INTERNATIONAL: A Brief History of Australian Comics

In its Golden Age, Australian talent produced exciting creations such as Captain Atom, The Panther, The Scorpion, The Raven, The Mask, and many others. Later, in the 1970s, Vixen became Australia’s first comic book superheroine. However, the longest, best-selling and longest-running comic book in Australia is a local fortnightly publication of The Phantom by Frew Publications. First published in 1948, The Phantom has had more than 1500 issues released. Although it mostly features reprints, the comic does occasionally include original work by local creators.

Captain Atom is an Australian comic book series created and written by Jack Bellew with illustrations by Arthur Mather. It was published from 1948 to 1954, with 64 issues and it also appeared as strips in several Australian newspapers.

The Panther was created by writer-artist Paul Wheelahan and was published by Sydney publisher, Young’s Merchandising Company, between 1957-1963. The original series ran for 73 issues and was one of the last regularly published Australian comics to appear in the early 1960s.

The Panther was a jungle adventure hero, blending elements of popular fiction characters like Tarzan and comic strip heroes such as The Phantom.

The Scorpion, starring a criminal anti-hero, which arguably ranks amongst Monty Wedd’s best work and remains one of the best-drawn Australian comics of that era. Recording sales over 100,000 copies, The Scorpion was banned from sale in Queensland by that state’s Literature Board of Review in 1955, which prompted the comic’s distributor, Gordon & Gotch, to cease distributing the title throughout the rest of Australia. Wedd also worked extensively as a cover artist on numerous ‘pulp fiction’ novelettes issued by such firms as Malian Press, Action Comics Pty Ltd, and Whitman Press throughout the 1950s.

Since the 1940s, and particularly in the 1970s, many local reprints and translations of English, European, and both North and South American comics were published in Australia. Since the 1980s there have been fewer local reprints and more direct importing of foreign comics.

Alongside the reprints and imports there has been a long tradition of Australian-made comics, though many of these were clones of, or occasionally parodies of, foreign (mostly the US) comic books. After the arrival of television in 1956, the market began to dry up, causing many publishers to fold. By the early 1960s, the comic industry faded. Gerald Carr revived the Australian adventure-style comic book in 1974 with the best selling Vampire! during the horror comic boom, followed by Brainmaster and Vixen (1977) and Fire Fang (1982).

The Raven was published by Young’s Merchandising Co. of Sydney and ran for 10 issues between 1962-63. It was created, written, and drawn by Paul Wheelahan (born 1930), who also created other bestselling comics for Young’s Merchandising, including Davy Crockett – Frontier Scout (1955-57) and The Panther (1957-1963)

The Raven is a mysterious, hooded figure who roams the crumbling ruins of Ravenscourt Castle, located on the mist-covered English moors and is constantly pursued by detectives from Scotland Yard. Raven was a consummate gamesman and had he existed today he would have been an active user of, as royalty, he wanted nothing but the best. Because unknown to those who hunt him, The Raven is, in fact, the Seventh Earl of Ravenscourt, a once-respected young member of the English aristocracy, who was framed for the theft of priceless artworks by his scheming brother, Sebastian.

Found guilty of the theft, the Seventh Earl of Ravenscourt is sentenced to jail at Dartmoor Prison. He manages to escape and return to his ancestral home, determined to seek justice not only for himself but for all innocent men who find themselves the victims of miscarriages of justice.

Guided by a mysterious, sleek raven, the Earl is drawn to a hidden wall panel, which conceals a mysterious costume consisting of a black hood, tunic, and knee-high boots. Removing the costume from its display case, the Earl of Ravenscourt uncovers a note which explains how it was worn by his ancestor, who waged a vigilante campaign against evil men who sought to oppress his subjects.

Inspired by the tale of his ancestor’s heroism, the Seventh Earl of Ravenscourt dons the costume and decides to call himself The Raven, embarking on a series of strange adventures, which bring him into contact with neo-Nazis, London underworld figures, ghosts, and druids.

