The Invisible Medium: Comics Studies in Australia – Kevin Patrick

The term ‘graphic novel’ was popularised by Igor Goldkind, a publicist employed by UK publisher Titan Books in 1985 to promote comic books to an adult audience.[1] ‘My job,’ he said, ‘was to develop a semantic the general public and the book trade could understand’ (quoted in Sabin, 1993: 87). Goldkind exceeded his client’s brief beyond their wildest imaginings; the literary allusion built into the term ‘graphic novel’ dispelled the childish connotations associated with ‘comic books’, thereby granting critics and readers the cultural permission required to evaluate comics in the same manner as literature, cinema and music.

This trend has only recently become evident in Australia, where, ever since Shaun Tan’s wordless fable, The Arrival (2006), was selected as Book of the Year for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in 2007, graphic novels have enjoyed heightened media attention.  Tan’s high-profile publication was swiftly followed by Nicki Greenberg’s comic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (2007), Mandy Ord’s meditation on Melbourne’s cityscape, Rooftops (2007), and the first volume of Bruce Mutard’s projected World War II trilogy, The Sacrifice (2008). The near simultaneous appearance of these works, all of which received positive reviews,[2] suggested that Australia’s mainstream book publishers were ‘catching up’ with international trends.

Such concentrated media coverage created the false impression that the Australian graphic novel was an entirely new phenomenon, thereby ignoring earlier Australian examples of the graphic novel[3] and bypassing any mention of Australia’s post-war comic book industry, the scale and diversity of which easily eclipsed the modest output of present-day graphic novel publishing activity.

Yet just as Australian publishers, readers and journalists have lagged behind their overseas counterparts in their critical reappraisal of comics and graphic novels, it would appear that Australian academe has been equally tardy in giving this medium serious consideration. David Walker’s introduction to the landmark 1979 study, Australian Popular Culture, conceded that, despite the breadth of topics covered therein, ‘there remains a wealth of magazine stories, serials, comics [and] cartoons … which also merit analysis’ (1979: 13). Nearly a quarter of a century later, it appeared that few Australian scholars had taken up Walker’s suggestion; as Adam Possamai observes, of the dozen major surveys of Australian popular culture published during 1987-2001, none of them made any reference to comic books or graphic novels (2003: 110). Comics, it seems, remain an invisible medium.

It is difficult to fathom why this remains the case, given that comic book publishing once occupied a significant, and often controversial space within Australia’s media landscape. At comics’ peak of popularity, estimated sales had reached 60 million copies in 1952, generating revenues of A₤2.4 million (Fitzpatrick, 1956: 50). Even as the industry’s fortunes declined throughout the latter half of the 1950s, largely due to competition from television broadcasting and the readmission of imported American comics onto the Australian market,[4] annual sales of locally-published comics nonetheless totalled 14 million copies in 1959 (National Archives of Australia [SA]: D596; 1959/6965).

Despite such impressive statistics, comic books are noticeably absent from most histories of Australian print media. Although published shortly after World War II, Frank Greenop’s History of Magazine Publishing in Australia makes no reference to pre-war and wartime comic book publishing activities (1947: 255-275). Two early academic media studies texts, Henry Mayer’s The Press in Australia (1964: 178-79, 190) and J.S. Western and Colin Hughes’ Mass Media in Australia (1971: 20), make only cursory reference to magazines, with neither mentioning comic books at all. Patricia Edgar and Hilary McPhee’s analysis of media representations of women, Media She, remains a notable exception for its critique of Australian romance comic books (1974: 19)

