Australia loves superheroes. In 2018, the four highest grossing films at the Australian box office were superhero movies,1 Melbourne hosted the interactive exhibition Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N., while the city’s Docklands Stadium was renamed Marvel Stadium when the Disney subsidiary purchased the naming rights. While the annexation of a major sports ground by a company synonymous with superheroes suggests a new level of pervasiveness, Australia has always demonstrated an interest in costume-clad adventurers. For example, in keeping with wider interest in American popular culture following the Second World War, there was a boom in local superhero comic books with titles such as Captain Atom, The Phantom Knight and The Crimson Comet. However as the leading scholar on Australian comics, Kevin Patrick, notes, many of these locally produced superhero comic books attempted to pass themselves off as US imports by affixing “Price in Australia” stickers to covers and ensuring the heroes had American civilian identities. As Patrick notes of Australia’s Captain Atom, whose alter ego was FBI agent Larry Lockhart, “to cast the likes of Captain Atom as anything other than American would have tested the credulity of Australian audiences.”2 Despite a ready local audience for superheroes and a tradition of producing superhero stories, Australian creators, on the page and screen, have rarely attempted to develop super-powered characters who were Australian and/or operated in a local setting. As US singer Tina Turner famously wailed on the soundtrack for Australian dystopic adventure film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (George Miller & George Ogilvie, 1985), “we don’t need another hero.”

This article will consider some of the reasons for the seeming incompatibility between Australia and the superhero. Drawing on 100 interviews with superhero creators and fans at Melbourne comic book conventions, this piece will organise and analyse the most frequently cited reasons for Australia’s superhero drought under three inter-related headings: “National Identity”, “Cultural Cringe” and “Market Differentiation”.3 Although many of the perceived obstacles to Australian superheroes are no longer relevant (and perhaps never were), the respondent interviews demonstrate how they still have potent purchase in Australian cultural life. This article will also consider how the recent emergence of local superhero writers and artists working for international publishers like Marvel and DC Comics can provide a corrective to outdated depictions of Australia. The analysis will conclude with an examination of how the Australian superhero TV show Cleverman surmounts many of the long-standing hurdles to Australian superheroes through a careful integration of superhero conventions and Indigenous mythology, suggesting a future direction for Australian superheroes.

Despite the dearth of Australian superheroes, 80 per cent of the creators and fans interviewed for this study said that they would be eager to see more local superheroes on the page and screen. However, when asked to name existing Australian heroes, many respondents struggled to identify any and those that did tended to point to international examples like the DC Comics villain Captain Boomerang, who had recently been reworked as an antihero in the superhero movie Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016).4

Traditionally, Australian characters in international comics were rare. For example, while the “Batmen of All Nations” team-up from Detective Comics #215 (January 1955) included Ranger from “Faraway Australia” he only received two lines of dialogue in the issue and was not included when the team reappeared in World’s Finest Comics #89 (July 1957). This apathy vanished in the 1980s, which geographer Alyson L. Greiner identifies as the “decade of the ‘Australian Invasion’”. Pointing to Outback heroes Mad Max and Crocodile Dundee, Greiner describes how “representations of Australia in American cinema and broadcast media became much more commonplace.”5 Comic book publishers in the United States and United Kingdom also attempted to take advantage of the unprecedented interest in Australia. For example, in 1988, Batman fought the boomerang-wielding “Aborigine”; the UK’s alternative comic book character Tank Girl roamed a post-apocalyptic Australia with her kangaroo boyfriend; and even the X-Men moved their headquarters to the Outback.

Detective Comics #591 (October 1988) in which Batman fights the “Aborigine”.

