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Graphic novel presents the dark side of asylum seeker journeys

14 May 20153 comments
An illustration from The Boat

An illustration from The Boat

Cold, sleepless nights filled with stormy black seas, a dilapidated ship and the shouts of a struggling crew. It’s rare we are presented with the detailed realities of what asylum seekers actually go through when coming to Australia by boat. Words alone can fail to make readers empathise fully with the struggles involved.

The Boat, a new interactive comic, seeks to do just that by thoroughly engaging the viewer. A visual experience encourages the imagination to create a deeper meaning and better understanding for the audience.

The graphic novel is based on Vietnamese-born Australian writer Nam Le‘s short story of the same title.  It follows 16-year-old Mai, whose parents sent her on the voyage to Australia alone after the fall of Saigon. Readers follow her journey from boat to camp through virtual ink panels and words.

Every detail of the online comic makes it highly accessible for a multimedia driven audience. To help create the realism of the emotionally provocative comic, Animal Kingdom’s Sam Petty designed a moving soundtrack of squawking seagulls and crashing waves. As an added element to engage the reader, they are able to click certain images to be shown archival imagery from the character’s memory.

The humanness and life of the comic is thanks to New York based Sydney illustrator Matt Huyn. Like Le, Huyn’s parents fled Vietnam after the war. His background has often influenced his work, which commonly deals with refugee issues.

Ma, one of Matt’s many comics, is about his parents’ experience in the Malaysian refugee camp Pulau Bidong. After working on such a similar project it made sense for Matt to illustrate the interactive comic, and through doing so also share his own story.

“It’s not something to be celebrated, it’s a dark story. I’m telling this story because if I don’t tell it then it’s going to be told for me,” Matt said.

“As an artist I have an opportunity to speak in an authentic voice, on a medium that gets shared online through social media. That’s something that I can do. It’s important to open the conversation that way or change the story.”

Matt spent a year working on the comic, ensuring that how it was constructed both empowered refugees and reached the public in an effective way.

“My aim is to change things on a behavioural level, because systemic change only happens when people open up and engage with the issues. It’s not that people don’t change, or are heartless, it’s just that the refugees stories are being told for them rather than by them.”

The images were created using an ancient technique: a bamboo calligraphy brush, paper and Sumi ​ink made with animal glue, incense and carbon from burnt wood. The technique allows readers to see that there’s an artist behind the story, an important concept in humanising the online comic.

“There’s a danger of making it feel that it’s this totally slick production. The use of the technique shows that the images came from a human being, that you can connect to them. It’s important to see the hands behind the brush strokes.”

Matt believes people are often afraid to talk about these topics and sees the comic as an easy and engaging starting off point for conversations.

“People feel they like they need to be experts to weigh in and discuss the asylum seeker issue. The comic is a way of making a big thing small, allowing a casual entry point.”

The interactive comic was realised online this month as a part of SBS‘s commemoration of 40 years of Vietnamese resettlement in Australia.
Ruby Brown
AMES Staff Writer