By contrast, political caricature, editorial cartoons and newspaper comic strips have enjoyed privileged status in published accounts of comic art in Australia because of their association with the ‘legitimate press’. Newspaper cartoons have been examined as both signposts in the evolution of print media in colonial-era Australia (Mahood, 1973) and as historical documents in their own right (King, 1976). Newspaper comic strip characters who have achieved rare instances of national recognition, such as Ginger Meggs, have been the subject of commemorative volumes (Horgan, 1978; Foyle, 1996). Barry Andrews (1982: 211-233) wrote an insightful analysis of Ginger Meggs’ changing status in Australian popular culture, making it arguably the first sustained cultural studies analysis of an Australian comic strip. Vane Lindesay’s visual survey of Australian newspaper cartoons and comic strips, The Inked-in Image (1979), omits any reference to comic books, a situation only partly redressed by his nostalgic survey of Australian children’s magazines (1983: 119-129). This mistakenly lumps children’s papers (which featured illustrated text stories), together with comic books (which were comprised entirely of comic strip serials), without acknowledging that each form of periodical represents a quite distinct publishing tradition, each boasting its own history and stylistic conventions.

Children have historically been identified as comprising the bulk of Australian comic book audiences. Children’s avid consumption of comic books, coupled with societal concerns about their engagement with the medium, has generated some of the most interesting research into comic books in Australia.

Martyn Lyons and Lucy Taksa’s oral history of reading in Australia canvasses respondents’ memories of children’s periodicals (1992: 91-93), but, concluding as it does in 1930, their survey actually precludes the debut of locally-published comic books in Australia by several years. [5] Like Vane Lindesay, Lyons and Taksa mistakenly conflate the illustrated story papers cited by their subjects (such as Gem and Magnet) with comic books.

W.F. Connell, E.P. Francis and Elizabeth Skilbeck’s survey of Sydney adolescents, Growing up in an Australian City (1957), remains the most detailed empirical survey of Australian children’s comic book reading habits yet published (1957: 155-172). Framed as a sociological snapshot of post-war Australian adolescence, the study examines Sydney teenagers’ attitudes towards such popular media as radio, cinema, newspapers and books. Not only does this survey provide statistical data about Australia’s comic book market during the early 1950s, it also outlines gender and age-group preferences for specific comic book genres. [6]

The passage of Australian state government censorship and obscenity laws explicitly targeting comic books, and the politics of the anti-comics’ campaigns that led to their creation, have been the focus of exemplary research by John Docker (1984: 183-212), Augustine Brannigan (1985: 53-69; 1986: 23-42), Mark Finnane (1989: 220-240) and Graeme Osborne (1999: 155-178). Comic books, as Esther Faye points out, were but one element of the ‘distinct atmosphere of anxiety and panic’ about the behaviour of Australian adolescents generated by ‘a range of social commentators in the post-war period’ (1998: 347). While teenagers’ predilection for rock ‘n’ roll, horror movies and delinquent behaviour were of equal concern to contemporary commentators (Faye, 1998: 347), comic books provoked the harshest legislative response.

Yet, despite the perennial popularity of comic books amongst Australian children, the medium receives no coverage whatsoever in key histories of Australian children’s literature (Saxby, 1971, 1993; Niall, 1984; Nieuwenhuizen, 1994). John Foster, Ern Finnis and Maureen Nimon’s survey, Australian Children’s Literature (1995: 187-88), identifies comic books and juvenile magazines as an integral part of children’s overall reading patterns. Indeed, John Foster remains one of the few Australian academics to have written consistently about the medium, focusing on how indigenous (i.e. locally-drawn) comic books reflect social changes in Australian society (1992: 55-66; 1999: 139-152) and their depiction of the Australian landscape and its people (1990: 11-23).

The persistent disjuncture between the ‘official’ histories of Australian children’s literature and the actual documented reading preferences of Australian children has only begun to be redressed by practitioners in the educational and public library sectors, where there is renewed interest in the role that comics and graphic novels can play in appealing to reluctant readers (See: Bentley, 2006: 49-54; Snowball, 2006: 18-22; Murray, 2007a: 19-21; and Walton, 2007: 41-49).