There were some local efforts during this time to create Australian superheroes, with the most successful example being The Southern Squadron by David de Vries and Glenn Lumsden. The superhero team were first published in the comics anthology Cyclone! in 1985 before receiving a dedicated title that was also republished in the US. Cover blurbs introduced the Southern Squadron as “Australia’s own superhero trouble shooters!” The irreverent comic played upon distinctly Australian conventions with team members such as the beer-swilling ocker Nightfighter and the beast-like Dingo. However, despite wider interest in Australia during the 1980s, there were no sustained attempts to produce superheroes, and none of the local examples introduced during this time were identified by this study’s respondents, who tended to point to Australian characters created by US publishers.As stereotypical as international examples might be, with Australian creators unable or unwilling to provide local super-powered heroes, depictions of Australia in superhero stories were provided by overseas creators. As demonstrated by this study’s responses, these international examples have also been influential in Australia, even while they perpetuate stereotypes that bear little resemblance to the lives of most Australians. For instance, Cleverman creator Ryan Griffen highlighted the little-known Avenger Manifold as an example of an Indigenous Australian hero, but cautioned, “These are superheroes that were created by people outside of Australia and they’re just using either stereotypes or what they can quickly Google to help fuel the creation of the characters.” Given the local enthusiasm for masked marvels it is important to consider why Australia has generally avoided creating home-grown superheroes, how this shortfall has allowed certain stereotypes to go unchallenged and where this seeming incompatibility is slowly being resolved.

National Identity

When asked about Australian superheroes for this project, American writer-artist James O’Barr, creator of The Crow, identified costumed crime fighter the Phantom. When it was explained that the Phantom was not actually Australian, but the creation of New Yorker Lee Falk, O’Barr replied, “It’s kind of mystifying because he’s forgotten about in the US.” As Patrick details in his exhaustive study The Phantom Unmasked, although the purple spandex-wearing adventurer was an American creation, the Phantom was adopted by Australia following his introduction in the housekeeping magazine Australian Woman’s Mirror in 1936.6 Although appearing before Superman, the Phantom is not considered the first classical superhero by scholars like Peter Coogan due to the comic’s jungle setting.7 However, as Patrick notes, the “factors that arguably militated against the Phantom’s popular acceptance in his American homeland – such as his lack of superpowers, or recognizably American origin or setting – did much to enhance his international appeal.” In keeping with wider resistance to American cultural imperialism, Patrick adds, “Australians, it seemed, admired the Phantom because they saw him as the very antithesis of the American ‘super’ hero.”8 Drawing on extensive research with generations of Australian Phantom fans (or “Phans”), Patrick describes how his survey respondents gravitated to the character because he embodied “Australian” values. However, what are the tenets of Australian national identity that seem to resist the classical superhero?

As tourism scholar Sue Beeton notes, since Federation in 1901 Australian culture has often sought to forge a distinct identity by positioning the Australian bush and bushman as a “symbol of nationalism.”9 This tactic served to differentiate Australia from European idylls and urban centres by depicting Australia as a distant and often unforgiving rural landscape thinly populated by a hard-working and humble people. However, in an attempt to forge a distinct national identity, such cultural nationalism has implicitly endorsed colonialist images of Australia. This tradition has continued with many scholars pointing out how, despite Australia being one of the most urbanised countries in the world today, local arts and culture often depict the nation as a “blank canvas” free from the restrictions of the modern world.10

Created in the depths of the Depression as a response to the challenges of the Machine Age, superheroes are inescapably modern and urban. As Ben Highmore notes of these thoroughly modern marvels, superheroes are a “species that has adjusted to the modern city and overcome its obstacles.”11 Often considered the first classical superhero, Superman demonstrated this Machine Age resilience from his first appearance in Action Comics #1 (June 1938) in which he hurdled a twenty-storey building and outpaced an express train. Scottish comic book writer Grant Morrison argues that, “Like jazz and rock ‘n’ roll,” the superhero is also a “uniquely American creation.”12 Such US origins were part of the superhero’s long-standing appeal in Australia, but it has also provoked wider concerns regarding cultural imperialism. For instance, one article published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 28 December 1948, “Are ‘Comic’ Books Harmful to the Minds of Young Readers?”, warned that “the language used in many of the comics on sale in Sydney shows an unmistakable United States origin.”13 However, as Patrick explains, many of the superhero comics identified in the article were actually locally produced, albeit with American trappings.14 Thus, almost from their inception, star-spangled, city-dwelling superheroes have clashed with the traditions of Australian national identity such as: the Outback, the bushman and egalitarianism.

