ICONIC OUTBACK COMICS
Our beloved newspaper comic strips caused Australians to reframe the world we lived in throughout the last century.
And now with the decline of print – it’s high time we looked at the classic serialised comics that shaped a nation.
Jimmy Bancks, Symes Newspapers
When WWI was over, a new war began between rival rascal kids, with Ginger Meggs flying the flag for The Australian, and Fatty Finn doing the same for the Evening News.
Looking back on it now, the idea to serialise a couple of mischief making pre-teens in the rough years of the 1920s and 1930s proved a salve for kids and adults who were pretty much going through the same things.
They were the young Australians spinning around on a strange new globe, where suddenly what you did at home, no matter how hard you worked, could all be gazumped by a decision made someplace on the other side of the world. Be it a world war or an economic disaster.
It was an era when both hope and hopelessness creaked and spun by the minute, like the rusty weather vein on a corrugated roof.
Ginger Meggs was embraced by families in both the city and the country but this was no Lil Rascals, there was a Caledonian darkness lining the orange panels as the proto-ranga zipped and schemed around his working class neighbourhood.
Artist Jimmy Bancks gave Ginger Meggs a pair of squinting tic-tac-toe eyes, and it was hard not to feel for him, given that he looked like a shop-worn Mickey Mouse in hobo’s clothes.
From exploding billy karts, to taking on his nemesis Tiger Kelly, to embarrassing himself in front of love interest Minnie Peters, he was constantly having his fishing trips interrupted.
No matter how bad Meggsy’s demise, he would bounce back the next day with yet another cockamamie idea. The character doing anything to distract himself and keep the laughs going as the grown up world loomed on the horizon, and the Great Depression existed in the here and now.
With the dark threat of either a communist abyss or the rise of a cruel new type of capitalism, adults were looking at the cheeky redheaded kid to remind them not to get too deep in issues that were beyond their control. The cartoon reminded them to keep moving, and to keep laughing.
In the 1980s – around the time of the next great recession – the franchises of both Ginger Meggs and Fatty Finn had a retread, with both comics re-animated in motion picture form.
Ken Maynard, Australian Post
The longest running and most loved outback cartoons was Ken Maynard’s Ettamogah Pub.
His characters were instantly recognisable, all beer guts in singlets and Stubbies, all twig legs in thongs, all mop heads in torn felt hats.
Each character was also drawn with a durry stapled to the corner of his mouth, with a schooner in one hand and a pool cue in the other.
Smoking, drinking, gambling and fishing were by no means the sole domain of the men within the strip, but also their faithful mutts, with most of the dogs in frame looking ripe for a spell in rehab.
Maynard may have been from the Murray River region but his art represented the beating heart of every single country town from the Cape to the Bight.
These being places where the pub and the church and the post office were the centre of existence. And with very little happening at either the church or the post office, the pub was the perfect place to depict the outback town of the 70s.
They say you don’t get humour without conflict, rainbows without rain, etc, and there was a heavy blanket of torpor that seemed to drape over every frame, from the heat haze, from too much booze, from too much hard work.
The pub was paradise, a respite and a distraction from the endless miles of nothingness out the window, there was a need to be around a place that was buzzing, even if the only thing buzzing was the flies around your mouth, and the hope of catching a monster fish when you finally got a day off.
And that’s exactly what each frame explained in inky detail; with the minutiae including galahs and cockatoos, truckdrivers and jackeroos, all dressed the same, all in the same boat.
For decades Ettamogah Pub appeared in Australasian Post, a staple for the working man in the city and country. It was always found in the work dunny or in the barber’s waiting room and it became a reinforcement of Australian values we never knew we had.
From all reports, creator Ken Maynard was a man of rare integrity. A former country cop who started drawing the exaggerated small town world he saw, and filling it with so much tiny detail that each panel could be revisited time and again.