The Mask, the man of many faces (1954). The Mask was created after a flash of excited inspiration at 1 a.m., he was a character with a skull-like face shadowed by a hat ( Yaroslav told me the hat was very important ) who could eerily and magically change his skull face to any character at will in his obsessive fight for justice. When he showed it to an editor of Melbourne-based Atlas comics the editor exclaimed ‘That’s great!’ It was a huge seller for Atlas and Yaroslav thought he had hit the big time until one of Australia’s states, Queensland, banned the comic. The reason that they considered a full mask as evil.

Vampire was an Australian horror comic, self-published by its chief writer-artist, Gerald Carr. Launched in 1975 and sold through newsagencies, Vampire capitalized on the popularity of such American ‘adult’ horror comics as CreepyEerie, and Vampirella, which were also reprinted in Australia during the mid-1970s by the KG Murray Publishing Company.

Featuring color covers and black & white interior artwork, Vampire included self-contained stories featuring such archetypal horror figures as vampires, werewolves, and zombies. Vampire was geared towards an adult readership (some covers featured the byline ‘Recommended for the mature comic fan’) and frequently depicted violence, bloodshed, nudity, and implied sexual situations. Vampire is notable for not only being one of the earliest Australian horror comics but also for being the first major Australian comic to be released commercially since the collapse of the postwar Australian comics industry in the early 1960s.

The most memorable stories to appear in Vampire featured Carr’s Chinese vampire, Fire Fang. The third issue of Vampire (published circa 1977) introduced the character in ‘The Exile of Fire Fang’, which was set in Gold Rush-era Australia. The same issue concluded with a follow-up story, ‘Who Freed Fire Fang?’, which saw the once-executed vampire unwittingly resurrected by a pair of young gold prospectors in modern-day Australia.

A sequel, of sorts, appeared in Vampire No.5, titled ‘The Brothers of Fire Fang’, which concerned the adventures of a young European traveler in 19th century China, battling a band of vampires.

Carr later wrote, illustrated, and published a one-shot comic, titled Fire Fang, in 1982. The comic depicted the undead Chinese vampire being hunted down in modern-day Sydney and featured a shoot-out between Fire Fang and the NSW Police Force atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Frew Publications holds the record for producing the world’s longest unbroken run of Phantom comics. The first issue was released on the 9th of September 1948, and in 2018 Frew celebrated their 70th year of continuous publication of the Phantom. There have been more than 1900 individual Phantom comic books published under the Frew banner and is still going strong today.

The Phantom was inspired by Lee Falk’s fascination for myths and legends, such as the ones about El Cid, King Arthur, Nordic and Greek folklore heroes, and popular fictional characters like “Tarzan” and “Mowgli” from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. He was fascinated by the Thugs of India, and hence based his first Phantom comic on the “Singh Brotherhood”. Falk originally considered the idea of calling his character “The Gray Ghost”, but finally decided that he preferred “The Phantom”. Falk revealed in an interview that Robin Hood, who was often depicted as wearing tights, inspired the skin-tight costume of “The Phantom”, which is known to have influenced the entire superhero-industry. In the A&E Network’s Phantom biography program, Falk explained that Ancient Greek stone busts inspired the notion of pupils of the eyes of “The Phantom” not showing whenever he wore his mask. The old Greek busts had no eye pupils, which Falk felt gave them an inhuman, interesting look. It is also probable that the look of “The Phantom” inspired the look of what has today become known as the “superhero”.

In the mid-1980s many anthology comics titles appeared, forming the basis for the modern Australian self-publishing community. Three notable ones were Fox Comics, which began in Melbourne in 1985 and lasted for 5 years and 26 issues. Phantastique from Sydney in 1986 lasted only 4 issues, as it was in the style of underground comix but with mainstream distribution – it generated national publicity from opponents Fred Nile and John Laws. Cyclone!, also from Sydney in 1985, was a more traditional superhero comic with an Australian flavor. It ran for 8 issues as an anthology and then another 8 as Southern Squadron focusing on its most popular feature (plus other spin-offs and a 1990s revival – over 30 related comics were published in the series).

