Introductory activities

Ubby’s Underdogs: the Legend of the Phoenix Dragon

This graphic novel is the sequel to Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon. A teaching unit based on this text is available for those who would like to know some of the pre-story to Heroes Beginnings.


  • Explain to students that the setting for Ubby’s Underdogs: Heroes Beginnings is the town of Broome in north-west Australia. Locate Broome on a map of Australia.
  • Tell students that the main industry in Broome in the late nineteenth century through to the mid-twentieth century was pearling. Teachers can direct students to do some background research on the pearling industry in the area from a variety of sources. In particular, the article ‘Before Broome’ by Mike McCarthy, published in the Australian Association for Maritime History’s journal, Great Circle Volume 16, Number 2 (1994) will help them to learn something about the history of this industry. (Please note that this article was written quite some time ago and some of the terminology used is not culturally appropriate.) Teachers should emphasise the role played by coastal Aboriginal people as divers.
  • Show students a short film about pearling luggers. Explain that hard hat pearl divers had replaced earlier ways of collecting shell by the early to mid-twentieth century.

Some important characters 

This graphic novel contains a large cast of characters. The following thumbnail sketches of some of the more important characters should help students identify characters as they appear in the text.

  • Ubby: the main character. A young Aboriginal girl, the leader of the Underdogs gang.
  • Maryanne: her mother. She was a ‘naked’ or ‘skin’ diver for Samuel Donappleton.
  • Delomarr: Ubby’s father. He was a community leader who was killed in a riot in Broome.
  • Mulli: her uncle. He is the head of the Council of Magic.
  • Paul Donappleton: the owner of a large pearling company. He is sinister and corrupt.
  • Samuel Donappleton: Paul’s father, now dead.

The author 

The author/artist Brenton E. McKenna has a mixed heritage, Aboriginal and Malay. The central character of this graphic novel, Ubby, is based on his own grandmother. McKenna identifies as an Indigenous man of the Yawuru people.

The Yawuru people of the Kimberley coast

  • Show students episode one of season four of Custodians to give them a better idea of the country in which Ubby’s Underdogs: Heroes Beginnings is set.
  • The Native Title holders for the Broome region are the Yawuru people. Students should visit their website to learn more about this language group to which Brenton McKenna belongs.
  • Another Indigenous coastal people are the Bardi who live on the Dampier Peninsula 200 kilometres north of Broome. The book Our World: Life at Ardiyooloon is about the community cultural life of the Bardi people as seen through the eyes of its children. It is featured in the primary section of Reading Australia.

The death of Delomarr, Ubby’s father 

Delomarr was killed in the last race riot while trying to bring peace to the community. Research the riots involving the different racial groups in Broome in 1907, 1914 and 1920. (This article is fairly densely written so students will need some guidance from the teacher.)
(ACELT1619)   (ACELT1620)   (ACELY1723) 

A note on visual literacy 

Students today live in a multi-modal world in which meaning is communicated through a variety of modes. Obviously in a graphic novel the two primary modes are print (words on the page) and images (the pictures). For each of these modes students need a working ‘grammar’ to explore how a text creator has used words and images to construct the world of the text, to set up a relationship both between text and reader/viewer and between characters within the text, and to compose the elements of the text into a cohesive whole.

Students will need a metalanguage for analysing visual images (PDF, 140KB) to unpack and make meaning of images. Initially the teacher will have to model the use of this metalanguage by unpacking selected panels from this graphic novel with students using an explicit instruction approach. A sample analysis (PDF, 114KB) of how images have been used in this work can be a starting point for students’ own work.

Looking first at the book cover

The front cover of any book is a very important introduction to the text. Brenton E. McKenna designed the front cover of his own book. No doubt he hoped that the cover would attract readers and also provide some information about the content of the book itself. Using the metalanguage for thinking about images above, students are to complete a Visual Literacy three-level guide (PDF, 141KB) as a way of thinking about and recording what they learn from the front cover of Ubby’s Underdogs: Heroes Beginnings. (Refer to the completed guide to see one possible response to the cover.)

Tracking the rhythm of a sequence of panels

In addition to being able to ‘read’ the construction of each image in a graphic novel the viewer also needs to be able to understand how the artist has created a cohesive flow of images in a sequence of panels. This is similar to the way in which the director of a film plans the series of shots in a discrete scene from a film.

Choose a sequence of images from the text and ask students to discuss how the artist has planned the movement from one image to the next. See the model (PDF, 247KB) as an example of how this movement can be described.
(ACELA1528)   (ACELA1764)   (ACELY1724)

Activities whilst reading

  • Introduce students to the elements that make up a graphic novel like Ubby’s Underdogs: Heroes Beginnings, including panels, margins, frames, images, verbiage in speech and thought balloons, and motion lines (vectors). Use a metalanguage for analysing visual images (PDF, 140KB) to unpack a selected panel in the novel. (This guide has already been used earlier to respond to the front cover.)
  • Find out more about these elements by reading the section, ‘Thinking Through The Format’ in ‘A Guide to Using Graphic Novels With Children and Teens’ by Scholastic.
  • Choose a discrete sequence of panels from the book and discuss with students how each element of a graphic novel contributes to the overall meaning of the sequence.
  • Take another sequence of panels from the book. Ask students to read just the words in the speech balloons and then explain what they have learned. Next, ask students to look at the images and think about what they learn from them. Finally ask students to think about how the words and the images work together.
    • Do the images simply illustrate the information given in the verbiage?
    • Do they offer different information?
    • Do the words and images work well together to create a cohesive text?
  • Ask students to reflect on how they read the information in each panel of this graphic novel. Different readers will pursue different reading paths. Some will read the words first, then the images and then perhaps return to the words. Have students in pairs compare how they tend to read this book.
  • A graphic novel will have a particular rhythm created by the juxtaposition of static images (conceptual processes) with action images (narrative processes). As the class reads the book ask students to identify static images, action images and explain how their placement in relation to each other creates a sense of movement or rhythm. (Note that this feature is very similar to what the director of a film will try to achieve.) Ask students whether this effect is achieved more by words or images.

