Exo-Dimensions, Mixed Feelings, Storm Warning
by Seraphina Newberry & Justin Randall, Declan Miller, Lauren Boyle & Alyssa Mason
Stick Mob Studio
Black eyes and a scaly, reptilian maw are met with fist and boomerang upon the unmistakable dusty red, muted tones of the Central Australian landscape. No, this is not a closed door Liberal National discussion on emissions targets, although it may be a message to them. Mparntwe youth offer ways for us to consider what it means to be Australian and living on Indigenous lands. Artist Seraphina Newberry’s Exo Dimensions interrupts the public imagination with its bold declaration of a post-apocalyptic world of survival horror and climate catastrophe. We are greeted with zombies, cyborgs, clones, a scorpion man and a pet crocodile. Make no mistake, the work seems to be saying, ‘History is dead, the Future is already here. We are still here, and in this fierce declaration of survival, we can envisage how the past collapses into a conflicting narrative of national and cultural dystopia.’
This is shape-shifting at its best.
Exo Dimensions is produced by Stick Mob Studios, a collective of graphic artists and writers based in Central Australia. The collective was founded by creative director Declan Miller with the support of his mentor and art teacher Wendy Cowan while he was still in year 8. Stick Mob’s goal is to support and celebrate the creative efforts of their artists, a group of young people with strong Indigenous cultural connections, many of whom, like Declan, began their creative works while still in high school.
As a thirty-something graphic artist, I can attest to the focus and dedication required to put together a graphic novel. For a group of young artists and writers to have accomplished this is truly impressive and something that they should be immensely proud of. There is enormous value in the idea of Indigenous self-representation through ongoing cultural practices and the work that Stick Mob are doing serves as a source of cultural pride and resurgence.
It is clear that a lot of work has gone into building the world (or worlds) of Exo Dimensions, which leaps from one cast of characters to another. Explosive revelations and flashbacks detail previously unknown connections and backgrounds, altering the meaning behind events and requiring a re-evaluation of the actions and motivations of key figures through a more sympathetic lens.
The second chapter begins with a more subdued and grounded tone, following Konan who, at the behest of his white, adoptive parents, reluctantly embarks on a journey to explore his cultural roots in an attempt to resolve his inner tumult and combative behaviour. Upon arriving in the Northern Territory things quickly get intense for Konan who discovers a hidden world filled with mysterious power, challenging his sense of reality and emotional regulation. The apprehension of leaving the security and familiarity of his suburban life initially reaffirmed in an encounter with the monstrous and unknown. Yet these same forces compel him forward, literally and figuratively kicking and screaming.
Exo Dimensions is a bold, kinetic, dystopian sci-fi action frenzy, merging art styles reminiscent of Sweet Tooth’s Jeff Lemire, with a host of characters that look like they could go toe-to-toe with the X-Men, John McClane and Mad Max at the same time. All of this lurks uneasily within a story that, at its heart, is about a family, torn apart by sinister external forces and struggling to reunite against complex obstacles including trauma, tension and rejection. The work explores themes of loss and longing that echo the painful cultural experience of forced removals and intergenerational dislocation. Seraphina has crafted a fantastical allegory detailing the power of cultural connection, its magnetic pull, role in identity-making, and the damaging impact of absence in all its destructive forms.
The maturity and nuance of Declan Miller’s Mixed Feelings is impressive, successfully exploring themes of adolescence, vulnerability and alienation with a mixture of humour and earnest authenticity that surpasses the offerings of many established graphic novelists. The story focusses on a group of flawed but largely relatable characters.
The work hits many beats that will appeal to lovers of Young Adult fiction as well as those who can recall the best and worst parts of being a teenager with all its struggles of awkwardness and angst. Beneath this veneer, there lies an unsettling and supernatural force, a lingering sense of fear and doubt. This haunting weight skulks in the image and threatens to unravel our hero’s understanding of self.
Protagonist Pam is conflicted by her desire to win the acceptance of her peers and the guilt she experiences in acting counter to the values instilled by her Uncle. Her Uncle is a positive role model in her life, who exhibits his kindness, generosity and vulnerability.
It is clear that his influence on Pam’s life is powerful. She is a strong woman who does not fit outdated notions of womanhood. Far from being demure, she challenges the people and forces that surround her. She’s not afraid to fight or tell people where to go. Far from being godlike, she is never one to doubt herself. She does not reveal her vulnerabilities and yet, beneath the tough exterior there is a hint of softness. The unique strengths of the comic medium allow us to witness her crisis of conscience and in doing so it is made clear that her humanity is what drives her forward. We are not voyeurs in this story, but positioned uncomfortably as a voice in Pam’s head, one among many in a rising chorus, shouting through the cacophony, urging her to stay true to her values.
