Thursday, 14 May 2015

Climate Change - Comics, Comedy & Culture

Lei Wen

Agitprop was a word that originally meant communist propaganda which was communicated mainly through art and literature. Nowadays it has come to mean any political message that is propagated  through an art form.

Leaving behind the communist propaganda,
High Water fits this definition perfectly.

Co-founded by Lisa Waldner and Damon Keen, High Water is an organisation that “encourages art and design that puts climate change back on the agenda”.

Under its auspices, an inspired group of Auckland artists are using different forms of media to open new and original pathways in the ways we think and feel about climate change.
Here is a link to their Facebook Page

During the new century, mainstream discussions about this thorny subject have tended to be serious and didactic, featuring deniers of change as if they actually had scientific credence; and treating “greenies’ as if they were leftie loonies with fringe, extremist ideas. Scientists and media experts proliferate, pontificate and often obfuscate.

Debates, articles, interviews, books – all using a deluge of words and more words. This seems to have had the effect of putting us all to sleep rather than face more and more alarming facts that are pouring in. Climate change is a topic that is so big and so scarey, that it seems safer to bury our collective heads more and more deeply into the sands of oblivion.

However there are a few people who are always awake in the cultural cocktail. Generally it’s our dreamers, artists and intellectuals who are the fizz in the collective drink. They are the wide-awake ones, as they imagine and outline the nightmare scenarios of and for the sleeping mass. It is their dreams that can impel us to wakefulness.

Dear Hinewai by Dylan Horrocks

New Zealand’s artists and intellectuals are not highly valued in our culture and they flail around the margins of our community. Occasionally they get a look-in to the public arena when there isn’t a sports game to publicise, or a sensation to exploit.
Creatives struggle financially - mainstream resources dribble erratically into their work. The circuses of competitive male sports and the bread of consumerism keep the folk distracted and passive.

‘Culture’ doesn’t have much monetary value, so the media and their corporate masters see no reason to give artists a collective voice.

Often, if an artist makes it big-time on the global scene we enjoy cutting down the tall poppies – this year’s pillorying of Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2014 Booker Prize is a case in point. Eleanor is no scaredy cat when it comes to speaking politically about the state of intellectuals in NZ and so she warranted verbal bashings. Even our beloved Prime Minister felt he had to diss her.

High Water has popped a bit of fizz into our cultural cocktail. This group of artists demand we approach climate change in different and subversive ways. Hey, they say, let’s kickstart a discussion at least, lets laugh, lets cry, let’s talk, let’s think about the biggest topic in our world today.

We are a bunch of islands surrounded by rising, warming  seas. Wake up Aotearoa from your self-induced nightmare.

High Water believes if anything can wake us up, it’s the gift of the imagination of art, music, theatre, comedy, comics.

The first event High Water launched was a comedy night - Hot Air - a sell-out Comedy evening at the Classic Theatre on Queen Street.

Michele A’ Court (Female Comedian of the Decade 2010), Mark Scott, Jeremy Elwood and Maarten Idema were the contributing stand-up comic performers who had us rolling in the aisles – laughing more about the political antics of climate-change deniers rather than the stark realities of climate change itself.

Next up High Water launched a poster competition campaign – right in time for the NZ Elections. The best posters about Climate Change were put up around the streets of Auckland. Bear in mind that High Water is organised and run by artists volunteering their personal time, effort and money.

Stephanie O'Connor

This poster is an example by Stephanie O’Connor. The artwork of the entries was consistently high and featured original approaches to the driving concept.

So far so good. But now the comedy turns to comics. An exciting new Anthology of New Zealand comic artists featuring Climate Change has been recently launched.

Tim Gibson
A diversion here to explain a little about the background of this concept. Comics have exploded world-wide in popularity – they are making a come-back from the golden age of the ‘40s and ‘50s when Dick Tracey and The Phantom were kings. There are comics for everyone these days as comic material has become more mature and accessible.

No longer a boys-own kingdom - women artists are beginning to make inroads in this male-dominated scene. Audiences remain young particularly in the 20’s – 40’s range, but are increasingly affluent and culturally aware.

Comic Festivals are attended by girls and boys, women and men costumed as their favourite protagonists, all eager to read what’s hot and what’s cool.

In New Zealand the general public has remained largely unaware of the world-wide flowering of the comic medium. . Enter Damon Keen, comic artist, cartoonist, but also film-maker, animator and general,-all-round, multi-faceted artist.
He and Amie Maxwell launched Faction comics - first crowd-funded in 2012.  Since then three more publications- all anthologies - have been released, causing a big splash on the comic scene of Aotearoa.

Here is a link to their website:

Faction works with the very best kiwi comic artists and focuses on good story-telling and the art.

Dear Hinewai by Dylan Horrocks
After books Faction 1, 2 and 3, the anthology High Water was launched in April 2015. Top comic artists give us their extraordinary visualizations of what climate change means for the future. This is a book that is ground-breaking and a must-read.

