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Brenton McKenna, Ywarru graphic artist and novelist, was born in Broome in 1982 and lived there until he was fifteen. McKenna was attracted to comics at an early age: when he was eight years old, a Ghost Rider comic book came into his possession and marked the starting point of his love of drawing. He taught himself to draw during his teenage years by copying images from comics and learning from a cartooning book by Chris Hart that was given to him by a high school art teacher when he was fifteen. McKenna’s drawing skills flourished in the following years when he moved to Victoria and completed high school at Wodonga Catholic College, and were further consolidated when he undertook a period of study (Diploma of Visual Arts program) at the Goulburn Ovens Institute of TAFE in Wangaratta between 2000 and 2002. Over the years he refined his skills through practice and experimentation, working with pencil, blue lead and art liners, as well as digital tools such as Photoshop and Corel Painter.
Writing and illustrating are always interconnected in McKenna’s practice. His dedication to the form of the graphic novel is underpinned by his interest in the way text and image can interact; in the way a narrative can be brought to life for a reader through both visual and textual components. He draws inspiration from a range of sources, including Aboriginal mythology, folklore from a range of cultures, urban history and legend, war correspondence and military stories, science fiction and the natural world. His main sources of inspiration, however, are his memories of growing up in Broome. McKenna speaks of his voracious imagination and sense of curiosity about a range of topics, which often entails extrapolating fantastical stories and circumstances from everyday situations. As a result, he was often in trouble at school for not paying attention, but he continued to nourish the habit: “Now every day I actively try and create stories, characters and scenes out of everyday things I see and hear no matter where I am” (McKenna pers. comm. 2009).
In 2002 McKenna began working on the manuscript and illustrations for a graphic novel titled Ubby’s Underdogs and the Legend of the Phoenix Dragon, under contract with Magabala Books. In 2002 he had just moved to Adelaide and started working on the novel to cope with his homesickness for the life and people of Broome. The novel revolves around the experiences of Ubby, a character inspired by McKenna’s grandmother, Alberta Dolby. The story is set in Broome, in a period in the town’s history when it was overcoming the effects of WWII – Broome had endured a Japanese air-raid attack in 1942. McKenna has drawn on family stories “about Nan and her sisters getting into fights and causing trouble when she was young… I took my knowledge of my grandmother, placed the character in a situation, then I tried to imagine what I think my nan would have done to hopefully project the character’s (Ubby’s) attitude and actions” (McKenna, pers comm. 2009). In the novel, Ubby is a smart and street-wise Aboriginal girl and leader of the 'Underdogs’, a group of ruffian youths who roam the streets of Broome. It follows Ubby’s experiences with Sai Fong, a girl who has recently arrived in Broome from Beijing, and their encounters and adventures are imbued with themes from Chinese and Aboriginal mythology. The production of the novel was assisted by an Australia Council for the Arts grant, awarded in 2004, and a Project Development Grant from the South Australian Youth Arts Board, awarded in 2005. In that year McKenna also began a traineeship with Arts SA, which he completed in 2006. In 2008 he was awarded an Australian Society of Authors Mentorship, which saw him benefit from the guidance and advice of Wolfgang Bylsma, an editor with graphic novel publisher Gestalt Publishing. Magabala Books’ publishing manager, Rachael Christensen, also provided McKenna with a great deal of support over a number of years as he established himself as a graphic novelist.
In 2008 McKenna participated in the 'Our Metro Mob’ Exhibition at Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide. In 2009 he was working on a number of book illustration projects, including Living Along Side the Animals: Anangu Way, written by Eileen Wani Wingfield and Emily Munyungka Austin (IAD Press), and two educational graphic novels to be published by Laguna Bay Publishing (planned for publication in 2011). In 2009 he was living in Adelaide with his partner and children, and working in the South Australian Government Department of Premier and Cabinet.