In the early 20th century, New Zealand-created comic books and strips were rare. British illustrated humour magazines dominated the market. In exchange for lamb and butter New Zealand imported children’s comic papers like Puck and Playbox.
New Zealand cartoonists found employment as caricaturists, satirists and commercial illustrators. Many honed their skills in the pages of local pictorial magazines like The Sketcher and The Free Lance.
In 1922 Auckland returned serviceman George Finey led a bohemian gang of cartoonists to Sydney, including Noel Cook and Cecil ‘Unk’ White. They helped establish Australia’s comic-book industry.
Foxton-born returned serviceman Noel Cook is said to have invented the sci-fi comic idiom with his strip Peter and all the roving folk, drawn for the Australian Sunday Times in 1924. Legend has it that Cook declined an early offer to draw the series for a big syndication company in New York, only to witness the rise of American science-fiction strip Buck Rogers some five years later.
Full-colour weekly comic supplements in New Zealand newspapers, comprising mainly syndicated American strips, arose in the 1930s. The occasional local series made an appearance, such as The Tee Wees’ adventures by D. Price, for the Auckland Star’s ‘Star Twinkles’ children’s pages in 1931 and 1932.
The advent of the American adventure strips in the late 1930s aroused public fears about the supposed danger of comics for young readers. British-style comics, which had fewer speech balloons and more explanatory text, were considered culturally and artistically superior by library and education authorities. American-style comic books, even those published in Australia, were commonly referred to as ‘alien’ or ‘yellow’ comics, to denote their non-British origins and supposed low moral tone. In 1938 new import regulations were used to ban several comics.
An unusual New Zealand comic strip written in the early years of the Second World War was the hunting diary of Wairarapa-born Neville ‘Stag’ Spooner. Finally published in 2012 in Chris Maclean’s book Stag Spooner, wild man from the bush, the comics document Spooner’s daily exploits as a government deer-culler from 1939 to 1940, in a style that foreshadowed the autobiographical comics of a later era.
New Zealander Ted Brodie-Mack drew and co-authored the Australian jungle-girl series Kazanda in 1944. Reprinted in full colour in Ranger comics in 1945, Kazanda was the first comic story by a New Zealander to be published in the United States.
New Zealand comic-book sales in the 1940s and 1950s were dominated by reprints of syndicated strips imported from the United States and Australia, re-packaged for the local market by two large comic printing and publishing houses, Feature Productions in Lower Hutt and Times Printing Works in Newton, Auckland.
Comics were popular and demand outstripped supply. Booksellers and stationers were reported to each sell between 100 and 500 comics each week. In 1945 a Wellington newsagent claimed that he could have sold 400 on Friday nights if stocks were unlimited.
Some comic-book heroes of minor importance in the United States became very popular in New Zealand. Brick Bradford led the science-fiction hero stakes, while The Phantom (‘the ghost who walks’) outsold his caped competitors. Both were printed under licence by Feature Productions in Lower Hutt. Brick Bradford ran for 108 issues, while The Phantom became the longest-running locally printed comic ever, with 556 issues between 1949 and 1960. The Phantom still sold in most New Zealand magazine shops in the 2010s.
The National government elected in 1949 loosened import controls. In 1949 around 48 comic titles were sold in New Zealand, and this increased to 214 by 1952.
Feature Productions was best known for its local runs of American strips Brick Bradford, Mandrake the magician and The Phantom. FP was run by brothers Hugh and Jack Warnes. At their peak they published 10 separate comic titles a week.
Times republished everything from the American comic Teen-age romance to the Australian I hate crime!, often with locally drawn covers. Times was a family enterprise run by John G. Helleur. Comics were 80% of the company's business.
In 1942, as a 13-year-old schoolboy, Eric Resetar published his Buck Rogers-inspired Crash Carson of the Future with the help of his older brother, Ian. Eric had to write to the Department of Internal Affairs to request a supply of paper on which to print his comics. They sold in their thousands, mainly to American servicemen stationed in New Zealand, despite being aimed at children.
From 1945 Times printed a series of locally created publications by Auckland artist and entrepreneur H. W. (Harry) Bennett. Supreme feature comics ran for 33 issues over a three-year period. Other New Zealand comic artists in this period were Eric Resetar and Jack Raeburn, who produced Sparkles.
In 1952, due to pressure from moralists and the government, the Helleurs had to discontinue many of their more commercial overseas titles for older audiences, such as Black magic, illustrated by American comic artist Jack Kirby. In the years following the crackdown, they struggled to maintain a successful operation, and the company closed its doors in 1954. This was a sign of things to come.
Though comics had been considered suspect by moralists for some time, critics became more vocal in the 1950s. This demonisation of comics was also evident in other countries, such as Australia, Canada and the United States. These attitudes influenced the government’s view on comics.
The 1954 Mazengarb report (the published results of an investigation into juvenile delinquency) identified comics as potentially harmful and recommended banning ‘injurious’ comics. The Indecent Publications Act was amended in 1954 so that any publication, including comics, that unduly emphasised sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence could be deemed indecent.
In 1956 the government set up a comics advisory committee comprising a Justice Department representative, school principals and a supervisor of prison education. By 1958 they had prohibited 260 imported comic-book titles.
In the 1940s and 1950s American-style action comics met with vocal opposition in New Zealand, especially from the educated intelligentsia and those on the political left. Examples of the debate may be found in the pages of the left-wing journals Tomorrow and Here & Now and the arts journal Landfall, and in the colourful language of A. R. D. Fairburn and John A. Lee in a 1949 radio debate.
During these years, few local comics were produced. Eric Resetar self-published Crash O’Kane: an All Black on Mars in the mid-1950s, and two issues of his Halfback mini-comics series The space pirates and Invisible Smith in the early 1960s.
