Most of the people reading this will never have heard of Gary Chaloner, which is fitting, because most people will never have heard of the Australian comic book industry either. It was partly Gary's work, and the work of his company Cyclone, that led the Aussie industry into the boom period of the late '80s and early '90s. It may well also be Gary Chaloner who will stand at the forefront of an Aussie comic revival in this current age of uncertainty.
After leaving school in 1979 for a career in graphic design, Gary started to write and draw his own comic creations, including Flash Damingo and The Jackaroo. Alongside David de Vries and Glenn Lumsden, he started Cyclone Comics to ensure that their characters could be published while remaining under their control.
"There was a situation where there was a printer who was willing to do it," he says. "I was drawing stuff that I planned to go into that first issue; I was starting to circulate in an area in Sydney where you would bump into other people - networking... and it just gelled.
"There was no real plan of 'this is what's going to happen', it was just as the months passed by I knew somehow that I wanted to get published and if someone wasn't going to publish me I was going to have to publish myself. I was in a situation where I was earning the money to do it; there were the contacts, and the passion to do it. It turned from the couple of things I did by myself into the group getting together, and it was a natural thing to say 'hey, let's do this together as a group' and it went from there."
Due to Cyclone's local success, Gary was noticed by US publisher Malibu and went on to work as a cover artist for titles such as ALIEN NATION, SHERLOCK JR and PLANET OF THE APES. Gary's APES cover was so popular that he was commissioned to write and draw his own PLANET OF THE APES mini (URCHAK'S FOLLY), which went on to win an Oz Con Award for best writing. He also worked on THE OLYMPIANS (Marvel/Epic) and DARK HORSE DOWNUNDER. Gary was one of the few Australian comic book creators to have found any sort of success in the US comic book industry, though de Vries and Lumsden also crossed over and found work on such titles as THE PHANTOM (Marvel, 1995), BATMAN, GREEN LANTERN and THE FLASH.
Since those heady times, and due to the current state of the industry, Gary has found it necessary to work mainly as a self-employed graphic designer while developing his own comic-based works on the side, such as RED KELSO and MORTON STONE: UNDERTAKER. So why does he do it?
"Creative outlet. There are several ways that I could've gone - comics came first and were very appealing. If comics weren't in my life and I was presented with an opportunity to act on stage or perform in some other way, chances are I would have. I'm a big movie fan, so if I had never picked up a comic or my brother had not read comics and therefore exposed me to them, I would probably be sitting here talking about movie making or something like that."
But Gary chose comics instead, and in the course of making comics, he has had to fill a lot of different roles, including writer, artist, and publisher. How does he see himself?
"Creator, I suppose... Storyteller... That's a hard one but, yeah, all of those things - I don't prefer any single hat. The publishing and editing hat is a must for being based in Australia, but the creator hat is totally about telling a story."
Gary is also a lone gunman of sorts; "I much prefer to pencil, ink, and write my own work. In a perfect world I would do everything, but as you get made offers there are different factors involved and you react accordingly. It's the total control aspect, I suppose.
'I get really easily distracted by other people's ideas.' "The other thing that is worth mentioning is that I get really easily distracted by other people's interests and ideas. When I was working in Cyclone, if someone came in with a new character and a six page sample story or something I'd be, 'Oh yeah, can I do the Jackaroo meeting him?' and my story would get a little kink in the road. It would take me ages to get it back to where I had it. So I was very 'distractible' creatively - working by myself keeps me a bit more on-task."
Gary has worked on many different books and characters over the years, but he has one firm favourite. "The Jackaroo. Beyond a shadow. He's really easy to do." The Jackaroo is a two-fisted pulp adventurer, the cocky Aussie equivalent of Will Eisner's Spirit. Is the character a reflection of the creator? "No, he's not supposed to be me. He's supposed to be how I would do an adventure character like that. He probably has my sense of humour though. If I were to write a book, or make a movie, or if I was to do things my way - that's what the Jackaroo is. I suppose a lot of me has filtered through there. He's just a conduit for a lot of stuff.
"I mean, I'm not a country guy. There was a time when I was heavily into the King's Cross scene in Sydney so a lot of the gangster and streetlife kind of stuff came from that." King's Cross is stereotypically known for it's drugs, clubs, and prostitutes. Most stereotypes have a basis in truth, and this is no exception.
"And there was the [Crocodile] Dundee thing happening at the time as well, so that's probably where the aspect of the country guy going to a city night-club and getting involved in the underworld came from. I thought, 'Oh yeah, great excuse to do those kind of culture-conflict stories.'
"At that time I was really getting into THE SPIRIT by Will Eisner so there was that kind of crime/comedy thing happening. Again the pudding happened - everything got thrown in - and out came the Jackaroo and his supporting cast."
As The Jackaroo developed as a character and a comic, Gary found himself visiting themes that he would come to re-visit time and time again in future work.
"I'm a big Springsteen fan, and when I was first getting into him he was writing about stuff I was trying to do in the JACKAROO stories - trying to make it good with your gal, busting out of a no-hoper town to make a future for yourself. You know, all the things [James] Ellroy is doing currently in his books - the cops in a corrupt environment and they may be corrupt themselves, but they've fallen in love with the local floozy and there's one last chance for them to bust out of this one-horse town and make a future for themselves.
'I like stories about normal people.' "Those 'noir-ish' sentiments about bunches of losers trying to go for the ring and whether they get a chance to make a life for themselves or not, mixed in with humour and comedy that softens that hard edge. I like stories about normal people rather than superheroes."
The Jackaroo is identifiably an Australian character, in both name and attitude, and stands in company of other great Australian comic characters like... Captain Boomerang and Tasmanian Devil? Does Gary think anyone has done an Australian character justice?
Once the laughter has ended and the tears are wiped from his eyes, Gary has this to say: "From an Australian's point of view? Has anyone done it right? Probably not, because it's bloody hard to do. I don't think anyone has because it'd be very difficult for a British or American writer to write an Australian character and for it to be different enough from an English character. They're very similar because you can't give them the accents in print. Plus the speech patterns are so similar. Also, because of Australia's 'multi-cultural heritage' [People of Greek, Italian, Serbian, and other descents make up large parts of Australia's population], it's very hard to pin down what an 'Australian' is unless you go back 20 years and do Crocodile Dundee-like caricatures. You'd have to do it as almost a second nature and make it incidental that the character was from Australia."
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