The work of Australian comics creator Bernard Caleo (1968 –) defies easy categorization. Inspired as much by his love of theatre and acting as it is by his passion for comics, Caleo’s work is best likened to theatrical performances on paper, peppered with allusions to film, classic literature, poetry and modern art. But his commitment to comic art is not confined to the page alone. As an editor, publisher, actor and filmmaker, Caleo has equally dedicated himself to educating – and energizing – Australian audiences about the mechanics of comics storytelling and the artistic potential of the graphic novel.
Many of Caleo’s stories are set in his hometown of Melbourne, ranging from its bustling city streets to its outlying bushland wilderness. His first major work, written in collaboration with artist Brendan Tolley, was Yell Olé (1993-1995), a surrealistic mystery set amidst the shadowy architectural landmarks of Melbourne. In a similar vein, Caleo used the mini-comic series, Café Ghetto (1998-2000), to attack property developers’ ruinous transformation of Melbourne’s cityscape under the guise of a satirical superhero adventure illustrated by John Murphy.
Caleo frequently straddled the creative intersection between comics and zines, and began writing and illustrating his own series of comic pamphlets, commencing with The Element of Surprise (1996), an homage to Hergé and Tintin, produced in collaboration with Narayan Khandekar. A self-taught artist, Caleo’s work would not have looked out of place in such alternative American comic anthologies as Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor (1976-1991). However, as editor and publisher of Tango (1997-2009), Caleo threw open the pages of this experimental romance comics anthology to an eclectic array of comic artists, zine-makers, animators and other storytellers, many of whom were working with the comics medium for the first time.
Caleo has been a tireless advocate for Australian comics and has championed graphic novels through countless exhibitions, workshops, performance pieces and public seminars given at schools, libraries and literary festivals throughout Australia and overseas. His most ambitious educative undertaking was Graphic Novels! Melbourne! (2012), a documentary produced in collaboration with co-writer and director, Daniel Hayward. Caleo interviewed some of Australia’s leading comic artists (including Nicki Greenberg, Bruce Mutard, Mandy Ord and Pat Grant) for the film, which he used to showcase the diversity and energy of Melbourne’s vibrant comics community.
Caleo continues to publish his own comics in a variety of formats. I Knew Him, a story about three friends set within the University of Melbourne in the mid-1990s, was serialized online (2006). He issued a new pamphlet series, Mongrel (2012-2013), featuring the exploits of The Uncanny Expats, which reimagined Australia’s best known expatriate intellectuals, performers and artists – namely Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, Clive James and David Malouf – as an unlikely quartet of superheroes.