A. H. and A. W. Reed published two collections of New Zealand historical strips by Ross Digby Gore in the 1950s, while Times’ John G. Helleur published a series of comics by George (G. F. H.) Taylor under the ‘Jaygee production’ label. These carried the words ‘an approved comic’ on their covers as an apparent concession to government regulators.
Auckland University’s 1970 capping magazine (retitled Superbag) and Canterbury’s Lead lettuce contained many comics and were innovative in their design. Superbag came in a plastic carry bag designed by Dick Frizzell, and featured a comic book by Murray Grimsdale, a collection of cartoons by Chris Grosz and a paper cut-out doll of the Queen, complete with royal outfit. Lead lettuce featured comics by Gerald (Joe) Wylie, Malcolm Brown and Lyndsay Smith.
In the 1960s there was a rise in social activism and protest among student groups. Comics of rebellion and counter-culture began to appear in the pages of the university student newspapers and annual ‘capping’ magazines, challenging censorship laws.
Bob Brockie’s parody of Classics illustrated (a comic-book series) in Victoria University’s 1958 Cappicade was a foretaste of the social satire that would prevail in the student papers of the 1960s. By 1970 capping magazines were dominated by comics and the visual language of ‘psychedelic’ culture.
In the heady environment of the late 1960s, expatriate New Zealander Kim Casali created the Love is … cartoon series, first published in the Los Angeles Times in January 1970. The internationally syndicated cartoons, which depicted cute naked figures and simple messages of love, earned Casali millions of dollars annually and still ran in 34 countries daily in the 2010s.
Bogor, a strip depicting the exploits of a lone forestry woodsman created by Wellington cartoonist Burton Silver, first appeared in the New Zealand Listener in 1973, and was one of the country's longest-running locally published cartoon strips.
In 1976 Feilding-born Murray Ball’s Footrot Flats debuted in Wellington newspaper the Evening Post. Drawing upon themes of New Zealand’s rural lifestyle, Wal Footrot and his nameless dog became the country’s most-recognised and best-loved cartoon characters, spawning a movie, a musical, a theme park and books that continued to sell in their thousands decades later.
New Zealand society’s attitude to comic books changed in the late 20th century. As censorship lessened and control of imports was reduced, local artists looked to new international influences for inspiration. Graphic novels – books in a comic-strip format – emerged.
New Zealand’s first comic magazine aimed at adults, Strips, was born out of the student underground in 1977. Colin Wilson, Terence Hogan, Barry Linton, Joe Wylie and Laurence Clark had grown up on New Zealand’s comic diet of the 1950s, but were inspired by the European and American comics of the 1960s and 1970s.
Strips was non-profit and independently published. With the growth of photocopying technology, and the rise of specialist comic shops in the 1980s, Strips became the model for other communities of artists making and selling their own comics.
Jesus on a stick, created by musician Chris Knox (four issues, 1986–87), introduced a local punk aesthetic to comics. Razor (11 issues, 1988–93) contained the early work of Dylan Horrocks (who later produced the graphic novel Hicksville), Cornelius Stone (Knuckles the malevolent nun) and Roger Langridge (Fred the clown). All three gained an international following. Aucklander Martin Emond’s work was also published extensively in Britain and the United States in the 1990s.
Before the graphic-novel boom of the 2000s, a handful of adult New Zealand comics found publication overseas instead. Two comics published by Fantagraphics in the US, Teaser and the blacksmith by Timothy H. Glass (1989) and Playgrounds by Peter Rees (1991), both originated in Christchurch and featured local themes and settings.
A new style of children’s comics also emerged, with the publication of Bob Kerr and Stephen Ballantyne’s Terry series (three volumes, 1982–90), and Chris Slane’s Maui: legends of the outcast (with Robert Sullivan, 1996) and Nice day for a war (with Matt Elliot, 2011). All were spurred on by the massive mainstream success of Murray Ball’s Footrot Flats, which reached its peak of popularity in the mid-1980s.
While comic books have been a male-dominated field, Sparkles in the 1940s included comics by Marie McNab, and Strips in the 1980s included the work of Blossom (Judy Darragh). The 1990s and 2000s saw a rise in the number of New Zealand women comic artists, including Sophie McMillan (Interlude pie), Indira Neville (Nice gravy), Sarah Laing (Let me be frank), Robyn E. Kenealy (Roddy’s Film Companion) and Li Chen (Extra ordinary).
The self-published comics of the 1990s spawned many new artists. Simon Morse and Rufus Dayglo, inspired by British comic 2000AD (which Dayglo later worked for), dominated Wellington’s Pistake (13 issues, 1992–95).
Ant Sang’s Auckland mini-comic Filth (seven issues, 1994–97) preceded his Dharma punks series (eight issues, 2001–3) and acclaimed graphic novel Shaolin burning (2011). Greg Broadmore’s Adventures of Dr Grordbort (2011) followed his small-press comic Killer robots will smash the world (2002).
In 2012 Huia Publishers released three graphic novels, Ngārimu: te Tohu Toa, Te poiwhana and Hautipua rererangi, in both English- and Māori-language versions, drawn by Andrew Burdan.
Grassroots communities of comic artists produced online and printed comics, collaborated with one another and organised and attended comics conventions.
Gruesome!: the influence of comics on contemporary New Zealand artists. Christchurch: McDougall Contemporary Art Annex, 1999.
Horrocks, Dylan, ed. New Zealand comics and graphic novels. Auckland: Hicksville Press, 2012.
Kinnaird, Adrian. From Earth’s end: the best of New Zealand comics. Auckland: Godwit, 2013.