The earliest incarnations of newspaper and magazine cartoons in Australia typically juxtaposed self-contained illustrations with typeset captions placed beneath them. The key difference between these single-panel cartoons and ‘comics’ is the latter’s dynamic integration of text and image within a consecutive series of illustrated panels. This greatly enhanced the medium’s potential for sequential narratives, which found their initial expression in newspaper comic strips throughout the 1920s and 1930s before migrating to the comic-book format in the 1940s.
American comic strips provided the visual template for the first generation of Australian comic-strip illustrators. The publishers of Smith’s Weekly provided Stan Cross with recently purchased samples of the American series ‘The Gumps’ (1917–59), as the model for his own comic strip, ‘You & Me’ (1920–40). In 1951 it moved to the Sun News-Pictorial as ‘The Potts’, which adapted the domestic comedy to a recognisably Australian setting.
The public acceptance of comic strips in Australia frequently depended on the editorial receptiveness of individual newspapers to this new medium. For Smith’s Weekly, the comic strip provided a new outlet for its highly acclaimed roster of illustrators and cartoonists, whose work was already a key selling point. The comparatively staid Sydney Morning Herald, however, did not introduce comic strips until 25 years later, with the debut in 1945 of C.S. Gould’s comic-strip canine, ‘Shaggy’.
However, any newspaper proprietor who doubted the circulation-building capacity of the comic strip need have looked no further than James (Jimmy) Bancks’ backyard urchin, Ginger Meggs. Beginning as a minor character in Bancks’ strip, ‘Us Fellers’ (Sunday Sun, 1921), Meggs quickly became the undisputed star, whose adventures were compiled into books (The Sunbeams Book series, 1924–51; thereafter Ginger Meggs Annual, 1952–59) and adapted for the cinema (Those Terrible Twins, 1925). When ‘Ginger Meggs’ (as it was now called) was briefly moved from the front page of the ‘Sunbeams’ comics supplement, Bancks successfully claimed breach of contract and took ‘Ginger Meggs’ to the Daily Telegraph, published by his friend (Sir) Frank Packer, in 1951; he was followed by an estimated 80,000 former Sunday Sun readers.
The ‘funnies’, as they came to be known, eventually broadened their humorous parameters; the adventure serial demonstrated the comic strip’s capacity to sustain readers’ interest in lengthy storylines, thereby compelling them to purchase each daily or weekly edition for the next episode. Oddly enough, women’s magazines did much to popularise this new format by using pivotal American examples of the genre, such as Lee Falk’s dual heroes, ‘Mandrake the Magician’ (commencing in the Australian Women’s Weekly, 1934) and ‘The Phantom’ (Australian Woman’s Mirror, 1936). These characters enjoyed iconic status among generations of Australians.
Both series were distributed by the Yaffa Syndicate, established in the early 1920s and the Australian representative of the Hearst-owned King Features Syndicate, and symbolised the gradual inroads being made by American comics during the 1930s. Local publishers’ preference for cheaply syndicated American content drew the ire of the Australian Journalists’ Association, which claimed they robbed Australian writers and illustrators of work. Consolidated Press Ltd’s decision in November 1939 to include a 16-page comic supplement, with considerable American content, in the new Sunday Telegraph almost resulted in a split in the Printing Industry Employees’ Union of Australia.
The situation was briefly reversed during World War II, when the Commonwealth government levied import licensing restrictions on non-essential goods from the United States, which blocked the importation of American comic books and syndicated comic-strip artwork intended for publication in Australia. These sanctions created openings for Australian adventure comic strips, including Reg Hicks’ intrepid aviator, ‘Tightrope Tim’ (Sunday Sun, 1941–49), and Kathleen O’Brien’s curvaceous heroine, ‘Wanda the War Girl’ (Sunday Telegraph, 1943–51). The war also reinvigorated the vogue for ‘Digger’ humour, most visibly in Stan Cross’s ‘Wally and the Major’ (Melbourne Herald, 1940–79) and Alex Gurney’s much-loved larrikins, ‘Bluey and Curley’ (Sun News-Pictorial, 1941–75).
However, audiences’ growing preference for radio and television news steadily eroded newspaper circulations and hastened newspaper mergers and closures, which dramatically reduced publishing opportunities for Australian cartoonists. Nonetheless, new series gained traction with readers, including John Dixon’s outback adventure, ‘Air Hawk and the Flying Doctor’ (Sun-Herald, 1959–86) and Monty Wedd’s comic-strip biography of ‘Ned Kelly’ (Sunday Mirror, 1974–77). Australia’s exotic fauna remained a popular subject, as seen in Ken Emerson’s ‘The Warrumbunglers’ (Sun-Herald, 1977–2010), Gary Clark’s ‘Swamp’ (Sunshine Coast Daily, 1981– ) and Sean Leahy’s ‘Beyond the Black Stump’ (Courier-Mail, 1988– ). By the early 1980s, however, Australian comic strips remained vastly outnumbered by foreign content in all metropolitan and national newspapers.
