With Hollywood comic-book adaptations dominating box offices for the past decade (The Avengers still ranks fourth on the list of highest-grossing films of all time), it’s easy to forget about the art form’s modest beginnings and lesser-known fringe communities. Comics have been historically marginalised; they’ve taken a back seat to literature and fine art, landing somewhere in the hazy middle ground. It’s worth acknowledging the obsessive artists who occupy the medium’s shadowy underground – who frequently work for little more than the respect of their peers, and use comics to tell stories too warped to appear anywhere else. We talk to Australian artists pushing boundaries in the underground scene.

Underground comix are identified by their satirical tone and depictions of sexuality, drug use and violence. Grant Gronewold, otherwise known as HTMLflowers, makes beautiful hand-coloured comics with dark and twisted narratives. The Melbourne-based artist is part of a small community of comic-makers in Australia growing underground comix, a specific form of small-press and self-published comic books that rose to popularity in the US in the late-‘60s.

“I love life so much and it’s so disappointing. I need to make comics to cope,” says Gronewold. His work explores the darker side of urban living and the absurdity of modern culture. He tells stories about living with a serious illness (Gronewold has cystic fibrosis) and the bittersweet reality of post-adolescent life. He explains the inspiration for making comics: “I just want to mirror this disgusting, cold-ass life. It’s beautiful and repulsive – trapped in our awful little bodies.”

Grant Gronewold frequently collaborates with Tasmanian-born, Melbourne-based artist, Simon Hanselmann, best known for his Megg, Mogg and Owl series. More than 200 pages of Hanselmann’s strips make up the hardcover book, Megahex, published by Fantagraphics Books in 2014. The artist’s work frequently appears in VICE and many other publications. The drug-addled adventures of a young witch and her cat, Megg and Mogg, are at the centre of Hanselmann’s work, inspired by Helen Nicholl and Jan Pienkowski’s (decidedly more wholesome) ‘70s children’s books. A cast of equally dysfunctional animal and mythical friends surround the ill-fated protagonists. The strips are intricately drawn and painstakingly watercoloured, while the narratives are a gloomy insight into the lives of suburban down-and-outs. Reading both Gronewold and Hanselmann evokes conflicting emotions; the characters are hilarious, yet moments of desperation and true sadness emerge from the bong smoke.

Underground comix’s legacy is evident in both Gronewold’s and Hanselmann’s work. Both artists push it further, capturing authenticity and bypassing the generalisations and often patronising mainstream perspectives of the medium. Their characters are strangely familiar in their suffering – they are at the mercy of fate and not happy about it. Gronewold’s artistic relationship with Hanselmann is also unique. “We work together constantly, go to doctors appointments with each other, go to the supermarket together, write together, ride together, die together,” he says.

Nicky Minus lives in Sydney and draws bold and vibrant comics that examine many facets of sexuality. “My work is predominately about sex/shame/body image because I’ve always – like a lot of people – had a fixation on my own body and what it does. And sex is a natural part of that,” Minus says. “I’m also a really open person with a revolting sense of humour, so I like my work to reflect that, too.” Regardless of being relatively new to the form, she has released many celebrated zines and her work has adorned the cover of The Lifted Brow. She also joined Gronewold and Hanselmann as a guest panellist at the Zine and Indie Comic Symposium (ZICS) in Brisbane this year.

Minus’s comics have an extremely personal quality, but avoid being conceited or self-absorbed. Links to the artist come across as raw truth. Her Photographs of Myself in New York comic depicts a world of urban solitude and loneliness, yet Minus somehow finds humour in it. On her decision to use comics to express serious ideas she says: “[With comics] it becomes filtered down, whereas if I used photography or film to tell my stories it would be a much more confronting experience for an audience.”

In many ways, alternative/underground comics are unique in their ability explore personal aspects of life that might come across as trite in literature. They are somehow serious and playful at the same time; they are both sides of the comedy-tragedy coin, and are perfectly suited to pointing out the unspoken madness of day-to-day existence. “That’s why I draw sad-funny-punishing stories in bright colours,” Gronewold says. “Life is a bitter fucking neon lemon.”

Some other notable Australian alternative/underground illustrators and comic/zine-makers to keep an eye on:

Katie Parrish
Ashley Ronning
Aurora Campbell
Lee Lai
Michael Hawkins
Marc Pearson