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The History of Comics in Australia

As a young boy I remember with some delight the arrival of the latest comics from overseas. I suppose I would have been about nine or ten when my elder brother and I frequented the local West Brunswick news agency in search of the latest Phantom , Batman and Robin, Superman, and many others comics. At that time after the Second World War luxuries such as comics were hard to come by. Australia’s involvement in the Second World War had cost the economy dearly and restrictions were imposed on imports thus giving local publication a distinct advantage. We lived in poor circumstances and we had to save the pocket money we earned from doing odd jobs around the neighborhood to purchase on the black market.

In this essay we are looking at the History of Comics in Australia. Not necessarily uniquely Australian comics. We will also include comic strips which also played an important role in the establishment of comic culture in this country.

Sources are a little scratchy as to just when comics made their debut in Australia. At first Australia was inundated with publications from England and the USA. It wasn’t until 1931 that the first Australian publication aptly titled The Kookaburra appeared.

comics1On the other hand comic strips first appeared in the Bulletin magazine as early as the 1880s. W.H. Traill the then editor and manager of the Bulletin is credited with importing from America the technology known as photo engraving. This technique concerned the transformation of ink and pencil drawings onto a sensitized zinc plate. This gave artists such as Phil May and Norman Lindsay the opportunity to reproduce their work in a new way. Up until this time illustrations and cartoons were reproduced by engraving into wooden blocks.

As I stated earlier imported comics were hard to come by after the war and locally produced strips and comics found favor with the population. Ginger Meggs became a national institution and is even published widely today. As color was added and print quality improved comic books became a major industry and publications such as Captain Atom, The Panther, The Scorpion, The Raven, The Mask and many others became enormously popular.

Perhaps the golden era was the 1960s. However it was around 1948 that The Phantom first made its appearance. It was a fortnightly publication, produced by local artists and still sells today. During this time many local reprints have appeared of both English and North American comics (as clones or parodies) but these days it has become more economical to import the more popular publications.

Comic books and comic strips as they became more popular covered a multitude of topics including science fiction, adventure, crime, western cowboys, horror and politics. Race, romance and sex were not taboo and the more upright members of society considered some publications to be seducing the innocent.

When television arrived in Australia in 1956 it more or less put paid to the local industry and the market began to dry up and many businesses folded. That is not to say that the industry doesn’t survive today. It always was and always will be a legitimate form of art. By the mid 1980s a comic sub culture had emerged and formed its own self publishing community. Fox comics began in 1985 and lasted for five years and twenty six issues. In 1986 Phantastique was published but only lasted for four issues. It probably failed because it was produced in the style of an underground commix and was violently opposed by right wing public commenter John Laws and religious fundamentalist Fred Nile. Others to have a go during this period were Cyclone in the more traditional super hero style with an Australian flavor lasting for eight issues and another eight with a change of name to Southern Squadron. Other popular successes include Hairbutt the Hippo (1989) and Platinum Grip. (1993)

Certainly comic books, comic strips and cartoons have taken an important place in the artistic culture of Australia. I don’t think there influence can be historically underestimated. I also think that it is no understatement to say that Australian cartoonists are among the best in the world. Two for example are Tanberg and Leunig who set a very high standard with their biting political observations. Comic strips also have a traditional place in the pages of all Australian newspapers and give people pleasure on a daily basis.

In writing this short piece it would be difficult to deny that when I was a child they were a major sauce of both entertainment and an aid to reading. I think comics at the time were more a boy thing rather than a girl thing, and I can recall countless hours of reading and re reading the many publications that were available in my childhood.

comics2The other thing that impresses me is that in researching this topic I found the volume of information on Australian publications overwhelming. I had no idea the topic was so vast. What this say’s is that whilst the influence of English and American comics was substantial, Australian made product held pride of place in the market. I think there is little doubt that comics will continue to have some influence on society. The style and form may change from time to time but they will always be out there. For proof of this one only has to type the word comic into google and a whole world of comic culture opens up. You can even create your own.

6 comments

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  1. Anne Byam

    Very interesting reading John. I devoured comics when I was a kid … fun stuff, the ‘boy’ comics … absolutely anything – and me a girl. Come to think of it, I can’t remember any of my little girlfriends ever owning a comic !!

    I adored Ginger Meggs.

    I often think back to the days of the comic, and what intrigues me is that the fantasy often found in them ( people on planets / the moon, huge aircraft capable of all kinds of unbelievable things, super technology – where one could see someone else on a screen of some kind ) …. all have in fact in one way or another, eventuated. I find that all rather spooky.

    Now … you can go right ahead and call me nuts, perhaps deservedly – but it is true – to a degree if you think about it. 🙂

  2. Keitha Granville

    I remember my mother being concerned that my brother wasn’t very interested in books. She was told by a clearly wise English teacher if he read comics – which he devoured – he would be fine. IAnd he was. Great stuff !

  3. Jim Craney

    Growing up in Ireland in the 50’s, our favourite comics were not American but English comics. I mean the Beano, Dandy and Topper for younger kids then as we got a bit older the Hotspur and the Eagle for boys and School Friend or Girls Crystal for girls. These came out weekly and cost about 3 pence each. My favourite was the Hotspur, with tales of war, adventure, soccer, etc.These had regular picture stories with well loved favourites such as Battler Brittain, Wilson the Athlete, Roy of the Rovers, whose adventures we looked forward to in anticipation weekly.I firmly believe that the high level of literacy in my generation came from reading these. We also had the 64 page adventure comics which were an illustrated book, with full length war,cowboy, detective or general adventure stories for boys and of course girls had their own comics with stories of interest to them. These were great entertainment in a pre-TV age but never get a mention in comic history and deserve recognition.

  4. bobrafto

    You struck a chord. Mr Lord!

    About 1954 at the age of 5 I saw my first comic books in my uncle’s corner store which was also a sub newsagency.

    I devoured every comic book that entered the store, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Bugs Bunny, The Phantom et al. I had a privileged upbringing but I had to pay for it, as my Uncle put me in charge for the returns. Gordon and Gotch were the distributors in those days and unsold copies were returned to them.

    I imagine that Brisbane wouldn’t have been any different to Melbourne with the Saturday morning matinee showing Walt Disney cartoons for the price of threepence or a zac. Now that’s a term you don’t hear anymore and shortly to keep it company will be ‘Fair go, mate!’.

    Those were the days m

    lol
    I’m sure you finished off the sentence if not the song.

  5. Anne Byam

    @ Jim Craney … talk about a memory jog. You mentioned “Girls Crystal” …. my parents purchased for me, every “Girls Crystal Annual” book for every Christmas, when I was of the age to read and enjoy them. Great books. Wish I could get a hold of one of them today – just to revisit my childhood for a little while.

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