”He was a true artist,” said his mate Philip Worsley in the Sydney Morning Herald. ”Couldn’t handle money, couldn’t be controlled, couldn’t be relied on.”
His cartoon was such an Australian icon, that a chain of the lopsided pubs were built around the country as tourist-trap theme hotels.
THE ADVENTURES OF BARRY MCKENZIE
Barry Humphries & Nicholas Garland, Private Eye
A comic strip created by the greatest Australian comic of them all.
Yep, Barry Humphries swam against the stream, against the stifling scourge of suburbia and the tutt-tutting conservatism that flourished in the early 60s.
If nothing else – if only to entertain himself – he thrived most whenever he was pulling the tiger’s tail.
On one occasion he famously had a mate fill a baby’s nappy with chocolate pudding and hide it in a rubbish bin at Central Station. When he got off at said station during peak hour, he rummaged through the bin, pulled the nappy out in front of stunned onlookers, produced a spoon from his pocket and proceeded to eat the lumpy brown mess.
There were no cameras or anything, this was strictly for the entertainment of he and his mates. They loosely followed the Dada art movement, using such acts of absurd social defiance as a way to show the plods just how absurd their own existence was.
After years of these sorts of pranks it was time to take his act on the road and get paid.
When the Swinging 60s hit England, it seemed all the Australian Intelligentsia (something PJ O’Rourke once referred to as “Yep, both of them”) moved to London.
Into this gumbo pot of freedom, flower power and fashion, Barry Humphries leapt. Straight into unveiling a new cartoon character, an uncouth yet bright-eyed Aussie creation named Bazza McKenzie.
McKenzie was drawn by Kiwi artist Nick Garland at Private Eye magazine, which during its heyday was the world’s foremost satirical title, long before National Lampoon was ever a thing in the US.
It was a commentary that mocked both the innocence of an Aussie buffoon, and also the ‘groovy’ people laughing at him. The whole way through the comic’s run, it was like two fishbowls looking at each other, with neither of them having any idea what was going on in the other.
For the majority of the strip, our naïve hero wandered the streets of Earls Court in his Akubra, baffling everyone he crossed with his outback slang.
The strip was edgy without trying to be, it was crass, creative and completely unlike anything the world had seen. Every panel was full-to-bursting with hard-drinking, vomiting, and the everyday vulgar goings-on of this proud ocker Frankenstein.
Bazza’s antics became too much for civilised London to handle and the character was eventually taken in by a shrink called Dr. DeLamphrey, who diagnosed him as insane, and wondered what kind of trauma could have caused such damage?
Turned out there was no trauma, he was just an Australian, and bloody proud of it – “You Pommy bastards don’t know what ya missing!”
McKenzie wasn’t for everyone. While it was a hit in the UK it was banned in Australia. Those being mocked – from blue-blooded wowsers to pinko hippies – were grossly offended.
To give an idea of how divisive it was, one federal government banned it for indecency, and two years later, another government funded a film version of the comic (which PM Gough Whitlam even appeared in).
So many turns of phrase came from the comic strip: “Point Percy at the porcelain”, “I’d be up that like a worm with an outboard motor”, “Wouldn’t know his arse from a hole in the ground”, “Bangs like a dunny door”, “Unbutton the mutton” and that old classic – “Go stick ya head up a dead bear’s bum.”
Gary Clarke, News Ltd syndication
Homegrown, and set in the mangrove compost of Anywhere, Australia.
There were no high-minded coral fish or brave desert kangaroo heroes here, instead Gary Clarke took us to a world of muddy effluvium filled with anxious ducks, uppity dung beetles and indifferent crocs.
It became an immediate hit in the 1980s because each strip read like a joke. The perfect setup, the perfect characters, and then being blindsided by a punchline that wrecking-balled out of whatever direction you weren’t looking in.
Clarke’s success was certainly not overnight, as his skill with the comic pen was honed from the hard slogging years creating his Diesel Dog outing in Truckin’ Life magazine.
