February 10, 2022
Arts & Culture

Jason’s grand adventure – a graphic novel

Inspiration found in his own boyhood adventures and true tales of lost towns has proven a winning formula for Adelaide debut graphic novelist Jason Pamment.

“Grand adventure stories often begin where you least expect,” states the publisher’s introduction to animator turned author Jason Pamment’s Treasure in the Lake.

In this children’s story – brought vividly to life through beautifully crafted characters and illustrations – the adventure begins in a dry riverbed on the outskirts of a small country town, where two young friends discover a hidden city lost in time. Both the setting and idea were partly inspired by Jason’s own explorations of creeks and bushland as a child in Adelaide.

“The memory that I often think about with this book is from when I was really young, maybe six or seven, and a family friend had a house in Goodwood that backed on to a creek,” says Jason, whose family lived in a number of different places in South Australia and Victoria when he was growing up.

“My brother and I would explore the back of this property and we’d find heaps of stuff that had washed down the creek. I think the best stash we found was a whole load of car hood ornaments. As kids, we thought that was the most expensive part of the car, because it was the fancy part.”

For a boy who loved to dream up stories of adventure, such discoveries piqued his imagination: How did the items come to be there? Who might be coming back to find them? “It felt like everything had washed down the creek so you could follow it up the creek and find where it came from. That really stuck with me.”

In between his outdoor adventures, young Jason also enjoyed writing and drawing, so studying drawing and digital media at South Australian School of Art was a natural progression. He went on to establish a career in animation, initially securing a role with local creative studio KOJO and later also working remotely for companies in Sydney and America. For around a decade he designed animated short films, commercials, music videos, TV shows and video games, with a highlight being the short film The Cat Piano, narrated by singer Nick Cave, which won multiple awards and was shortlisted for an Academy Award.

Then Jason became interested in graphic novels -– book-length narrative works featuring comic-style illustrations: “I started looking at them as a way to tell larger stories. In animation it takes a long time and a lot of effort and a lot of people to even tell a little story.”

Treasure in the Lake, recommended for children aged eight to 12, has been a labour of love since he began doing the first sketches for it in 2010, in between other work. Along with his own childhood adventures, Jason also drew inspiration from the story of a town called Old Adaminaby, near the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales, which was submerged in 1957 to make way for the Snowy Hydro Electric Scheme.

“They had to move the town a few kilometres uphill to flood the town area and create a reservoir,” Jason says. “Then, 50 years later there was a big drought and the water level came down, and a lot of the buildings that they couldn’t move, like stone buildings, emerged from the water.”

He’s since discovered there are many other towns around the world that have been lost after being flooded by natural disaster or dams breaking, or deliberately submerged to create reservoirs and waterways: “The visual of a half-submerged city, I thought, was really evocative.”

The idea of a child discovering such a place without any knowledge of the context fed into the story at the heart of Treasure in the Lake, which follows best friends Iris, 13, and Sam, 12. The hidden city they discover, in a dry riverbed, is lost in time and shrouded in mystery and secrets.

Returning to his own adventures as a boy, Jason adds: “I always loved the idea of lost relics and discovering something that no one has seen for a long time.”

He acknowledges that Sam -– a sweet but slightly naive boy – is more like himself than the more adventurous Iris, who is eager to leave her small town and explore the wider world.

“I really like the characters in the book – the idea that we all want to move on and explore new things but we also have this want for holding onto our childhood and cherished things. I like that they embody both those things.”

As Jason explains in the back of the book, his process for creating a graphic novel begins with a written story outline, then loosely drawn thumbnail sketches. He refines these and adds word balloons for the characters, before drawing over the sketches with a black ink brush and finally adding colours.

It takes hundreds of thumbnail sketches to create a 200-page book, and it wasn’t until a few years ago that he was able to devote enough time to Treasure in the Lake to finally complete it. Jason’s wife Jessica, who also has a background in animation and film but now works as a library program coordinator, was a crucial support, assisting with suggestions and late night rewrites – which, fortunately, were mostly completed before their new baby Lilah, now almost two, arrived on the scene.

After sending out numerous pitches, Jason secured an agent in the United States with significant experience in the graphic novel sector. What happened next was a debut author’s dream: a five-publisher auction in the US that saw HarperAlley, HarperCollins’ graphic novel imprint, win the rights to Treasure in the Lake. It then pitched the book internationally, with Allen & Unwin securing the Australian rights and other publishers set to release the book in countries including Romania, France, Russia and the Ukraine.

Graphic novels have become one of the fastest-growing areas of the publishing market in recent years and are especially popular with young readers. One of the most successful authors internationally is American Raina Telgemeier, whose children’s books (including titles such as Smile, Guts and Sisters) frequently top the New York Times bestseller lists.

Another hugely popular graphic novelist is Japanese-American author and illustrator Kazu Kibuishi (best known for his Amulet series), who has written a cover blurb for Treasure in the Lake which hails it as “A beautifully drawn coming-of-age adventure story”. The book has also received an endorsement from Oscar-winning Australian artist, writer, filmmaker and picture-book author Shaun Tan.

“His book The Arrival was a big influence for me,” Jason says. “He’s a picture book author generally but it is a graphic novel, and because it is wordless as well, it felt really cinematic.”

After securing a two-book deal with HarperAlley, Jason is now able to concentrate fully on his next graphic novel. Sheets of thumbnail illustrations already cover a wall of his home workspace, and as a self-described “bit of a hermit”, he says the solitary nature of the writing and drawing process suits him well. His next book will also be influenced by his childhood, but with a very different setting.

“My dad had a holiday shack at Hardwicke Bay on the Yorke Peninsula, so we spent heaps of time there as kids as well, on the coast and the rock pools. It’s going to be all set around that – reimagining that area as a kind of island.”

Treasure in the Lake, published by Allen & Unwin, is available now.

This story first appeared in the October 2021 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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