Given the sporadic attention paid by Australian academics to comics generally, recording the history of comic books in Australia has been largely left to fans and collectors themselves. They performed the ‘heavy lifting’ of discovery, documentation and research which, in any other field of print culture inquiry, would normally have been the preserve of academics. This is especially true of John Ryan, who wrote extensively about Australian comics for US and Australasian fan magazines (aka ‘fanzines’) throughout the 1960s and 1970s.[7] This work formed the basis for Ryan’s pioneering study of Australian newspaper comic strips and comic books, Panel by Panel (1979) which is routinely cited as the standard history of the medium. That it remains largely unchallenged as the single best reference on the subject some thirty years after its publication is a telling comment in itself about the present-day status of comics studies in Australia.[8]

Nonetheless, a handful of monographs have appeared in Ryan’s wake which deal, wholly or in part, with Australian comic books.[9] Phil Pinder’s Down Underground Comix (1983) attempts to place the evolution of Australia’s ‘underground comix’ movement during the 1960s and 1970s against a backdrop of political and social upheaval, but is essentially an exercise in detailed textual analysis, rather than a sociological study of the medium.[10] Toby Burrows and Grant Stone’s eclectic anthology, Comics in Australia and New Zealand: The Collections, The Collectors, The Creators (1994), intersperses textual analysis of selected Australian comic strips (King, 1994: 41-56), with personal recollections by comic book fans (McGee, 1994: 99-103) and overviews of public library collections of Australian comics (Stone, 1994: 71-85; Dickinson, 1994: 87-97). Despite its piecemeal editorial approach, this collection does yield occasional valuable insights into Australian comic book culture.

While beautifully illustrated, Bonzer: Australian Comics 1900s-1990s (Shiell, 1998), is an ultimately disappointing contribution to Australian comics studies literature. Designed to accompany the touring Australian Comic Exhibition staged during 1995-96 (but only published some years after the exhibition’s closure), Bonzer assembles a collection of essays which strive to offer a sustained textual and cultural analysis of Australian comics, but with decidedly mixed results. John Foster (1998: 15-47) and Mark Finnane (1998: 49-53) use their contributions to present their respective research interests in Australian comic book genres and comic book censorship to a mainstream audience, but Ingrid Unger’s essay, ‘Women: Drawn and Drawing’, scrambles to find sufficient examples of Australian women comic artists and female comic book characters to sustain her argument, while overlooking key examples of both (1998: 69-79).[11]

Many of these works are noticeably reliant on contributions from different spheres of Australia’s comic book community, including industry practitioners (Stuart Hale, 1998: 95-109), collectors (John Clements, 1998b: 81-94) and retailers-cum-publishers (Richard Rae, 1994: 5-24).[12] Charles Hatfield’s observations about present-day comics studies in the US are equally applicable to the Australian context. While cautioning that the ‘pool of fan literature [devoted to comic books is] of variable quality and trustworthiness,’ Hatfield nonetheless acknowledges that ‘academic study draws from, and to a degree, depends on, this enormous fund of fan material’ (2006: 368). US cultural studies academic Henry Jenkins, remarking upon his own personal involvement with science-fiction/television fandom, argues that studying popular culture from a fan’s perspective provides a unique opportunity to combine understanding of relevant theoretical frameworks and critical literature with firsthand ‘access to the particular knowledge and traditions of [fan communities]’ (1992: 5).

The disproportionate reliance on ‘fan scholarship’ evident in Australian academic comics studies literature becomes understandable once the latter is measured against the voluminous output of scholarly monographs, refereed journal articles and popular histories of the comic book emanating from the US (Hatfield, 2006: 360-382). By contrast, the body of scholarly literature devoted to Australian comic books appears paltry; a cursory search of the Australian Public Affairs Information Service (APAIS) database yields just 49 articles published during 1978-2009 dealing wholly, or even in part, with Australian comic books and their creators. [13]

The historic reluctance of Australian academics to engage with comic books surely stems from the medium’s longstanding ‘illegitimate’ cultural status. This was only gradually recast through the emergence of cultural studies during the 1960s and 1970s, which frequently championed despised media forms. Yet even early (British) cultural studies practitioners could not conceal their distaste for this particular popular medium; Richard Hoggart dismissed comics as ‘bad mass-art geared to a very low mental age’ (1971 [1957]: 201). Nonetheless, contemporary cultural studies remains eminently well-disposed towards investigating comic books, given the discipline’s ‘marked preference for popular book genres such as … romance, crime, westerns and science fiction’ (Murray, 2007b: 14), each of which are abundantly evident in the history of Australian comics, together with the genre most associated with the medium – the costumed superhero (Coogan, 2006).