(ACELT1622)   (ACELY1721)   (ACELY1722)   (ACELY1724) 


Personal response on reading the text

  • Students have already done some research on Broome and the history of the pearling industry. Begin by asking students what they understand by the term ‘multiculturalism’ and ask them what idea of multiculturalism they have gained from their earlier research. Discuss with students how multiculturalism is manifested in contemporary Australia and how it relates to their own lives. Inform them that the subtitle of the first volume of Ubby’s Underdogs is ‘The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon’, a Chinese myth. Ask them to share with the class any Chinese myths or legends that they have read.
  • Then show students the first 1 minute 50 seconds of the film documentary The First Australians which refers to the Dreaming stories of the Aboriginal people of Australia. Also, show them a map of Aboriginal Australia which illustrates how the whole landmass of pre-European Australia was occupied by the clans or language groups of the first Australians. Ask them to share with the class any Aboriginal myths or legends that they have read.
  • Explain that Brenton E. McKenna has melded fictional versions of Chinese and Aboriginal myths as a starting point for his graphic novel.
  • Before students begin to read Ubby’s Underdogs: Heroes Beginnings they will need to know something of the story so farPerhaps the teacher could provide a quick summary of the first volume. A complete unit on Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon is already available on the Reading Australia website. Students should also watch on YouTube a short animated film of the first volume. However, the teacher should be prepared to flesh out many of the gaps in this film.
  • Ask students to keep a reading journal in which they should reflect upon and make observations about their responses as they read this second volume of Ubby’s Underdogs. Have students share their reflections and observations in small group discussion.
  • Students will probably have many questions as they read this graphic novel. They should list these questions on the left-hand side of a journal page and answer them on the right-hand side as the story unfolds. This will help students to understand the complex storylines of the text.
  • After the revision session on Volume 1 ask students to predict what Volume 2 might be about. (They have already unpacked the cover of the book. Has this helped them to make their predictions?)
  • Even though this graphic novel has a strong Australian flavour it nevertheless shares many of the features of the current spate of fantasy fiction books, including the Harry Potter novels. As they read this novel ask students to identify and list such fantasy elements as: the presence in the story of good and evil wizards, sorcerers, shamans and demons returned from the dead, and sacred weapons which select those worthy of them. (Ask students if they are familiar with the story of Excalibur, the sword in the stone. Is this similar to the three sacred Nanren weapons which select Gabe, Finn and Sel?) Talk about fantasy elements that seem unique to this graphic novel.
  • Read with students ‘The Council of Magic’ which is an appendix at the end of this book. The Council is reminiscent of the Ministry of Magic and its predecessor, the Wizards’ Council in the Harry Potter books. The councils in both the Harry Potter novels and Ubby’s Underdogs signal the existence of a secret magic world which exists in parallel with the normal world. Discuss with students the appeal for younger teen readers of such a secret world. What might be the advantages of a Magic Council which provides a sanctuary for mythical beings from around the globe? Ask students whether they agree that science as a way of looking at the world is replacing spirituality.
  • Point out to students that this book also references superhero comic books (characters with super powers like Superman and Wonder Woman) and other popular culture texts such as Star Wars. (Is Uning, the Master of the Hede, a newer version of Darth Vader from Star Wars, for example?) Debate with students such questions as: Is Sai Fong with her fire-casting and fighting skills a superhero? Is Ubby? Discuss with students whether these intertextual references to other pop culture texts make Ubby’s Underdogs more appealing to them.
  • Young teens will be familiar with the concept of a ‘gang’. This word does have pejorative connotations so it might be wise to ask students whether they belong to a special group of friends rather than to a gang. Ask them to share with the class the interests of their group that they think bind them together as members. Discuss whether they think that the world beyond their group is hostile or benign.
  • Point out that some writers for young teens represent adult characters as unsympathetic to young people (e.g. Isobel Carmody’s The Gathering) or the adult world as terrifying (e.g. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier.) Have students discuss whether Brenton E. McKenna has done this in Ubby’s Underdogs.

(ACELT1622)   (ACELY1721)   (ACELY1722)   (ACELY1724)

Outline of key elements of the text


Making sense of the subplots

Students may find it difficult on a first reading to make sense of the various subplots operating in this text.

Divide the class into small groups and allocate one of the following subplots to each. Ask them to list in point form on butcher’s paper the storyline for their particular subplot. Alert them to the possibility that their subplot may have a pre-story told through flashback.

Some possible subplots include:

  • The underdogs rescue Medinga the ape.
  • Yupman Poe searches for Sai Fong who has disappeared after being bitten by a juvenile King Brown snake in Volume 1. She does, however, appear to Ubby as an apparition.
  • Paul Donappleton has ambitions to gain great personal wealth and power and this involves him in the pursuit of both Medinga and the Sandpaper Dragon.
  • Uning and the Hede return from hell after 2,000 years disguised as the Black Guard.
  • Ubby’s mother Maryanne, Sylvania Neocrati and Paul’s father Samuel Donappleton share a back story.
  • The various elements of the plot start to come together towards the end of the book and a gathering conflict of epic proportions in Volume 3 is foreshadowed.

Bringing the subplots together 

Ask each group to report to the class on the summary of their allocated subplot. All group members should be prepared to answer questions from the rest of the class. The group summary on butcher’s paper should be displayed on a notice board or perhaps on a classroom wall. (This exercise is going to require some space.) As each group reports back, the butcher’s paper summaries will build up into a more comprehensible overview of the complex plot of this graphic novel.


Even though the cartoonish characters in a graphic novel are obviously not like real people, nevertheless the creator of the text will provide enough information, both through print and image, to encourage readers to ‘read’ the characters as real people with whom they can engage. Indeed, readers will take the information provided in the text and embellish it from their own lived experience.

Ask students to create a retrieval chart (PDF, 104KB) on which they list the following information headings:

  • How they are named.
  • Physical appearance.
  • Behaviour.
  • What the character says.
  • What the character thinks and feels.
  • Reactions of other characters.
  • What other characters say.
  • What the author says.

