Friday, April 9, 2010

NZ Comics Weekend in Review Part One: The Secret History of New Zealand Comics

Above: NZ Comics on sale during NZ Comics Weekend 2010. Pictured from left to right: Dave Bradbury, Tim Bollinger, Robyn E Kenealy and Brent Willis. Photo by James Gilberd.

It's been four years since the last NZ Comics Weekend, and in that time I'm pleased to say that the local comics community has grown in leaps and bounds.

The quality and quantity of material available during the weekend this year was truly impressive, with major showings from all corners of the NZ comics community. The Auckland community is making something of a comeback this year, with 'The Imposter' by Lee-Yan Marquez, the completed 'Inhabitants' series by the Sheehan Bros and of coarse the new printing of 'Hicksville' by Dylan Horrocks (which is an all-round winning situation really;).

The Wellington comics community was as strong as ever, with a new issue of 'Bristle', Draw's 'Silver' and the masterful 'Hotpools' series by Ned Wenlock (the break-out hit of the weekend, in my opinion).

One of the other notable changes in the comic community this year is the growing presence of NZ Webcomics.

Claire Harris and Ned Wenlock put together a great pamphlet on 'NZ Comics on the Web', covering the latest on-going NZ webcomics and online comics resources. This movement towards digital distribution of NZ Comics is a giant step forward in bringing local comics content to the attention of a wider public, and will play a major part in the future of comics in this country (goodbye to the shackles of limited distribution!). The pamphlet made it into many hands over the weekend, so I expect we'll see an increase in digital readership in the months ahead.

Now I'll give a rundown of the events that took place over the weekend at the Basement Gallery in Wellington, starting with the grand opening on Friday night, April 2nd.

The festivities kicked off with two exhibitions: 'The Work of H.W. Bennett', and 'NZ Comix in the 70s' curated by NZ comics historian Tim Bollinger.

Above: Tim Bollinger with 'The Work of H.W. Bennett' exhibition.

'The Work of H.W. Bennett: Comic Books and Men's Magazines 1944-1950', is a meticulously researched investigation into the work of one of NZ's most mysterious comics and magazine creators.

From what Bollinger has uncovered, H.W. Bennett was an Auckland artist and entrepreneur who published both children's comic books and adult magazines during the late 1940s and early '50s. His most well-known publications were 'Supreme Feature Comics' and 'Mister' magazine, featuring nude pin-ups and bawdy cartoons reprinted from American magazines. This may seem like a distasteful combination, but much like publishing in the US at the time, the cheap mass production of children's comics and pornography went hand-in-hand, often rolling off the same presses.

In an attention to detail that would make Dan Brown proud, Bollinger hunted down copies of H.W. Bennett's comics and adult magazines offerings under a variety of styles and signatures. He produced artwork and stories for his publications under several different pseudonyms to give the appearance of a larger publishing operation. Some of the credits and signatures he used in his magazines included: 'Harvey', 'RV', 'Rufus' and 'Frank Bradley and C.J. Bonington'. It's suspected that he also produced much of the editorial content for 'Mister' magazine, including 'reader' discussions on the subject of adult spanking, with titles like 'Whacko!' and the more literal 'Spanko!'.

H.W. Bennett worked out of offices in the Safe Deposit Buildings on High Street, Auckland. An address he also used to import and distribute sex-related books from the US. Times Printing Company in Auckland printed many of Bennett's comics and magazines for the local market and distribution in Australia.

'Supreme Feature Comics' was one of NZ's longest running comics, producing 33 comics through to the late 1940s. It contained simplistic adventure stories, often starring colonial heroes fighting off various 'foreign devils', alongside humourous strips. As sales lagged in the late '40s, Bennett attempted to reinvigorate 'Supreme' by re-launching it as 'The New Supreme Feature Comics'. Bennett took more care with the stories and artwork in the 'New Supreme', but it faded after five issues.
Following strong public opinion against the content of comics in the early '50s, government restrictions on the production of comics led to the closing of the Times Printing Company in 1954, for whom comics were 80% of their business. The NZ comics boom was over and H.W. Bennett disappeared with it, leaving behind these curious relics from the comics industry that could have been.

