In 1954, Australia’s population stood at less than nine million. In the same year, Australian entrepreneurs published more than seventy million comic books; equating to more than seven comics for every man, woman and child in the country. Not only had Australia built up and established a thriving comic book industry, Australians read and loved their comic books. While comic strips were mainly being read for entertainment, they had also been used to promote commercial products, to sway a Federal election campaign, to influence voters on a referendum, and as regular inclusions in many of the country’s magazines and newspapers. In 1954, the comics reached a pinnacle of success in Australia that has never been exceeded.
Although the comics were extraordinarily popular, most of the comic books published in Australia in 1954 were devoted to reprinting comic strips which had previously been published in the United States of America. Licensing arrangements which had been made with the comics’ U.S. copyright owners allowed locally produced reprints to be sourced at a fraction of the cost of generating a similar product in Australia. Accordingly, a holistic approach to the era’s local comic books would result in a history firmly grounded on American comic books and American syndicated newspaper strips. Such is not the intent of From “Sunbeams” to Sunset. The intent of this history is to chronicle the locally created elements in Australia’s first comic book industry.
The first such comic book was published in 1924 as The "Sunbeams" Book. The Book was subtitled “Adventures of Ginger Meggs”, and it reprinted humorous comic strips which had previously appeared in a Sydney newspaper. Sunbeams went on to be an enduring success, and it was followed by further book compilations sourced from local newspapers. World War II saw a fledgling industry flowering, taking advantage of the lack of overseas competition. The arrival of television in Australia created a serious dent in comic book sales. By 1965 locally created comic books were practically non-existent, with the few surviving titles often reduced to reprinting previously published work.
Australia’s comic book publishers created a viable industry over a span of more than forty years. Ultimately, the locally created product faded and died in the face of a range of other entertainment alternatives. Although the era has long passed, the flowering of the locally created comic industry and its subsequent withering does not deserve to be forgotten.
Defining a Locally Created Australian Comic Book
The “Sunbeams” Book was an unequivocally Australian publication. However, tracing the history of the locally created comic books which followed it is no simple matter, and the complications are numerous. Most of the local comics of the era did not include a date, and many failed to include a creator’s credit or a copyright notice. A very substantial proportion of the local comic books had covers drawn (or re-drawn) by Australian artists, but in most such instances the comic’s content was reprinted overseas comic strips. Accordingly, the nationality of a comic’s cover artist is not an appropriate measure as to whether a comic book is locally created.
What distinguishes an Australian comic book as being locally created? For the purposes of this history, a locally created comic is a comic book printed and distributed to the newsstands and/or bookshops of Australia, or disseminated for promotional purposes, and which includes one or more comic strips drawn by an artist residing in Australia at the time of its publication. In addition, the definition also includes comic books published in Australia which include strips making their first appearance in the English language. Examples of artists residing in Australia who drew locally created comics include Eric Jolliffe and Yaroslav Horak. Although not born in Australia, both artists drew comic strips for the local industry in the 1940s and 1950s. Jolliffe went on to self publish the multi million-selling Jolliffe’s Outback magazine, while Horak went on to establish an international profile as the premier illustrator of the British “James Bond” syndicated newspaper strip.
The main focus of this history is the locally created original comic books: books which feature comic strips drawn specifically for comic book publication. Examples of such titles include The Phantom Ranger (Frew Publications), The Lone Avenger (H John Edwards Publishing) and Kokey Koala (Elmsdale Publications). In this text, such newsstand titles are included in the chapters headed “Titles Created Locally for Comic Book Publication”.
Further instances of locally created comic books are the compilations which reprinted previously published Australian comic strips, sourced from local periodicals. Examples include Ginger Meggs, Bluey and Curley and Wally and the Major. In this text, such titles are included in the chapters headed “Locally Created Titles Which Sourced Australian Periodicals”. Given the importance of the local newspapers and magazines to the comic book industry (and particularly to its artists), this history makes extensive reference to Australia’s periodicals. To a much lesser extent, this history also makes reference to regularly appearing illustrated features which were published in those periodicals.
