Thursday, July 16, 2009

Advance Australian Fare

It's always a bit disappointing to discover that horrible generalizations have a gem of truth in them. French people really are so direct that they just appear rude, and Americans are generous and loud and lovers of food and spectacle, but don't always know what they are talking about.

One of the most endearing things about Australians is their absolute refusal to give in to an argument. It doesn't mater if there is irrefutable proof. They might decide the sun isn't shining, and you can take them outside and show them the sun, then get a fancy telescope to look directly into it, wait for your eyes to regrow, then talk to the 100 smartest philosophers and astronomers in the world about why the sun is shining, and slingshot them into a sun in a space travel technique that always worked really well on Star Trek. And then they'll turn around to you, grin, and say:

“Aw mate, it's all just a matter of perception.”

* * *

I love my cousins across the sea. There are a few in my immediate family, and they're loud and obnoxious and lovely, and you can't help but like them. I love it when we beat them in any kind of sport. (The rugby league world cup win last year was the biggest sporting moment of the year. It was beautiful, right down to the crying in the sheds afterwards.)

Sometimes the entire country will completely cock-block you, and a big band never comes as close as Sydney. The world's great art exhibitions and performances make it as far as Australia, but New Zealand often misses out. It's less of a problem these days, with New Zealand's population density getting to the point where it can support that shit. Iron Maiden played in Christchurch. That's just weird.

Personally, when it comes to blocking, Australia will never be forgiven for the horror of their local version of Empire, the British movie magazine. The Oz editors take the British one, nick a couple of good bits and fill the rest with raa-raa pieces about local film and a humour that consists of jokes about big tits and Aussie sporting legends. They turned it into a movie version of FHM, and I stopped being interested in FHM when my balls dropped.

That's their right as antipodeans to make their own go of it, but the problem is, it costs a third of the price of the UK original, and has pushed it off the store shelves of 99 percent of the country. To keep a continuing run of the only magazine I've ever bought non-stop for longer than 10 years means paying higher prices and missing the odd issue.

I'm still a bit bitter about this.

* * *

But they also offer up some strange and wonderful comics. There are bits and pieces of Australian flotsam hanging around in the general comic culture. Odd heroes and never forgotten legends like Hairbutt the Hippo and the Southern Squadron. The Phantom will never die, with a company called Frew Publications putting out a fortnightly Phantom comic book since 1948, still going strong and celebrating 60 years of uninterrupted publication last year.

She is a big, big country, but there is also a whole lot of nothing filling up that outback, and the isolation between cities can be crushing. The comic scene in Australia has blazed its own innovative path, but it never really had the followers to keep the road going.

It did produce some extraordinary talents, although it is notable that arguably the most successful Australian artist in the last couple of decades is actually a Scotsman. Eddie Campbell is an astonishing talent who has produced mountains of solid material, through his wide-ranging and mental monthly series Bacchus, or in collaboration with old chum Alan Moore. He deserves all the recognition that has come his way in recent years, and takes it all in a humbled and bewildered manner.

Sometimes he gets a bit upset about the definition of graphic novels, but he seems to be enjoying the argument more than the actual belief. Anybody who has spent a lazy Saturday afternoon in the pub with a Scotsman or an Australian will know the value of a good argument.

* * *

There are many other artists of note coming from the colony, including the fluid action of Nicola Scott's superhero work and the odd, lively and idiosyncratic scratchings of Ashley Wood and Ben Templesmith.

But there has always been a demand in the country for foreign work, some of it packaged in surprisingly innovative ways. Imports of comics directly from the United States and the UK always had their place, but were severely limited, and there have always been publishers interested in getting the most recent stories they could get out as cheaply as possible.

With foreign rights available for a song, black and white reprints of American products flooded the Australian market for decades. Some of them were basic reprints of clean cut superhero action, but there were also plenty of horror and romance titles, with stories that could come from any age of comics.

Ranging in size from 48 pages through to hundreds of pages, these comics were specifically designed to be a quick read and then disposed of. Unless they were taken care of, they could fall apart in a collector’s hand after 20 years, severely impacting on their attractiveness as an investment or read.

* * *

The biggest of these publishers for many years was the mighty Murray, a comic reprinting company that pumped out thousands of titles over the decades. They started reprinting DC comics in the late forties, back when the packaging was as crude as the stories, and sometimes the editors squeezed in more content by printing two pages on one landscape page. There were more colour pages in the early reprints, although they soon became rare.

This continued for decades, with a massive number of titles, often lasting only a single issue before changing name again. Collecting an entire set was impossible, as some annuals were composed of whatever had been returned to the publisher, and two issues with the same cover would have completely different contents, depending on what returned books were lying about.

By the early seventies, the shuffling around of titles and characters saw Kirby's Fourth World take centre stage in Mighty Comic, and Batman succeed the Teen Titans in Superman Presents Tip Top Comic. Murray comics now appeared under a Planet Comics brand, before shifting back to Murray and its big grey cat mascot, which still somehow scares the crap out of me.

Murray were still pushing out dozen of titles in the early eighties, including one-offs like Kara From Krypton and Assault on Titan's Tower. A focus on the contemporary saw the publication of some really interesting stuff like Grell's Legion of Starlin's Warlock. Murray merged into Federal, and continued the fine tradition. Although Murray had primarily focused on DC and its vast stable of characters, more Marvel reprints sneaked onto shelves. At one point, there were 80-page black and white collections of Byrne's Fantastic Four, Simonson's Thor, Perez's Avengers and Miller’s Daredevil all available for less than a dollar at the same time, and I still own dozens of these titles.

* * *

Eventually, the increasing appetite for the original comics, which were no longer used as ballast and seen as something actually worth selling, saw mass importation and the death of this great Australian tradition, which eventually faded away in the mid-eighties.

There are still publishers who can make a quick buck off reprints, with reprints of Simpsons, Transformers and Marvel Adventures comics still available in hundreds of bookstores around. But that sheer amount of titles that used to be put out has not been repeated.

These comics were never really loved by the publishers, but they introduced hundreds of thousands of young minds to the joy of comics, and that ain't all bad.

* * *

(For a much richer look at the history of Australian reprints, check out this site, which does a top job of it, and was instrumental in sparking the memory.)

1 comment:

David Bishop said...

Ahh, Planet Comics - still remember that logo! I remember every doctor's waiting room in NZ always had a few dog-eared Phantom comics [mono inside, cover colours so lurid and crude they best resembled pop art, the crappiest printing known to man] when I was growing up. Now I write Phantom stories for a Swedish published and the only place in the world they get reprinted in English is by Frew. Alas, dodgy online translation means the dialogue and other text bears little relation to my original script. But somewhere in NZ boys are getting their first taste of comics with stories I wrote! How cool is that?