Beeton notes how, in the pursuit of a distinct national identity near the end of the 19th century, bush poets such as “Banjo” Paterson and Henry Lawson reworked European rural idylls by focusing on the countryside as “a living being to [be] conquered by living in it, not passively enjoyed.”15 Thus, the capacity to live in an inhospitable environment became central to Australian cultural nationalism, with the everyday celebrated as a heroic triumph. Despite the bush/Outback experience being out of step with the daily lives of most Australians, it has found an eager audience internationally with Australia often positioned for the “tourist gaze.”16 In his cross-cultural reception study of the Australian adventure film Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986), Stephen Crofts notes how US reviewers described how the film depicted Australia as a “lost frontier,” with reviewers speculating that its stateside success owed much to it providing American audiences with a “primal innocence” they felt they had lost.17 US superhero comic books also participated in this representation of the Australian landscape as a frontier free from the stifling conformity of progress. For example, presaging the casting of Australian actor Hugh Jackman as Canadian character Wolverine in cinema, in Uncanny X-Men #230 (June 1988) X-Man Rogue comments on her teammate’s seeming suitability to the Australian Outback: “Wolvie loves this wilderness. It’s as elemental as he is … country where you work to nature’s schedule an’ rules not some arbitrary man-made timepiece”.

Many of this study’s respondents echoed this wider perception of Australia. For example, Australian actor Eka Darville (Jessica Jones) perpetuated the urban/rural dichotomy, commenting, “Aussies have a very special connection with nature, because America has been so dominated there’s not that kind of [connection]. Every Aussie has grown up with snakes and spiders and all of these kind of threats that make the natural world very real.” Similarly, Australian comic book writer and publisher Darren Koziol explained how the comics he publishes under his company Dark Oz “contain a lot of Australian themes and characters […] The previous issue I did – the Ozploitation issue – was very popular, we got these American tourists stuck in the Aussie Outback playing up to all your usual stereotypes of everything in Australia wants to kill you.” Koziol later added, “I actually wrote that story knowing I was going to San Diego Comic-Con, so I specifically aimed and designed it to play up to their ideas of Australia and to really captivate [US readers].” With the proven success of Outback-set Australian stories, there has often been little appetite among local or international creators to move these adventures to the urban environments where superheroes traditionally operate. With no buildings to leap in a single bound, how can a Superman test his mettle in the Outback? Nonetheless, this mythologised terrain does produce heroes of a different order.

Cover of the “Ozploitation” issue of Australian comic Decay (April 2016).

Beeton notes how “even though most of today’s Australians have little direct relationship with any Australian bushmen,” the self-reliant and resourceful rural worker who overcame Australia’s unforgiving landscape is still a “symbol of nationalism.” She adds that the myth is “analogous to the pervasive legend of the American west and the notion of ‘the frontier’ in the American psyche.”18 This Western gunslinger is often considered the superhero’s immediate antecedent.19 However, as the Machine Age progressed the cowboy was increasingly out of step with contemporary US interests; Ramzi Fawaz distinguishes the superhero from the Western gunfighter through the superhero’s “mutually constitutive relationship to twentieth-century science and technology.”20 Thus, while US and Australian heroic types share frontier origins, US superheroes became modern, urban and optimistic, while their Australian cousins maintained a rural tradition that prized stoicism, self-reliance and rough pragmatism. Indeed, many of this study’s respondents pointed to bushman descendants Mad Max and Crocodile Dundee when identifying local heroes, but noted that these heroes did not fully align with the classical superhero, with typical responses including, “Australian superheroes would look like [wildlife expert parody] Russell Coight“; “like [wildlife documentarian] Steve Irwin or Crocodile Dundee. [Someone who] uses crocodiles as his power or something like that would be pretty cool”; and “Could you imagine someone like Crocodile Dundee being a superhero with a cape?”

