Comics were HUGE in the 1990’s, so huge in fact that much loved Australian anarchic-alternative band T.I.S.M (aka This Is Serious Mum) even had their own self-titled comic that ran for two issues from 1995 to 1996. It was published by the AAARGH! Comics imprint run by Australian comic creators Mark Sexton and John Petropoulos – who at the time were making waves with their Bug & Stump series.
The T.I.S.M comics were scripted by band members Peter Minack aka Ron Hitler Barassi and Damien Cowell aka Humphrey B Flaubert – with much of the comics being based directly on pre-existing song lyrics. They were both written and illustrated by Mark Sexton and John Petropoulos – aside from the cover for Issue 1, which was coloured by Damien Shanahan due to Damien having a computer to use for colouring.
The comic sold spectacularly well (issue one sold roughly 5,500 copies – no mean feat in a country like Australia with a small population) until a drug reference in a single panel in Issue 2 brought the whole thing crashing down – Leading to the comic’s distributor Gordon & Gotch refusing to sell the comic, as well as refusing to continue to distribute any further comics from AAARGH! Comics.
However, just like in classic tales of myth – the tragedy of loosing their comic careers led to both Mark and John finding new lives in other creative fields. With Mark becoming a storyboard artist – working on films such as Mad Max: Fury Road, and John becoming a toy designer.
We spoke with Mark and John to find out more about the whole saga and it’s impact on their lives.
Read about it all, below:
We begin, dear reader, with a brief synopsis of the whole affair from Mark:
Ah, the tales of past imperfect…
John Petropoulos and I put the second issue of T.I.S.M together from a script by the band’s singers – the first issue of T.I.S.M sold terrifyingly well for an Oz comic of the time, around 5500 copies from memory – In true form, the band decided to do something completely uncommercial so that no-one would buy it (a classic T.I.S.M move).
John and I were a bit nervous about various bits in one of the two tales in the issue that could have been considered libellous – John had just bought a house and was understandably a little concerned that might be in jeopardy.
We even checked with a lawyer to see if the material would be okay!
We gave preview copies to our rep at the distributors, Gordon & Gotch, asked him to look it over to see if there were any concerns. A week passed and there was no word, so we rang him to check and received a breezy “oh, no worries, we’ll take the usual 10000 copies.”
Pretty obvious he hadn’t even looked at it, but oh well.
So we sent it out.
Out the comic went to newsagents, everything was rosy…
Buuuuuut no-one – and I mean no-one, not us, not the distributor, not even the lawyer, thought anything of a single speech bubble a T.I.S.M band member uttered on page 3.
Taken in context, it was completely in keeping with the rest of the material and not an issue at all, if you simply turned the page and read on.
That speech bubble?
“Take drugs kids, did me no harm.”
If you turned the page then you saw the character take said drugs and then have a terrible time – but only if you turned the page.
And someone clearly didn’t turn the page.
So within 24 hours of release, the book was recalled nationwide, our distribution rep got raked over the coal and rang to say “how could you do this to me?” and furthermore, “we won’t distribute anything by you again.” So that was the end of T.I.S.M comics, the end of our other title Bug & Stump, and the end of AAARGH! Comics.
…but it still ended up selling about 3500 issues between distribution and the end of the two week recall period, so there you go.”
(Below is the first 5 pages of Issue 2 of the T.I.S.M comic – showing the drug taking sequence in whole.)
How did you and the T.I.S.M guys come to collaborate on a comic anyhow?
And they had discussed with him the possibility of a T.I.S.M comic. Well Dillon knew Mark and I were T.I.S.M tragic, and that we were disturbingly familiar with their work – especially Mark – and he recommended that the label contact us.
…There was a Cosmic Psychos comic being planned at one point too, but I can’t remember the details of that.
Also, disclaimer. I have what would in some circles be referred to as a shit memory, so Mark’s (many) corrections of my recollections will no doubt be more accurate.