Australia’s publishers sometimes included locally created comic strips in books clearly focused on reprinting overseas material. Such strips were used as back-up material. Examples of such titles include the K G Murray Publishing Company’s Superman and Batman. Many of these titles are identified in the chapters which are titled “Comics Based on Overseas Strips, which included Local Content”. Also included in these chapters are comic books which included new, locally created strips authorised by overseas franchisers. Examples include Flynn of the FBI and Sergeant Pat of the Radio Patrol.
From “Sunbeams” to Sunset also includes a chapter dealing with the locally created comic books which were not treated to newsstand or bookshop distribution. Such comics were produced for promotional purposes, and most were simply given away. Examples include The Road Ahead, The Road Back and The Way Ahead, three comic books printed in 1949 in the hope of swaying voters in that year’s Federal elections.
The author has also noted various overseas appearances of Australia’s locally created comic strips. Such comics include titles where a separate, identifiable print run of a title was created concurrently for overseas distribution; strips which were reprinted in foreign countries, and locally created titles which were franchised to the point of allowing new stories to be created overseas. Examples of overseas appearances include “Aguia Negra”, which was published in Brazil and went on to both reprint and create new stories featuring Australia’s Sir Falcon.
The Relevance of Cover Prices
Australian comic publishers often gave minimal information about their product’s details: some even failed to identify a publisher. Very few carried information in the form of indicia, copyright notices which state the official name of a comic, its issue number, the name of its publisher, and its newsstand date. The lack of indicia in most Australian comic books leaves a comic book's cover price as often the only guide to its date of publication. Most comics published before 1951 sold for six pence or less. A transition then occurred in prices over the ensuing five years. Post-1951, prices rose through eight pence and nine pence, with rising costs being passed on to the reading public. By 1957, all newsstand comic books were retailing at a shilling (twelve pence) or more. In February 1966 Australia adopted decimal currency, and pounds, shillings and pence were replaced by dollars and cents. Accordingly, it is usually obvious from a comic's cover price whether it was published before or after 1965.
The lack of significant, reliable data makes it difficult to accurately date most Australian comics. A seemingly minor statistic like cover price becomes an important dating tool. As some locally created titles were the subject of more than one series of comics, often the only way to distinguish between duplicated issue numbers is that a later series will have a higher cover price. Accordingly, the cover price of a comic book is often referenced in this history.
Why a New History of Locally Created Comics?
There was little contemporary material written on comic books during most of the era of Australian comic books. An exception was the post World War II period, when the availability (and perceived low standard) of cheap ephemera provoked public outcries demanding censorship by the authorities. Following the era, the lack of research into Australia’s comic books may safely be attributed to a drastic lack of the primary reference source: the comic books. Notwithstanding the provisions of Australia’s copyright legislation (which required publishers to deposit “within one month … a copy of the book”), most comic book publishers of the era chose to not regard their comics as books. Accordingly, the legal repository requirement was largely ignored by the publishers.
It is possible that the omission could have been repaired by Australia’s various state and national libraries, should they have elected to take action. No such action was taken. The era regarded comic books as ephemera, and the libraries missed the chance to preserve the comics at the time when they were most readily available. Subsequent attempts by Australian libraries to acquire representative examples have met with mixed success, and have been hampered by difficulties in cataloguing.
The first attempt at an authoritative history of Australian comics was published in 1979 under the title “Panel by Panel”. The book appeared in hardcover and was written by comic collector John Ryan. However, Ryan's book had its main focus on the locally created newspaper strips, rather than on the comic books. A further important text was published in 1998 as “Bonzer: Australian Comics 1900s - 1990s”. The book included a ground-breaking checklist compiled by Melbourne collector Mick Stone which identified many of the locally created comic books by title, and also named the books’ main artists.
It is the intent of this new history to build on those existing texts, and to provide a comprehensive chronology of the era’s comic books and the people who created them. Accordingly, this book includes biographies of the publishers, writers and artists and references authorities to substantiate its content. Ultimately, the locally created element of the Australian comic book industry faded away in the mid 1960s, hence this book’s 1965 cut-off date.
Although the comics are long gone, they will live on in the memories of those who are young in heart.