Review / Impressions of Brenton McKenna’s ‘Ubby‘s Underdogs – The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon’

Ubby’s Underdogs – The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon is Brenton McKenna’s debut graphic novel. It was published in 2011 by Magabala Books, an Aboriginal owned and led publishing house based in Broome, Western Australia. They say about themselves that their “commitment to developing new and emerging Indigenous writers, illustrators and one-time storytellers, sets [them] apart from other publishers” [1]. Brenton McKenna is a Yawuru artist from Broome. “The Yawuru people are the traditional owners of the lands and waters in and around Rubibi (the town of Broome) from Bangarangara to the yalimban (south) to Wirrjinmirr (Willie Creek) to the guniyan (north), and banu (east) covering Roebuck Plains and Thangoo pastoral leases, in the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia” [2]. So Ubby’s Underdogs – The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon is a graphic novel written and drawn from an Aboriginal Australian perspective. Ubby’s Underdogs turned into a trilogy, with Volume 2 (Ubby’s Underdogs – Heroes Beginnings) being released in 2013 and Volume 3 (Ubby’s Underdogs – The Return of the Dragons) following in 2019.

Brief summary: Ubby’s Underdogs – The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon

Ubby’s Underdogs – The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon is a visual-verbal medium, containing both text and illustrations. It consists of a “Cast of Characters” part, the prologue, a “Setting the Scene” sequence and the main plot. At the end, there are two parts explaining specific events in the story, followed by information about the author and acknowledgements. It has a total of 160 pages (but the pages are not numbered).
On the surface, Ubby’s Underdogs – The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon may seem like your average young-adult-coming-of-age-good-vs.-evil-hero story. The graphic novel is set in the 1940s in a fictionalised version of Broome, McKenna’s home town, and its contents were inspired by both McKenna’s own and his grandmother’s life experiences [3].

The Ubby’s Underdogs‘ Broome is a small pearling town and its riches attract a wide range of people from all over the world, which makes its community very multicultural.
The story circles around Ubby, a streetwise Aboriginal girl, and her friends Fin (of Irish descent), Sel (of Malay descent) and Gabe (of Maori descent). Together, they are The Underdogs [3]. In the first volume, they meet Sai Fong, a Chinese girl, who has just arrived in Broome alongside her uncle Yupman Poe. They travelled from Shanghai to Broome because Sai Fong has a mysterious illness and her uncle hopes to find a cure there. Shortly after their arrival, Sai Fong makes the Underdogs’ acquaintance. Together, they embark on a series of adventures that include street gang fights, a quest to find and free a baboon as well as a fight against an ancient creature.

Take a quick look at the world of Ubby and her friends here.

Analysis of some aspects in Ubby’s Underdogs

While the graphic novel indeed “embraces a number of genres, including the hero’s journey, coming-of-age narrative (bildungsroman), historical adventure, and magical realism” [4], it is by no means average. As Sly points out, “McKenna’s colorful publications are entertaining and accessible to a wide readership, [but/and] serious discourses on race, ethnicity, cultural diversity, and gender are not far below the glossy surface” [4]. In this part, I will briefly be looking at McKenna’s art style as well as the representation of race / multiethnicity, racism and migration in Ubby’s Underdogs.

McKenna’s art style is known to be very unique. John Thomas argues that “Brenton McKenna uses a presentational style very similar to that of Japanese Manga comics” [5]. The characters are drawn in a simple, iconic, cartoon-y way while the characters’ faces are usually very expressive and, through this, emotions are transported very well and are easily discernible. A few examples taken from the graphic novel:

Furthermore, the Ubby’s Underdogs series is very colourful and, according to Sly, McKenna uses “color schemes that are atmospheric, symbolic, and highly affective” [4].
An example for a symbolic use of colour that particularly stands out would be the prologue. In contrast to the other panels, these panels are sepia coloured and have frayed frames. This can be explained by the prologue being the recounting of a (legendary) past event.

Figure 9: The Legend of the Sandpaper Dragon

The following panel is quite unique and stands out because here the shift from past to present is represented through a shift from sepia to colour within one panel.

Figure 10: Colour shift

It can also be seen as a bit of a foreshadowing because, as the reader will later learn, Sai Fong is connected to the past and to the Sandpaper Dragon in a way (but no spoilers here!).

