The Weird and Wonderful World of Australian Comics

If I asked you to name countries that created great comics, naturally you would name the United States, right? Perhaps follow it up with praise for the dizzying array of manga produced by Japan, or wax poetic about the artistry of Western European bande desinee. And let’s not forget Britain, home of the graphic novel gods Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore and Garth Ennis, amongst others.

But what if I told you that for the last 50 years, Australian artists and writers have quietly yet persistently inked tales of action, valour, and more importantly, animals from outer space wielding machine guns, into their comic panels? Well now, sit back, strap yourself in, and let’s take a look at the much maligned and yet magnificently subversive history of the Australian comic book.

Prior to 1939, American comics dominated the newsstands in Australia. But with World War Two looming, the Australian government began reconsidering how much imported material they could afford from America and England, as the price of paper and other materials had shot up, and ‘folks had to batten down the hatches’, as your grandparents would say. So, from July 1940, Import Licensing Regulation was enforced, which meant that any foreign materials in the form of paper publications or syndicated proofs were banned. To give you an idea of how big a deal this was, you know how you want to scream and rip your shirt to pieces like the Hulk when your favourite comic line is cancelled? Yeah, now imagine thousands of people doing that along with you, stranded on a big red island. It had hit the fan for the fans.

Faced with a possible Lord of the Flies scenario (‘I have the conch! I HAVE THE CONCH!’), anybody – and I mean anybody – who had the ability to draw and write was soon recruited to create comics. Unlike U.S. comic books, which are created by a sophisticated team of writers, pencillers, inkers and editors operating like well-oiled machinery, Australian comic books were, and still are, the result of one or two people working at breakneck speed to create something entertaining, stylish, or at the very least, coherent.

And to be fair, most of the comics were pretty decent, given that the Australian artists and writers either had no prior experience, or were just used to doing strips or cartoons for newspapers such as The Bulletin or Smith’s Weekly. There were the obligatory Westerns, Aboriginals substituted for Native Americans (see: Trent of the Territory); war stories such as Yellow Peril, featuring sweaty Japanese soldiers with fangs (mm, I love the smell of racist propaganda in the morning!); and the odd science fiction comic, such as Terror Island (don’t read ‘em alone at night, kids!). And then there was Emile Mercier.

Mercier, the son of French immigrants, worked various odd jobs over the years, before getting hooked on creating comics. But not just any old comics. I’m talking completely in-your-face bombastic comics. Comics that gleefully perverted the genres of the Western, the superhero, the daredevil. In the year of 1945, Mercier unleashed his unhinged comic creations upon the Australian public, and the Australian comic industry was never the same.

Mercier’s first success was Mudrake and the Plotters of Skroomania. The cover shows Mudrake (a parody of Mandrake the Magician) sending the bastard love child of a vulture and scissors after some dastardly ne’er do well, whilst Mudrake’s assistant, assumed to be Samuel L. Jackson dressed as the Cat in the Hat, looks on in approval. Tripalong Hoppity the Fearless Texas Ranger was a buck-toothed geek more Dilbert than Deadwood, and my personal favourite, Wocko the Beaut, featuring heroic everyman Wocko, whose only goal in life was to beat people up whilst wearing a bowler hat, a dirty blue singlet, and romper stomper boots. Come on, tell me with a straight face that you wouldn’t be excited at the thought of Wocko! The Movie!

Sadly, Mercier’s assault on decent sensibilities only lasted twelve months, as he was quickly snapped up by Smith’s Weekly to be their resident political cartoonist. (Much to the public’s delight and the editor’s horror, however, it was soon clear that when Mercier couldn’t remember a politician’s name he’d just call them ‘Mr. Fwyp’. He also took any and every opportunity to write the word ‘gravy’ or draw cats’ anuses).

Inspired by Mercier’s lunacy, soon more Australian comic artists began experimenting with humour. Even though George Needham’s Choclit and the Bosun would be as welcome as a Klansman at a Kanye concert today owing to Choclit’s ‘pickerninny’ appearance, on closer inspection, it actually defied most stereotypes. For a start, Choclit was the hero, and the Bosun, the white character, the bumbling sidekick. And even though Choclit spoke pidgin English, in one issue he can be seen reading the newspaper aloud to the illiterate Bosun.

Then there was Boofhead, which followed the rather odd adventures of a young man named, well… ‘Boofhead’. For international readers, a ‘boofhead’ in Australian terms means someone who is a few peas short of a casserole. This is evident on one Boofhead cover where the titular character is hypnotised by a worm. Captain Atom, by Arthur Mather — not to be confused with Steve Ditko’s creation — wasn’t exactly Superman, (Captain Atom’s alter-ego was called Bikini Rador, for crying aloud), but its freakiness must have worked in its favour, as it sold roughly 180,000 copies a week, and the Captain Atom Fan Club had 75,000 members. Captain Atom, after being exposed to radiation and fused with his twin brother would fight crime with the imaginatively titled ‘Atom Ring’, which worked after he shouted ‘EXENOR!’ Whether an outright spoof or unintentionally funny, Captain Atom was a smash, and proved that whatever the Yanks could do, we could do… well, perhaps not ‘better’, but at least schlocky B-grade stuff that was exquisitely off-beat. Australia was on its way to being a serious contender in the world of comics until the ripples from Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent reached our shores, and the good times rolled to a stop.