The Anthology is a collaborative project with 11 NZ artists contributing and is partially funded by Creative NZ. In the foreword Lucy Lawless says “The artwork knocked my bloody socks off!”

The talent includes Chris Slane, Christian Pearce, Cory Mathis, Dylan Horrocks, Jonathan King, Katie O’Neill, Ned Wenlock, Ross Murray, Sarah Laing, Toby Morris, and Damon Keen. It also features additional artwork by Lei Wen, Ant Sang, and an amazing cover by Tim Gibson.

Here is an impressive review, worth reading as much for the commentary on the art work as much as for showing the place High Water forges for itself in New Zealand’s cultural scene.

On April 16th, High Water’s comic anthology was launched at Kelly Tarltons on the Auckland Waterfront. An inspired location for a launch, as the water lapped around the windows behind the performers and speakers.

To get to the launch room we had to march through after-hours, Kelly Tarlton’s displays, including the miserable, captive penguins. Several friends and myself had to avert our eyes from the penguins because of our empathy for these overcrowded prisoners trapped in a jail equivalent to a goldfish bowl.

Kelly Tarlton’s penguins are a visceral reminder of what a beastly species humans are, and of what cruel places, zoos are. Places that I abhor. However being such clever humans, we quickly forgot our jailed cousins as the launch heated up. (so good we humans are at compartmentalising!)

Russell Norman - MP and Green Party co-leader - spoke compellingly at how we are living through the greatest event on our planet Earth since the comet drove into the Yucatan Peninsula and extinguished the dinosaurs.  What an eloquent speaker and a nice bloke. How tragic it is that we are losing him from the Wellington political scene – he would make such a great Prime Minister.

Then we had Tourettes (aka Dominic Hoey) who did a stand-up comic piece – street/ rap/poetry that was painfully funny and excruciatingly witty. His performance of John Key’s son is a DJ was a brilliant piece of sheer comic genius.  Seriously funny. His blog post is
and he has a Facebook page

And then we had The Climate Quartet– here is a link to watching this group performing acapello – set to the old songs such as Stormy Weather and Summertime, but with word changes that reflect the scary nature of climate change. Bravo you beautiful people!

Artists attending High Water's Launch
Many of the artists who are published in this great anthology were on hand to autograph your own special copy of the book.

And for all of you who want to buy, here is the link to the Faction Comic website where you can order a copy or two.

Next up, High Water will be offering graphic design support to a new play that is coming to Auckland, entitled Between Two Waves. 
This play shows the effects on one man’s life of Climate Change. It is touching, moving, funny and hard-hitting.
This project needs to be funded – crowd-funding once again - to bring the play from Australia and produce it here.
Do support this project please!

To end this post I just want to add a few quotes by Damon Keen.
He is adamant that unless we get a collective conversation kick-started quickly about the stark issue of Climate Change - “ the most important issue in the world today” - it will be forced upon us in most unpleasant ways.

Damon states that there is an eerie silence in the mainstream on this burning topic of our times. He believes (as I do) that climate deniers are corporate and political and part of a stunningly selfish elite who are stymieing the message from getting out into the public arena. Meanwhile ordinary folk are just not acknowledging this huge problem and we therefore we lack any collective discussion about it.
“High Water and the artists involved are part of this vitally needed conversation.”

As a comic artist Damon suggests that comics have long been obsessed with the world of science fiction. But he thinks that High Water’s Anthology is far from science fiction.

Damon Keen

Picturing for example, Auckland’s Victoria Park 100 years from now where the cricket fields have been replaced with rice paddies and armed guards are keeping a watchful eye on the workers.

If this seems a bleak view of the future, at least it shocks you into recognition that the worst predictions of man-made climate change could eventuate into similar scenarios.

It is “well-educated speculation” says Damon.
“In a warming world, sea levels are predicted to rise up to one meter by the end of this century. Weather will become more extreme and this means more droughts and more intense Pacific storms.”

I believe that Damon’s visionary images are helping us face facts, helping us to get real. The graphic art of comics does resonate with people from all walks of life in a way that the words of politicians and scientists do not.

“We all need to step up in one way or another because the issue is actually quite terrifyingly large, and I think we can all do that, but I don’t think we all need to be frontline foot soldiers. We do what we can in our own little way. I am a cartoonist so it makes sense for me to approach the problem like this.”

He says if everyone makes an effort, scenes like those in High Water will be pure science fiction, not the future picture of society.
Damon Keen

For examples of Damon Keen’s work -

If you’re interested in ordering a copy of High Water, you can pick one up here:


This blog is shamelessly a family affair. One of my earlier posts Iconic Flag, Iconic NZ was given over to my eldest daughter Gail Ingram, a poet from Christchurch. The posts on Barbie and Weddings were celebrating my youngest daughter Phoenix Renata’s 2013 Hen’s Party and Wedding. Damon Keen whose accomplishments I am proudly  promoting in this blog, is my son. Nepotism Rules in blogland.

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