Pam’s inner turmoil manifests in the form of a demonic entity hidden behind a white mask and clad in Victorian-era clothing, taunting and pulling her away from her family and friends. I couldn’t help but interpret this as an embodiment of ongoing colonial assimilation pressures undermining Indigenous cultural identities and values, of the resultant trauma and impact on mental health.
The subversion of typical palette conventions in applying colour to backgrounds only is a simple and elegant method of bringing characters into focus by leaving them largely greyscale with occasional highlights à la film noir. The ambiguity of skin colour could also be read as a clever representation of the contested relationship between the Indigenous, cultural and personal identities, within a coming of age story set in Declan’s own hometown, Mparntwe.
Storm Warning, the product of a collaboration between writer Lauren Boyle and illustrator Alyssa Mason, follows Skai, whose teenage life is thrown into sudden chaos by a series of increasingly bizarre natural and supernatural forces. Inspired by manga, here plot, art and life combine in magical ways and merges with an Australian earthiness to question the very nature of the present. Where are we going? What does the future look like? What CAN it look like?
The story takes place in a not too distant future with climate change and severe weather a major focus. Adults and parental figures are largely absent, hinting at present anxieties around the absence of parental duties concerning climate change and inaction. The results of this inaction fall from the sky in enormous chunks of ice, erupt from the ground in balls of fire and slither around the corners of crumbling institutions.
That these ideas are being expressed by young creators like Lauren and Alyssa is telling. Their writing indicates an awareness of the challenges ahead and of the potential to alleviate their severity. The mood is tense. There is a great sense of displacement and doom. Where are the grown-ups? Will they be able to fend for themselves despite the many obstacles they face? Growing up is scary enough without giant mutant rats.
Ultimately Storm Warning is funny and compelling. Characters pull together and remain kind to each other in the face of adversity. Tension smoulders from the page. The initial lightness transforms along with the sky, growing ever darker through the slow but constant roll of thunder, the rumble of an earthquake, the protagonists watch frozen in fear (much as they might within a Liberal National climate change meeting) before the sudden splash of red and KERRUNSCH!!!
Heads will roll, or at least they might if the messages of these young creators are not heeded.
Each of these stories are unique, the messages, art and writing styles are distinct to their creators, coloured by their own experiences and expertise. What they have in common is the expression of the urgency with which actions must be taken to address the issues they raise. Difficult themes such as climate emergency, assimilation practices and intergenerational trauma are made accessible through relatable characters. That these themes should appear within the works of Indigenous creators is no coincidence. The ability of these young writers to engage readers with these challenging ideas is indicative of their relevance within their communities and their own lived experiences of them.
These emerging artists are taking positions of leadership within communities as they build upon and innovate links to cultural knowledge. Through their work these artists express their perspectives which are shaped by lived experiences of the issues and realities of the cultural communities they live in. The inclusion of these perspectives, even when fictionalised, are self-representative expressions, which reflect and archive the standpoints of creators.
TOM MUNRO-HARRISON is a Wiradjuri activist, writer and artist living on Boon Wurrung County. His work and PhD research focusses on self-determined cultural practices and their impact and relationship on cultural connection and identity. He regularly contributes art to Indigenous X, and his work has been featured in publications such as Design with Indigenous Nations and Overland. He is currently developing a graphic novel which explores these experiences and themes.
An Embroidery of Old Maps and New
by Angela Costi
Reviewed by GEORGE MOURATIDIS
In some topoi of poesy lore, it is believed that the first iteration of Homeric oral verse as a material text was woven by women on a loom – deft fingers spinning, immortalising epic tales. In the Odyssey, an abandoned Penelope sits at her loom, creating, then destroying, her tapestries, waiting for her husband Odysseus’ return to Ithaca from his decade-long voyage. Angela Costi reveals a honed, acute awareness of the traditions, epics, journeys, traumas, travails and triumphs that shaped and brought her to write the existential topography that is her latest collection of poetry, An Embroidery of Old Maps and New (Spinifex, 2021). In these pages, the poet is at once Penelope and Odysseus – speaks as weaver and voyager, sufferer and seeker. But here, when the poet takes up the thread, she does not tear; she tenderly and compassionately unwinds and uncovers those stories, people and worlds in which she recognises who, how and why she is, and in so doing, she reconnects, remakes.