Then allocate to small groups of students one of the major characters from the graphic novel and ask them to explore the construction of that character by listing information on the chart. Major characters can include:

(ACELT1619)   (ACELT1622)   (ACELY1724)


  • Heroism and courage
  • Evil in the world
  • Militarism and weaponry
  • Adolescent friendship
  • Feminism – ‘Girl Power’
  • Violence/hatred
  • Parent-child relationships
  • Pursuit of power
  • Immortality
  • Morality: ‘the right thing to do’
  • Magic/sorcery
  • Aboriginal myths and legends
  • Chinese history, legends and mythology
  • The pearling industry
  • Teenage gangs
  • Magical realism
  • Corruption
  • Racism
  • Sexism
  • Race-based discrimination
  • Intercultural relationships
  • Magical realism.


Synthesising task/activity

This activity will help students to understand the mutual relationship between imagery and verbiage for making meaning in a graphic novel.

For this task, students are to work in pairs as Student A and Student B.

Student A:

You have been given several pages from a graphic novel or comic selected by your teacher. The verbiage (in speech/thought balloons) has been deleted.

Your task is to use the images in each panel to construct a possible story-line for what is happening in the series of panels and then provide verbiage for the characters in each panel, either dialogue in speech balloons or thoughts in thought balloons.

Student B:

You have been given the original words from the panels of a selected graphic novel or comic. However, all the images have been removed.

Your task is to illustrate each panel with an image that either adds to or reflects the information in the words (the verbiage) that you have been given. (If you are not confident about your drawing ability you can simply use stick figures.)

You are then to share your work and explain to each other the choices that you have made.

Finally you are to compare your own work with the handout from the original graphic novel or comic.
(ACELA1528)   (ACELA1529)   (ACELA1782)   (ACELA1764)   (ACELT1619)   (ACELT1620)   (ACELT1621)   (ACELT1622)   (ACELT1623)   (ACELT1625)   (ACELT1805)   (ACELY1724) 

The writer’s craft


The early part of this volume is taken up with the attempt by the Underdogs to rescue the mysterious ape Medinga from Paul Donappleton’s estate, a feat which they finally achieve.

Part 1

Ask students to discuss what narrative (storytelling) purposes this first part of the novel achieves. Some possibilities include:

  • showing the Underdogs in action with Ubby as their leader,
  • revealing Paul Donappleton’s evil plans to gain great power by developing deadly weapons,
  • introducing several new characters (Sylvania, Styper),
  • and developing Medinga as an important character.

Part 2

The young Chinese girl, Sai Fong, who played such a central role in Volume 1 does not re-appear in Heroes Beginnings until page 82 when she appears to Ubby through Medinga’s consciousness. Readers will recognise this as a new phase in the story, especially as Ubby also sees a sinister ‘stranger hiding in the shadows’.

Part 3

This book is subtitled ‘Heroes Beginnings’.

  • Revise with students the 12-stage structure of the hero’s journey outlined by Joseph Campbell.
  • As they read the story ask them to complete a hero’s journey outline (PDF, 162KB) using information from the novel.
  • Have students consider that Sai Fong’s re-appearance at page 82 marks the beginning of the heroes’ story as promised by the subtitle of the book.

Part 4

Brenton McKenna has created a number of mysteries in the first two volumes of Ubby’s Underdogs. These will be resolved in Volume 3, still to be published. Engage students in a discussion about the following mysteries in the story as they read through the graphic novel:

  • What is Sai Fong’s illness? Why has Yupman Poe brought her to Australia to find a cure? (The teacher might have to re-visit Volume 1 to explain the pre-story of how the warrior woman carried druga from the Sandpaper Dragon to the Phoenix Dragon.)
  • Why does Ubby think that Yupman Poe is not telling her the full story of Sai Fong? (Ubby: ‘There’s something you’re not telling me.’ p. 11).
  • Samuel Donappleton refers to Medinga the baboon as ‘old chap’, tells him to look after ‘that boy of yours’ (Safa) and says that one day Medinga will have to explain to Safa who he really is and thus who Safa also is. Who might they be?
  • The gremlin (the pilot of the War Crown Spider) explains that it needs its egg in order to incubate Sai Fong. What could this mean? Is this a story of re-birth?
  • What message does the scroll contain? Who has the scroll? Who will be able to interpret it?

(ACELT1619)   (ACELT1620)   (ACELT1622)   (ACELY1722

Approach to characterisation

Part 1

Consider first the meaning of the word ‘underdogs’.

  • What is an underdog?
  • What makes each of the four members of the gang an underdog?
  • Is their ethnicity part of their underdog status?
  • Is their socio-economic class part of being an underdog? (Notice that the Underdogs regard Donappleton a a ‘silverspooner’. What do they mean?)

Part 2

The naming of characters can contribute to their construction. Consider what each of the following names suggests about the particular character.

  • Scotland Donappleton
  • Clancy Bankler
  • Sergeant McIntyre
  • Ubby
  • Gahn Stryper
  • Sylvania Neocrati
  • and so on for other characters.

Part 3

Brenton McKenna has given each of the four underdogs an identifiable trait. For example:

  • Gabe: obsessed with getting his teeth back from Gunada.
  • Sel: good-natured but somewhat childish (he rides his little sister’s bike).
  • Fin: often wears a handkerchief as a mask.
  • Ubby: fiercely combative.

Ask students if they find these character traits endearing. Does it help to individualise the character? Does it help readers to predict the future of each character?

Part 4

Major characters in fiction often grow and change, just like people in real life. Discuss with students the changes that occur with these characters:

  • Ubby: learns resilience.
  • Scotty: resists his father’s domination.
  • Gabe/Fin/Sel: are selected by the Nanren weapons as worthy heroes.
  • Snow: elevated to the Council of Magic in Hai’s place.

Part 5

Of course, most of the minor characters in the story do not change. Some simply occupy a narrative niche while others are easily recognisable as cultural stereotypes, e.g:

  • Uning: represents pure evil.
  • Stryper: the stereotypical mad Nazi German scientist.
  • Paul Donappleton: the ruthless businessman. (This character is a little more complex. The ghost of his father Samuel Donappleton explains why Paul behaves the way he does.)

Part 6

Aboriginality is privileged through the representation of Mulli as the leader of the Council of Magic. He is able to mobilise the whole community against the gathering storm of evil. He also gives voice to the importance of spirituality in the face of a new scientific age.

Part 7

An author will create characters who carry specific values. Ask students to consider the values promoted through the representations of the underdogs:

  • opposition to power,
  • determination to challenge those with privilege e.g. the Pearl Juniors,
  • loyalty and friendship,
  • scepticism about the adult world,
  • willingness to help those in trouble e.g. Sai Fong, Medinga.