As previously mentioned, Broome is a multicultural and multiethnic town. In Ubby’s Underdogs, this is represented trough the various characters belonging to different ethnic groups. I have already mentioned the cultural / ethnic backgrounds of the Underdogs (as you might have noticed, they are a very diverse group). And there are other gangs in Broome, too, for instance the Pearl Juniors, whose members are “the sons of wealthy pearl masters” [3] (all white), as well as the other gangs named and shown in the image below:

Figure 11: The Gangs of Broome

As pointed out by Sly, “tensions arising between gangs are usually settled by farcical competitive sporting events” [4], namely Gruff and the Dolby Dance. These two sporting events are the aforementioned specific events explained in detail at the end of the graphic novel.

McKenna also does not shy away from addressing topics like racism and colonialism, as can be seen / read in the following images:

As Xu Dhaozhi points out, this scene (Figure 13) in particular “accentuates the absurdity and injustice of the bureaucratic control over Aboriginal people at that time. Though born in Broome, Ubby is not allowed to roam freely in what should be her home country. Dubbed as an underdog, Ubby represents an Aboriginal diasporic figure in the peripheral, marginalised space of society” [6].

The topic of migration is also featured in Ubby’s Underdogs – The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon and was already mentioned in the previous parts. It is mainly represented through Broome’s multiethnic society and through Sai Fong and her uncle, who emigrated from Shanghai, China. Therefore, the graphic novel was very well suited to be read / discussed in our “Migration in Visual Narratives” seminar.


Ubby’s Underdogs – The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon is a colourful, multi-layered and multifaceted graphic novel, beautifully written and illustrated by Brenton McKenna. The story, “with a focus on the fellowship, mutual respect, and collaboration of a group of mixed-race youngsters, generates high appeal for indigenous and non-indigenous readers alike” [4], as Sly remarks. Despite the danger of stereotyping characters in comics and graphic novels, as expressed by some theorists, McKenna successfully creates individual, diverse characters who bring a multitude of perspectives to the table. After finishing Volume 1, I couldn’t wait to read the other two volumes. If you are intrigued now, too, all three Ubby’s Underdogs volumes are available at the ULB in Düsseldorf.


[1] About Us (n.d.)

[2] Ngaji Gurrjin Welcome (n.d.)

[3] McKenna, B. E. (2011). Ubby’s Underdogs, The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon. Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation.

[4] Sly, C. (2022). Between the Saltwater and the Desert: Indigenous Australian Tales from the Margins. Graphic Novels and Comics as World Literature. Ed. James Hodapp. New York,: Bloomsbury Academic, 191, 193, 194. Literatures as World Literature. Bloomsbury Collections.

[5] Thomas, J. (2019). ‘Ubby’s underdogs’ : a new vision for Australia and the future of English teaching. English in Australia, 54(1), 53–58.

[6] Xu, D. (2018). Liminality and Communitas in Literary Representations of Aboriginal and Asian Encounters, Journal of Australian Studies, 42:4, 481, DOI: 10.1080/14443058.2018.1531296

Figure 1:

Figure 2:

Figure 3:

Figures 4-13: McKenna, B. E. (2011). Ubby’s Underdogs, The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon. Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation.

Cargo (2017): A new take on traditional Zombie Movies

by Ben Königsfeld

Cargo is originally a horror short film released in 2013 by Yolanda Romke and Ben Howling. It is seven minutes long and deals with a father who was infected with a zombie virus after getting bitten by his wife. Knowing his forthcoming demise, the father puts his infant daughter in his backpack and lets a stick with a piece of flesh dangle in front him. Consequently, he follows that piece of flesh after turning into a zombie to make sure he finds survivors to ensure his daughter has a future. Four years after the short film was released, Yolanda Romke and Ben Howling had a chance to turn their passion project into a full length movie for Netflix with Martin Freeman playing the role of Andy, the father from the short film, and Susie Porter playing his wife Kay.

The movie has the same premise as the short film but begins before the events of it take place. Andy and Kay, alongside their infant daughter Rosie, live on a boat safely away from the zombie rotten land but Kay gets infected after going through an abandoned boat. Knowing they have 48 hours before she turns into a zombie, Andy and his wife go on land hoping to find supplies. After a car crash, Kay starts to transform faster and ends up biting Andy. This marks the start of Andy’s journey to find survivors and a safe home for his daughter Rosie.

