Tom Munro-Harrison reviews Exo-Dimensions Mixed Feelings & Storm Warning by Stick Mob

Exo-Dimensions, Mixed Feelings, Storm Warning

by Seraphina Newberry & Justin Randall, Declan Miller, Lauren Boyle & Alyssa Mason

Stick Mob Studio

Reviewed by

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.