Part 8

This volume ends with a roll-call of possible heroes as the people of the Broome community prepare to do battle with the forces of evil at Hollow Graves.

  • Ask students to make a list of the potential heroes and find quotes to explain why these characters may become heroes.

(ACELA1529)   (ACELT1619)   (ACELT1620)   (ACELT1622)


Students will find it useful to consult the map of Broome (PDF, 185KB) provided at the beginning of the first volume of Ubby’s Underdogs. Otherwise they will probably find it difficult to know exactly where the story is taking place at any given point.

Occasionally Brenton McKenna provides a fairly realistic setting as a way of providing a specific location for the action of the story. Ask students to try to locate the following places on the map of Broome:

  • Donappleton’s estate (p. 89)
  • the exterior of Donappleton’s house (p. 22)
  • the interior (p. 23)
  • a scene in Chinatown (p. 109)
  • houses along a beach in Broome which re-locates the story in Broome (p. 72)
  • Maryanne’s house (gives context to Ubby’s family life)
  • the market place in Broome where Medinga is pursued.

Most of the panels in the novel simply have coloured backgrounds. However, the colours used can carry their own meanings through the ambience that they create.

  • Ask students to contrast the background colours on pp. 77–78 with those on pp. 79–84, when Ubby enters Medinga’s consciousness. Discuss with them what meanings they think the different colours carry.
  • To illustrate this point, ask students how colours like red, orange and yellow make them feel. They will probably say that they feel a certain emotional warmth towards what is being represented. Similarly, ask them how they feel when they look at a scene in which the colour intensity has been reduced and they will probably say that the scene looks eerie or surreal.

Occasionally the artist has upscaled the force of an image by drawing it in vibrant colours and by making it much larger than the other panels. One obvious example is the explosion at the jetty when Ubby is able to firecast and set fire to Stryper’s special fuel. (See pp. 130–131. Note also the many vectors formed by bodies, arms, ladders, lampposts to create a sense of violent movement.)

One important setting, although it does not feature often in this volume, is Hollow Graves where Sai Fong is being held captive.

  • Ask students to look at the panels on page 82 and pp. 146–147 and explain how McKenna has created an otherworldly atmosphere for Hollow Graves.

Ubby is described as a ‘street rat, by one of the hunters. Presumably he means that she spends most of her life on the streets of Broome rather than indoors in her mother’s house.

  • Does Brenton McKenna successfully convey this sense of Ubby as a ‘street rat’ through the images in his book?

Use of parallels and contrasts

There are several interesting parallels and contrasts in this volume of Ubby’s Underdogs.

  1. The connection between the Chinese Phoenix Dragon and the Australian Sandpaper Dragon was important in Volume 1 and readers will suspect that there is a link to be revealed between the story of the dragons and Sai Fong’s search for a cure to her illness.
  2. The spirituality implied by both Chinese and Aboriginal myths is an important ingredient in the novel. Mulli explains how the Council of Magic in Broome has become a sanctuary for spiritual beliefs from around the world.
  3. Adult–child relationships (Maryanne–Ubby; Samuel–Paul–Scotty Donappleton; Yupman Poe–Sai Fong) are an interesting parallel in the story and also a potential contrast in the nature of those relationships.
  4. Uning and the Hede can be seen as a parallel to the evil embodied in Paul Donappleton and Ghan Stryper in their quest for power.

Point of view 

In a print text, point of view is often achieved through a focalising character through whose thoughts and feelings the story is told. Readers are positioned to accept this character’s version of narrative events unless the character is obviously an unreliable narrator.

In Ubby’s Underdogs the main focalising character is Ubby. Brenton McKenna positions readers/viewers to see events from Ubby’s point of view by what she says (‘I got a plan’, p. 13), by what other characters say about her e.g. Fin: ‘You’re a genius, Ubby’ (p. 56) and Butch: ‘Ubby’s got a plan’ (p. 21), and through the use of images which lead viewers’ eyes to see what Ubby is looking at (looking/seeing process), to experience her reactions, or to see what Ubby is doing (narrative process, narrative). This can be seen in the sequence of panels (PDF, 247KB) that show Ubby and Fin searching for Medinga in Paul Donappleton’s house.

Ubby is also established as the focalising character through her role as the leader of the Underdogs, demonstrated through her use of commands to the other three gang members.

  • ‘Fin, get back up here now.’ (p. 49)
  • ‘Fin, grab my hand.’ (p. 49)
  • ‘Everybody move.’ (p. 57)

Thus, readers/viewers are encouraged to respond to the other characters and to the action of the story through what they assess to be Ubby’s own set of values, attitudes and beliefs.


Part 1

The issue of ‘voice’ in texts featuring Indigenous characters has been a difficult one. Kate Grenville in her novel, The Secret River, deliberately avoided giving the Aboriginal characters any interiority and thus any real voice in the narrative. However, other contemporary writers have attempted to create individual Aboriginal characters in their novels rather than stereotypes. One example is Ambelin Kwaymullina in her Tribe series, a trilogy of novels set in a dystopian future in Australia, featuring such Indigenous characters as Ashala Wolf. (Note that Amberlin Kwaymullina is Palyku and can write from this perspective.)

  • Discuss with students the ways in which they think that Brenton McKenna has given a ‘voice’ to his Aboriginal characters. One obvious example, of course, is through his creation of the main character, Ubby, who he says, is based on his grandmother. Ask students to suggest other examples.

Part 2

Another contentious issue around ‘voice’ is the question of who has the right to express Aboriginal experience. The issue is whether non-Indigenous writers have the moral right to use the experiences of others for their own narrative purposes. Brenton McKenna identifies as an Indigenous man of the Yawuru clan (he is of mixed Malay and Aboriginal heritage) and thus certainly has the right to create Aboriginal characters, give them an interior life (what they think and feel) and give ‘voice’ to that life through what they say, their speech.

  • Again, ask students to find examples in the graphic novel where Aboriginal characters (or the writer/artist himself) give a ‘voice’ to authentic Aboriginal experience.

Part 3

Voice can also refer to the author’s style. Students will probably agree that Brenton McKenna has quite a distinctive storytelling style both through the words on the page and through his drawing style.

