Honouring John Ryan, Panelologist
On April 10th, at the State Library of Victoria, the annual Ledger Awards were held. Rather than detailing all of the Award Winners (for the moment, at least), I would like to acknowledge one of the Platinum Award winners: John Ryan.
John Ryan first introduced me to the wonderful history of Australian comics, while I was still a teenager at school, when he sent me copies of his Boomerang writings from 1973 (which I still proudly have in my collection). He was nominated for the Platinum Ledger by Amy Louise Maynard, one of the 2015 Ledger Judges. (Amy is a PhD candidate and freelance writer based at the University of Adelaide.) Here is Amy's speech:
John Ryan was born at Cowra, New South Wales in 1931, but spent most of his life in Brisbane. As a boy he had an interest in comics, but he did not become a serious collector until the 1960s. He was particularly interested in collecting comics published in Australia from the 1940s to 1958, when import restrictions were lifted.
He was in regular correspondence with collectors in the United States and elsewhere and contributed to US fanzines. He was an active member of the Australian and New Zealand Amateur Publishing Association and became involved in the science fiction fandom network. In 1964 he published the first Australian fanzine, Down Under, produced off a spirit duplicator. He won the American Alley Award in 1964, winning ‘Best Article’ in the Fan Category of that year, and he also won in 1967 for his writings on Australian comics.
Ryan continued writing about Australian comics in the 1970s. In 1976 he was the Australian contributor to Maurice Horn's The World Encyclopaedia of Comics, published by Chelsea House of New York. This was one of the first global overviews of the history of the medium, still referenced today.
Ryan’s magnum opus was the creation of the tome Panel by Panel: A History of Australian Comics published by Cassell Australia in 1979.
It is one of, if not the most, comprehensive study of the Australian comic book industry from its inception in the 1930s to the late 1970s, and also looks at early magazines that featured strips, like the short-lived Vumps. And that's just the second half of the book. The first half of the book, looks at the newspaper strip industry.
Ryan painstakingly crafted this tome through interviews, newspaper clippings, his own comics collection, and archives. This was done of his own will and utilising his own time and funds, as this was not a project done with the support of a university - Ryan was just an autodidact (or 'panelologist' as he liked to call himself) who had a passion for comics and wanted to make something that illustrated the hard work that went into the craft. Ryan made many personal friendships throughout his correspondences with those in the industry, with mutual trust and respect forming the basis of his research.
Panel by Panel is comprehensive to the letter - dates, authors, titles of publications, publishing companies, production methods, laws and societal changes that impacted comics production and culture, it's all in there, alongside scanned but clear images. Without the work of John Ryan, a whole history of this artistic medium in Australia would have been lost. He laid the groundwork for the academics and autodidacts that came after him: Ian Gordon, John Foster, Kevin Patrick, Adam Possamai, Paul Mason, Ingrid Unger, Annette Shiell, Michael Hill, Stuart Hale, Daniel Best, Matt Emery, Mark Finnane, Mike Stone, John Clements, Graeme Cliffe, Amy Louise Maynard, and Nat Karmichael.
John Ryan is the godfather of Australian comics history. To understand how the medium has changed through the ages there needs to be the knowledge of how it began, and Ryan gave that to us.
He died of a heart attack aged 48 in 1979, not long after Panel by Panel was released. His Australian comics collection, along with much of his correspondence, are now held at the National Library of Australia.
He died far too soon, and never lived to see how his research impacted so many people in Australian comics, whether they're academics, historians, writers, publishers or artists. But before he died, he made sure to preserve the legacies of those that worked in comics in the 'Golden Age', such as Sid Nichols, Jim Bancks, Moira Bertram, Stanley Pitt, K.G Murray, Keith Chatto, John Dixon, Paul Wheelahan, Emile Mercier, Kath O'Brien, and Monty Wedd, to name just a few.
He celebrated their lives and work, and we should celebrate his, tonight, right now.
Longer-term readers of this Blog will know that John Ryan's family have given Comicoz permission to update and re-publish Panel By Panel (you can find it here on this web-site). And while that project is still many days off being completed, it remains a longer-term goal. Being in touch with the family, then, I was able to assist the Ledger organisers in alerting John's family about the impending Award. Unfortunately, Jan was heading overseas, and his children were unable to attend the ceremony at such short notice. So, it was a great honour for me to be chosen to read Fiona's speech and to accept the Award on the family's behalf. Here, for posterity, is Fiona's speech:
It's amazing to think that 35 years after my father died he is still known and loved in the Comic community. To me, he was simply the father who had thousands of comics carefully stored in a massive wardrobe that covered the full wall of his study. From the smallest age we knew that we weren't allowed to touch those comics -- they were off limits to kids! He made up for that though by buying hundreds of comics of our own. Richie Rich, Little Lota, Little Dot, Spiderman, The Avengers... All cheap from the newsagent and well read and thumbed through by us, over and over and over. It wasn't until I was in high school that I realised that not every kid had thousands of comics to read and pore over.
Over the years, my Dad made friends with many comic creators, illustrators, writers and artists. Much of it was done via correspondence as STD phone calls were expensive and computers and email were unknown (he would have loved the Internet). These friendships were strong and long standing, many well over 20 years, and this helped him greatly when he needed source material for his book.
Panel By Panel was a labour of love. Many, many nights I fell asleep to the sound of him typing on a manual typewriter, creating drafts of chapters. He wasn't a typist, so the entire book was tapped out 'hunt and peck' style. Wasn't everyone's father writing a book in the evenings and in their spare time?
Thank you to everyone here tonight for acknowledging my father, his encyclopaedic knowledge of comics and his dedication to them. I (we) are very happy to accept this Award on his behalf.
This photo came up on the screen when I accepted the Platinum Award on behalf of John Ryan's Family. The photo was supplied by Howard Siegal and features in my first paperback, "John Dixon, Air Hawk and the Flying Doctor". From left to right: Phil Belbin, JOHN RYAN, John Dixon, Hart Amos, Keith Chatto. For those interested, John Ryan's 1964 Award-Winning article ("With the Comics Down Under") is reprinted in full in the aforementioned Air Hawk volume.
Comicoz is Nat Karmichael's publishing imprint. Nat is committed to preserving a permanent collection of Australian comic and comic strips. He feels that there is a need to recognise comics' contribution to and depiction of Australian culture.
Since 2011, Nat has self-published over twelve comic-related books and was Publisher-Editor of
Oi Oi Oi! -- the last series of nationally-distributed comic books of original stories to appear on Australian newsstands. He is a member of the Australian Cartoonists Association and edited the Association's journal Inkspot for 14 issues from late 2015. For numerous years he was the Lead Judge in the Ledger of Honour Awards for the Comic Arts Awards of Australia (formerly the Ledgers). These days Nat dreams of retiring from his occupation as a Clinical Nurse in the Psychiatric Emergency Centre in Queensland's largest public hospital, so that he can spend more time with his long-suffering wife and their six children and fourteen grandchildren. And perhaps publish some more comic-related books.
Comicoz acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay respects to elders, past, present, and emerging, and extend that respect to all First Nations peoples.
Australian Publications since 1976:
1 x Poster
19 x comics (one a co-production with Cyclone Comics in 1988/9, one a co-production with Cowtown Comics in 2022)
2 x Paperback books
10 x Hardcover books