Part of the incompatibility between the superhero and the rural “battler” is the bushman’s inability to accommodate what Morrison identifies as “the transcendent element in the Superman equation”: the secret identity.21 Sociologist Karina J. Butera notes of the “toughness, independence and resilience” of Australian masculinity and mateship that “overt displays of vulnerability or emotion are to be avoided”.22 The superhero’s transformation from a mild-mannered civilian identity to a paragon of masculinity is widely considered a key convention of the genre and central to the superhero’s appeal.23 While the urban centres of US superhero stories allow these characters to hide out as reporters and playboy billionaires, the unrelenting rural experience of the bushman and his descendants does not permit such moments of vulnerability. Indeed, drawing comparisons with the antihero protagonists of 1950s’ revisionist Westerns like The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), Rose Lucas describes Mad Max as “a superman who refuses to resume the costume of the ordinary.”24 Indeed, Clark Kent wouldn’t last five minutes in this mythic Outback.

Although traditional Australian heroic types are at odds with the superhero’s vulnerable civilian identity, they also tend to resist the garishness of the costume-clad alter-ego. In his article “An Australian Superman,” philosopher Damon Young imagines what might have happened if the infant Superman had landed in the Australian Outback rather than the cornfields of Kansas. Noting the centrality of the image of “tough, simple, hard-working diggers … the Anzac legend of stoic mateship and silent sacrifice” and the celebration of “egalitarianism” within Australian national identity, Young concludes that his Australian Superman “is more likely to become a cautious provincial survivor than a messianic hero.”25 This democratic spirit still resonates in Australian cultural life and is often demonstrated through “Tall Poppy Syndrome,” which journalist Peter Hartcher identifies as an “unspoken national ethos” that “no Australian is permitted to assume that he or she is better than any other Australian. How is this enforced? By the prompt corrective of levelling derision.”26 It is hard to imagine a taller poppy than the spandex-wearing popinjays who leap from the covers of US comics. In Young’s Australian Superman, the hero never adopts a public heroic identity. Accordingly, he avoids the tall poppy status that is so unpalatable to many Australians, including a number of this study’s respondents. As Wonder Woman artist Nicola Scott summarised, “Our superheroes are like Mad Max. When I think of an Australian superhero I don’t think of someone wearing spandex – that’s a really American image.”.

Fans and creators interviewed for this study consistently pointed to the tenets of Australian national identity, including the Outback, the bushman and egalitarianism when describing local heroes, with many suggesting that these qualities were at odds with the urban, optimistic and individualistic superhero. While these qualities were used to forge a distinct Australian national identity, these foundational myths do not align with the experience of many Australians who today live in one of the world’s most urbanised countries. That Australian superhero fans struggled to imagine superheroes existing in an Australian context testifies to the hegemonic dominance of this particular brand of national identity. However, the resistance to Australian superheroes also points to a cultural cringe that still seems to haunt much of Australian art and entertainment.

Cultural Cringe

The term “cultural cringe” was popularised by Melbourne-born critic and teacher Arthur Phillips to describe the presumed superiority of culture produced overseas (in particular England) compared to local efforts. Writing in 1950, Phillips described “a disease of the Australian mind” which he identifies as “an assumption that the domestic cultural product will be worse than the imported article.”27 Greiner, citing Stephen Alomes, suggests that such cultural cringe gives way to the “peculiarly Australian practice of ‘knocking’, or constantly criticizing things Australian.”28 Indeed, despite broad enthusiasm for more Australian superheroes, many of this study’s respondents ridiculed the possible results: “I can’t imagine someone really Australian unless you get someone really bogan”, “if they had a super-ocker accent, that would be hilarious”; and “there was an Australian Deadpool [in cosplay] before. He had a cork hat, so something like that?”29

