Underground, a graphic novel by Mirranda Burton

It’s always interesting to see the next generation/s ‘discovering’ the history that we ourselves lived through.  Graphic artist Mirranda Burton was born in 1973, the year after Australia ceased conscription for the Vietnam War, and as it says in the introduction, it was not until 2011 when she was artist-in-residence in the former studio of artist Clifton Pugh at Dunmoochin in Victoria, that his activism against the Vietnam War triggered her interest in finding out more. Loosely based on historical fact, the resulting book is Underground, a graphic novel with the advantages and limitations of the format.  The advantages are that it will appeal to those who love the format, and to younger readers, especially those known in education circles as ‘reluctant readers’.  The art work is vibrant and dynamic, and the size of the book (18x26cm) means that the text is clear and easy to read.  (Which was not the case when I tried to read the Vintage edition of Persepholis, by Marjane Satrapi, translated by Mattias Ripa). One of the disadvantages, however, is that simplified text in this format can lack nuance, as for example on page 5 where we see in a text box about Clifton Pugh’s first wife Marlene that in 1952: Marlene Harvey was only nineteen.  There were rumours that she was a gangster’s moll and carried a gun under her breast. On page 7, we see that Despite the rumours, Marlene didn’t carry a gun.  More often than not, there was an orphaned marsupial in her handbag. But there’s nothing to refute the suggestion that she had been mixed up with gangsters or the other negative connotations of the rumour. Similarly, nuance is lacking on page 16 in the section about exemptions from National Service. We read that First Nations Australians were not eligible for registration and were not drawn from the ballot, as the government did not recognise them as Australian citizens.  It is estimated that around 300 First Nations Australians volunteered anyway. It is true that the first ballot for National Service in 1965 was before the 1967 referendum which changed the Constitution so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would be counted as part of the population and the Commonwealth would be able to make laws for them.  But that reason could not have applied as a reason for exemption after 1967.  Furthermore, ‘First Nations Australians’ implies those from the Torres Strait Islands as well as Aborigines, but Torres Strait Islanders were not exempt. The reason why they were not, and Aboriginal people were, was because the DNLS (Department of Labour and National Service) held that… “…it would be impossible to trace and oblige young Aboriginal men to register, as many of them did not know their birthdate. Not all States kept birth records of Aboriginals, and each defined Aboriginality differently. Aboriginal Australians could, however, volunteer for national service. The National Service Act did not refer to Torres Strait Islanders. As their dates of birth were usually recorded, the DLNS considered them liable to register but was lenient towards those who did not, for it considered that the scheme was insufficiently publicised in the Torres Strait Islands.” No action was taken against non-registering Torres Strait Islanders before September 1967. (Australian War Memorial Appendix: The national service scheme, 1964-72). The other issue that arises from this particular scene in the novel is that the illustration and the dialogue imply that Indigenous people volunteered solely because there were few other employment opportunities.  Having read Our Mob Served, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories of war and defending Australia by Allison Cadzow and Mary Anne Jebb, I know that this is indeed one of the pragmatic reasons why they volunteered. But it is not the only one: there are complex reasons why they served, and there is also a simple reason: Indigenous people love their country, and want to defend it.  Even if we think that the Cold War ‘domino theory’ threat to Australia was fanciful, that does not mean we should fail to acknowledge the patriotism of Aborigines who volunteered to serve in the Vietnam War. You can read more about this in my review of Our Mob Served, or better still, read the book. The main problem with Underground, is that its focus is primarily on Jean McLean as convenor of the Victorian Save Our Sons movement, with two other perspectives on the war little more than add-ons. There is a brief acknowledgement of the other women who were active in the SOS in the chapter about ‘The Fairlea Five’, but other than a brief reference in the notes at the back of the book, Underground makes no mention of the other SOS branches around Australia which were very active as well.  The book also has little to say about the other grassroots activist organisations which worked tirelessly to end conscription and Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War, often at great risk to themselves.  It is dismissive of

Underground, a graphic novel by Mirranda Burton

It’s always interesting to see the next generation/s ‘discovering’ the history that we ourselves lived through.  Graphic artist Mirranda Burton was born in 1973, the year after Australia ceased conscription for the Vietnam War, and as it says in the introduction, it was not until 2011 when she was artist-in-residence in the former studio of artist Clifton Pugh at Dunmoochin in Victoria, that his activism against the Vietnam War triggered her interest in finding out more.

