The comic book has always played a somewhat maligned role in the world of literature and the history of the book. Frequently banned for its propensity to corrupt, and mocked for the lowness of its brow, the comic has attracted criticism from all spectrums of society. Much like other forms of popular culture, like television, film, gaming, and now social media, comics were not immune from the disapproving glare of protective parents and carers. Maybe this is why they have endured over the decades.

Introducing children to the concepts of literacy, narrative, and (whispers under his breath) subversion, the comic book has a special place in the history of the book. Indeed, those who remember their first comic experience can often attest to the significant role comic books can play in our lives.

Before the appearance of Australia’s first comic book, The Kookaburra, in 1931, the first Australian comic strip, You and Me, appeared in the journal Smith’s Weekly on 4 September 1920. The satirical nature of the strip reflected and perpetuated the idea of the Australian “larrikin”, a characteristic that fed into one of Australia’s most beloved characters, Ginger Meggs. Although the voice of contemporary Australia was evident in the formative years of local comic publication, the Australian market struggled to develop a unique identity, finding itself flooded with American reprints. That is, until the breakout of World War 2 and the subsequent trade restrictions that gripped Australia.The US dollar shortage saw the enforcement of strict embargoes on the importation of American comic material into Australia. This meant that Australian comic creators had space to build their own identities. This led to the creation of many tongue-in cheek parodies of cult characters such as Superman and Mandrake the Magician. 

The Australian cartoonist Emile Mercier was the first to take advantage of the bans, creating satirical Australian superheroes such as Supa Dupa Man, Mudrake theMagician, and Tripalong Hoppity. The restrictions on the supply of newsprint meant that continuing titles were prohibited. Comic book producers ingeniously produced countless “one-shots” of similar characters and themes, ensuring that the narratives remained somewhat continuous.

The language and characters from this period of Australian comic history is undeniably Australian. From wacky adventures, to wartime heroics, the Australian comic character went from strength to strength during World War 2. A reflection of life as an Australian and an Australian overseas, the comics highlighted facets of a culture very much in its infancy.

Monash University Library Special Collections include a large collection of comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels, with particular strengths in 20th-century publications. If you are interested in viewing any of these titles in the Special Collections Reading Room, please request the items through Search or contact the Special Collections team.

The writer, Daniel Wee, is a librarian in the Special Collections team.