  • Ask students to find examples of McKenna’s distinctive style as a graphic artist. One example could be his use of humour to create a bond between his characters and readers. Students should find other examples of his style.

Part 4

Voice also refers to the language and style used in character construction and this will be dealt with in the next section.

Language and style

Brenton McKenna has used the spoken language of various characters to give them a sense of individual identity. For example, readers will recognise the very formal English of, say, Paul Donappleton (‘I need your help to win a contract to develop new military technology’), the Irish references in Fin’s dialogue (‘…a Dublin Knuckle sandwich…’), and the rather eccentric flowery speech of Sergeant McIntyre (‘The day grows busy for us all, so I shall hold you no longer’) and so on.

Readers may be surprised by the fact that Brenton McKenna has not given his Aboriginal characters, and especially Ubby, a more identifiably Aboriginal English for their dialogue. For example, in the novel That Deadman Dance (a unit based on this novel is available here), Kim Scott captures the sound of Aboriginal English as spoken by the Noongar woman, Binyan, to her ‘husbandJak Tar as she talks about the character Wabalanginy Bobby:

He be back maybe, was all she said. Wabalanginy Bobby man now, your brother. Him a man now. Young man. Them young girls lost their promised mans, ’cause too many old people – young ones, too, but – dying. He a clever man Bobby Wabalanginy…’ 

Scott then has the character translate into her own language: ‘…baal kaditj koombar booda mabarnngan demanger wanginy…’ (p. 306)

Students should listen to The etymology of country and More than just words, episodes from the ‘Awaye’ program on ABC Radio National, broadcast on 21 January, 2017, to find out what Aboriginal English sounds like and also to learn just how much of Aboriginal English has entered Standard Australian English.


Text and meaning

Exploration of themes and ideas

1. Evil in the world/militarism and weaponry

After having been defeated by the Phoenix Dragon and consigned to hell 2,000 years ago, the Hede led by Uning have returned to take their revenge against the Nanren. Uning plans to use the War Crown Spider to create a new empire with himself as leader. However, his drive for power is matched by Paul Donappleton’s desire to harness the druga of the Sandpaper Dragon to produce weapons of unimaginable power. Ask students to discuss whether they see a parallel between Uning, Donappleton and the leaders of contemporary nuclear powers.

2. Parent/child relationships

There are three adult/child relationships developed in Ubby’s Underdogs: Heroes Beginnings: Ubby and her mother Maryanne; Sai Fong and her guardian Yupman Poe; and that between Paul Donappleton and his son, Scotty. The first two relationships are positive and endearing but the last is a destructive relationship featuring a father’s humiliation of his son. The situation is explained by the ghostly appearance of Samuel Donappleton, Paul’s father.

3. Feminism: ‘Girl power’

Brenton McKenna has created several female characters including Ubby, her mother, Sylvania and Sai Fong who demonstrate ‘girl power’ in the face of the violent patriarchal power of such characters as Paul Donappleton and Uning. Ask students to consider how this girl power is exercised. Show them a short YouTube clip of the Marvel character Storm and ask them to think about which qualities the graphic novel characters share with her.

4. Magic/sorcery

Mulli, the leader of the Council of Magic, laments that the old world of magic and spirit is being replaced by the new god of Science. However, the popularity of fantasy fiction stories today suggests that young readers still look for an escape from the scientific world of facts and figures.  Discuss with students whether they think that it is possible to be both spiritual (whether religious or otherwise) and scientific.

5. Aboriginal legends and mythology

Many ‘settler’ Australians have little idea of the rich cultural history of Australia before the arrival of whites in 1788. Ask students whether a graphic novel which features ancient Dreaming stories from before white settlement can contribute to reconciliation between settler and Indigenous Australians.

6. Growing up

This book could be regarded as a coming-of-age story as the Underdogs confront a number of challenges which will contribute to their growing maturity. Since the emphasis is primarily on the young Aboriginal girl Ubby, students may be interested to read entries in Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia (ed. Anita Heiss, Black Inc, 2018).

Meaning in context

Even though Ubby’s Underdogs is set in the late 1940s, young non-Indigenous readers will inevitably read it within the contemporary context of negative news stories about Aboriginal people. Therefore, they may be interested to watch the music video Ms Dhu featuring Felix Riebel of Cat Empire and the Marliya choir, produced to publicise the death in police custody of a young Aboriginal woman in Western Australia. Similarly, the rap video Locked Up by Briggs and Marliya, highlights the high rate of imprisonment of young Aboriginal people.

These reminders of Australia’s shameful history in relation to the Indigenous people of Australia serve as a sobering counterbalance to the exuberance and optimism of Ubby and her underdogs.


Synthesising task

Step 1

Begin by writing a short story about 250–300 words long.

  • You can choose to write a myth in the style of an Aboriginal myth. Remember that the main purpose of a myth is to explain an event or phenomenon in the world. Some possible topics on which you could base your myth include:
    • how the snail got its shell
    • how the stars were made
    • how the kangaroo got its long tail.


  • You  could write a hero story (250–300 words) based on an event in your own life, e.g. ‘The day I saved my dog from drowning’.
    • Use a simple version of the hero’s journey story structure to plan your story.

Step 2

a) Take a scene from your written story and transform it into a short series of panels (perhaps five or six) in your own graphic novel.

b) Watch Brenton McKenna explain how he draws the characters in Ubby’s Underdogs or a video explaining how to draw faces. Then:

  • Sketch the characters in your panels.
  • Add speech and thought bubbles to show what your characters are saying and thinking.
  • Consider the setting for your panels. (Will you draw a realistic background or just use colours to provide an ambience?)

Share your graphic novel with your classmates
(ACELA1528)   (ACELA1529)   (ACELA1782)   (ACELT1619)   (ACELT1620)   (ACELT1621)   (ACELT1803)   (ACELY1720)   (ACELY1724) 

Ways of reading the text

Brenton E. McKenna’s graphic novel is not a re-telling of traditional Aboriginal knowledge. In fact, he has fictionalised both Chinese and Aboriginal myths for his own narrative purposes. However, his re-working of the history of Broome and the pearling industry could be seen as an Indigenous post-colonial ‘writing back’ against white history that provides an Aboriginal perspective. (‘Writing back’ is just a way of saying that I don’t agree with your way of telling the past and here is how I interpret history from my point of view.) Notice that Paul Donappleton, the pearling master at the top of the social hierarchy in Broome, is the villain of this story, while Mulli, Ubby’s uncle and brother to her father Delomarr, is the powerful leader of the Secret Council of Magic. Arguably Aboriginal literature is, by giving a voice to Indigenous writers, post-colonial by its very nature and that certainly applies to this text.

