In pen and ink

In pen and ink
Australian comics in the National Library.
9 May 2014

As a newb at the National Library, I recently began my first catalogue-journey through our Australian comic collection in an effort to celebrate last weekend’s Free Comic Book Day: a day where comic shops all over the world hand out delightful and disposable material to sweaty anticipating hands in the thousands.

Australian graphic novels

The phantasmagorical world existing in the pen and ink of Australian comics pieces together a unique modern history. The endless possibilities existing within the artistic form mean comics complement the visual and imaginative mind. From strips to our modern and heavy graphic novels, comics have been entertaining the minds of Australians for close to 100 years.

Our Australian comic reputation began with our very own cheeky Ginger Meggs. Still a household name, Meggs’ antics date back to the 1920s, where creator Jimmy Bancks gave us our longest running and, arguably, most successful strip.

Jimmy Bancks drawing Ginger Meggs

James Charles Bancks working on a Ginger Meggs cartoon sketch, Sydney, ca. 1920s. Fairfax archive of glass plate negatives collection. nla.pic-vn6334244

The cessation of comic imports from America during the Second World War meant that more Australian writers and artists emerged. American movements within the comic world were largely mirrored here, however taking on an Australian interpretation. Through the era of the American cowboy, we offered bushranger Ben Barbary by Douglas V. Maxted. Crime comics have been consistently popular since the 1940s including Will Donald’s Murder in the Night. Anti-war sentiment in the 1950s and 60s saw the rise of the superhero and the vigilante, and Paul Wheelahan offered us The Panther. Likewise, science-fiction, fantasy and cataclysmic worlds were explored through the eyes of Australian writers and artists.

Panther, Kokey Koala and Murder in the Night comics

Comics transported the Australian public through the threat of nuclear war and the social unrest of the 1960s and 70s. When comics began to tell the dubious stories of sex, drugs and politics, they were faced with public opposition and censorship, but an adult readership was established. An invasion of cheap American horror films spawned a generation of Australian horror comic writers and artists, further expanding dystopian genres and, in my opinion, leading to the comic climate of our own time.

A truly Australian identity can be found in Noel Cook’s Kokey Koala and His Magic Button, and more recently in Darren Close’s Killeroo, confirming our need to ‘beware the kangaroo’. Recent Australian comic writers have continued to thrive, leaving a strong Australian fingerprint on a global industry. 2014 Gold Ledger Award winner Pat Grant can be found in the Library’s collection. His 2012 debut graphic novel Blue illustrates a familiar Australian environment that betrays a local consciousness while exploiting the opportunity for intrigue and an alien invasion. I implore you to immerse yourself in his stylised Australia. Likewise, the adaptations of Nicki Greenberg and provocative work of Bruce Mutard also exist within our growing collection of Australian graphic novels and are well worth a read.


Detail from Darren Close (2002), Book 1. Killeroo: this aint no friggin' bush kangaroo....

Comics have more to offer readers than what has traditionally been known. They allow us to trace a social path, appealing to our sense of adventure and our escapist notions. There are no boundaries where comics are concerned, from Frew’s adopted Phantom to Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. More can be found than a mere superhero.

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