Coming from such inauspicious beginnings, Swamp is now translated into eight languages and is so big in places like Japan that his odd-bod dump-inhabiting animals even feature in their own clothing line.
With over 12,000 strips in the can, Clarke’s longevity in the Sunday papers can be put down to not being too trite and formulaic, but also never going into the shocking or risqué.
Although Clarke’s Swamp is not a million miles from the US-style ‘Sunday funnies’ of Wizard of Id or The Far Side, it’s the grimy setting that brings it to life as an Aussie classic.
While the most famous episodes involve Ding the flightless duck, for this writer’s money it’s the strips that involve the two manky rats. Cheese and Chives, live in the depths of the dump, and say things like “Oh, you’re not wearing that!”
The swamp is made up of personal memories that Clarke still mines. Even though the original swamp of his childhood no longer exists.
“The ponds are gone and today the creek is a concrete channel… The rough bushland is now neat with trimmed, tree-lined bicycle ways.
“Somewhere embedded in every Swamp cartoon strip, the things that inspired me in childhood still show through. For instance, every fly-head-first into a cowpat, every time Ding nosedives into a crumpled wreck, every time a dump rat discovers new treasure and every offbeat character. They all have their origins with a bunch of kids… knee-deep in the wonderful world I call Swamp!”
While his background is pure modern Australiana, his deliberately down-at-heel characters are heroes simply for having a go.
He describes the strip as a “down-to-earth look at a bewildered society thriving in an increasingly complex world.”
Tony Edwards, Tracks
The surf world has always relied on cartoons. With this once being a fringe sub-culture it was capable of looking at the social milieu from the outside and provide biting commentary.
Australian surf comics have a long tradition that began with Roy Bisso’s beatnik portraits (Surfing World) during the 1960s. They moved on to Tony Edwards’ Captain Goodvibes in the 70s (Tracks), and reached a critical mass of artists in the 1990s, with Paul Collins’ ASL Man (Surfing Life), Mark Sutherland’s Gonad Man (Waves) and Ben Brown’s Grubb (Tracks).
When teenagers began to wean themselves off surf magazines (at one stage there were over a dozen titles on newsstands) and onto computers, the surf cartoon died a slow death.
Across the board, the stories were always raw and funny, going far beyond the vagaries of insular surf culture to include broader barbs aimed at politics, religion and sex.
There were no limits to where the protagonist could go or what they could do, with much of the later work being heavily influence by Captain Goodvibes, the hard charging Aussie surfing ‘Pig Of Steel’.
Surf comics were heavily absurdist, usually involving the protagonist traveling around to a famous surf break around the country, getting into some sort of fracas that required him to use his super powers to enable him to save the day (AKA, get tubed and get a root).
While the stories were raw and designed to provoke, the artwork was detailed and psychedelic.
Make no mistake Goodvibes made an immediate impact, by sheer outrageousness and simply broiling in the juices of his own debauchery.
Goodvibes began life as a humble pork chop that was zapped by radiation and became driven to pursue drugs, sex, giant waves and curried prawns.
Prior to Tony Edwards’ creation, surf and hot-rod art were pretty much the same thing, a Californian construct, with the work of Big Daddy Roth and Rick Griffin being less about storyline and more about elaborate art.
That changed immediately, with Goodvibes going on adventures that included surfing through the filthy digestive tract of a whale.
Tony Edwards later told the Sydney Morning Herald – “I was the perfect author for an erratic fascistic, feckless, thirsty, boneheaded, yobbo cartoon character. “God very kindly cobbled me together from a broad and seemingly irreconcilable set of components. Basically, I never had to leave the studio to find examples of the worst excesses of porcine or human behaviour. It saved a lot of time. “The pig was a boys’ thing, a schoolboys’ thing. Women grow up. To some extent I missed out on that particular development.”
Eric Jollliffe, Sun Herald
This one is just as notable due to the matching life direction of its creator as for the famous comic.
