Brenton E. McKenna, Ubby’s Underdogs: Return of the Dragon, Magabala Books, May 2019, 250 pp., RRP $24.99 (pbk), ISBN
The story is set against the multicultural backdrop of the pearling industry in Broome in the 1940s. Ubby, a young Aboriginal girl, is the leader of the Underdogs — a culturally diverse gang of kids on a rescue mission. They fight against corrupt and power hungry humans as well as creatures of myth and legend. McKenna has drawn on his Aboriginal and Malay background to write a series that features both Asian and Aboriginal mythology, and the series is touted as the first Indigenous graphic novel series published in Australia.
The teacher in me wanted to love this book. I opened it hoping for teacher serendipity — a graphic novel that would engage reluctant readers, address the Aboriginal and Asia cross-curriculum priorities in the Australian Curriculum, support the migration topics in the history curriculum, and do all of this with a strong female lead and a contemporary voice.
I wanted to love it, but I felt lost from the start. I don’t know how much general appeal it has as a story. It feels more like a narrative for die-hard mythology fans. There is a huge cast of characters that I couldn’t get my head around, even with the helpful character list in the front. The plot is so fast and so dense (perhaps with references to the rest of the series?) that I had no idea what was going on. Once I got my hands on the first book things made more sense, but as a stand alone story it left me bamboozled.
Yet, in spite of its bulging cast and complexity, I quite enjoyed reading it. The book is bright, engaging, and action packed. It seems to draw on both western comics and manga. There are epic fight scenes, archetypal baddies, and lashings of deadpan and slapstick humour. When I stopped worrying about how the characters and parts all fit together, I was able to just sit back and enjoy it as a bunch of fast paced vignettes. Themes of courage and friendship shone through in spite of my overall confusion.
Even though my hopes of milking this text to explore the curriculum with broad groups of students were thoroughly THWACK!ed and POW!ed like the villains in the story, I would still purchase it for a school collection. It feels like a niche book for fans of the genre and maybe even the series — but as part of a trilogy, it is definitely worth a look.
Reviewed by Liz Patterson