So anyway, then it occurred to us that we were in fact members of T.I.S.M (shh) and as such it made sense that we do the comic… which was our idea btw.
Mark: I was never a member of T.I.S.M, but I do believe that at one point there was a theory that John and I were members. Which – if we’d been aware of it at the time – we would have done our best to support. True.
… In fact, didn’t we kind of talk the T.I.S.M manager into letting us publish the first T.I.S.M comic?
Did you and T.I.S.M share copyright and work on the comic as a collaboration?
… or were you guys more hired hands?
Mark: Copyright was actually never discussed. At all. And we never had any sort of contract.
In fact, the T.I.S.M comic #1 was originally supposed to have been intended to be a six-page press kit for the release for the upcoming Machiavelli and the Four Seasons Football Club album. Which we completely failed to do, and turned in a 21 page wafflefest about spurious theories about the meaning behind T.I.S.M.
And we did the whole thing in two and a half weeks. In the middle of doing the semi-regular BUG & STUMP series.
I wish I was that fast now.
John: Mark basically did T.I.S.M #1 by himself. I was away for most of that.
… On tour with the band? Hey I never said that.
Mark: Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a royalty cheque. Ever.
Have you ever seen a royalty cheque John?
John: Royalty check?
I voted for the Republic.
Why did the issues with Issue 2 also impact your publishing company (Aaargh Comics) to such a level that you had to shut it down?
John: The distributor, Gordon and Gotch – on learning that the comic included such filth, profanity and filth – called us and tried tearing strips off of us.
We calmly but firmly reminded the terrified little wanker that not only did we supply him with a sample to approve, we had actually drawn his attention to the problematic bits…
… AND we had written proof that he had OK’d it!
Mark: It did end with him whimpering, “How could you have done this to me?”
Do you remember his name, by any remote chance John?
John: I think it was Dipshit McFuckhead.
… So we said that if they were to pull them from shelves, we were to get all unsold copies – usually they pulp them. We ended up with a shit tonne of comics with newsagent price tags from around the country, which we carefully peeled off and sold at comic conventions, online and at comic shops.
IN FACT – correct me please if I remember this wrong – SmartArtists (Editor: T.I.S.M’s management company), no, they had another name when we dealt with them, can’t remember – paid us the princely sum of ONE T.I.S.M T-SHIRT…EACH to get some.
Mark: The whole thing did end up with the distributors saying they would not handle any more of our comics – so the entire news agency market of Australia, which was pretty much 90% of our business, gone overnight.
So at the time, there was a monopoly in Australia when it came to distributing comics through retailers such as newsagents?
… and the only other option aside from using the distributor, was to sell and market the comics yourself?
John: Yeah pretty much.
Mark: There were two other distributors, but they weren’t interested in handling comics, from memory.
So yes, after losing newsagency distribution, we only had the option of selling direct to comic stores and music stores.
Which was a pain in the arse.
Pulling back a bit – was T.I.S.M issue 2 actually banned by the censors – under law?
… or was it more just a case of the distributor choosing to no longer distribute it, and ultimately recall it, for their own reasons?
John: Option 2
Mark: Yes, more option 2, basically because it WAS newsagency distribution, which meant recall was quite quick and would manage to beat the authorities if they chose to ban the offending material.
Which was lucky really, because if it had gone that way then there would have probably been court cases and we couldn’t afford any of that bollocks! Starving artists and all that.
Looking back on the T.I.S.M comic, it’s legacy, your work on it, as well as the impact it had on your comic careers – what are your thoughts on it all?
Mark: Well, I didn’t do any more comic work for nineteen years… for which I think people should be quite grateful.
BUT it was directly responsible for me getting asked to do story-boarding for films…
It turned out that the director who did “The Crow” (Alex Proyas) was a T.I.S.M fan. He had broken his current storyboard artist and needed a new one, and having poor judgement thought I might be a suitable replacement.