Fittingly, the collection opens out at sea, a voyage (“From Bondi to Kyrenia”, “Arrival”) which is one of countless threads suturing together lives and lands, continuing a ruptured story line begun elsewhere – in Cyprus. Costi artfully employs as the collection’s central trope, Lefkarithika (Λευκαρίτικα) – the traditional linen embroidery and lace making of Cyprus (also known as Lefkara lace). Bearing the name of the Cypriot village renowned for producing it (Λεύκαρα / Lefkara) from where, as the story goes, it was taken to adorn the courts of Europe, the craft of Lefkarithika remains closely tied to place, preserving a culture. In “Making Lace” Costi makes plain the living connections, transmissions, continuities fostered by this masterful handling of the thread:
I see her as I see me, sitting on chairs before the impact of our craft,
both intent on making a story from sequence, a gift out of repetition,
her stitch is my letter, her design is my phrase,
thread weave through out and in.
Costi is at once embroiderer, storyteller and cartographer. Her thread entwines generations, voices, stories, places, homes lost and found:
she is the story on linen,
no longer woman in small village sitting under a tree for days, months,
years of thread weave through out and in, our skin
an embroidery of old maps and new
Lefkara, Larnaca, Kyrenia, Hartchia,
Riverwood, Bankstown, Lalor, Reservoir,
thread weave through out and in,
she lives in each strand
This embroidery weaves a visionary window into a hopeful yet uncertain legacy:
she peeks through gofti [κόφτη], through fairy windows, and sees me
letter by letter, crossing the keyboard
thread weave through out and in,
she sees her children’s children not work in fields harvesting rotting crops,
not work in factories making hard, rough, poisonous things,
not work in shops selling dry, fried food,
she sees a series of baby girls named after her, dressed in white,
she lives in the stroke of a foreign letter by letter, word by word,
thread, weave through out and in.
The mandalic intricacies of this thread connects a series of thematic suites of stories – episodes of psyche and affect recalled, recounted, recorded. Some are written on the body (“Refugee Aerobics”, “Land Mines”, “Heavy”, “Knock Knock”) at once vulnerable, mortal, and resilient. Others are scrawled on the walls and margins of academe (“Outskirts”, “The Quadrangle of Dreams”, “To Identify the Apostate”, “Goddess Nike”). The latter cluster bomb of poems in particular – indeed the collection more broadly – reverberates with what Maria Tumarkin refers to as the “psychic struggle” of the culturally and linguistically diverse in higher education and the arts, especially women and those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Only halfway through the collection, and Costi already has the reader contemplating their own relationship to these sites and spaces upon and within which identity and its expression are renegotiated and forged, leading to new threads, new maps.
Costi never seeks to dazzle or impress the reader through linguistic, aesthetic, and typographical gymnastics. The artistry of her poetic language here is its ability to gain the readers trust almost at first glance with an unpretentious and authentic language that verges on that perennial punk maxim of say what you mean / mean what you say / put a beat to it. Costi’s unassuming versification allows the language to move with ease and breathe, and it is never difficult to locate the pulse in these lines. You will not find much abstraction, metaphor, symbolism, layers of arcane references: in this cartography these would only serve to obfuscate rather than illuminate the poet’s bare-naked home truths. Costi makes it clear why what she is sharing with you is important and needs to be said. Though her poetic language is clean, clear and simple, it is in no way simplistic. On the contrary, the embroiderer here immerses the reader in a confluence of poetic languages from the idiomatic to the lyrical, not only from poem to poem, but stanza to stanza, even line to line. This draws the reader into the rich nuance and complexity of the speaker’s consciousness, a pathway that is uncluttered and uncomplicated. The other extraordinary aspect of the poems in An Embroidery of Old Maps and New is exactly this strong sense of a unique, even idiosyncratic speaker, of voice – one connected to viscera and heart and mind/memory/vision but never bound by any one of them. Even within surrealistic moments, there is no abstraction of the human experience, of body, of woman, of migrant, of worker. Every poem in this collection has a human face.
