A Social History of Australia as Seen through Its Children's Comic Books

Article excerpt

In 1940, as a wartime measure, the importation of newsprint was banned and, with it, the popular American comics. Local creators of comics moved swiftly to fill this gap and the home-grown industry flourished. The Australian comics published in the period between 1940 and 1960 were not only noteworthy for their racism and sexism but also for the adherence to taboos against violence, bad language and sex itself, and the expression of any but a conservative ideology was limited. The drought in Australian comics in the 1960s was caused by the introduction of television in 1956 and the renewed availability of American comics in 1959, and the following decade was marked not so much by the number of comic titles available as by the fact that most were dominated by the issues of the time. A brief renaissance, complete with female and NESB superheroes, occurred in the late 1980s but, with the exception of a free comic aimed at street kids, the local comic industry, at least for the child audience, is dead. Still, it is apparent that, over the half century of their publication, Australian comics did mirror, albeit with some distortion, the social state of the Australia of the time of their publication.

In their heyday of the 1940s and early 1950s, a monthly issue of an Australian comic book could sell more than 100,000 copies. Multiply this number by the three or four readers who were likely to borrow the comic, consider that the population of Australia at the time was only a few million -- Aborigines were not counted, of course -- and it will be obvious that comics could be important socialisers of children if, as expected, they reflected the society in which they appeared. As cultural artefacts, then, comics -- that is, comic books, as newspaper comic strips are a different medium -- can be used to gain an understanding of the social history of Australia from the beginning of the second world war to the present day.

A brief account of the rise of the local industry is required in order to place it into historical perspective. The ban from 1940 on the wartime importation of newsprint led to the immediate disappearance of the newly-popular American comic books from the shelves of Australian newsagents, and the fledgeling local industry sprang into lusty growth almost overnight. The creators and publishers of this material moved in any of three directions: they copied the American characters and stories; they produced carefully `international' stories which gave no indication of their Australian origin; and they produced recognisably Australian strips with local settings and backgrounds and sometimes aggressively Australian characters and idiom. If is this last group, in the main, that is the subject of this paper.

The Australia of the early years of the second world war was confident in both its Australianness and its Britishness and resolutely suspicious of foreign cultures. These aspects of Australia's social life are obvious from the children's comics of the time, which were used as vehicles to demonstrate dislike of the Germans and absolute hatred of the Japanese. A typical example of the latter can be found in Moira Bertram's `Tigers over Burma', in which a Japanese soldier is shown bayoneting a helpless Australian in the stomach, saying, `He! He! Honorable self finds that very funny indeed!!!'.(1) Almost without exception, the Japanese in the Australian comics of this period were caricatures uniformly depicted, with buck teeth, tiny eyes, bald heads and lisps. With news of, the notoriously bad treatment of prisoners of war at their hands, filtering back to Australia during the war, such an unrelievedly negative portrayal is hardly surprising. Indeed, the representation of Japanese in strips published years after the war -- such a dramatic and action-packed source of material for comics was hardly going to disappear with the cessation of hostilities -- remained unchanged.

But comic book racism was not confined to wartime enemies or the threat of the foreign. …