Australian cartoonists rarely had access to newspaper syndication opportunities. This situation changed with the emergence of domestic syndicates specialising in Australian comic strips. Sol Shifrin’s Inter Continental Features secured national and international sales of Gerry Lants’ ‘Basil’ (Melbourne Herald, c.1970–80) and Allan Salisbury’s ‘The Old Timer’ (thereafter ‘Snake Tales’, Daily Telegraph, 1974– ), while Auspac Media (est. 1988) currently syndicates numerous Australian comic strips, including Roger Fletcher’s ‘Torkan’ (Sunday Telegraph, 1976– ).
Comic strips served as a bridge between cinema and television, attaining their peak popularity during the inter-war decades. The relative decline of Australian comic strips in the post-war era is ironic, as newspapers resorted to more illustrative layouts to compete with television and, more recently, online media. Yet, by ignoring the graphic appeal of the comic strip, Australian publishers have neglected the very medium that once lent visual dynamism to newspapers and commanded the loyalty of thousands of readers.
Despite its superficial resemblance to the comic strip, the comic book has proven to be a far more controversial medium, enduring periodic bouts of official sanction and social condemnation while fending off economic challenges posed by foreign imports and rival electronic media. Yet its tumultuous history has been punctuated by episodes of creative innovation, audience regeneration and cultural rehabilitation—an ongoing process that may yet see the comic book prove to be more resilient than its newspaper forebear.
Early Australian children’s magazines, most notably Pals (1920–27), were modelled on British children’s papers, which emphasised illustrated stories; however, these gradually gave way to a new generation of children’s weeklies, such as The Kookaburra (c.1931–32) and Fatty Finn’s Weekly (1934–35). But it was The Adventures of Buck Rogers (1936–53) that gave Australian readers their first glimpse of the modern comic book, consisting solely of comic-strip stories dedicated to a single character—which had been appearing in New Idea since 1934.
Despite wartime newsprint rationing and embargoes on new ongoing periodicals, firms such as NSW Bookstall Co. and Frank Johnson Publications, drawing on their respective expertise in publishing paperback novels and popular magazines, produced some of the earliest Australian-drawn comic books, including Jimmy Rodney on Secret Service (1940) and Amazing (1941).
The late 1940s saw publishers re-enter the field to exploit consumer demand for escapist reading matter. Australian-drawn comics were soon forced to compete with growing numbers of American and British titles being reprinted domestically under licence, thereby sidestepping the ongoing ban on imported comics. By the mid-1950s, every major newspaper and magazine publisher utilised its editorial, printing and distribution networks to claim a share of this booming market, which was reportedly generating ₤3.25 million in annual sales revenue. Smaller firms, unable to source foreign content, commissioned locally drawn equivalents of popular American genres, such as Len Lawson’s masked cowboy, The Lone Avenger (1946–57), and Arthur Mather’s superhero, Captain Atom (1948–57).
A mounting public outcry about these ‘American-styled’ comics led to state government censorship and industry self-regulation designed to prohibit, or otherwise regulate, the sale of comic books and other forms of objectionable literature throughout the 1950s. These pressures, coupled with rising newsprint costs, competition from television broadcasting from 1956 onwards, and the re-admittance of imported comics in 1960, forced all but a handful of Australian publishers to quit the industry.
The emergence of Australian comic-book fandom throughout the 1970s and 1980s had profound consequences for the local comics industry. For decades, K.G Murray, Page Publications and the Federal Publishing Company had, by turns, monopolised the Australian market with cheap versions of American comics. However, they were now competing with comic shops, whose sales of imported American comics gradually outstripped the circulations of their equivalent Australian editions. Unwilling to cater to the niche fan market, and steadily losing casual readers to colour television, videos and computer games, Australia’s remaining comics publishers ceased operations by the mid-1980s. Frew Publications’ long-running series, The Phantom (1948– ), is now the last surviving remnant of Australia’s once-thriving comic-book industry.
The vacuum created by their departure was filled by a new generation of Australian artists, galvanised by their exposure to international comics culture through comic shops, fanzines and conventions. Their works ranged from visceral horror (Vampire, 1975–79) and experimental anthologies (Fox Comics, 1984–90) to ‘ocker’ variations on superheroes (Southern Squadron, 1987–89). The popularity of Japanese comics (‘manga’) became evident in Australian comics, most notably in ‘Hedrax’ (serialised in Eureka, 1988) and the locally-drawn ‘manga’ anthology, OzTaku (2004–07). However, these publications were largely self-funded ventures, and suffered from irregular publishing schedules and erratic distribution, thereby limiting their exposure to wider audiences.
Denied access to the commercial publishing infrastructure that once underpinned Australia’s comic book industry, local artists have turned to alternate channels to reach their audiences. Dillon Naylor’s anarchic comic, Da’n’Dill (1992–99), was distributed via showbags, while the resurgent popularity of children’s magazines, led by K-Zone (2000– ), has provided new outlets for Australian comics.
Ironically, Australian children’s literature— long upheld as an antidote to the pernicious influence of comic books—has fostered the current vogue for ‘graphic novels’. Early ex- amples of these long-form comics date back to Syd Nicholls’ Middy Malone: A Book of Pirates (1941), but the critical and commercial success garnered by Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (2006) has spurred interest in ostensibly ‘adult’ works, such as Nicki Greenberg’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby (2007).
REFs: L. Foyle, ‘The Evolution of Comics in Australia’, Australian Jnl of Comedy, 8(1) (2002); J. Ryan, Panel by Panel (1979); A. Shiell (ed.), Bonzer (1998).