Patrick notes of one of the first Australian superhero comics, Jo and Her Magic Cape, first published in 1945, “the approach, widely emulated by subsequent Australian-drawn superhero comics, was a harbinger of what architect and social commentator Robyn Boyd denounced as the ‘culture of Austerica’. Australian society, he argued, was ‘mesmerized by the appearance of Americana’, but was only capable of producing an austere, threadbare imitation of American popular culture.”30 Similarly, many of this study’s respondents worried that local efforts could only offer attenuated avengers. Demonstrating the reach of US popular culture, one fan attending Oz Comic-Con dressed as Captain America cautioned “Australian superheroes? You know what, no, because I think our superpowers would be like throwing drop bears and drinking grog. Unless you wanted a Captain Bogan? No, let’s just leave it to the big boys shall we?”31

Reflecting on the difficulties faced by Australian writers, such as the Jindyworobak Movement, to forge a unique culture, Phillips describes how when local authors use Australian imagery it “doesn’t quite come off” as it heightens our awareness of the writer’s process.32 Similarly, some respondents identified a tension between distinctly Australian elements being added to a character type so firmly associated with the US: “What about the accent? It probably just wouldn’t sound right.” However, Morrison argues that “superheroes were nothing if not adaptable, and as they grew and multiplied across the comic-book pages of the Free World, they happily took on the flavor of their surroundings.”33 Many fans were eager for superheroes with such a local flavour: “I think an Australian superhero would be just like a normal superhero, but maybe with a bit more of a relaxed attitude.” Phillips might have endorsed such a laidback Australian superhero, as he concluded his analysis of cultural cringe with a call for Australian art to be “unselfconsciously ourselves,” adding that “the opposite of the Cringe is not the Strut, but a relaxed erectness of carriage.”34

Market Differentiation

Describing the superhero dominance of the US comic book industry in 2000, Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons remarked, “superheroes are a genre that has overtaken a medium.”35 Since then, this superhero dominance has spread to mainstream cinema, television and video games. However, most entries in the superhero genre still tend to stem from the two big US publishers Marvel and DC Comics, making it difficult for creators from any country to introduce new costumed crimefighters. For example, Koziol – who mainly publishes horror and science fiction titles – suggested, “I don’t think we get too many Australian superheroes because the market is already dominated by all your Marvel and DC superheroes.” This sentiment was shared by Wolfgang Bylsma, the editor-in-chief of Australia’s leading graphic novel publisher, Gestalt, “If you look at Marvel and DC, which most people describe as the ‘big two’, that’s where the majority of people buy their superhero comics from […] there’s just too much of it to really make enough noise with new titles.” Thus, a pragmatic need for differentiation in an international and domestic market already clogged with costume-clad characters has also contributed to the dearth of locally-produced Australian heroes. Although the 100 creators and fans interviewed for this study have helped articulate the existing reasons for Australia’s seeming incompatibility with the superhero, they also hint at how these hurdles might be surmounted, if not quite in a “single bound.”

From Bushman to Cleverman

There have been consistent attempts to challenge the dominance of US superheroes in Australia. Patrick notes how, in the 1960s, the first organised Australian comic book fan communities were raised “on local editions of overseas comics, as well as Indigenous publications” and celebrated local achievement through fanzines like Down Under, whose editor, John Ryan, dismissed readers with a “single-minded devotion to Marvel Comics” as “fanatics.”36 Cosplayers have also sought to recover Australian characters created by international writers and artists. For instance, a 2017 exhibition at the Melbourne Museum, Marramb-ik, focused on Aboriginal superheroes created by and for Aboriginal people. It featured the work of Indigenous cosplayer Cienan Muir, who attends comic book conventions dressed as the DC Comics villain Captain Boomerang – a white Australian character who uses the Indigenous Australian tool to super-powered effect. Such cosplay reclaims the stereotypical Australian character, and as the museum notes explained, “Cienan believes the very act of cosplay shows that a person can dismantle the concept of shame, suspend judgement and eliminate intimidation.”

