The title to Australian comics artist Pat Grant’s Blue (Top Shelf/Giramondo) refers to more than the foaming ocean waves depicted on the cover of this graphic novel. It also connects to the skin color of the tentacled ocean denizens who show up in a small Aussie town—much to the chagrin of the community’s close-minded residents.
The book opens with two vignettes designed to illuminate its theme of localism and bigotry. In the first, a young boy comes across a trio of young teens building a sand “keep” on the beach; when the three identify him as a stranger, they refuse to let him help with the construction, trashing it before they leave so he can’t play with it afterwards. In the second, a couple of blue beings make their way into town from the beach, only to be driven away and carted off by the townspeople.
These two small moments lay the groundwork for the book’s “big” story: the reminiscence of a geezerly townee named Christian who does a half-assed job painting over the elaborate blue graffiti that some of the ocean immigrants have been leaving all over the small town of Bolton. Where the town once proudly claimed itself the “1989 Tidy Town Winner,” it has since become grubby and economically strapped. To Christian, it was the arrival of the blue people that signaled the beginning of the end for the town’s prosperity—and he recollects the day he and his two friends first saw the blue beings.
The three teens of Christian’s memory prove to be the same ones who destroyed their “sand keep,” and the day in question opens with them “wagging” school to go surfing. On their way, they run into a mate who tells them of a dead body he’s seen on the railroad tracks, so the day also turns into a trek to go and see the body. (Noting the similarity to Stephen King’s “The Body,” the artist writes in an afterword that he was born the year that novella came out—and that he himself actually saw the scattered remains of a young boy when he was a youngster—so despite some qualms about using a piece of story that had been well-claimed by King and the movie Stand by Me, he wisely kept it in.)
The body, Christian tells us, is one of two blue beings he saw on that first day, and while he isn’t entirely telling the truth when he says this, its presence in the tale foreshadows the harsh treatment that these creatures will receive in the years to come.
“When you start telling stories about your life, things seem more clear-cut than they were when you were living it,” our fallible narrator tells us, and Grant packs his simple story with telling detail and strong characterization. His central threesome are believable and their half comradely/half hostile relationship are true to their age. “If I’d met Vern and Muck a few years later,” Christian says of his companions, “I wouldn’t have wanted anything to with them.” But like the changed town, Christian’s friends are part of a different life.
Grant illustrates this in an expressive big-foot style that makes his human characters almost look like aliens themselves. His sense of location is detailed and he is especially strong at capturing his half-fantastical land- and seascape. In his lengthy afterward, he describes a personalized history of Australian comics with a particular emphasis on surf comics. You can see this influence throughout Blue: though our threesome never themselves hit the waves, the presence of the roiling ocean permeates the tale, so much so that we can’t help feeling a sense of regret over the missed experience.
Blue works as both a tale of memory and of bigotry, of youthful innocence and of ignorance. Sharply unsentimental and often darkly funny, it makes a powerful debut for artist, writer and, zinemaker Grant—a must read for anyone invested in following literary comics.