Perhaps the greatest challenge confronting the development of a comics studies discipline in Australia is that comic books themselves have, as Adam Possamai points out, long ceased to be part of most Australians’ everyday ‘practical consciousness’ (2003: 118). This is in stark contrast to Australian cinema, literature and popular music which have, Possamai argues, enjoyed varying levels of government intervention and support that have enhanced their popular standing amongst Australian audiences (2003: 115-116). Ironically, the diminished cultural status of comic books in Australia throughout the 1970s and early 1980s can be partly attributed to the emergence of Australian comics’ fandom during this same period. The subculture of comic fanzines and specialty comic shops became an insular, clandestine social phenomenon, intent upon cordoning-off comic books from what fans perceived to be a hostile or, at best, indifferent general public.

Nonetheless, there have been encouraging signs of progress. The University of Melbourne hosted the first Australian academic conference dedicated to comic books, Holy Men in Tights, in June 2005.[14] Australian scholars have, in recent years, made significant contributions to international comics’ scholarship, including Ian Gordon’s Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945 (1998); Angela Ndalianis’ critical anthologies, Super/Heroes: From Hercules to Superman (Haslem, Ndalianis & Mackie: 2007) and The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (2008); and Toni-Johnson Woods’ Manga: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives (2010). A brief scan of ComicsResearch.org (http://www.comicsresearch.org) and Australian Research Online (http://research.nla.gov.au) reveals growing numbers of Australian undergraduate and postgraduate students engaged in research about comics and graphic novels. These developments are indicative of the type of initiatives emanating from tertiary institutions in Australia seeking to create credible, rigorous fora for the study of comic books and graphic novels.

Australia was once home to a vibrant, prosperous comic book industry that enjoyed widespread support amongst mainstream audiences. While the medium’s cultural status has fluctuated wildly during the post-war era, there is cause to hope that the present-day vogue for Australian ‘graphic novels’ will rehabilitate comic books – and comics studies – in the eyes of readers and scholars alike.

(An abridged version of this paper was previously published in Scribble: Graphic Novel Collective Vol.1, University of Newcastle, NSW, in 2010)

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Endnotes

1. Titan Books published the UK editions of Watchmen (Moore & Gibbons, 1987) and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Miller, Janson & Varley, 1986), two of the ‘big three’ titles which heralded the critical breakthrough of graphic novels in the USA and the UK during the 1980s (Sabin, 1993: 93). The third title was Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust family memoir, Maus (1986).

2. For recent examples, see: Castles (2007); Cassin (2008); Shirrefs (2008); and Dunford (2009).

3. These include Dave Hodson and Greg Gates’ Tattoo Man (1991), Talnon’s Tale-Trader: The Legend of Twarin (1994) and Peter Foster’s graphic adaptation of Marcus Clarke’s 1874 novel, For the Term of His Natural Life (1996).

4. Import licensing restrictions imposed by the Commonwealth Government at the outbreak of World War II effectively prohibited the importation of comic books (and other printed matter) from non-sterling currency areas (i.e. USA and Canada), in order to preserve currency reserves required for the war effort (for a detailed overview, see: Johnson-Woods, 2006:103-119). Import licensing restrictions were abolished on 21 February 1960 (Glezer, 1982: 67-76), which reopened the Australian market to the direct importation of comic books from the USA after a twenty-year absence.

5. The first ‘genuine’ comic book to be published in Australia, The Adventures of Buck Rogers, was issued in November 1936 by Fitchett Bros. (Melbourne), publishers of The New Idea (Patrick, 2007).