While acknowledging that some Australian superheroes have appeared in international comics, Cleverman star Hunter Page-Lochard argued that “I think what’s important now is that these characters start being created by Australian people.” Traditionally, “all of American comics were created by a couple hundred people in the New York metro area.”37 In recent years digital technologies have enabled international creators to shape these US icons, with Australians Tom Taylor, Nicola Scott and David Yardin, who were interviewed for this study, working on high-profile US comics including X-Men, Wonder Woman and Black Panther. Taylor argues that “there aren’t enough Australian superheroes and there definitely should be more,” and has based some of his US comics in Australia. For instance, in one Melbourne-set Injustice: Gods Among Us story (April, 2013) a local superhero attempts to assert Australian sovereignty in the face of a now villainous Superman, but his powers are revealed to be a dull imitation of the Man of Steel and he is quickly overpowered. This could be read as a metaphor for how US superhero comics dominate Australia, but it also points to the subtle influence Australian creators are now able to cast over an increasingly global comic book industry. Taylor’s Superman does not touch down in an ersatz Outback, but rather in an accurate depiction of urban Australia, with details specific to the writer’s Melbourne. The success of these Australian creators helps to dismantle the stereotypes of an outdated national identity, while the endorsement of US publishers Marvel and DC Comics combats cultural cringe. Nonetheless, these are still US comics. In 2016, in contrast, local creators offered a significant contribution to the superhero pantheon that was unambiguously Australian: Cleverman.

Injustice: Gods Among Us #13 (April 2013), in which Melbourne hero Galaxor attempts to assert Australia’s sovereignty in the face of a now villainous Superman.

Cleverman was created by Indigenous writer Ryan Griffen, who, when interviewed for this research, described how following an afternoon playing Batman with his son, he wanted to create something that his child “could connect to on a cultural basis […] an Aboriginal superhero.” The eventual television show, Cleverman, was first broadcast in 2016, and imagines an X-Men-like near-future Australia in which mythological “Hairypeople” have re-emerged to take their place alongside humans. However, coexistence is not easy, with government agencies unwilling to recognise the Hairypeople (or “Hairies”) as citizens and limiting their movements to a heavily-policed “Zone”. Drawn into this conflict is Koen West, a reluctant superhero who has recently become the Cleverman, a conduit for Australia’s First Nations people to the Dreaming.38 With a largely Indigenous Australian cast and crew, Cleverman successfully negotiates many of the perceived obstacles to Australian superheroes.

In keeping with superhero conventions, Cleverman is largely set in a generic cityscape (recognisably Sydney to locals), but it maintains a connection to native traditions. As creator Griffen explains, “We’ve used our culture, the Aboriginal culture, in different ways: to give one of our characters a story arc, […] to create the creatures in our world, and we also used it for just opening up the spectrum of political issues.” However, superhero genre conventions do not always align with cultural sensitivities, with Griffen describing how in developing the show “you’ll hear a story beat that is amazing in the genre world and you really want to do it, but I’ll be sitting in the room and I’ll put my hand up and go, ‘Well, we can’t do that because of the cultural sensitivity […].’ And so you then need to figure out a way to create that story and adhere to the culture, but also what people expect out of genre.” Through a commitment to First Nations peoples and their culture, Cleverman does not offer the pale imitation of US superheroes that so many of this study’s respondents feared, but rather it adapts the superhero to a local context.

Cleverman also avoids the cultural cringe that burdens much of Australian output, as it comes with tacit international approval: among the show’s production partners is the US cable channel Sundance TV, the creature effects were provided by the Oscar-winning Weta Workshop and the cast includes recognisable international actors such as Game of Thrones star Iain Glen. However, the show is not merely reflective of growing Australian confidence, but is active in contributing to that confidence. For instance, when interviewed for this study prior to the show’s premiere, actor Adam Briggs described how “growing up, the only Indigenous superhero that I knew of was Bishop from X-Men,” but he believed that a superhero show like Cleverman demonstrated a greater “confidence,” adding that “things like this are only going to spark ideas and have kids writing their own stories, and finally putting themselves in these roles of being leaders.” This confidence was evident when Page-Lochard attended the Melbourne comic convention AMC following the show’s well-received first season. The actor described how “to be at a Con where I’m sitting next to [Wolverine comic book writer] Larry Hama and there’s a Disney princess walking past me [voice actress Linda Larkin] and I’ve got a Cyborg (Justice League actor Ray Fisher) next door, it’s like whoa, this is awesome. But the thing that’s most awesome about it is little small me from Australia deserves to be here as much as they do.”

