I contend that Aotearoa New Zealand’s most successful international comic artists are Kim Casali and Susan Te Kahurangi King. And I have evidence. I guess though some people disagree with me, given the absence of both women in various histories and exhibitions of NZ Comics* (please note the lack of inverted commas although I think in this instance they are probably justified. RESTRAINT).
In this post I am going to provide the evidence. And although their success does not require it, I love the work of both. So I am going to talk about that too.
Kim Casali – the evidence
In the 1960s Kim Casali created the comic ‘Love is…’ in the form of love notes to her husband. From these she made a zine (although she likely wouldn’t have used this term) which she sold in her office for $1.00 a copy. Someone at the LA Times (she lived in America, returning to NZ in the 1970s) got hold of it and the newspaper started printing the individual cartoons under the pen name ‘Kim”. They were really popular and were soon syndicated, winding up published in fifty countries world-wide!
‘Love is…’ also appeared as greeting cards, t-shirts, action figures, books etc.
Susan Te Kahurangi King – the evidence
(Please note – Susan Te Kahurangi King’s work defies categorization. However her sisters and she agreed to inclusion in the book ‘Three Words: An Anthology of Aotearoa New Zealand Women’s Comics’. They felt OK about using the word ‘comics’ and therefore so do I).
Susan Te Kahurangi King has spent her life methodically creating a mixed-media universe, making over 10 000 drawings. In 2008/9 she was ‘discovered’ and had her first solo show in Sydney. Since then she has exhibited at the most impressively hardcore of art institutions like the Paris Outsider Art Fair; Andrew Edlin Gallery (New York); Institute of Contemporary Art (Miami); Marlborough Contemporary Gallery (London); and Intuit Art Centre (Chicago).
The Museum of Modern Art; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Chartwell Collection; and the James Wallace Arts Trust have collections of her work. In 2016 the American Folk-Art Museum founded the Susan Te Kahurangi King Fellowship program.
Kim Casali and Susan Te Kahurangi King’s are successful in completely different ways. But global-wise they are both LEGENDS. And as far as I know no other Aotearoa New Zealand comic-maker comes close (possibly Murray Ball gets the silver medal).
They are monstrously unique but I think they do have some qualities in common. For a start I love them both and for lots of the same reasons, like:
Both are self-taught and have developed their processes and aesthetics however the fuck they’ve wanted to. Closely related to this is their integrity. The two are true to themselves and have (spectacularly) succeeded on their own terms; expressing in their work (conscious or not) a lack of concern about trends or rules or widespread appeal.
In being the above they have challenged and triumphed over traditional definitions of ‘comics’ albeit in different ways. Kim Casali’s cartoons are simple, flat, untechnical, repetitive, unshackled by long (tedious) narratives, fancy backgrounds, swooshy angles and things-that-look-like-things. Susan Te Kahurangi King’s comics are similarly free of convention. They are mesmerising, lush, full of swirly floating forceful cartoon characters and environments in colours you didn’t know existed. Both women’s comics are weird and beautiful and perfect.
There is an, erm domestic aspect (can’t think of another word but this one is OK) to the comic-making of Susan Te Kahurangi King and Kim Casali. They have strong family supports – Kim Casali’s husband, Susan Te Kahurangi King’s sisters. And it might also be said they both have traditionally ‘female’ qualities in their work; Kim Casali’s romance, Susan Te Kahurangi King’s decorativeness (to be honest I am not completely sure of this point hence the word ‘might’. But I find it interesting to consider).
Both women are fascinating outside of their comics. In one of the first cases of its kind, Kim Casali gave birth to a child sixteen months after the death of her husband, having been artificially inseminated with his frozen sperm. This act gave rise to fierce legal debates about the baby's right to inheritance and made front-page news across the world. It also pissed off the Vatican which described her actions as “against evangelical morality." Bunch of dicks.
Susan Te Kahurangi King’s ability to speak declined at about the age of four and her talking disappeared when she was eight. Throughout her childhood she drew and drew and continued to do so until the early 1990s when she decided to stop for reasons unknown. Susan Te Kahurangi King resumed painting, sketching, collaging, colouring in 2008 whilst being filmed for a documentary. She has not stopped again (fingers crossed).
Kim Casali and Susan Te Kahurangi King rule so hard.
*The exception being Susan Te Kahurangi King’s inclusion in Three Words. But I was knee-deep in that so I don’t think it counts.