic licence to the story, getting it down in words and pictures that are still open to interpretation, and still open to more embellishment.

There have been many comic books telling these kind of stories over the years, and the successful ones are those that have a tighter focus on a particular place or era. And a new book in this sub-genre of tall tales has a strong focus on the slightly impossible hidden history of New Zealand.

New Zealand is still a young country – as a united nation, it is not even two centuries old. There is no evidence that man ever set foot on the islands more than a thousand years ago, and 175 years after its founding document was signed, it is still finding its feet as an independent nation.

But it is old enough to have its fair share of local legends and tall tales. Stories that might have a grain of truth to them, if you peek hard enough, but don't mind if you really believe them. They're still a good yarn, told down the local pub on a Friday night.

These are the kinds of stories told in the The Heading Dog That Split In Two by Michael Brown and Mat Tait, a cheeky and cheerful collection of folk tales from the land of Long White Cloud.

They are stories of mysterious tragedies at the local beach, and forbidden cross-cultural love affairs that became legend. They're stories of giant crayfish - big enough to build a dunny out of their shell - and of phantom war canoes with a crew of dog-headed warriors, seen just before a catastrophic volcanic eruption.

Some of these stories are well known – every Kiwi knows the story of the ghost whaka and the tragic destruction of the pink and white terraces in the Mt Tarawera eruption – but Brown, a writer specialising in NZ music and cultural history, also digs out some barely remembered ballads and hyper-local mysteries.

This oversized comic book isn't the first to get into local myths and legends, there have been a number of noble attempts at adapting Maori mythology, including Robert Sullivan and Chris Slane's excellent Maui: Legends of the Outcast graphic novel from the 1990s, and the occasional little newspaper comic about the weird side of NZ history, such as Ross Gore's 1950s serial 'It Happened in New Zealand'.

But The Heading Dog... does have an interesting focus on the post-colonial history of this country. Some of the stories rise from this culture clash between Maori and pakeha, while others were born in the rush of colonisation, as intrepid explorers from all classes build a country, far from the rules and standards of the old world.

And some of these stories are even older than the country, and can be traced back to folk stories from the old countries of Europe and elsewhere. As Brown admits in his enlightening notes on each tale, even the idea behind the title story can be traced all the way back to the great fabulist Baron Munchausen.

The charm of these stories, with their improbable events and unlikely characters, can often be found in the telling, and Brown and Tait tell their stories with humour and life, mixing up the style as much as possible.

Some of them are told in ballad, with sea-shanties of mysterious sailors, while others are more of a straight Believe It Or Not-type montage, laying out the facts for the reader to consider themselves, but there is a light-hearted joviality to the entire proceedings.

It helps that these highly unlikely and hugely entertaining tales are rendered in the thick line of artist Matt Tait, whose artwork really brings them to life. That dark and heavy line gives the stories a tone reminiscent of Charles Burns at his Black Hole best, with all the grim mood and mysterious exactness that style brings.

(Things get particularly Burns-ish at several points, especially with the meticulous body horror of the split dog, and the final page of characters losing their shit over the pure existential horror of the only local pub burning down.)

But it also sets these stories in stone, grounding them down in thick reality. No matter how outlandish the stories get, Tait renders them with a totally straight face, and gives them a false veneer of truthfulness.

This is a dream world these stories are telling, but the exact architecture of the background and the wide-eyed mania of the characters make these outlandish fables as real as the ink on the page.

There are only seven stories in this 150 page book, which gives each story plenty of room to breathe, particularly with the large pages, but which is also just a drop in this well of Kiwi folk stories. If these creators do more of these comics, or inspire other artists to take a crack at a local legend, there are certainly plenty of others stories they could have a crack at.

While comic collections like this book are painfully rare, there have been plenty of good prose collections of ghost stories and mountains full of witches and other outlandish yarns. More comic adaptions of these old tales would always be welcome.

To use a vast and unfair generalisation, New Zealanders are a fairly repressed lot, usually only able to express their emotions after having a few beers. We've raised passive aggressiveness to the level of an artform, and it all gets expressed in our fictions. Novels, movies and comics about isolation,  and simmering violence, and twisted families. Stories about idiosyncratic individuals, smashing up against a supremely conformist society.

These stories are more than just fiction. They're a portrait of a society, and a way to build the bonds of civilisation. They make great comics, and they'll always be a good yarn to spin, down the pub on a Friday night. As long as it doesn't burn down.

1 comment:

Michael Brown said...

Greetings Bob,
Thanks for this appreciative and thoughtful article on "The Heading Dog Who Split in Half". Really interesting to read your thoughts about how these stories fit into the social and cultural landscape, especially about being "a way to build the bonds of civilisation". And thanks too on behalf of Mat.