In his essay “The Cultural Cringe,” Phillips identifies a lack of distinct cultural traditions in Australia for prompting unfavourable comparisons between local artistic works and those produced overseas: “We cannot shelter from invidious comparisons behind the barrier of a separate language; we have no long-established or interestingly different cultural tradition to give security and distinction to its interpreters.”39 However, Cleverman makes use of Indigenous Australian culture to serve as a point of differentiation, with Griffen explaining, “These are 60,000-year-old stories that have never been told in this sort of realm and that is what makes us unique, and that is what broadcasters around the world are looking for, something new, something different.” Thus, the use of local mythology not only provides the show’s creators with confidence, but also much-needed distinction in a crowded marketplace. For example, Gestalt editor-in-chief Bylsma was interviewed for this project in 2016. At that point Gestalt was primarily focused on horror and science fiction books. Bylsma believed that the comic market was saturated by superheroes, explaining “It feels like there’s enough to go around already. But who knows? I mean, somebody might surprise you with something that absolutely knocks it out of the park”. In 2017 Gestalt not only published the Cleverman tie-in comic book, but Bylsma co-wrote the comic with Griffen. Seemingly, the use of Indigenous Australian mythology was enough to rejuvenate the tired superhero genre, and provide the necessary market differentiation for a local superhero.

Cleverman #1 (September 2017) co-written by Ryan Griffen and Wolfgang Bylsma.

Through a deft mix of Indigenous mythology and superhero conventions, Cleverman demonstrates it is possible to reconcile those tensions – national identity, cultural cringe and market differentiation – that once kept Australia and the superhero apart, demonstrating that, despite Tina Turner’s protests, we do need another hero.

This research was conducted as part of the Superheroes & Me Linkage research project funded by the Australian Research Council.


