Having created a short motion comic for the #DontBeBotsGetYourShots social media campaign to promote Māori and Pasifika people to get vaccinated against COVID, I felt the need to dust off an older comic and give it the 'motion comic' treatment.
This Token comic was created in 2015 as a commentary on what it feels like to be the 'token' brown comics creator in very white dominated arts scene in Aotearoa. At the arcades, tokens have 'no value' but you can still use them to play the game. And in order to find brown and POC comic creators, you need to input a special code in order to unlock that information. Over the years, I've made sure to make myself very loud and very visible for other Pasifika comic creators to see themselves in my work. Becoming a beacon of light in a white fog to follow if they feel like comics weren't meant for 'them.'
Funnily enough, my plan to drop the Token motion comic today coincided with the amazing news that my Creative New Zealand funding application for the next volume of Headlocked was DECLINED! I've been a published comics creator since 2004 and over those 17 years, I've been able to do some awesome work - both internationally and domestically. Despite that, I've always felt like an outsider not only in the white dominated NZ comics space but also in the Pasifika artspace. Being brown and having a fairly mainstream art style, I didn't quite fit in with the more philosophical musings of my fellow Kiwi comic contemporaries. I didn't have the luxury of being white passing, I couldn't hide my heritage with a name like mine (and sure as hell wouldn't want to hide it either.) With Pasifika arts, as upheld in the fine arts scene (the real arts! PFFFFT!!!) - no one was exploring comics as a medium to tell their stories. Pasifika arts was (and still is) very much pigeonholed as 'traditional.' If your work doesn't involve tapa patterns, traditional dance, music et al, it's not Pasifika enough. My work as a comic artist has only really explored Pasifika stories in the last few years. Though I don't tell 'Pasifika' stories, my Sāmoan culture and heritage infuse every panel of every page I create no matter the subject matter. Pasifika people are natural storytellers, I just happen to tell MY stories through modern means.
Over the last decade, schools and libraries have identified the importance of comics as a literacy gateway for unenthusiastic readers. Seeing this change in attitude and the reverence placed on comics in education is something I always dreamt of as a kid. Comics are no longer 'low brow' reading only for 'dumb' kids. With this shift in perspective, there is a whole generation of young comic creators of all cultures, genders and diversities creating work and with the internet, they have easy access to put that work out into the world. But still, as a 'minority' in an arts scene, you are always looking for others like yourself to be inspired by, to look up to. I didn't have that. Every step I've taken on this arduous journey as a Sāmoan comic book artist has been a lonely one. Blazing a trail and documenting the process to ensure there is some kind of roadmap for others to follow after me. With comics' growing popularity amongst the younger generation of artists, you'd think there'd be some onus on its importance in the NZ arts scene. Time and again, I see comics often misunderstood by the appointed assessors of funding applications. The experience (and lack thereof) of assessors to rightly identify the skill and work of comics creators is a detriment to a sector of the NZ arts scene that is overlooked and discounted. As a young comics creator, why would I bother applying for funding if I don't see projects or people celebrated in my arts discipline by Creative New Zealand? Hell, as an old comics creator, why would I bother either? This year, I stubbornly nominated myself for the Arts Pasifika Award for Contemporary Artist. And for the third time I was DECLINED. Even after 17 years of excelling in an artform not many Pasifika people are doing professionally, I'm still not 'good enough' or perhaps not 'Pasifika enough' to have my work acknowledged. Do me a favour and Google the term 'Samoan comic artist.' Tell me who the fuck pops up in practically ALL THE FUCKING RESULTS? Producing works for WWE, Marvel, 2kANZ, NZ School Journals, Pasifika Heroes and more, visiting over 23,000 kids around Aotearoa as part of Duffy Books and Writers in Schools, signings, panels and appearances at San Diego Comic Con, New York Comic Con, Emerald City Comic Con, WonderCon, OzComic Con, Armageddon etc. ALL OF THIS accomplished without a single dollar from Creative New Zealand. Creative New Zealand and the NZ arts scene have NEVER had a hand in my success as a Sāmoan comic creator. Perhaps that is why they are so reluctant to support me now that I've done all the hard yards to get to where I am today. I've have only received Creative New Zealand funding on two occasions - both of them in 2020. The first, was a Wage Subisidy topup and the second was for the O Le Aiga Samoa comic stories. Knowing the skills and body of work I had built over my career, I knew that O Le Aiga Samoa was my best chance at attaining CNZ funding. Not only because it was a great resource in promoting the Sāmoan language and culture but because I also felt it was a project that ticked enough of the CNZ boxes to get funded. And I was right. When applying for CNZ funding, particularly as a Māori or Pasifika artist, you must have a strong element of Mātauranga Maori or Kaupapa Pasifika inherent in your work. Quoted from the Creative NZ website when you fill out a funding application: How is Mātauranga Māori OR Kaupapa Pasifika evident in the idea, practice, and outcomes of your project? With the O Le Aiga Samoa comics, we received $28,000 to create the webcomic series. It may sound like a lot of money (and it kind of is) but this was a healthy budget that allowed for fair remuneration for the creative