McKenna’s representation of a young Aboriginal girl as the ‘hero’ of his graphic novel also provides a feminist challenge to stereotypes of both women and Aboriginal people. Ubby represents empowerment of the female and a celebration of Aboriginal women. The links with Asia are also very important as contemporary Australians consider their geographical and strategic position in the world more so than previously.
(ACELA1529)   (ACELT1619)   (ACELY1721)


Comparison with other texts

Versions of the text in other modes, media and contexts

There are several short film versions of Ubby’s Underdogs on YouTube that students may find interesting. There are short presentations by Brenton E. McKenna on his approach to drawing and an interview with him about his craft.

Also worth noting: McKenna has contributed to a book of short fiction, poetry and comic art called, Things A Map Won’t Show You: Stories from Australia and Beyondedited by Susan La Marca & Pam Macintyre (Penguin, 2012).


Ubby’s Underdogs began in Volume 1 as a teenage gang action-adventure story, interwoven with elements of Chinese and Aboriginal mythology. The supernatural pre-history of the Chinese Phoenix Dragon and the Aboriginal Sandpaper Dragon is reinforced in the story itself by such fantastical elements as Sai Fong’s ability to ‘firecast’ and the appearance late in the novel of the fearsome War Crown Spider, apparently an ancient Chinese mechanical fighting machine piloted by a gremlin.

Ubby’s Underdogs: Heroes Beginnings transitions much more into a full-blown fantasy fiction graphic novel in the style of the Harry Potter series, complete with a Secret Council of Magic, wizards and sorcerers, dragons and ghosts and, of course, a place for the undead (Hollow Graves). This secret world naturally exists parallel to, but separate from, the ‘normal world’ of the town of Broome.

This graphic novel also belongs, obviously, to the hero’s journey genre, signalled by its subtitle. This genre has an ancient lineage, stretching back in Western culture to the Old English epic poem Beowulf, produced between 975 and 1025 CE by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet. J. R. Tolkien recycled episodes from Beowulf in his own fantasy hero story The Lord of the Rings. There is, for example, a very explicit connection between Beowulf’s fight to the death with the monster Grendel and Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog (PPT, 706KB).

The graphic novel as a form, of course, is related to a family of texts including comics, picture books and illustrated books. Young readers will be familiar with the movie and console game versions of DC comic book heroes (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman among them) and Marvel comic heroes such as Spider Man and Black Widow who, like Ubby’s Underdogs, fight against terrible evil in the world. An interesting recent cross-cultural development in comics has been the Japanese manga comics. Students may be interested to find out more about this Japanese version of the comic book.

Other genres that are hinted at in Ubby’s Underdogs: Heroes Beginnings are horror (the return of the Hede from Hell 2,000 years after their defeat by the Phoenix Dragon) and drama (the personal stories of Maryanne, Sylvania and even Scotty, in their dealings with the Donappletons).

Other texts using similar approaches or dealing with similar ideas

A similar approach to telling Indigenous stories in graphic novel or comic book form is taken in the Neomad project which involved over 40 young people from the Ieramugadu (Roebourne) community of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. These young people created an interactive comic series called Neomad that is a futuristic three-episode fantasy adventure series that combines animation, music, voice-overs and film. The series combines traditional Aboriginal knowledge with sci-fi themes and has won several prestigious awards. The creators of Neomad were mentored by Sutu (Stu Campbell), an Australian graphic artist. He is the creator of the interactive comic book NAWLZ. Stu is not Indigenous but helped the young people of Iermugadu with the technical aspects of creating an online interactive graphic novel.

(Students will be interested in looking at Stu’s drawing style in NAWLZ but the subject matter of his series may not be suitable for younger readers. Teachers should exercise their discretion.)

Another picture book for younger readers that deals with the Stolen Generations is Down the Hole (Edna Tantjingu Williams and Eileen Wani Wingfield).

Kgari is a short animated interactive documentary that provides an Aboriginal perspective on the story of Eliza Fraser (after whom Fraser Island in Queensland was named). It demonstrates how the white version of a particular event in Australia’s history can be challenged by contemporary Indigenous voices. (The teacher should provide some background to this story before showing the film to students.)

The Dreaming

Another graphic novel that contains Aboriginal themes is The Dreaming by Queenie Chan. The writer is not Indigenous and critics have said that in Volume 3 of her series she has misinterpreted Australian Aboriginal culture. However, the title of her comic signals her interest in Aboriginal culture and her Tokyopop manga style will remind students of the fusion of Asian and Aboriginal elements in Ubby’s Underdogs.

The importance of dragons in Chinese mythology can be seen in the dragon dance called Awakening of the Dragon. The performance of the dragon dance can be linked to the short story The Magic of the Pomelo Tree by Margot Mullian. Another dragon story with a similar theme to Ubby’s Underdogs is The Adventures of Little Dragon by Julia Fry and Wen Quan in which a Chinese dragon travels south to Australia and befriends a kangaroo, an emu, a possum and a bunyip.

Students may also make connections between the Aboriginal stories The Two Mermaids (a Dreaming story about mermaids who live in inland waterways) and The Mermaid and the Serpent (a traditional story from the Wugularr community in the Northern Territory about mermaids who inhabit a big waterhole at the base of the Beswick Falls) and Donappleton’s Ocean Maids.