6. Connell’s subsequent 1970 survey of Sydney youth’s leisure habits merely highlighted an overall decline in comic book consumption amongst teenagers, without providing any contextual information, such as preferred genres/titles, or frequency of comic book reading. See: Connell, Stroobant, Sinclair, Connell & Rogers (1975: 175-176).

7. John Ryan (1931-1979) not only published Australia’s first comic fanzine, Down Under, in 1964, but his article, ‘Down Under—with the Comics’, earned him an American ‘Alley Award’ for Best Article (Fan Category) in 1965. Ryan subsequently wrote entries on several Australian comic artists and comic characters for The World Encyclopedia of Comics (Horn, 1976).

8. Picking up where Ryan’s work left off in the late 1970s, I wrote a series of articles on the history of Australian comic books since 1980, which were published in Australian Book Collector throughout 1999 (See: Patrick, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c, 1999d, 1999e). These articles formed the partial basis for Heroes & Villains: Australian Comics and their Creators, the catalogue publication which accompanied the exhibition of the same name that I curated for the State Library of Victoria during 20 October 2006 – 25 February 2007 (Patrick, 2006a).

9. The MUP Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction & Fantasy examines the cross-fertilisation between Australian science-fiction literature and Australian comic strips and comic books (Dito, 1998: 37-40), whilst John Loder’s Australian Crime Fiction: A Bibliography 1857-1993 (1994) cites the comic book adaptations of several pulp fiction series, including Marc Brody (1994: 30), Carter Brown (1994: 33) and Larry Kent (1994: 135).

10. Much of the visual content of Pinder’s book appears to have been drawn from The Wild & Woolley Comix Book (Woolley, 1977), a largely overlooked anthology that was nonetheless the first such book devoted to Australian ‘underground comix’.

11. These include the Australian version of the American comic strip heroine, Brenda Starr, which was illustrated for comic books by Yaroslav Horak, and the work of Joan Robey, a jazz singer who drew the Australian comic book adaptation of the British radio serial, Dick Barton Special Agent Comic (Clements, 1998a: 22-23). Similarly overlooked is the contribution of expatriate American publisher, Pat Woolley, who was a driving force behind many Australian underground comix titles throughout the 1970s (Woolley, 1977; Just, 1983: 32-35).

12. Richard Rae was emblematic of the new generation of Australian comic book fans-cum-entrepreneurs during the 1980s. He was proprietor of Sydney’s Comic Empire store, wrote and published a range of Australian superhero comics during the early 1980s, briefly drew comic book covers for Murray Publishers, and staged a major comic book convention at the Sydney Opera House during 17-19 January 1986 (See: Rae, 1983; Patrick, 2006b).

13. Literature search for the term ‘comics’ on the Australian Public Affairs Information Service (APAIS) database (http://www.informit.com.au/indexes_APAIS.html) conduced on 07/01/2010.

14. Holy Men in Tights: A Superhero Conference, 9-12 June 2005. Hosted by Cinema Studies Program, School of Art, History, Cinema, Classics & Archaeology, University of Melbourne (http://www.ahcca.unimelb.edu.au/Superheroes/).

 

Author Biography
Kevin Patrick was recently awarded first-class Honours for his dissertation, Comic Books, Australian Society and Cultural Anxiety: 1956-1986, in the School of English, Communications & Performance Studies at Monash University (2009). A prolific freelance journalist, magazine editor/publisher and one-time communications policy researcher, he also curated the exhibition, Heroes and Villains: Australian Comics and their Creators, at the State Library of Victoria (2006-2007). He will commence his PhD at Monash University in 2010.

Comments

  1. Lovely work, Kevin!

  2. Paul Mason says:

    Mr Patrick’s article illustrates the very problem I have found myself in trying to research Australian comics- The lack of analytical articles regarding comic book art in general or the current landscape in comic books in this country. This ‘drought’ seems to make any of my arguments or opinions in comic book matters seem weak, with my research lecturers often stating “Your extensive bibliography consist mainly of comic book fan histories”… Is art theroy not derived from fans of art? More gentlemen with credentials such as yourself will make achieving my doctorate a much easier journey.