Loosely based on historical fact, the resulting book is Underground, a graphic novel with the advantages and limitations of the format.  The advantages are that it will appeal to those who love the format, and to younger readers, especially those known in education circles as ‘reluctant readers’.  The art work is vibrant and dynamic, and the size of the book (18x26cm) means that the text is clear and easy to read.  (Which was not the case when I tried to read the Vintage edition of Persepholis, by Marjane Satrapi, translated by Mattias Ripa).

One of the disadvantages, however, is that simplified text in this format can lack nuance, as for example on page 5 where we see in a text box about Clifton Pugh’s first wife Marlene that in 1952:

Marlene Harvey was only nineteen.  There were rumours that she was a gangster’s moll and carried a gun under her breast.

On page 7, we see that

Despite the rumours, Marlene didn’t carry a gun.  More often than not, there was an orphaned marsupial in her handbag.

But there’s nothing to refute the suggestion that she had been mixed up with gangsters or the other negative connotations of the rumour.

Similarly, nuance is lacking on page 16 in the section about exemptions from National Service. We read that

First Nations Australians were not eligible for registration and were not drawn from the ballot, as the government did not recognise them as Australian citizens.  It is estimated that around 300 First Nations Australians volunteered anyway.

It is true that the first ballot for National Service in 1965 was before the 1967 referendum which changed the Constitution so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would be counted as part of the population and the Commonwealth would be able to make laws for them.  But that reason could not have applied as a reason for exemption after 1967.  Furthermore, ‘First Nations Australians’ implies those from the Torres Strait Islands as well as Aborigines, but Torres Strait Islanders were not exempt. The reason why they were not, and Aboriginal people were, was because the DNLS (Department of Labour and National Service) held that…

“…it would be impossible to trace and oblige young Aboriginal men to register, as many of them did not know their birthdate. Not all States kept birth records of Aboriginals, and each defined Aboriginality differently. Aboriginal Australians could, however, volunteer for national service. The National Service Act did not refer to Torres Strait Islanders. As their dates of birth were usually recorded, the DLNS considered them liable to register but was lenient towards those who did not, for it considered that the scheme was insufficiently publicised in the Torres Strait Islands.” No action was taken against non-registering Torres Strait Islanders before September 1967. (Australian War Memorial Appendix: The national service scheme, 1964-72).

The other issue that arises from this particular scene in the novel is that the illustration and the dialogue imply that Indigenous people volunteered solely because there were few other employment opportunities.  Having read Our Mob Served, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories of war and defending Australia by Allison Cadzow and Mary Anne Jebb, I know that this is indeed one of the pragmatic reasons why they volunteered. But it is not the only one: there are complex reasons why they served, and there is also a simple reason: Indigenous people love their country, and want to defend it.  Even if we think that the Cold War ‘domino theory’ threat to Australia was fanciful, that does not mean we should fail to acknowledge the patriotism of Aborigines who volunteered to serve in the Vietnam War. You can read more about this in my review of Our Mob Served, or better still, read the book.

The main problem with Underground, is that its focus is primarily on Jean McLean as convenor of the Victorian Save Our Sons movement, with two other perspectives on the war little more than add-ons. There is a brief acknowledgement of the other women who were active in the SOS in the chapter about ‘The Fairlea Five’, but other than a brief reference in the notes at the back of the book, Underground makes no mention of the other SOS branches around Australia which were very active as well.  The book also has little to say about the other grassroots activist organisations which worked tirelessly to end conscription and Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War, often at great risk to themselves.  It is dismissive of Gough Whitlam who as prime minister ended National Service when elected in 1972.

While Jean McLean played a important role in the Save Our Sons movement, Underground valorises her contribution at the expense of others equally brave and equally dedicated to the cause.  Underground also implies that SOS was very influential in achieving its aims, but this claim is contested.  As I read in Carolyn Collins’ authoritative history Save Our Sons: Women, Dissent and Conscription (see my review) there is disagreement about the impact of SOS, with opinions ranging from the belief that their contribution was vastly underestimated to suggesting that they were just one of a number of groups involved in the anti-conscription campaign. 

I hope that any teachers using Underground as a student resource have the background knowledge to clarify some aspects which could be misleading. It is a novel, and novelists don’t have the same responsibility to the verifiable truth as historians do.  But students studying this topic need to be made aware that this book has a partisan perspective which needs to be balanced by other texts.

Author & illustrator: Mirranda Burton
Title: Underground, Marsupial Outlaws and Other Rebels of Australia’s War in Vietnam
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2021
ISBN: 9781760631475, pbk., 272 pages
Source: Kingston Library