So I moved to Sydney for six months and storyboarded Dark City. And haven’t quite got round to leaving yet.
Not even to visit John’s private zoo that he clearly bought with my royalty cheques.
John: My interaction with the Australian comic scene after Bug & Stump & T.I.S.M was to attend comic conventions and say g’day to those that were still doing it… usually with kids in tow tugging at my sleeve asking if they can gooooooooo because this was boooooooriiiiiiiinng Daaaaad.
And then I invaded Poland.
Mark shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Mark: Yes, John’s being designing things like Ooshies and Shopkins, which my seven year old is in deep favour of.
And is also worse than invading Poland.
Ironically, I now seem to be storyboarding Marvel movies, so back to comics world. And I occasionally do Judge Dredd stories for 2000AD, because I like doing it.
And I got to do some Mad Max comics as a tie-in to Fury Road a few years back. That was fun.
And Bug and Stump has appeared in every single one of those stories! Mwaha ha!
I think I’m a bit better at the drawing thing now.
Though that’s debatable.
What are each of your favourite T.I.S.M songs, and what is it about them that so moves you?
Mark: ‘The Mystery of the Artist Explained’ is definitely a favourite. The reason is contained within the chorus which is a repetition of the following line “I’m fucked in the head.”
This is, as should be quite apparent by now, an accurate reflection of reality.
Also quite like ‘Death Death Death Amway Amway Amway’, ‘The Last Australian Guitar Hero’, ‘Defecate On My Face’ (the country and western version), ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the Judeo-Christian Ethic’ (a song about the improper use of dogfood) and ‘Been Caught Wankin’ which I have an unfortunate habit of singing while in public spaces.
Despite their titles, these are all quite intelligent songs.
Or exercises in terrible puns.
Bit over my head really.
John: ‘Greg the Stop sign,’ It’s just so fun!
‘YOB’ and ‘Last Australian Guitar Hero’ too.
(Below is the music video for T.I.S.M’s 1995 track, ‘Greg the Stop Sign’.)
We’ve seen a version of Issue 2, and it includes a few parts in the 2nd tale were black bars with the word “censored” cover text.
… was this censoring in all versions of the comic?
John: Yeah that’s how we created it. Because we all know who it is.
Although I believe the song isn’t censored.
Mark: Yep. From memory the names were actually in the script, but it seemed funnier in print to censor it. I think.
The comic with the censored parts is the lyrics to T.I.S.M song ‘There’s More Men in Children Than Wisdom Knows‘ turned into a comic book.
Over 20 years later, are you (and vicariously T.I.S.M) willing to reveal the identity of the censored names?
We’re guessing the 2 on page 9 are obviously Evan Dando and Kylie Minogue.
BUT have no idea about who it is on Page 12. 🤔
Did you guys ever meet any members of T.I.S.M in real life?
… please share with our readers the tale(s) if so!
Mark: Welllllll, aaaaactually dahling, we were just having a faaaaabulous seventeen course degustation with the other band members (with matching wines, of course) and after a particularly cheeky pedro ximenez matched with magnificent seared scallops from the Baltic region, and we were just discussing the rather amusing and ongoing push for the band to front up at Eurovision, and quite frankly we aaaalllllllll decided that we really just couldn’t be arsed.
John: Then one of them hit on your sister…
Mark: Actually that really happened. Honest. Only it was my step-sister…
First time I met a T.I.S.M member, I was living in a share house with a few folks including my step-sister.
One day she came home accompanied by a fellow she’d met somewhere (I really must ask her about this again and get the whole story). He was a bit older than us – very quiet, sat in the corner and said very little. I chatted to him briefly but he was a man of few words, so I left him alone.
It wasn’t until some days later that my step-sister mentioned that he sang in some weird band called T.I.S.M, but she didn’t think they weren’t any good…
Second time – in 1995, after we were asked to do the T.I.S.M comic press release, John and I were told to go to a house on Punt Road in Windsor where we could meet the guys and ask some questions.