  1. As of the date of publication, the four highest grossing films at the Australian box office in 2018 are Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony & Joe Russo, 2018), Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird, 2018), Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018), and Deadpool 2 (David Leitch, 2018).
  2. Kevin Patrick, “Age of the Atoman: Australian Superhero Comics and Cold War Modernity,” in The Superhero Symbol: Media, Culture, and Politics, eds. Liam Burke, Ian Gordon & Angela Ndalianis (Rutgers University Press, 2019), forthcoming.
  3. The interviews for this study were carried out as part of the Superheroes & Me research project funded by the Australian Research Council. In 2016 attendees and guests at Melbourne-based comic book conventions Supanova, Oz Comic-Con and AMC participated in semi-structured interviews about superheroes and fan culture. Additional interviews were carried out at a preview screening of Cleverman, also in 2016. Unless otherwise indicated, all quoted interviews are from this research.
  4. As this study’s interviews were largely conducted before Cleverman was broadcast, it is possible that respondents would have cited the character if the research had taken place following the television show’s first season.
  5. Alyson L. Greiner, “Popular Culture, Place Images, and Myths: The Promotion of Australia on American Television,” The Journal of Popular Culture 35, no. 1 (2001): p. 186.
  6. Kevin Patrick, The Phantom Unmasked: America’s First Superhero (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2017), p. 68.
  7. Peter Coogan, Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre (Austin, TX: MonkeyBrain Books, 2006), p. 182.
  8. Kevin Patrick, “The Transplanted Superhero: The Phantom Franchise and Australian Popular Culture,” in Superheroes on World Screens, eds. Rayna Denison and Rachel Mizsei Ward (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016), pp. 21–31.
  9. Sue Beeton, “Rural Tourism in Australia — Has the Gaze Altered? Tracking Rural Images Through Film and Tourism Promotion,” International Journal of Tourism Research 6, no. 3 (2004): p. 126.
  10. Paul Williams, “Beyond Mad Max III: Race, Empire, and Heroism on Post-Apocalyptic Terrain,” Science Fiction Studies 32, no. 2 (2005): p. 301; Marek Haltof, “In Quest of Self-Identity: Gallipoli, Mateship, and the Construction of Australian National Identity,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 21, no. 1 (1993): p. 29; Greiner, op. cit., p. 186.
  11. Ben Highmore, Cityscapes: Cultural Readings in the Material and Symbolic City (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 124.
  12. Grant Morrison, Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero (Jonathan Cape, 2012), p. 29.
  13. “Are ‘Comic’ Books Harmful to Minds of Young Readers?” The Sydney Morning Herald, 28 December 1948, p. 2.
  14. Patrick, “Age of the Atoman”, op. cit.
  15. Beeton, op. cit., p. 127.
  16. John Urry, The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies (London: Sage, 1990), p. 1.
  17. Stephen Crofts, “Cross‐Cultural Reception Studies: Culturally Variant Readings of Crocodile Dundee,” Continuum 6, no. 1 (1992): p. 161.
  18. Beeton, op. cit., p. 128.
  19. Robert C. Harvey, The Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic History (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996), p. 65.
  20. Ramzi Fawaz, The New Mutants Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics (New York: New York University Press, 2016), p. 6.
  21. Morrison, op. cit., p. 9.
  22. Karina J. Butera, “‘Neo-mateship’ in the 21st Century: Changes in the Performance of Australian Masculinity,” Journal of Sociology 44, no. 3, p. 269.
  23. Umberto Eco, “The Myth of Superman,” Diacritics 2, no. 1 (1972), p. 15; Richard Reynolds, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), pp.12–16; Coogan, op. cit., pp. 59–60.
  24. Rose Lucas, “Dragging It Out: Tales of Masculinity in Australian Cinema, from Crocodile Dundee to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” Journal of Australian Studies 22, no. 56 (1998): p. 143.
  25. Damon Young, “An Australian Superman,” Island, no. 137 (2014): pp. 29–30.
  26. Nigel Booker, “Our Colonial Columnist Continues to Deliver His Own Views and Opinions,” Riddle Magazine, 18 August 2018.
  27. Arthur Phillips, “The Cultural Cringe,” Meanjin 9, no. 4 (1950): p. 299.
  28. Greiner, op. cit., p. 186.
  29. “Bogan” and “ocker” are Australian slang terms that are often used pejoratively to describe someone who is unsophisticated and/or working class.
  30. Patrick, “Age of the Atoman”, op. cit.
  31. “Drop Bears” are an Australian in-joke about a predatory koala that attacks people who do not have an Australian accent (i.e. tourists). “Grog” is an Australian slang term for alcohol.
  32. Phillips, op. cit., p. 299.
  33. Morrison, op. cit., p. 29.
  34. Phillips, op. cit., p. 302.
  35. “Comics and Superheroes” (Supplementary material on DVD release of Unbreakable). DVD. Touchstone Home Video, 2000.
  36. Kevin Patrick, “(FAN) Scholars and Superheroes: The Role and Status of Comics Fandom Research in Australian Media History,” Media International Australia 155, no. 1 (2015): p. 31.
  37. Randy Duncan & Matthew J. Smith, The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. ix.
  38. The Dreaming is a central aspect of Aboriginal Australian spiritual beliefs. In Dreamtime, all life is part of a larger network that can be traced back to the great sprit ancestors of the Dreamtime.
  39. Phillips, op. cit., p. 299.

About The Author

Liam Burke is a senior lecturer and the coordinator of the Cinema and Screen Studies major at Swinburne University of Technology. Liam has published widely on comic books and adaptation. His next book, the edited collection The Superhero Symbol (with Ian Gordon and Angela Ndalianis), will be published by Rutgers University Press in 2019. Liam is a chief investigator of the Australian Research Council funded project Superheroes & Me.

Related Posts