Terra Australis is one big beast of a graphic novel, an incredibly rich reading experience clocking in at just under 500 pages, with an ambition as broad as its spine. It’s certainly the only graphic novel to have been awarded a prize at the International Festival of Geography, and began when writer Laurent-Frédéric Bollée was on Phillip Island in Sydney. He idly wondered who Phillip was. Five years later he presented the answer to the wider world.

Bollée not only takes the time to build up his cast, but also covers their environment, and the circumstances that led to their being aboard the first ship exporting British convicts to Australia. This encompasses life on the streets for a nine year old orphan, conditions inside the notorious Newgate prison, and the fates of escaped slaves evacuated to London after fighting for the losing British forces in the American war of independence. Bollée weaves his story so deftly around the social conditions and the bare bones of history that at times you forget much has to be fictional to fill in the gaps.

Naval man Arthur Phillip isn’t, although of necessity his musings and feelings about his position are extrapolated. He’s entirely convincing as a man beset by self-doubt, a sense of a wasted life, and a fear of failure, yet who became remarkable. Tasked with founding a society, the voyage permits plenty of reflection, and he considers what his new community will be like. He’s an adaptable and thoughtful man, and as portrayed by Bollée, uncomfortable with much about the establishment he represents.

Philippe Nicloux’s black and white art is astounding, although it may not seem that way to begin with, as there are some rough pages as he grows into his task. He has a scratchy style with an Eisneresque sense of exaggeration about his faces, yet it supplies a depth of emotional characterisation, and when applied to landscapes it’s astonishingly detailed. There is an occasional problem in distinguishing between the British officers, but that’s minor when ranged against what Nicloux does well. The final pages contract the post-Australia careers of several cast members, and these are presented in a series of four horizontal panels in which the image of the featured character shrinks with each tier as they fade into history.

The title refers to the name originally given to Australia, translated from the Latin as ‘unknown land’, which is the true destination of the convict convoy. The mission of transportation was to be simultaneously one of colonisation, founding a settlement to be overseen by Phillip. This only occurs in the final of three segments, the other two introducing the cast and preparation, then detailing the voyage itself, which lasted several months. Incidental details abound, and the majority of conflict not with the establishment is with nature and the elements. Bollée’s agenda is to deliberately undermine the concept of heroic colonialism. Yes, this is the foundation of Australia, yet it’s as much to do with persistence and chance than forward thinking and planning.

The greatest irony is that there’s rapidly very little difference between the conditions endured by convicts before being transported to Australia and their situation once there, portrayed with a lack of sentiment. Out of sight and out of mind is the abiding establishment view, and for a long time reminders returning from what was named Sydney were unwelcome.

Terra Australis is a prodigious achievement. Educational, yes, but painlessly and creatively so, and consistently gripping. It deserves a place on your bookshelf.