Students will be interested in an exhibition of comics called Marramb-ik at the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum that features Indigenous superheroes. Artist Lin Onus of the Yorta Yorta clan, for example, created Kaptn Koori who resembled Superman but never featured in his own comic.
(ACELT1619)   (ACELT1620)   (ACELT1622)   (ACELY1765)   (ACELY1724)


Evaluation of the text

Representative of Australian culture

  • White writers in the past like Henry Lawson (‘The Drover’s Wife’) and Katherine Susannah Pritchard (Coonardoo) have included Aboriginal characters in their work but only as stereotypes, and not as ‘real’ human beings.
  • In contemporary times there has been an explosion of literary writing by Indigenous writers so that characters in their books are represented as real people.
  • One contemporary Indigenous writer is Kim Scott who has written such books as That Deadman Dance (see the teaching resource in the secondary section of the Reading Australia website) and Taboo in which his Indigenous characters have the power to act and to speak in their own voice.
  • Brenton E. McKenna’s graphic novel Ubby’s Underdogs: Heroes Beginnings upsets the usual representations of white and Aboriginal characters. Mulli, Ubby’s uncle, is a leader in the Broome community (he is the leader of the mysterious Council of Magic) and Ubby herself is a symbol of female empowerment and a celebration of Aboriginal women, while Paul Donappleton, the Broome businessman, is the villain of the story.
  • However, Indigenous people in Australia still suffer from institutional racism. Indigenous people are still dying in police custody and young Aboriginals are among the most imprisoned in the world.
  • Students may be interested to watch the music clip Ms Dhu which documents the death in custody of a young Aboriginal woman on minor charges or the rap song Locked Up by Briggs and Marliya. (Teachers need to be aware that these two songs are quite confronting and will have to exercise discretion if they want to show them to their students.)
  • There is still no treaty (called a ‘Makarrata’ in the Yolngu language group) between settler and Indigenous Australians, no agreement on how constitutional recognition of the First Peoples can be achieved and in 2017 the Prime Minister of Australia rejected the idea of a body (an Indigenous ‘voice’) which could advise the national parliament on legislation which might impact on Indigenous people.

Significant to literature/the world of texts


Modern Australia began life as a colony of Great Britain in 1788. The white people who came to this place from Great Britain over time spread out over the continent, taking the land from the Indigenous people who had lived here for tens of thousands of years. This involved much violence and terrible massacres. The whites were seen as superior and the blacks were represented as ‘Other’ or different. One writer who saw how whites killed the native people of a country for their own wealth was Joseph Conrad, who recorded it in his novel, Heart of Darkness. The darkness was in the hearts of the whites in Africa.


Contemporary writers in Australia are now doing what Conrad did, writing about how whites killed Aboriginal people in Australia to get control of the land. One such writer is Peter Carey who explores the violence of colonialism in his most recent novel, A Long Way From Home. Carey has been quoted as saying, ‘You wake up in the morning and you are the beneficiary of a genocide.’ (A genocide is the deliberate killing of a ‘race’ of people.) He says that it is his job to imagine what it is to be the ‘Other’, the people who seem to be different from oneself (but who are, after all, also human beings).


Fantasy fiction is a very popular genre today. Students will be aware of the TV program Game of Thrones or the Harry Potter books (which, in turn, owe something to J. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings). These texts feature supernatural elements such as witchcraft and a battle between Good and Evil. Students can decide if this is something that Brenton E. McKenna has done in Ubby’s Underdogs: borrowed ideas from the classics of the fantasy fiction genre and given them a uniquely Indigenous Australian flavour.
(ACELA1528)   (ACELA1782)   (ACELT1619)   (ACELT1803)   (ACELY1722)

Identifying and justifying language/stylistic techniques for specific narrative or dramatic purposes

Aspect of language/style Example from the graphic novel Effect
Use of language:

  • to reveal character
  • to support the action in the images


  • Paul Donappleton to his son: ‘Pfft! It’s a good thing the Pearl Juniors are made up of pathetic excuses like you, or you wouldn’t be fit to be leader, would you?’ And Scotty to Yupman Poe: ‘Shut up, Chinaman!’
  • Most scenes in the novel depend on both images and words for understanding. Words and images are interdependent, supporting each other to make meaning. For example, the scene on pp. 68–71 where Hai convinces Snow that they need to capture Yupman and Sai Fong to have them returned to China, would be difficult to interpret without the words on the page.
  • However, occasionally the artist has used amplified images (e.g. the extreme close-ups of Ubby’s eyes just before she firecasts or the double-page spread of the explosion at the jetty) to carry the story beyond what words could convey.
Brenton McKenna uses language to distinguish the different characters, especially characters like the Donappletons, Gahn Stryper, Clancy Bankler and Sergeant McIntyre. Yupman Poe and Sai Fong, as newcomers to Broome, also speak in a deferential way to the other characters.

In a graphic novel both words and images work together to make meaning. After all, this is the essence of a multi-modal text.

Drawing style:

  • Each character is given one distinguishing feature
Brenton McKenna has made no attempt to draw his characters in a realistic style. The characters are drawn in a simple style and each has been given a distinguishing feature to help readers to identify them without too much confusion.

Students can easily find examples of those distinguishing features, e.g. Gabe and his missing front teeth; Fin with his mask; and so on.

Occasionally it can be difficult to differentiate characters, and the viewer then needs to focus carefully to identify a character. This lack of realistic detail in the drawing of characters can encourage greater viewer engagement with those characters and perhaps even oblige them to read something of themselves into a character.
Use of colour There are moments in the novel when panels are immersed in very dark colours. One example is when Mulli visits the gremlin which controls the War Crown Spider on pp. 165–166. Black, dark brown and purple dominate. The colour is symbolic, representing a possible descent into Evil. Colour (the ambience) is not simply background. It carries a symbolic meaning from neutral orange to mysterious purple darkness (Mulli conjuring the Pyromancers) to the blackness surrounding the evil Uning.
Use of humour In what is sometimes a rather dark story the artist has included ‘fart jokes’, stink bombs, a teeth-stealing lizard and a rather juvenile Sel who likes to ride his little sister’s bicycle. This novel is aimed at a pre-teen audience so Brenton McKenna knows that he has to lighten the mood of the novel with the sort of humour that will appeal to them.
Quick changes of location and narrative:

  • Requires active reading
  • Gaps and silences  to be filled  across panels
There are often sudden and unexpected changes in the story. For example, on page 162 Yupman Poe tells the three Underdog boys that there is something he needs to give them. There is then a sudden change in setting to a public meeting which Butcherbird and Snow are addressing. Readers will need to make the link back to the Nanren weapons which were introduced on page 113. Reader response theory argues that readers will fill in the gaps and silences in a text with readings drawn from their own experience or from their culture. This is particularly important in reading this graphic novel, where gaps in meaning can arise across the gutters (or margins) from one panel to another.
Manipulation of time and place


