Tonight! Tonight, I come as a man with many hats.
I wear my hat as a lifelong comic fan. Please join with me, as we show our appreciation to those who have organized tonight’s event that is being held for the very first time in Sydney. Let us acclaim – Felicity Blake …Gary Chaloner … and Tim McEwen!
I wear my hat as the Deputy President of the Australian Cartoonists Association – or ACA for short! This association was formed in Sydney. It has a history stretching back almost one hundred years – making it the oldest cartooning body in the world. I am so pleased to have been part of the ACA Committee that has agreed to silver sponsorship of this event tonight. Cartooning and comics are closely linked, and I do encourage anyone interested in joining the Australian Cartoonists Association to do so. And not just because there is an annual Award for Best Comic Book Artist – yes, there is! – but also because you become part of an organization whose history is so intertwined with this beautiful city…
I wear my third hat tonight as Lead Judge in the Ledger of Honour Awards. As my colleague and fellow Judge, Daniel Best, has already explained, the Ledger of Honour Awards are an opportunity to acknowledge those who have exalted and trumpeted Australian comics in the past, either as creators or fans, and to honour them alongside those from the present.
This year, for the first time from the outset of the judging process, the Ledger of Honour was divided into two explicit categories – an Award for those who have worked in Australian comics and who have now retired, and a second Award – the one I shall soon present – is to acclaim those who have also made their mark in the comic medium in this country but have since passed away. I like to refer to these Awards as the Living Legends (for those retired). And for those who have passed away, and with no disrespect meant, simply using an Australian slang terminology – we have the Dead-Set Legends.
To select the Awards, a panel of five Judges knowledgeable in Australian comic book history convene. Individually, they nominate and put forward to the panel, persons whom they feel are worthy for consideration. Much animosity and bitterness in debate ensures before one person is seen to have forcibly browbeaten the other combatants, and their choice emerges victorious.
That’s exactly what happened in deciding the Award for the Ledger of Honour (Deceased)!
Comic Comrades! The recipient of the Dead-Set Legend for 2017 is going to be awarded to a pioneer of the comic medium. Today’s Award winner was born on 17th January 1877 – a very different world to the one we live in. Australia was a colony of Mother England, a patriarchal society existed with only men having voting rights, and the books that were read in the colony appeased the new white settlers’ homesickness and longings for places far away. Today we celebrated someone who challenged and changed all that: today we celebrate the contribution of … Cecilia May Gibbs!
Rather than going into a full-blown biography of May Gibbs – the beautiful Ledger Awards book, produced by Bruce Mutard, covers most of that – let me spend some time talking about the reasons why the Judges felt that May’s contribution to this unique art form was so worthy...
May Gibbs. What an astounding, amazing woman! Although born in England, May grew up in rural Australia, developing a love of the bush. Both of May’s parents were accomplished artists, so it is perhaps not surprising to learn that she was first published (in the Western Australian Bulletin) – as a twelve year old!
After studying overseas, May returned and eventually settled in Sydney. She illustrated for the Sydney Mail and The Lone Hand and – for fifty years! – the New South Wales Education Department’s Primary Reader. By the early 1920s, May Gibbs had achieved considerable commercial success with her illustrated children’s books Gum-Nut Babies and Gum-Blossom Babies and the book she is best known for today, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. Up until then, Australian children’s books had reflected the leprechauns, kelpies, brownies, pixies, fairies and goblins so well-known in British literature. Almost single-handedly, May Gibbs turned all that on its head!
But it was not her writing that May wanted to be known. Comic strips had taken off in Australian newspapers in the mid-1920s and she felt to illustrate one would ensure that her literary works would continue to be published and remain in the public eye. But what obstacles May Gibbs had to overcome! She was a woman cartoonist in what was a man’s world, and by then in her mid-forties, when she approached the Sydney Sunday News Editor Errol Knox and submitted her strip The Gumnuts. The topic of the strip was everything that was not being run in the weekly newspapers of the day. And then she argued over her rights to retain her own copyright!
May had fought these battles before. She was tenacious! At a time when book publishers were paying 10% royalties to Henry Lawson, ‘Banjo’ Patterson, C J Dennis and Norman Lindsay, May Gibbs had earlier demanded – and won – the right to have her royalty raised to 15%! Can you imagine the scene? A middle age woman in the 1920s not only haggling to have a newspaper run her comic strip, but allowing her to retain the rights to it? However, with the support of fellow cartoonist and senior artist of the newspaper, Syd Nicholls (our winner of last year’s Dead-Set Legend), May Gibbs was successful!
May supplied a half page cartoon each week and was allowed to retain syndication rights and the rights to publish her cartoon in book form. Her comic strip Bib and Bub first appeared in August 1925 and it continued until she retired the strip in 1967 – when she was 90 years of age!
May was also the first cartoonist to have two consecutive comic strips running in two different newspapers at the same time, when Tiggy Touchwood (under the pseudonym of Sam Cottmann) appeared in Sydney’s Sunday Sun in 1925, running until 1931. The earliest forms of comics published in this country were compilations of newspaper strips, and a total of eight comics of May’s works were published.
Throughout May Gibbs’ career, she entertained Australian children (and adults), mixing home-grown philosophy with social and moral comments into her adventures. She lead her readers into the discovery of the bush, which had so inspired her as a child. Her concern about bush creatures, preaching kindness to plants and animals in all her works, clearly placed her ahead of her time. When she died in 1969, she left all her works of art and royalties from her books to both the New South Wales Society of Crippled Children (now Northcott Disability Services) and the Spastic Centre of New South Wales (now Cerebral Palsy Alliance).
May Gibbs was an inspiration to many artists throughout her lifetime, and continues to inspire young Australians today in the love and artistic representations of nature. Many of her themes continue to be carried on in some comic book artists of today, with Starrytellers and Fly the Colour Fantastica two recent anthologies that most quickly spring to mind.
It was one hundred years ago that May Gibbs’ books, Gum-Nut Babies and Gum-Blossom Babies, were first published. It is fitting then, that we raise our collective hats as we celebrate May Gibbs’ achievements on this special anniversary. It gives me immense pride and pleasure to be able to present this year’s Ledger of Honour to Cecilia May Gibbs’ ‘Head Gumbut’ Rosalie May.