Ben Mitchell embarks on tour to Poland and UK

Comic specialist: Ben Mitchell's original stories are not too far removed from real life.
Comic specialist: Ben Mitchell's original stories are not too far removed from real life.

Illustrator and academic Ben Mitchell lives in Newcastle West. When he’s not creating comics he’s a confirmed PHD candidate in creative industries. He also gives lectures on graphic design. This month he’s taking his first trip to Europe to present his comic book series, Storm Clouds, to Polish and English audiences. I asked Mitchell about his world of comics and his upcoming journey.

Tell us about this upcoming tour. Where are you presenting, and why did you want to go? Is the comic scene big in Poland?

 I am visiting Poland and the UK for two big comics-related events, and promoting it as though it’s a “European Tour”. I’ll be a featured artist in an exhibition of Australian independent comics in Lodz, Poland, as part of their International Festival of Comics and Games, and will also be representing Australian comics in a bilingual discussion panel at the festival. Not everyone there speaks English, so I’ll be debuting a Polish-language version of one of my comics there as well! After that, I’ll be heading to Leeds in the UK for their Thought Bubble festival - one of the biggest comics events in the world - where I’m presenting an academic paper on the Australian comics scene. I was invited to be in the exhibition by a Polish ex-pat who now lives in Sydney, and I was very excited to promote my own work to a new audience, but also spread the word about other comics my friends in Australia are producing. The two events being so close together - both geographically and chronologically - was a total fluke, and worked out perfectly for me. I do not know very much about the Polish comics community other than that they certainly don’t know who I am yet, so I’m very nervous for us to meet. 

You’re an illustrator and a lecturer as well, do you love comics more than your other jobs, and if so, why?

Everything I do as a professional is intertwined in a curious way. I’ve published comics in medical journals that illustrate how to respond in emergency situations. I do a lot of illustration work for local businesses and will use those gigs as opportunities to try out new techniques that usually end up in my own comics. I am currently completing a PHD at the University of Newcastle, exploring how publication design can be used as a narrative tool within comic books. I also designed a course in Primary Education about how comics work, and I currently teach publication design to Communication students. Regardless of what my job title is for the day, I’m still communicating stories through pictures. Everything is comics. I love comics, and I end up loving the rest of my work all the same.

How long have you been making comics?

I have been making comics off and on for my entire life, but only started taking it seriously in 2014 when I released by first full-sized comic, Storm Clouds. It was 60 pages long, and by the time I had finished making it, I knew this was something I’d continue doing for quite some time. Since then, all of my comics have followed the same melodramatic beach town antics of the characters established in Storm Clouds.

Your comics sometimes intertwine with your real life in Newcastle, can you please elaborate? 

A) My comic series is set in a post-industrial beach town north of Sydney, with a booming cultural scene. This city is called Bontown, and contains many glaring architectural and geographic similarities to our home. When I wrote Storm Clouds - a story that bounces between Sydney and the fictional Bontown - I was inspired as a Novocastrian holding a torch for our city, amongst uni and work friends bailing for the Big Smoke. Bontown began as a satirical look of how big city snobs view Newcastle as second-rate, but slowly evolved into a love letter to what makes our city, and other smaller cities, beautiful and unique. I’ve written stories about washed up punk singers beginning new lives as alternative baristas, disgruntled sharehouse residents venting their angst at feminist open-mic poetry nights and underground crime syndicates with business models based entirely on that of Renew Newcastle. My latest book opens and closes at the beach, with scenic tours along the foreshore. I try to write from what I know, and others can find glimpses of themselves in there too. Before planning this tour I hadn’t really considered this, but a lot of the kitchen sink melodrama would feel right at home if Bontown was a city in England, and I’m excited to see the response from a Leeds audience.

What is your favourite comic you've created? 

The comic I finished at the end of last year is my favourite thing I’ve made, ever, period. Ghost Beach is a perfect distillation of everything that was happening in that period of my life, including going to see the musical RENT five times in one week because my girlfriend was in the ensemble. I’d say it is my most honest, mature work I’ve produced, because instead of borrowing inspiration from my favourite films and novels I was lifting directly from my surroundings, living in Newcastle and navigating proper adult life for the first time. Throughout the years of promoting the series in the context of other Australian comics, it’s the small, personal details that stand to make my work unique.

What is your most popular comic?

My first comic, Storm Clouds, is now in its fourth edition and has definitely been read and discussed by the most people. Like Ghost Beach, it’s a product of who I was at the time, but I feel like I was still a kid when I produced it and would prefer to have more eyes on my newer, less dorkier work. At the end of this trip, I will have run out of copies of my first two comics and will be organising a definitive collected edition, and right now I’m unsure if I sure if I should preserve the dorkiness of my 22-year-old self, resisting the urge to correct my grammar and draw everyone’s hands to be less chunky. We’ll see how I go.