Eric Jolliffe was the youngest of a dozen kids born to Pommy migrants. When he was old enough he fled the confines of school in the early 1920s and worked in the bush as a shearer and a boundary rider.
Looking for something to stimulate his sharp brain after hard days on horseback he bought a book on drawing and spent his nights scribbling the roustabout rural life he saw around him.
He moved to the city during the Depression and his work was demoralizingly dismissed when he enlisted at the National Art School.
But during the war, while posted in Arnhem Land, everything clicked and The Bulletin started running his outback vignettes.
By the time WWII was over, he had developed a couple of strips including Saltbush Bill and Sandy Blight for the Sun Herald, both of them becoming popular for their portrayal of life on the fringe.
Eric’s journey wasn’t without drama though, as his comic Witchetty’s Tribe was deemed by some to be insensitive.
Joliffe came out swinging: “The white man often learns one thing and slogs away at it for his livelihood. An Aborigine in the bush has to use his brain all the time for survival in his environment and, in using initiative, he gains know-how all the time…
“Oh, I think quite a lot of the Aboriginal people although a couple of bureaucrats reckoned my art was an insult.”
And this from fellow artist Mick Joffee, whether black or white, “They are portrayed as equal under his brush as they are under the Southern Cross.
“In 1981 he was awarded the very prestigious Bourke Order of the Outback for services to the people of the outback. Only two other awards of the Bourke Order had been made, one to the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the other to Colleen McCullough.”
It was only when he got sick of the politics of comic syndication in the 1970s that the artist unleashed his own stand-alone comic, Jolliffe’s Outback, and it was to be his finest work.
Jolliffe’s Outback dealt with the daily trials and mayhem of working in the bush, making it especially popular with older Aussies.
All of Eric’s drawn panels resonated with the same sense of humour he had in real life. Such as the time he saw his own artwork on the walls of a pub…
“I was having a quiet beer when this young bloke said, ‘He’s not bad, is he?’
I didn’t want to start any trouble so I agreed that the artist wasn’t bad.
Then he said, ‘You know that he’s still alive.’
‘Well,’ I replied, ‘I can’t tell you how pleased I am to hear that.’”
Lee Falk/Various, Frew Publications
Sure the Phantom wasn’t created here. Let’s just get that out of the way right now. But never has a single hero so resonated with a country’s population so easily.
Australians are the most obsessive Phantom phans in the world, just ask our premier ‘Ghost Who Walks’ devotee, Dr. Bryan Shedden.
“We have good reason to claim this title on the basis of being home to Frew Publications … publisher of the longest running series of dedicated Phantom comics in the world.
“Frew have been publishing Phantom comics like clockwork since 1948, with over 1400 issues. So when people think of Australian Phantom comics they automatically think of Frew.”
As for sales, show me anyone who ever bought a Superman or Archie comic back in the day, and I’ll show you five who shelled out their hard-earned coin on the Ghost Who Walks.
Much has been made of the reason Australians are so enamoured by the purple one, and it’s chiefly because the Phantom has no superpowers. He wasn’t cooked up in some lab.
He got the job done with a minimum of hysterics and a maximum of humour, and usually with a funny James Bond-type quip thrown in for good measure.
If you want to deeper into the obsession, parallels can also be drawn to how country Australians practice their religion and how they see the whole Jesus story…
The Phantom was just a good bloke, who was dedicated to fighting injustice, helping the oppressed, following the family lineage, not taking any crap, being nice to animals and living peacefully in nature. Sure, everyone in the jungle, thought him immortal but he was just a normal guy.
Similarly, when Aussies hit the church pews on a Sunday morning, it mattered little if the good Lord performed miracles or returned from the dead.
Parishoners were prepared to keep up the façade of immortality, but they knew the real triumph was that it was the stories that come back from the dead.
The comparison would seem labored in any other country, but to Australians over the last century, just reading the Phantom itself was a religious experience.