Comic-Strip Ned's no cartoon cut-out
By Monty Wedd
Comicoz, 160pp, $60
IF Ned Kelly didn't exist, we'd have to invent him. Few Australian legends have inspired as much creative and commercial enterprise as our most notorious bushranger. And the endlessly turned-over minutiae of his short life seems only to spur further efforts to shed new light on the man and his contested legacy. Even the humble comic strip took up the challenge four decades ago in the form of a syndicated newspaper serial narrated and illustrated by award-winning cartoonist Monty Wedd, who died in 2012.
Published in the early 1970s by the Sunday Mirror to capitalise on the 1970 Ned Kelly movie starring Mick Jagger, which was partially financed by the newspaper's then proprietor Rupert Murdoch, Wedd harboured greater ambitions for his strip. Creator of the popular colonial comic book crusader Captain Justice and a forceful advocate of the comic medium's potential to illuminate and enliven Australian history, Wedd swayed his editor to elevate his Ned Kelly from a short-lived film tie-in to an open-ended, "warts and all" expose that eventually spanned 146 weekly instalments. Its success led to Wedd creating two further long-running historical strips: Bold Ben Hall and his opus The Making of a Nation.
Now commemorated in a lavish, coffee table edition, Wedd's Ned Kelly may appear, at first glance, a little old-fashioned to readers more familiar with the slick styling of contemporary adventure strips — but that is its strength. Mindful of his primarily young audience, Wedd's lucid, meticulously researched narrative is never less than engaging, while his sharp visuals and densely detailed storytelling bring a persuasive clarity to his account of Kelly's life. Though he occasionally gets side-tracked with tangential incidents, for the most part Wedd shrewdly balances the dramatic and educational aspirations of his story as he strives for authenticity and Ned neutrality.
At pains to be even-handed, Wedd's contribution to Kelly mythology won't settle the on-going debate that casts Ned as a hounded folk hero cum incipient revolutionary or a cold-blooded killer with an acute persecution complex. While acknowledging the Greta Mob's disrepute as horse and cattle thieves, Wedd also displays considerable sympathy for the Kelly family's plight, as they endure constant harassment and false imprisonment at the hands of a largely venal, bigoted and inept legal system.
Wedd clearly outlines how the litany of injustice Ned and his ilk experience convinces the once and future outlaw that they will never receive a fair go from the powers that be and their squattocracy mates. From his boyhood clashes with the law and apprenticeship under gentleman bushranger Harry Power, to his three-year stint in Pentridge jail on trumped-up charges and the wrongful incarceration of his mother, to the fateful shootout at Stringy-bark Creek and the doomed Glenrowan siege, to his rushed trial and execution, Wedd fleshes out Ned's character and motives, underscoring the tragic trajectory of his life.
As the central protagonist, his Ned matures from a reckless, wily youth into a moody, volatile yet charismatic man driven by vengeful righteousness. At the same time, Wedd sketches brisk, convincing portraits of the main supporting players, including Kelly's redoubtable mother Ellen, his loyal brothers-in-arms Joe Byrne, Steve Hart and Dan Kelly, and his chief persecutor, pompous Commissioner Standish. He takes care to show that not all cops are cut from the same corrupt cloth — Ned clearly respects the bravery and skill of some of his pursuers — but the craven, expedient politicians and judiciary, fearful of an uprising among Kelly sympathisers, don't get off lightly.
As narrator, Wedd purposefully tries to distance himself, not always successfully, from the events he's dramatising, at times adopting an almost procedural, textbook approach, complete with maps, staging instructions, explanatory asides and visual aids. The strip's studied period vernacular and antiquated design reinforce the illusion, capturing the appearance and tone of illustrated Victorian pamphlets.
An accomplished draughtsman, Wedd effortlessly blends an expressive, cartooning style with intricate cross-hatching that emulates the look of 19th-century engravings. And he readily uses cinematic flourishes when the occasion demands, such as the exciting, impressively staged Stringybark Creek and Glenrowan set pieces. The latter vividly conveys the chaos, farce, tension and pathos of the confrontation. That he achieves this while observing the conventions of a serialised comic strip, with its recaps and cliffhangers, is testimony to his skills as a graphic storyteller.
In recent years, American and British publishers have begun reprinting seminal newspaper comic strips in deluxe, archive volumes, in pursuit of an ageing, cashed-up readership. Sadly, the collected edition of Monty Wedd's Ned Kelly falls somewhat short of their exemplary production standards, being let down by inconsistent printing and less than robust covers. Those quibbles aside, it's encouraging to see Comicoz, a small independent Australian publisher, make effective use of crowd-sourced funding to celebrate and share this forgotten gem, a unique and worthy inclusion in the ever-expanding Ned Kelly canon.
Cefn Ridout is a commentator on graphic novels and sometime comic book writer and editor.
theaustrallan.com.au/review May 17-18, 2014 review