If this wasn't enough work for the comics historian, Tim Bollinger also assembled an impressive exhibition on 'New Zealand Comix in the '70s'.

This exhibition marks an interesting new chapter in NZ comics history, picking up several decades after the collapse of the original comics boom in the early 1950s.

Featured an eye-opening variety of local comics from the '70s, this rejuvenation was partly inspired by the D.I.Y underground comics movement taking place in San Francisco at the time. While cartoonist Robert Crumb was producing surprisingly frank comics about his life and sexual obsessions, back in New Zealand cartoonist Barry Linton was creating his own uniquely pacific flavoured underground comics. Banding together with other like minded artists enthusiastic about creating local comics, Linton was a founding member of the comics anthology, 'Strips'.

One of NZ's longest running comics, 'Strips' was published in the early '70s and ran until 1986. It featured early work from Colin Wilson, Terence Hogan, Joe Wylie, Dick Frizzell and many more. This exhibition featured rare artwork from these early issues and reproductions of the comics for curious readers to rediscover.

One of 'Strips' founding artists Colin Wilson, who has gone on to become a much acclaimed and respected comics artist in France, the US and Australia, also had some of his solo artwork spotlighted in the exhibition. Including his work on New Zealand's first true superhero, the environmentally conscious 'Captain Sunshine' from 1979. Aside from being NZ's first and only colour superhero comic, 'The Adventures of Captain Sunshine' has one other curious claim to fame: it's the only comic ever published to promote a wrist-worn sundial!

Above: Possible the most hair-brained comics cross-promotion ever: The wrist-worn sundial watch!!

It's hard to believe, but 100,000 copies of this comic were created for sale in NZ, Australia and the US to promote this product. Posters and full-size standees of 'Captain Sunshine' were also produced for sale. A second issue was commissioned but never published, as unsurprisingly the company producing it was deeply in debt (experiencing what I can only imagine was 'bankruptcy whiplash'!). If you overlook the nutty product promotion, Wilson's work on the book was stunning, and he was soon hard at work for British comics giant '2000AD'.

Above: Some more artwork by Colin Wilson.

There were plenty of other great unearthed NZ comics on display during the weekend; for a closer look he's some photos from opening:

Above: Photo by James Gilberd.

Above: Photos by Lee-Yan Marquez & Gijs Priegel.

Above: After the opening and some well deserved drinks, the comics crowd made it's way to the Left Bank sector for some Thai food. From left to right: Draw, Bob Gibbons, Matthew Kelly, Me, Grace C. Russell (behind me in red), Morgan Davie, Issac Freeman, Dick Whyte, Dylan Horrocks and Tim Bollinger. Photo by Lee-Yan Marquez & Gijs Priegel.

Coming up next in Part 2: The Wellington 'Hicksville' launch and the 2010 Black River Digital Eric Awards!

-AK!

A special thanks for use of photos from this event from James Gilberd and Lee-Yan Marquez & Gijs Priegel. Additional material on the background of H.W. Bennett provided by Tim Bollinger.

3 comments:

  1. The whole weekend looked wonderful. Thanks Adrien,for posting all this great stuff for those of us who weren't able to make it.

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  2. Hi Adrian,

    I'm a first year graphic design student at AUT and for one of my papers I have to choose two decades and design a marketable graphic which clearly shows the visual aesthetic of each decade. For my first decade - the 1940's - I have decided to do a 1940's comic book cover, and I was really happy to stumble upon your blogsite while doing research! :) So, I was wondering if you have any additional information about comics during the 1940's in New Zealand?? This info would be greatly appreciated :) by the way my tutor is Emily Garden...I showed her your blog and she said she went to uni with you????

    Anyway, I would love your help!!!

    please contact me kaylaperedo@gmail.com

    thank you!

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