Being complete T.I.S.M fanboys, we were both slightly freaked out. The house was a dilapidated structure, out of which was coming the sounds of instruments being tortured. We ended up being present for a band rehearsal (sans costumes) of the band. John and I had an abortive attempt to ask Ron Hitler-Barassi and Humphrey B Flaubert questions about the band’s past, but it was rather unsuccessful due to the band rehearsing in the background…
After that, a few days later Ron and Humphrey came out to my place (a rental place in Carnegie that had a rather alarming lean to it – pretty sure the doorframes were the only thing holding it up) and John and I interrogated them at length about the band. They refused all offers of drinks except tea, and were greatly unimpressed when I said (when asked) that my favourite album of the year was David Bowie’s “1. Outside”.
Finally, while doing the comic, we’d occasionally visit T.I.S.M’s management, Michael Lynch at SmartArtists, which operated out of a house right on the junction of Punt Road and Queens Way in Windsor in Melbourne. Bloody noisy, constant traffic on all sides.
We’d always end up talking to James Paull/Jock/Tokin’ Blackman, who I think was working out of the SmartArtists offices himself. His favourite expression was “bloody fuck!” which conjured feelings of combined delight and disgust all at once. Nice bloke though, always had time for a chat…
Other than that, John and I tried to get backstage after a few T.I.S.M shows but security always told us to piss off…
John: It was a joy getting to meet some of the guys from the band.
I remember being struck by how alarmingly straight they were. I was expecting hilarity, witty repartee and biting satirical insights with a keen edge.
Instead I very much felt like we were speaking to teachers.
Mark: … Which we were.
But they were clearly very proud of what they’d done.
John: And not in the “Oh I have so much to learn, I must keep quiet and listen carefully to the wisdom.”
More like ”Fuck off kid, it’s my lunch break and this is the faculty room. Talk to me later when I’m paid to give a shit.”
Oh very proud, yes.
Mark: It occurs to me that we probably got the closest thing to a proper interview with the band that anyone ever got. Given their track record with press interviews.
John: True, we should have won a Walkley – Inside T.I.S.M: a journey into ennui and mild tea.
… Although they seemed quite delighted at any suggestion that could potentially result in lawsuits, mayhem and in particular any idea that would decrease the sale-ability of the comic.
Mark: Yes, well, you remember that Peter/Ron wanted the second issue to be 32 pages of repeated images of a balaclavaed man staring at the reader and occasionally saying something. And nothing else.
We convinced him that it would be considered arty, to which he replied “oh fuck, we don’t want that, do we?”
John: We caved for a couple of pages though…
… Was the bit where he takes off his balaclava, revealing a massive choade our idea or theirs?
Is it choade or choad? They both sound like some Hasidic article of clothing.
“Oi gevalt Shmuel, I can see your choad!”
Mark: His idea!
Anything else to add?
John: Damn we should have mentioned Bug & Stump being banned in the student paper.
It makes us look so iconoclastic and badass.
Mark: Don’t forget getting a complete collection of the newspaper strips published on the university paper’s dime through blackmail.
Which makes us look like dodgy standover artists.
- Mark Sexton – twitter
- Mark Sexton – Instagram
- Mark Sexton – IMDB entry
- John Petropoulos – Website
- John Petropoulos – Instagram
- T.I.S.M – twitter
- T.I.S.M – Facebook
- T.I.S.M – YouTube
- T.I.S.M Comic Issue 1 – Uploaded Online: http://www.geocities.ws/tismselfstorage/tismcomic1/index.html
- T.I.S.M Comic Issue 2 – Uploaded Online: http://www.geocities.ws/tismselfstorage/tismcomic2/index.html
- T.I.S.M Online Fan Archive: http://www.geocities.ws/tismselfstorage/index.html