It was early 2016 when the buzz started to build. Stories began to appear on the news and social media about the airing of the new television series Cleverman. There was a great sense that something unique was about to be screened on Australian television. Cleverman certainly lived up to the media hype. As one reviewer has explained, “From its initial announcement, the series not only attempted to merge Australian Indigenous culture with sci-fi tropes, but planned to overhaul diversity on Australian screens.”1 In addition to science fiction, Ryan Griffen, the creator, producer and writer of the series made his generic interests clear early on, stating that while playing with his son Koen (who the show’s main character is named after) he realised that he “wanted to create an Indigenous superhero that he could connect to like he does any other superhero.”2

This special dossier on Cleverman examines diverse aspects of the television series – from its relationship to the history of Australian and Indigenous Australian superheroes, to its exploration of sacred belief systems, and the recent extension of the storyworld through a comic book spin-off.

The Cleverman, Koen West (Hunter Page-Lochard). Courtesy of Goalpost Pictures and Pukeko Pictures.

Produced collectively by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Screen Australia, Goalpost Pictures, New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures and the US company Sundance TV, the series had global reach through distribution by the ABC (Australia), Sundance TV (USA), BBC Three (UK), Guan Yue International (China), and ONE (Germany). Cleverman was the first Australian television series to premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2016, and, subsequently, aired on Sundance TV on 1 June 2016, and the following night in Australia on the ABC. It was received with great acclaim internationally and locally, but this wasn’t the only reason that Cleverman was praised as a ground-breaking television series.

Significantly, it was the first time in Australian screen history that over 80 per cent of a cast and crew were of Indigenous descent. The creative team included showrunner Ryan Griffen, who created the original concept for the series, and directors Wayne Blair (whose other credits include The Sapphires (2012), Dirty Dancing (2017) and Redfern Now) and Leah Purcell (Black Chicks Talking (2002), She Say (2012), Redfern Now and The Secret Daughter). Alongside international actors such as Game of Thrones star Iain Glen, the show’s large Indigenous Australian cast includes Hunter Page-Lochard (who plays the complex hero-protagonist, Koen West), Rob Collins (as Koen’s brother Waruu), Rarriwuy Hick (as Latani, one of the ‘Hairies’), Deborah Mailman (as Aunty Linda, Koen’s adoptive mother), Tony Briggs (as Boondee, Latani’s father) and the legendary Jack Charles (who plays Uncle Jimmy West, the original Cleverman).

Among the show’s many novel approaches is its engagement with language. Reviewer Liz Keen explains how, “According to Languages Australia, hundreds of Australian Indigenous languages have died out in the past 200 years. One of the languages that almost died, but has been revived, is Gumbaynggirr, based on the mid north coast of New South Wales.”3 The Aboriginal characters in Cleverman speak both Gumbaynggirr (this is the language of the Hairypeople – the ancestors who have recently returned) as well as the northern NSW language of Bundjalung – a language saved by a group of elders who wanted it to live on. It was Gary Williams, the chief executive of the Muurrbay Language and Cultural Co-operative who worked with his team to translate the scripts and teach the cast correct pronunciation.

This respect for cultural heritage went further still in creating Cleverman. Griffen was sensitive to Australian Indigenous cultural protocols when drawing upon stories, characters and rituals from the Dreaming – cultural belief systems about how the world was created by spiritual beings. In order to retell stories (about the Cleverman, the Hairypeople, the Namorrodor monster), Griffen sought permission from many elders. Griffen relates that:

When we started to develop our stories I travelled back to my country in North West New South Wales, spoke to my families and reached out to other Elders out that way, travelled all the way up to places like Toomelah on the Queensland-New South Wales border, up to Lismore, to Bundjalung country and then all the way out to the middle of the Northern [Territory]. There are certain stories that we wanted to gain permission for, so we had to talk through what our intentions were … The benefit is that we are putting these stories into a genre world, so the Elders are a bit more open and understanding to talk about them. It’s not so much as a retelling of the stories, it’s almost like an homage.4

 Much of Cleverman’s novelty and impact comes from its hybridisation of the science fiction and superhero genres with ancient stories taken from Aboriginal spiritual beliefs and practices. In a review of Cleverman, Matt Norman acknowledges that “Cleverman never tried to hide its political streak,” finding that “its segregated society, persecuted minority, oppressive government and profit-driven media machine offer fertile ground for social commentary.” However, he dismisses “the sociopolitical backdrop,” stating that, ultimately, it fails to “transcend the boundaries of the superhero genre.”5

This reductive perspective fails to understand the important social role that the superhero genre plays in delivering powerful personal, social and political messages disguised as metaphor or mythic typologies. For example, political geographer Jason Dittmer believes that superheroes are not merely reflective of prevailing sentiment but can be active in changing opinion. Dittmer uses the example of Captain America promoting an “interventionist attitude” prior to official US involvement in World War II, but one might also point to the impact of Wonder Woman on generations of feminists or how X-Men addressed complex topics like prejudice that most popular media avoided.6 Cleverman continues this tradition by using the broadly appealing superhero genre – filtered through the lens of Dreamtime – to address contemporary and past horrors and injustices. Tyson Yunkaporta neatly sums up how Cleverman pulls no punches when it comes to its relationship to real history:

The first season explored segregation and the myths of primitivism and progress through the introduction of the “hairies” of Aboriginal lore, an ancient culture uneasily labelled by the authorities as sub-human, despite their superior strength, cultural complexity and long lifespan. This recalls similarly disingenuous narratives of racial supremacy and primitivism deployed during Australia’s colonisation. The second season boldly introduces the theme of biological genocide, referencing the many historical policies of breeding out the natives – like the Stolen Generations and the Victorian Half-Caste Act – which were the first order of business at Australia’s Federation.7

The show’s generic backdrop makes possible commentary on the colonisation of Australia, Indigenous land rights, racism, police brutality, the unethical use of genetic experimentation for personal and corporate gain, government corruption, the incarceration of refugees, environmental destruction – to name only a few issues that are central to Cleverman’s world.

