Gestalt Comics has grown into Australia’s premier graphic novel publisher, but its co-founder Wolfgang Bylsma believes our local industry has long way to go.

After meeting one night in a video store, Bylsma and Skye Ogden found they shared a love of the comics medium. From this chance meeting, the two conspired to create an Australian comic-book company. Before Gestalt Publishing was founded in 2005, the two ‘started producing [their] own graphic novels’.

‘I realised that I was a much better editor than writer, and [Ogden] was personally suited to be art director for the company,’ Bylsma explained. ‘We pretty much created the jobs that we wanted to be working in.’

They also obviously created Gestalt, which through ‘the thankful auspice of the Australia Council’, was launched with $5000 that Australia’s dynamic duo ‘used to fund a pay rate’ for contributors to their first book Character Sketches.

That initial offering from Gestalt, an anthology that explored themes of trauma and joy, helped unearth some of the Australian comic-book industry’s most revered practitioners. Shaun Tan (The Arrival), Justin Randall (30 Days of Night), and Christian Read (Star Wars Tales) all appeared in Character Sketches, and have since secured publishing success.

‘That was an anthology we used as a call for Australian creatives – that we were arriving and we were taking their work seriously and to an international market,’ Bylsma said.

Arrive they did. Since then Gestalt has helped launch the careers of Australian comic-book talents, sold overseas rights deals, kept creator’s intellectual property in Australia, had their books adapted for the screen and of course, helped establish the burgeoning Australian comic-book industry.

Most recently, writer Tom Taylor and artist James Brouwer’s The Deep is being turned into a 26-episode animated series by French company Technicolor, with Taylor staying on as head writer and Brouwer, the book’s artist, serving as art director. Last year The Deep took out the Aurealis Award for ‘Best Graphic Novel’, and Bylsma describes the resulting animated series as something he’s ridiculously proud of’.

The two-minute teaser trailer will be revealed this weekend at OzComic-Con in Melbourne, as will the first episode of Comic Book Heroes, a documentary based on three-years of Ogden and Bylsma’s experience at Gestalt that will screen later this year on the ABC.

‘I didn’t come up with the title,’ Bylsma quickly pointed out. When asked what he would’ve called the series, which he jokingly describes as ‘three years of hell’, he offered, ‘A couple of shmucks with a dream.’

He’s only half serious, but his answer does reveal the nature of the Australian comic-book industry. Starting a publishing company is a big risk, and the comic industry in this country is too small to sustain itself.

‘Making comics in a country where there isn’t a stable market for them… yeah, we’re passionate but you could translate that to mean we’re kind of stubborn and probably a bit stupid,’ he said. ‘But if we were after self-preservation, we’d be accountants and lawyers.’

While our TV screens, cinemas, game consoles and tablets are bursting with American superheroes, all webbing up big bucks, the Australian industry is incredibly different. Over at Marvel, Stan Lee might be wiping the caviar off his hands with hundreds, but Bylsma and Ogden are still greasing their elbows.

‘I suspect that a lot of people consider us hugely successful and we must have oodles of resources to do what we’re doing and not really be taking the bootstrap approach that we’re operating under. I think [the documentary will be] slightly eye opening for people to see some of the hurdles and stresses we face on a daily basis.’

When asked how long it took the company to find its feet after that initial Australia Council grant, Bylsma admitted, ‘We’re still getting on our feet actually. We still have day jobs – we slot Gestalt in and around our other duties. I’ve got two kids that keep me occupied, but we still manage to make some pretty excellent comics and take them to the world.’

While they’re taking those comics to the world, they’re also working all over the world. Aside from travelling to comic conventions around the globe, Gestalt operates out of Tokyo where Ogden works, and outside of Perth, where Bylsma is. While they’re routinely asked why they don’t work in the comic epicentres of San Diego and New York, he doesn’t believe that they need to.

‘I don’t think that Australian creatives should bypass local opportunities of creating their own intellectual property and keeping it within Australia.’

While much of the comic industry does operate over the Internet, with illustrators, artists and editors relying on email and UPS, at Gestalt they prefer an in-person approach. ‘Making those personal connections and those face-to-face relationships with the publisher and editors I think is actually quite crucial to the process.’

The other thing that is crucial to Gestalt is the story and their company slogan is ‘Story First’ for good reason. Bylsma believes that good storytelling underpins all books that Gestalt publishes and doesn’t just mean the script, or simply the art – the two need to complement each other.

‘We crave stories with substance. We want to publish books that continue telling their story beyond the page count. If people read one of our books and still have thoughts about it afterwards, if it still impacts how they perceive something in their life… that to me means we’ve done our job.’

The Deep exemplifies this approach. While on the surface it’s a story about ‘a family of underwater aquanauts who go adventures and embrace peril under the sea’, to Bylsma it’s really ‘about the family dynamic and how each individual character approaches the adventure’.

While this may seem like The Incredibles under the sea, there’s a big difference that has propelled the popularity of the title. ‘The family aren’t just white folks’, they’ve a multicultural make-up, which has garnered ‘a huge response from around the world’, snagging Gestalt readers in Pakistan, Manilla, Singapore, Russia and Finland – ‘all over the place really’.

While he’s under embargo and cannot say which TV networks have picked up The Deep, Bylsma believes that it will be a global series. After all, it’s much easier to dub over an animated series than it is to translate a comic, despite the amount of books Gestalt has placed in overseas markets.

It’s an interesting project from Taylor and Brouwer, who presumably make the bulk of their livings working in the American market. Taylor has just landed a gig working alongside Australian illustrator Nicola Scott as the writer on Justice Society of America, while Brouwer works on DC’s Justice League Beyond.

A more intimate, nuanced book like The Deep represents the difference between the major companies and independent publishers like Gestalt. Bylsma’s passion for the project projects the sense that he’s worked as closely with The Deep’s creators as the superhero family in its pages.

‘We’d rather have a personal relationship with creatives as much as possible rather than produce commodity books, so for us the relationship is as important as the end product, the book themselves.’

When he says commodity books, there’s an insinuation that he means the superheroes flying out of the pages of DC and Marvel. As such, The Deep also highlights the contrasts between the American and Australian industries. Like many of our cultural offerings, Australia is a featherweight punching above its class when it comes to talent, but in commercial terms we’re more likely to be bare-knuckle brawling than participating in a Vegas heavyweight bout.

‘There are publishers like Milk Shadow Books and Black House Comics, I think we all help to create the impression of their being an Australian industry, but I don’t think we’re established enough to call it an industry yet. There are very few people who are working full time in comics in Australia.’

Those who are include Tom Taylor and Nicola Scott, who both work for DC. But to assume that every comic book illustrator or artist wants to be drawing Wonder Woman is a misconception. When asked if there will ever be an Australian equivalent of Marvel, Bylsma supposes it’s possible in the future, but isn’t placing any bets.

‘I’m not sure the creatives or aesthetic in this country would lend itself to that kind of approach. You’ll find those much more passionate about storytelling are producing far more independent books that may not necessarily be superhero based, which is where Marvel and DC hold their stock in trade.’

For those who do want to work in the American glossies, Byslma believes that if they have the ‘talent and commitment their best option is to work with one of the established players’, though he’s not completely dismissing the idea of an Australian DC equivalent. Yet what that would take is a couple of shmucks with a dream.

‘Without people that do follow their dreams and help to build the basis for an industry like that to exist in Australia, it won’t ever happen.’

As Gestalt proves, it’s not as unlikely as a family of aquanauts. In the meantime, Australian comic publishers like Gestalt are there to help incubate those dreams.

Originally published July 3 2013.