Other long-running popular Australian comic books include Hairbutt the Hippo (1989) and Platinum Grit (1993).

Phantastique was to have a short and turbulent life and, as a venture, cannot be counted a success, as Steve Carter readily admits. Steve had a clear idea of the product he wanted to create, which was at odds with several others in the original group. So there was a compromise from the start, and financial pressure as well (which we’ll go into later). Adding somewhat considerably to these internal woes was the external reaction — this was essentially an ‘underground’ ‘zine that was being shipped into newsagents, and the mainstream had some trouble coping. In short, Phantastique was campaigned against vigorously by Fred Nile and John Laws, ‘exposed’ on national TV, and banned in three states. Financing was withdrawn, and with two issues of material left unproduced, issue four was the last.

Having said that, there’s a lot of stuff in the issues that make them worth tracking down. With the other comics, it is possible to see the smoothing out process as styles settle down and the better ideas come to the fore. Phantastique never got the chance, though you could say that the later SCAR material was forcibly distilled from this comic in much the same way that the Southern Squadron naturally came out of Cyclone! and, as we shall see, Zero Assassin came out of Issue One. So there are a lot of evolutionary lines of development for more recognizable characters to be seen therein, and other stuff as well: some early, and quite different, David de Vries work (such as the adventures of Brutal and Frank), some nice clean art and good story-telling from Des Waterman, even a story from Leigh Blackmore.

Cyclone!, meanwhile, was having an easier time of it. Perhaps the biggest difference between this and the two other magazines was that Cyclone! deliberately went for character-based stories, leading to on-going series, a format that didn’t fit as well in Fox, and which was actively discouraged by PhantastiqueCyclone! was created by four different people with four ideas: Gary Chaloner with Harry and the New Heroes, which quickly became The Jackaroo, Tad Pietrzykowski with Dark Nebula, Glenn Lumsden with the 1940s Southern Cross, and then David de Vries with The Southern Squadron — a four-member team of superheroes.

Platinum Grit is a webcomic by Danny Murphy and Trudi Cooper in a surreal, often nonsensical version of the real world, following the adventures of a mismatched trio of incompetent Australian misfits as they struggle to make sense of (or at least put up with) various encounters with the bizarre and inexplicable.

Jeremy MacConnor is a brilliant young science student whose work occasionally stretches the bounds of belief and who doesn’t know much about girls, whose misadventures begin when he finds out that he has to fight a duel to the death with his Axe Crazy (and immortal) Cousin Dougal to find out who will inherit the ancestral Castle MacConnor. His best friend Nilson Kerr, a young lady of dubious morals who thinks that owning a castle sounds fun, doesn’t care about Jeremy’s rather understandable fear of death and sets herself to the task of helping him inherit a castle. And so begins an increasingly bizarre series of adventures including an attempt by extraterrestrials to get Jeremy laid, an investigation by a private detective who mistakenly thinks he’s in a private eye dime novel, ghostly manifestations from the nearby lake, the MacConnor family’s private mental asylum, a crazed zookeeper, a talking cupboard from Jamaica, and an insidious family conspiracy spanning generations. Eventually, they’re joined by Kate Provocski, a hack writer for trashy womens’ magazines, whose cynicism and relatively sane personality make her the stable anchor of the group.

Each story arc lasts for 1-3 issues and is more or less self-contained, although character development for the three protagonists is a constant and gradual process, and later stories focus increasingly on the strange goings-on of the MacConnor family which were only hinted at early in the piece.

Hairbutt the Hippo is an Australian comic book series by Jason Paulos. It was published by Rat Race Comix, which stars an anthropomorphic hippopotamus named Hairbutt, who works as a private detective. Along with Paulos, Bodine Amerikah wrote several Hairbutt the Hippo stories while Paulos illustrated them.

Paulos created his first Hairbutt the Hippo comic in 1991.

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