Liam Burke’s essay “We Need Another Hero: The Incompatibility of Superheroes and Australia” opens up the discussion in this Cleverman dossier by addressing the absence of traditional superheroes in Australian culture, despite Australian fans and creators stating their desire for the opposite. Burke explores a number of possible reasons that may account for the lack of Australian superheroes produced locally, and outlines three factors that may have contributed to this absence: national identity and the persistence of the Bushman myth; the “cultural cringe” factor, whereby Australians considered themselves culturally inferior, and therefore unworthy of their own superheroes; and market differentiation, which pressured Australian creators and entertainment industries to offer alternatives to what was already a hugely successful import market of superhero properties. With a particular emphasis on the 1980s, Burke provides a historical overview of each of these areas before turning to the contemporary context. Drawing upon interviews he has conducted with fans and creators of superhero media, he considers some contemporary manifestations of Australian superheroes both within Australia and by US and UK comic book publishers, and ends his article by looking at the significance of Cleverman, which he argues “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.”

In his article “Dreamtime Mutants and Urban Vigilantes: Aboriginal Superheroes in American Comics”, Kevin Patrick picks up on Burke’s statement that, during the 1980s, things-Australian became a major influence overseas – Crocodile Dundee as the new Bushman-hero became an icon of ‘Ockerisms’ that the world couldn’t resist. Patrick focuses particularly on non-Australian created, Cleverman predecessors – Talisman, Gateway, Dreamguard/Willie Walkaway, Dark Ranger, Kaboomerang – which were created by US comic book companies. While always marginal characters in the worlds of Marvel and DC, Patrick explains that “whatever their shortcomings,” “America’s superficial fascination with Aboriginal culture during the late 1980s and early 1990s … legitimised the concept of Aboriginal superheroes decades before Cleverman made its television debut.”

Paul Atkinson, in “Visualising Life: Cleverman and the Vitalist Body”, provides an in-depth analysis of Cleverman, stressing the show’s importance in introducing Cleverman as a superhero and the Hairypeople as superhumans. Pointing to parallels that exist between Cleverman and Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men – especially in the discrimination against people because of their superhuman abilities – Atkinson states that the “series knowingly reflects on race and the politics of discrimination, but owing to this superhuman premise, it also introduces arguments on how physical differences can, or indeed should, be conceptualised socially, politically and scientifically.” Atkinson argues that Cleverman draws upon themes of vitalism by valorising the natural body (represented by the spirit energy of the Cleverman and the vital bodies of Hairypeople) over the body enhanced by scientific interference (as represented, particularly, by billionaire Jarrod Slade’s (Iain Glen) genetic experiments on the ‘Hairies’). As Atkinson explains, “Unlike many superhero texts that celebrate the augmentation of the human body through non-natural means … Cleverman valorises natural physical advantages and critiques technologies that seek to improve human bodies outside the natural course of evolution.”

The dossier concludes with Tara Lomax’s article “‘Too Busy Building a World to Tell a Story’: Between World-Building and Storytelling in the Cleverman Storyworld”. Lomax examines the Cleverman television series and comic book from the perspective of transmediality and world-building. With only two seasons of the television show and one comic book so far, Lomax argues that the Cleverman storyworld reveals a great deal about transmedia and “the dynamic that exists between storytelling and world-building.” Analysing the relationship between the television show and the comic, she focuses on intersections that are about process: the storyworlds of the television show and comic; the Dreaming and its contemporary manifestations in new media contexts and new genres (science fiction and superhero); and genre and myth. Lomax concludes by stating the Cleverman’s “interstitial role” is “a conduit between the Dreaming and the real-world [that] functions across multiple dimensions – spatial, aesthetic, narrational, and mythological – within and beyond the storyworld.”

This dossier merely skims the surface in exploring the range of rich and meaningful issues that underlie this ground-breaking series and its comic book extension. We hope that this is just the beginning of future studies about Cleverman.

Endnotes:

  1. Mat Whitehead, “Cleverman: How A Landmark Series Became the Benchmark,” The Huffington Post, 1 August 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/07/31/cleverman-how-a-landmark-series-became-the-benchmark_a_23057300/
  2. Ryan Griffen, quoted in ibid.
  3. Liz Keen, “Cleverman Showcases Revival of Australia’s Indigenous Languages,” ABC, 4 Jul 2016, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-04/cleverman-showcases-revival-of-indigenous-languages/7561842
  4. Griffen, quoted in Whitehead, op. cit.
  5. Matt Norman, “Violence, Superheroes and Cleverman,” Overland, 7 July 2016, https://www.overland.org.au/2016/07/violence-superheroes-and-cleverman/
  6. Jason Dittmer, Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives, and Geopolitics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013), p. 6.
  7. Tyson Yunkaporta, “Not So Fictional Cleverman,” Realtime, 28 June 2017, http://www.realtime.org.au/not-so-fictional-cleverman/

About The Author

Angela Ndalianis is Research Professor in Media and Entertainment at Swinburne University of Technology. Her book publications include Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (2004), Science Fiction Experiences (2010), The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses (2012) and the edited book The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (2009). She is currently working on the book Batman: Myth and Superhero (Rutgers University Press). Angela is lead investigator of the Australian Research Council funded project Superheroes & Me.

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.