team. Comics are a notoriously underfunded artform. Big companies like DC and Marvel severely underpay their talent, way less than is fair for the amount of work involved hencewhy a shift to a lot of creator owned books where payment and royalties are fairer. The O Le Aiga Samoa comic work was the most I have ever been paid for a comic work and I was grateful to receive that funding. Though it was technically the highest page rate I have received, it never felt like I was inflating the cost and I was being paid too much. According to the CNZ funding round we applied for, our project had to start after 14 April 2020 to be completed no later than 30 Sept 2020. We were looking at creating 5 webcomics over that time period with 1 new issue dropping ever month. What we ended up doing was 7 stories from May to November with our obligated fifth story dropping on 1 October 2020. Stories #6 & #7 were partially funded by the CNZ arts grant as well as my Tautai FALE-SHIP Home Residency. So with my first ever approved CNZ funding, I was able to complete 77pgs of Sāmoan and English comic stories, with the 5 stories completed within the requested timeframe. I showed that not only was that funding appropriately allocated to our team but also that it allowed me the time to actually complete the project on time like the motherfucking professional that I am. With this experience under my belt and a better understanding of the CNZ application process, I felt it was about time I can enjoy the fruits of my labours and apply for the funding for the next volume of the Headlocked graphic novels, Painkiller. The biggest hurdle I had to clear was whether to apply for the General Arts Grant or Pasifika Arts Grants. Thinking about the CNZ requirements: How is Mātauranga Māori OR Kaupapa Pasifika evident in the idea, practice, and outcomes of your project? I realised that Headlocked didn't fit that kaupapa. I put my application into the General Arts Grant as I didn't want to take up a space in the Pasifika funding that could've been better off going to someone who fits that criteria. After almost 10 years of working with Michael Kingston on Headlocked, our success with the book has always been through our fans and Kickstarter supporters. And even with all of that support, the real cost of making each book in regards to compensation is severely underpaid - FOR THE ENTIRE CREATIVE TEAM. What I sought for CNZ funding was for the Headlocked team to be finally well compensated for the immense work everyone puts into making a graphic novel, not just for myself. The amount I requested was $40,000. Maybe that number shocks you. It should because THAT should be the baseline amount for making a graphic novel with an experienced creative team. Let me break it down for ya: I have to illustrate 123 pages for the next Headlocked graphic novel. At $150 a page (which is a low tier rate) that equates to $18,450. That would take up roughly 6 months of my life to work on the project. That money would've allowed me to spend that 6 months solely working on the graphic novel without the worries of having to take sidejobs to pay the bills. Now, Headlocked: Painkiller was always gonna go ahead with or without the CNZ funding but NOW it will mean that my plan to have the book done by July 2021 maybe in jeopardy. Not having the funding means I'd really have to bust my ass for not much money to get it done in time or for there to be several delays as I have to pick up freelance gigs that pay better. This is the reality of making comics. Most of the time we do it for the love of it. I tried to see if we can not only do it for the love but also have the cushioning to make it comfortable with this funding. Now, I am awaiting feedback as to why my application was not successful from CNZ, I will update this blog when or if I receive it. Maybe the fault was in my application? I've never been one to navigate these bureaucratic hurdles and maybe my inexperience in that area let us down. But looking at the disappointing result of my application, I can't help but wonder if I was better off applying under the Pasifika Arts Grant umbrella? Thinking about my work and how I don't tell enough 'Pasifika' centred stories, I feel like the way Pasifika arts are funded and curated, there is a sense of minstrelsy to it. Your art has to look and feel a certain traditional way in order to be accepted. You gotta shuck and jive (or should that be siva and haka) to be awarded funding. I understand the need to preserve our traditional arts and their practitioners but where is the support for the artists who can't be categorised or work beyond the traditional? I never have and I never will be a fuckin' monkey dancing to the tune of the organ grinder. Creative New Zealand have been happy to tap into my expertise and experience when it comes to behind the scenes, in fact, they had the absolute gall to ask me to JUDGE THE FUCKING ARTS PASIFIKA AWARDS this year. You know, the very awards I'm not deemed worthy enough to win. For years, I had been the 'token' brown creator in a white dominated industry in Aotearoa. Things haven't changed much. Now, it's Creative New Zealand that see me as the 'token' who has no value. Seriously, it's been a long and lonely road getting to where I am now and I thought I had gotten to a place where I could have my work be publicly recognised and rewarded. Am I disappointed, FUCKING HELL YEAH! I wouldn't have posted this stream-of-consciousness tirade if I wasn't. But I am glad I hadn't had to rely on CNZ for my success because I sure can't rely on them for future successes. I appreciate each and everyone of my family, friends and fans who have supported my artistic career whether it's with a follow, share, like, purchase, whatever. Y'all are the real MVPs who keep this old man's little kid dream alive. Fa'afetai tele lava to each and everyone of you (not you Creative New Zealand.) - Your friendly neighbourhood 'token' Sāmoan comic creator