For Costi, language and communication become sites of conflict, negotiation, resolution, and as she reminds us, vehicles of autonomy (“Looping the Waves”, “The Good Citizens of Melbourne”). To some extent this plays out through the poet’s occasional use of Greek Cypriot dialect, which reads quite organically. However, the deployment of italics and marginalia, which your humble reviewer can only assume is at the insistence of the publisher, is distracting: it inadvertently generates a sense of foreignness within the text that is uncomfortable and at odds with the intimacy of the poems. On the other hand, these and similar moments of linguistic disconnection and slippage illustrate a kind of inter-generational discord under repair. Where the ambivalent and at times antagonistic relationship between “first” and “second” generations of Cypriot Australian apodemes (and what these represent for the poet culturally and politically) is classic Costi, in this collection she appears to have reached a satori: previously unbridgeable divisions begin to blur, and the two begin to merge, at least in moments. The teller of the story here realises she cannot extricate and separate herself from the world and assumed values of previous generations because she is, in various forms, a continuation of them, but on her own terms and always with humanity and compassion. In “Ocean View”, the collection’s penultimate poem, the change brought about by shifting sands at first appears to reconcile two incarnations of life continents apart:
My age was no longer a division of stories
easily mapped with tales of strife,
since birth, my skin, an erosion
of views by Eleni and Kostaki
However, any such resolution is bittersweet: the onetime “teenager leaving home”, having now long outgrown the struggle, finally allows themselves to see the humanity of living ancestors in all its vulnerability and strength – the “grey hair” of a yiayia “slapping the wind” and her “arms strong and swift”. Hidden in the folds of this this perception, however, is the “taste of regret”. The poet recognises that weaving this tapestry has a price: to take up the thread and continue a story that will in turn be taken up is arduous, harsh and embittering work, but crucial, a question of survival. There is no possibility of return the poems in this collection seem to say, especially when the point of the journey’s departure is no longer there: you can only carry it with you, as you keep weaving into life that which you may well lose. Costi does precisely this, both recreates and reappraises a gone world through anecdote and character and place, named and unnamed, in a language so vivid and visceral, and often very moving, they read as unmistakable extension of her, and she of them.
And so, we return to Costi’s acute sensibility of legacy and inheritance. The teller of these stories is finally able to valorise and draw strength and purpose from a lineage of the migrant working class woman. Nowhere is this clearer than in “Kinaesthetic Grace”, one of the collection’s brightest and penetratingly candid and affective moments. The poet begins with an admission, as much to herself as the reader:
This woman talks to me with her hands
she always has, since birth
I have failed to grasp them.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
left this woman to create her own story
her fingers are an alphabet
I had no patience for.”
And yet she knows this woman so well, “the woman who knows how to hold / with her lined and stained hands / the story of all other women”: the women “on the General Motors assembly line”, those who “spray / jeans and their lungs into shreds”, those whose “fingers twitch when they tell / of the Thomastown factory’s sewing machine, / stitch by never-ending stitch, / bleeding before a stop for break, / the dip and throb of migraine fighting quota”, the woman “silenced by statistics”. The poet concludes by inviting the reader to join her in seeking and humbling themselves before this woman, and allow themselves to hear and be shaped by her, declaring:
We must search for her
not in photo albums or newspapers,
we must go out in the wild woods
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
and when we see her
hold out our hands
as children willing to learn.
This inheritance for the poet can be both corporealised and verbalised, expressed as much by the body as the breath, the voice. For the poet, this ultimately points to an awareness that whatever she has created, whatever it may be worth, has been built upon the shoulders – the backs – of those who’ve come before her, who’ve toiled the fields in which she now toils, who pass on the thread of the tale to be woven and spoken, and not forgotten:
Some stories remain like bruises,
others are bullets, those told
with fear pounding the phone.
There is the breath you listen for as well as the word,
each one counts, the breath, the word, the breath.
(“Frontline” p. 53)
The poet leaves us with a reminder that what has passed, been lost and gone – spaces, states, experiences – are re-remembered by the embroiderers deft hand, reconstituted and made anew, and saved:
Those spaces named house, office, tower
we can visit
after the war, the plague, the fire,
bullets rested with stained blankets, with charred stoves
with quiet reprieve,
they will proudly show us what they’ve made
out of the damp, from the debris, by the dusk,
these things we left to perish
entwine like a thick braid.
This, however, is no resolution but a juncture in the story that Costi leaves ambiguous: the reader is haunted by irony that leads them to question whether the journey across sutured topographies from old homes to new was worth the nature of the “abundance” it has brought.
