Book Review – Balaclava Junction
Written by Ted Janet
Illustrated by Baruch Inbar
Published by Gonzo Comics (2015)
Although Balaclava Junction may sound like an address out of The Bill where you wouldn’t want to find yourself on a dark night, this touching new comic strip by emerging artist Ted Janet is, thankfully, far more pleasant to read than it sounds.
Based around the famous intersection in the suburb of the same name, Balaclava Junction is the first creation of Gonzo Comics, a new and enthusiastic three-man publishing team who formed just last year, and follows the lives of three actual Jewish people in Melbourne as they struggle to maintain their faith in an erratic modern world. Janet says that he first had the idea of using his talents as a scriptwriter and comic producer to tell real, personal stories when he was in Los Angeles, and happened upon a man who was both a dead-ringer and, incredibly, a mutual friend, of one of Ted’s workmates back in Australia.
‘It’s a small world’, he writes in the foreword, ‘And as it gets smaller, the reach of the individual is extended’.
This notion of the small world is the cornerstone of the comic, as it explains how the author and Baruch Inbar, the illustrator, came into contact with these three incredible people, and underlines the struggle they each have with their religion and beliefs. The individuals in question are Ted Janet himself, which serves as a smooth introduction to the community in which the other two stories take place as he walks around Balaclava, pointing out all the important places, figures and childhood events like a sentimental tour guide; Shelley Segal, a young musician who talks of her persistent desire for knowledge and how that impacted her faith and family; and Raffael Aron, a middle-aged social worker whose job revolves around helping people who have been brainwashed by cults. These tales are genuinely interesting and Janet does a good job of ‘showing, not telling’ their story (as much as I loathe that cliché) by choosing his words very sparingly and having the ‘characters’ speaking directly to the reader rather than in the third person. In this way, Balaclava Junction reads like a short, illustrated, Jewish version of Alice Pung’s 2008 anthology, Growing Up Asian in Australia, in which a variety of Asian immigrants and their families share their experiences of adjusting to modern Australian life (a book that would have been far more popular had it not been studied by half of Victoria’s VCE English students). At times, this method of morphing sincere, personal stories into a malleable, ‘relatable’ narrative runs the risk of only watering them down and diluting their message to save words and make way for cartoons. Thankfully the writer mostly nails the balance between memoir and comic, stopping it from ever becoming too dry or token respectively.
The light in which Balaclava Junction shines the brightest, however, is in terms of its visuals, done by Inbar. His style of realistic, detailed black-and-white imagery bodes well with the beat of the language; it too sharing the same cheery but no-nonsense tone exhibited in the stories. Particular attention is given to the drawing of the people and they all have highly identifiable features, which helps the reader follow the story far more than any broad-brush styles would allow. The highlights of the suburb of Balaclava are also emphasised greatly in all four chapters, and the artist takes the time to include plenty of local icons, such as Glick’s bakery, Chapel Street and The Taphouse bar and nightclub. Apart from anything else, these strong, intricate sketches are pleasant to look at, with their gentle shadowing and brave silhouettes filling every available space, even if the lack of colour does grate on the senses after a while (much like the Collingwood Football Club). I must admit that analysing cartoons and comic strips isn’t entirely my area of expertise and I have limited knowledge of possible comparisons, but given the strong attention to detail and the way the foreground blends almost seamlessly with the background, the closest relative I would name is Archer. Realism may not be the ideal medium for indulging in arty edifices like symbolism and time warping, but for a piece like Balaclava Junction, set in the real world, with real people, real places and real plots, it couldn’t be more perfect a companion.
Probably the only criticism I had after reading the comic was that I had reached that point too early. In less pretentious terms, it was too short, and left me with little to go on. Then again, the overall intention of Balaclava Junction is to share the stories of these three interesting figures, and to make it any longer would have catastrophically destroyed any hope of doing that properly. This is a classic example of where quality is actually regarded over quantity – at first, twenty-six pages feels insubstantial, but the artists do make the absolute most of each of those pages, and the taste that’s left in the mouth is still one of sweet poignancy. Having said that, what is perhaps needed is a stronger ending, as the epilogue comes out of the blue to some extent and doesn’t really wrap up the other three stories, or have any real purpose. Up to that point, the reader has been immersed in this desire to get to know the characters and their journeys, but just as they start to get in the groove of the piece, they are rushed out the door by the first lot of characters, rounding the whole thing off prematurely and inefficiently. Ideally, the writers could have interviewed more people and extended the pagetime (yes, I have invented a new word) of the current characters, transforming it into a fully-fledged graphic novella, but seeing as they obviously wanted to keep it short and sweet, the major downside of doing so is that there wasn’t time to ferment the best ending.
But, as it stands, Balaclava Junction is a gorgeous little strip with a lot of punch packed into its brief format. It touches on several deep, churning points such as religion, belief, childhood, and the need to belong, whilst upholding a bright, likable tone. It offers curious insight into the conflicts faced by Jewish people caught in the vortex between being true to their faith and adapting to the modern world, and would stir a nostalgic pot for the residents of South East Melbourne. If nothing else, Balaclava Junction acts as a sample of Gonzo Comics’ immense potential and talent, and makes their next project, another visual comic entitled The Adventures of Haman, seem very promising indeed. It may not set the world on fire, but Balaclava Junction is charming, heartfelt and a wonderful debut to a terrific new company that is well worth your time and future attention.
– Andrew Kelso