In a note of irony, whilst in America comics were being howled down as pamphlets for pinkos and commies, in Australia the right and the left were on the warpath. Infuriated that Australia was cashing in on the Korean War by having pro-capitalist sentiments expressed in comics, the Australian Communist Party denounced them. On the other side of the spectrum, conservative politician C.A. Kelly, who at the time was the Chief Secretary of New South Wales, announced that Dr. Wertham’s findings proved beyond reasonable doubt that children who read comics were growing up ‘with distorted ideas of sex, sadistic lusts, and the firm conviction that crime is a paying proposition’. As well as New South Wales taking an anti-comic stance, the state government of Victoria introduced laws that threatened to deregister and fine publishers who produced ‘unsuitable’ comics (what they considered ‘unsuitable’ was never properly defined). Queensland went one step further, establishing the Queensland Literature Board of Review, as well as the Objectionable Literature Bill. In the year of 1954, the Board banned a total of 45 publications, a third of them comics. The High Court of Australia had to intervene, as like Victoria, not only did Queensland not properly outline what was acceptable to its standards and what wasn’t, but was going so far as to stifle free speech.

Persecuted on all sides, the death knell for Australian comics was the lifting of the importation ban. American and English comics flooded the scene, and our home-grown quirky heroes were drowned in a sea of Spandex.

The fallout from the 1950s was so bad that it would be thirty years before Australia had anything resembling a comic book ‘industry’. The only comic of note that came out of the cultural wasteland at the time was Captain Goodvibes in 1975; Captain Goodvibes himself being a pot-smoking, motorcycle riding pig. Ladies and gentlemen, this was Australia’s ‘Silver Age’ of comics.

The accusations leveled at Australian comics in the 1950s were unfounded, and the governments’ treatment of the industry grossly unfair. Literary scholar Ian Herbertson accuses the Australian government of abandoning critical thinking in favour of censorious moralism. Mark Finnane, a fellow comics historian and theorist, wonders if the crackdown on comics had its roots in something deeper. “For if comics were salacious or amoral or vacuous,” he notes, “was this not also a feature of modern writing, and an ingredient of modern life?” The times they were a’changin’, and it made the powerful fearful. They wished for a time before Korea, before Aboriginal civil rights icons like Choclit, before a man could be named after a bathing suit and still have 75,000 fans.

But the greatest injustice lies at the feet of the National Library of Australia, which is committed to housing Australia’s past in the form of literature. For decades it refused to house comics, owing to what Ann Nugent calls “a certain cultural snobbishness”, rather than being able to find examples of Australia’s comic culture, as our output in the 1940s and early 1950s was prolific. And so, it was up to the fans (who else?) to make good.

Even though I doubt he ever wore a cape, an unassuming man named John Ryan will go down in history as the saviour of Australian comics. After saving almost every single Australian comic he bought, in a time when collecting comics was almost unheard of, he donated them to the National Library in 1972, after the storm of controversy over comics had died down and the National Library was most likely reconsidering its elitist stance. Ryan also authored what is affectionately known as “The Australian Comics Bible’, Panel by Panel, in 1978. In loving yet painstaking detail, Ryan recorded and discussed every single artist, writer, publisher and event that shaped Australian comics, from the late 19th century up to the 1970s. The book ends on a sad note, with Ryan lamenting the loss of what he saw as reflections of ourselves, us as Australians. The good guys, the bad guys, the sorrow, the laughter, the beautiful and the strange. Us.

John Ryan passed away at the age of 48, only two months after Panel by Panel was published. He would never see his collection become the cornerstone of the National Library’s comic archives, or witness Graham McGee and Mick Stone donate their own comics, inspired by Ryan’s contribution. And if he were with us today, he would have been glad to have been proved wrong. For Australian comics are down, but we’re not out. Artists and writers have begun to fight back.

Rejuvenated in the late 1980s by the growing rate of comic shops, the dawning of fan culture and the comics-as-art revolution lead by The Big Three (Maus, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns), Australians started getting their stuff out into the public domain, guerrilla style.

Newsagents and book stores were (and some still are) iffy about stocking comics, and so comic shops, such as Pulp Fiction Comics in Adelaide, have started to have sections devoted to local product. Comic conventions such as Avcon, Supanova, and OZCON give creators a way to interact with fans and sell their own stock if they haven’t been picked up by a publishing house. And rather than clawing each other down, artists and writers often sing each other’s praises, with close-knit communities of comic fans and creators found in almost all Australian capital cities.

So, what’s out there? To sum it up nicely, stuff that would have made Mr. Mercier twiddle his little moustache in delight, if I may be so horribly racist towards the French. Doom Bunny and the Monster Catchers by Loren Morris stars a rabbit addicted to milk who defeats monsters with mustard. Australians have a particular affinity for anthropomorphic animals with ‘tude, as Flash Domingo by Gary Chaloner features a platypus from the deep recesses of space who fights crime with a hail of bullets, and Hairbutt the Hippo by Jason Paulos satirises the noir genre by imagining a Bogart-esque detective played by a flatulent hippopotamus. Other standouts are Uncle Silas: Genesis by David Follett, about two youngsters and their uncle battling sentient plants, and Lars the Last Viking by Matt Taylor, a sprawling opera about alcohol, IKEA and Norwegian Pines that play black metal. A personal favourite is Rooftops by Mandy Ord, with the author philosophising on fate, coincidence and the awesomeness of Bill Murray, and a promising serial is Mogul by Kevin Hayes, a beautifully drawn saga featuring a goblin taking on the Godfather.

Australia needs to get rid of the “cultural cringe” that exists around comics once and for all, as every day more and more creative folks on this continent write and draw unique and witty comic books and graphic novels. They do it while holding down jobs, going to school, or fighting crime in masks and cowls (you never know). My point is, please, if you’re in Australia, pick up a local comic. If you’re an international reader, badger your local shop or distributor to get them in stock. Because just like Wocko, they sure are Beaut.