Although the movie may seem like another zombie film, it has several aspects that differentiates itself from other movies of the zombie genre. Primarily, the word zombie is not mentioned in the movie. The directors themselves wanted to avoid the cliches that come with the sub genre and designed the idea of a ‘‘viral‘‘, to make their infected have their own stylistics. Unlike other zombie films, human relation plays a big a role in Cargo as the motives of most characters are driven by their loved ones. Throughout the film Andy meets a girl called Thoomi. Thoomi’s father is also infected, but she is trying to keep him alive by feeding him with wildlife and hiding him from survivors, in hopes of finding a shaman. Thoomi’s introduction opens the movie to the significant role of indigenous characters. In the end Rosie’s life is saved not only by Andy but also by Thoomi and other people of her community as a great deal of them are still alive and healthy. This also demonstrates that indigenous groups managed to survive through to their ability and history in hunting and living in the outback which has left them with better knowledge to live in a world where society is mostly gone. The directors closely worked with an indigenous script consultant called Jon Bell and also asked other natives for criticism on their script and permission to use their language. It also heavily focuses on family and the relationship of a father and his daughter similar to the South Korean zombie movie Train to Busan by Yeon Sang-Ho. Nevertheless, it is still different from Sang-Ho’s film as Romke and Howling decided to leave out classic horror features such as showing great amounts of gore or making use of jump scares to create tension. The real tension comes from the ticking clock of Andy‘s transformation and the seemingly endless landscapes of the Australian outback.

Cargo is a new take on the traditional zombie film, a genre which has recently become boring. Yolanda Romke and Ben Howling created a fantastic full length zombie movie laid on the foundation of a seven-minute short film and managed to find the perfect balance between horror and the relationship of a family during apocalyptic times. This movie, alongside the aforementioned Train to Busan, hopefully marks the start of a new and revolutionized era of the zombie sub genre.

Cargo (2017): Australian Horror and Aboriginal Culture

by Robin Burger

Cargo is a 2017 Australian Netflix original horror film based on a 2013 short film of the same name. However, it is debatable whether it really can be described as horror since while it is certainly a “zombie movie”, it shifts away from typical horror film elements in favour of emotional storytelling, making it more of a drama film set in a horror environment rather than a brutal, gory zombie horror film, similarly to The Cured, an Irish “zombie drama” from the same year.

The film is set in rural Australia during a zombie virus pandemic where infected people completely turn 48 hours after being bitten, which is what happens to Kay and later on her husband Andy who is bitten by her. Together with their baby daughter Rosie Andy now tries to find people to take care of and raise Rosie when he turns, and soon teams up with Thoomi, a young Aboriginal girl who was kidnapped and caged by a man named Vic who uses healthy humans as bait for zombies. Thoomi’s father has already turned when she and Andy first meet and she hopes to find the “Clever Man” – a shaman who she believes could cure her father, whom she tries hiding from the rest of her community since they would most likely kill him.

The exact origin of the virus is unknown, however there is quite a plausible theory as to how it started spreading; there are numerous references to a company collecting natural gas via fracking on native Aboriginal land which is opposed by the Aboriginal community as shown by their flag at a fracking station which has “Frack off!” written on it as well as the Clever Man talking about how man was poisoning the Earth, making man sick as well, so it does seem likely that the virus originated in the gas and then spread through the air, or perhaps it is more symbolic as humans, being part of nature, poison themselves while poisoning it.

It is also noteworthy that the word “zombie” is not used in the movie, putting it in the same category as the American TV show The Walking Dead in which the concept of zombies is not known to the characters, implying both are set in a universe in which media using that word simply does not exist.

The 2013 short film of the same name has a similar storyline, but it does not feature any Aboriginal characters, while the 2017 version has a remarkable extent of Aboriginal representation as shown by Thoomi and her community who are hunters fighting against zombies – as some of the only humans successful in fending them off. During the film there are multiple scenes depicting Aboriginal customs, such as putting on white face paint to keep away ghosts and hitting one’s head with a stone after a tragic incident, believing that the heartache would stop as well once the physical pain stops. There is also a scene in which Thoomi teaches Andy Aboriginal words, after calling him “gubba” (“white fella”), which is actually a quite commonly used term in Australia, dating back to the colonial period when English convicts would call each other “guv’ner” (governor), which Aboriginal Australians picked up and turned into “gubba”, referring to white people. The film also briefly depicts an instance of racism when Vic follows Thoomi who was just freed by Andy, calling her a “black bitch” as they are hiding from him, and while “gubba” is not at all a derogatory term for whites, Thoomi’s way of using the word might indicate bad experiences she or her people have had with white people in the past (perhaps also related to the fracking taking place on native Aboriginal ground), which would also explain her initially slightly frightened reaction to Andy.

Cargo manages to fuse a classic horror movie trope with an emotional story and criticism of society, while depicting real issues Aboriginal Australians have to face in modern day Australia.

Adding to the Aboriginal representation, the film is dedicated to Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, an Aboriginal Australian singer who passed away shortly before it was released.