These poems in An Embroidery of Old Maps and New are at once incisively candid and transcendent in the humility of their offering. They speak directly to a powerful sense of dignity – particularly that of the working class migrant, refugee, or poor woman – always hard won through constant struggle, resilience, fearlessness, indeed, in spite of ongoing conditions and efforts to the contrary. With this collection Costi offers her unique contribution to something she is ever aware is so much bigger than herself. It is precisely this sensibility of transcendence and liberating (self)recognition that makes An Embroidery of Old Maps and New a moment of thrilling apogee and culmination the poet’s oeuvre. From the nexus and intertwining of the lines of Costi’s existential enquiry in preceding collections, from Dinted Halos (2003) to Lost in Mid-Verse (2014): all threads lead here, where Costi is already moving towards another horizon.
George Mouratidis is a Research Associate in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of the poetry collection Angel Frankenstein (Soul Bay Press, 2018) and translator of Noted Transparencies by poet Nikos Nomikos (Owl Press, 2016). He is also the co-founder of literary magazine Kalliope X.
Zoë Meager is from Aotearoa New Zealand and has a Master of Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. Her work has been published abroad in Granta, Lost Balloon, and Overland, and at home in Hue and Cry, Landfall, Mayhem, North & South, Turbine | Kapohau, and anthologised in Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand and two volumes of Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy.
Come a gutsa
The crazy lady has climbed into the orange rafters of the rollercoaster. She clings not to the tracks, with their promise of tick-tick-tick teeter-tease then dive whoosh swoop zoom whee! but just beneath, where deep iron shadows criss-cross her body.
Down on the ground, slight park attendants with brightly-coloured t-shirts and pale voices address the waiting crowd. The crowd has already purchased its tickets, already queued in compliance with the park’s stated queuing code, already eaten the fairy-floss-hotdog-chips, and now it wants the simulated near-death experience it was promised.
The mother koala and the baby koala are curled into a ball and pressed like grey chewing gum into the junction of two orange beams. They are so close—the crazy lady could almost reach out and touch them. The mother koala listens to the crowd below with eyes half closed. She rearranges the baby koala against her, squeezes, rearranges, squeezes. She does not attend to all the railings to bounce off on the way down. She is thinking about the khaki-coloured leaf that is good to eat. She is thinking about drinking, the liquid taste of earth that is chattering cool.
The crowd below stares up with stones for eyes. Pie holes drawl open, half-chewed words spill out: We’ve been in line for bloody ages, we want a go on the ride! Those koalas jumped the queue, they shouldn’t get to zoom! Those bloody koalas should go back to where they came from.
All this quick year, the crazy lady has heard the country fires drawing closer. She has wandered through old banks of trees, heard the fruity thud of desiccated bats as they hit the ground, she has picked them up, said goodbye to their closing eyes. On dusty streets with shouts and sticks she has broken up squabbles between dingoes and domestic dogs. Seen a grassy parakeet snatch an icy pole from a baby’s sausage fingers. Koalas coming in, perching in the public gardens and starving in suburban backyards. Housewives towing their kids to garden centres and pet stores, asking for eucalypt leaves when they have only just put to bed the annual swan plant shortage.
In the orange rafters of the rollercoaster, the mother koala and the baby koala are a fuzzy football, tailless and divine. The crazy lady is trembling as she inches forward beneath them, a jute-strong bag wedged under her reusable shoulder. She is hoping that when the koalas come unstuck, she can catch them.
The crowd below is baking restless, letting off swearwords into the summer-blue sky. All its white faces boiling red, blonde hair in a halo of putrid smoke. The crowd points its arms all up, up, a hundred skewers, It’s her, she’s stopping us riding the coaster! She’s taking away our human rights!
The baby koala really wants to cling to its mother’s back. It’s at that age. Okay then, says the mother koala, drowsily, letting the baby koala tunnel under her arm and up and onto her back. The baby koala arrives safely on its mother’s back, scrunches its perfect black claws into her rabbity fur and gives out a small dry sigh, and it’s safe there clinging to the hill of her back. Except it doesn’t and it isn’t and it never could, except thirst has left it weak and plummeting, a teddy bear dropped from a pram, headfirst and gone. The crazy lady moves to catch it, the bag snags on the stud of her jeans and she struggles to work it free. The mother koala feels the baby koala’s weight drop away from her and opens her eyes, only to see the shadows of the rollercoaster rafters crossing, double-crossing, double, double. Her nose, a spoon of molasses, she buries into her own soft body. The crazy lady knows it is too late then, and she knows that there is still time.