In addition to telling a linear story, Brenton McKenna has to fill in gaps in his narrative by using flashbacks and other devices:

  • Maryanne’s story of how, many years before,  she saved Sylvania from the young Paul Donappleton.
  • The ghostly Samuel Donappleton’s recollection of the past.
  • Yupman Poe allows Ubby to enter Medinga’s consciousness to re-gain the events of the previous night.
  • Sai Fong appears to Ubby as a ghostly apparition from Holly Graves.
The use of flashbacks and the narrating of a pre-story to help readers understand the ongoing events in a novel are standard features of a complex work of fiction.
Variation of narrative pace:

  • Reflected in the panel images
Images showing frenetic activity (e.g. the two panels at the top of page 50) are juxtaposed with quiet images (e.g. Caspar and Bruno observing a humiliated Scotty on page 51.) Obviously in any lengthy story there need to be quiet interludes between sequences of exciting activity. The quiet images also allow the artist to show the reactions of characters to what has just gone before.


Synthesising task

Persuasive speech

Around Australia there are a number of schools which are attended mainly by Indigenous students. For example, in Cairns in Far North Queensland there is the Djarragun College and on Thursday Island students attend the Tagai State College. You should do some research to locate a school or college like this in your local area, or at least relatively close to where you live. Students in these schools would be interested to read Ubby’s Underdogs with its themes of Indigenous identity and Australian history. However, the ideas and themes in Ubby’s Underdogs are of great interest to all Australian students.

In addition, the graphic novel format of Ubby’s Underdogs with its combination of words and images will be a great help to students who are struggling with their literacy.

Your task:  

The time has come for all Australians to understand the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history of this nation. This will require more than the perfunctory once-a-year Naidoc activities presented in most schools around Australia. The study of Indigenous texts must become an unremarkable part of the curriculum in all schools.

Prepare a PowerPoint presentation to be sent to the leadership team of any middle school in Australia urging them to buy a class set of Ubby’s Underdogs: Heroes Beginnings (and if possible the full Ubby’s Underdogs trilogy) for the Year 7 students at their school. Add a spoken soundtrack to your presentation using persuasive speaking techniques to convince the team that Ubby’s Underdogs is worthy of study both for its content and also as a tool for improving the literacy levels of reluctant readers at the school/college.
(ACELA1529)   (ACELT1619)   (ACELT1621)   (ACELT1622)   (ACELT1623)   (ACELT1625)   (ACELT1805)   (ACELY1721)

Synthesising task

Creating a graphic novel


During your work on this unit you have made some predictions about what might happen in the final book of the Ubby’s Underdogs trilogy.

Using your predictions, write the story for the first four pages of Volume 3 of Ubby’s Underdogs. You know that many of the characters of the Broome community are heading for the mysterious Hollow Graves where Sai Fong is being held captive and that the Sandpaper Dragon also has been called there by Sai Fong, the dragon summoner. You also know that members of the Underdogs gang are going there to prove themselves to be heroes.

Then, transform your story into the first four pages of a graphic novel. Incorporate into your novel such elements as panels, images, margins, speech and thought balloons, and colour. Use your drawings also to capture the gestures and facial expressions of your characters. Students may wish to revisit the YouTube clip of Brenton McKenna explaining how he draws the characters in Ubby’s Underdogs or the video explaining how to draw faces, both mentioned in the Close Reading section of this teaching resource. Alternatively, if you still have difficulty with drawing, perhaps you could work in pairs or groups with this activity to pool your skills.


Earlier in this unit you experimented with creating the first six panels of a graphic novel based on a myth or hero story that you had written yourself. Go back to this earlier work and expand on it to create an entire graphic novel about four pages long. Incorporate into your novel such elements as panels, images, margins, speech and thought balloons, and colour. Use your drawings to capture the gestures and facial expressions of your characters. Again, you may wish to use the drawing prompts and strategies mentioned above.
(ACELA1528)   (ACELA1529)   (ACELA1764)   (ACELT1625)   (ACELT1805)   (ACELY1725)   (ACELY1726)


Rich assessment task 1: Responding

Creating a Prezi presentation

Brenton McKenna has transformed the first graphic novel in the Ubby’s Underdogs trilogy into a short multi-media presentation featuring images from the novel, explanatory print banners and a rollicking Irish tune as the soundtrack. This presentation certainly captures something of the energy and excitement of the original novel, Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon.

Your task is to create a similar presentation based on Ubby’s Underdogs: Heroes Beginnings, using the Prezi presentation program.

Method of work:

  • Choose some panels from the novel and scan them into an Ubby’s Underdogs folder.
  • Create a Prezi account.
  • Create a Prezi presentation using both the saved images from the novel and your own print banners.
  • Choose suitable music as a soundtrack for your presentation.
  • Add the soundtrack. (There are videos on YouTube which will help you to add music to your presentation.)

When you have created your Prezi, present it to your classmates.
(ACELA1528)   (ACELT1619)   (ACELT1805)   (ACELY1728)


Rich assessment task 2: Creating

Creating a myth in response to a scientific explanation*

(Please note that here the word ‘myth’ means a made-up story in the style of an authentic Aboriginal creation or traditional story.)


In this graphic novel Mulli, the leader of the Council of Magic, regrets that ‘mankind no longer believes in spirit’ (p. 134). He says that ‘the old world of magic and spirit is slowly dying’. Brenton McKenna in an end note says that the human race has embraced a new god called Science.


Your task:

Another very important feature of great spiritual value to the Aboriginal people who live near it, is Uluru in central Australia.

Again, there is a modern scientific explanation for the formation of Uluru. Read this scientific explanation and then write your own myth (i.e. a made-up story in the style of an Aboriginal Creation story) to explain this phenomenon in a more spiritual way.

(When you have finished your own myth you may be interested to see how the Pitjantjatjara Anangu people of the area have used a Creation story to explain Uluru.)
(ACELA1528)   (ACELA1531)   (ACELA1537)   (ACELT1619)   (ACELT1625)   (ACELY1721)   (ACELY1725)