“Australia’s Favourite Boy” Gets the Chop

Hey gang! If you could click this link and vote the second strip (Ginger Meggs) to keep me alive I’d be grateful.

Yes that is just a fictional character’s plea on a promotional Facebook page but there is something…bleak about it. A comic strip boy-hero, in fact one of the most iconic Australian comic characters of the last century, begging for their life as the result of an online voting competition held by APN (Australian Provincial Newspapers )News and Media. To wit.

“If you’re a brainteaser buff or partial to puzzles, we have good news for you.

APN Australian Regional Media’s newspapers are revamping its daily puzzle and cartoons pages in the new year, more than doubling the number of puzzles we run now.”

Grimly cheerful.

Full credit to the current Ginger Meggs artist Jason Chatfield, who coordinated a campaign to rescue the “little Larrikin” from his current home in New York and succeeded in placing the strip second against five other syndicated comic titles including The Phantom (US), Garfield (US – which came in second last) and Insanity Streak(Aus). The competition therefore was pitched between local creators and cheap overseas imports.

Think the Hunger Games, but with even less dignity for the participants and a clear favouring of the ringers in the bunch that would make President Snow blanch.

Despite the success of Chatfield’s appeal to the public to support this latest attempt to offload local content in favour of cheaper filler content, by the rules of the ‘game’ presumably rescuing Meggs from the chop to join the three surviving strips in a Sudoku newspaper hinterland, the artist was informed that APN would not be continuing with his title.

In a now deleted blog post, Chatfield presented screencaps of an email exchange with APN editorial director Bryce Johns, wherein he forcefully argued his position as the steward of an iconic Australian character, and hence not only a source of livelihood for him, but a generational cartooning legacy. The counter-argument was that the competition results were not indicative of genuine public interest, due to the aberrant online traffic.

Somehow that was the straw that broke the donkey’s back for me, a final insult following on from the disingenuous wording of the original competition announcement (“good news”). To launch an online poll that does not yield the desired results and then go ahead with a cull of local content in favour of puzzles and clapped out jokes about a feline’s love for lasagne – well it beggars belief.

Ginger Meggs was created by cartoonist Jimmy Bancks in the 1920’s. The ginger-haired boy terror was originally published in Christmastime ‘Sunbeams’ annuals for Australian children, his comic shenanigans a yearly treat.  Courtesy of the gentle wit of Bancks, which pitched Meggs as a sympathetic delinquent who did not always come out on top against bully Tiger, or his well-meaning yet stern parents, the strip’s popularity continued to grow. A healthy rivalry with fellow comic strip character Fatty Finn by Ed Nicholls, which in turn was the result of competition between the Evening News (Fatty) and Sunday News (Ginger) did no harm either.

Ginger Meggs was the first Australian comic strip to be syndicated overseas and as noted by Ian Gordon in his essay ‘The Symbol of a Nation: Ginger Meggs and Australian National Identity’ (Journal of Australian Studies, 1992), it also introduced a distinctly Australian take on language. Mateship, ocker, larrikin, the strip facilitated a broadening of the lexicon to acknowledge the upturned diphthongs of the Aussie dialect, its colonial language travelling back to the British motherland on the other side of the world courtesy of a little ‘ginger’.

As the twentieth century moved forward an increasing homogenisation of popular culture was in flow – and clearly today we have seen the result, with American film and television dominating water-cooler conversations from Dublin to Darwin (I speak from experience).

In his own David-like way, Ginger fought back against the pulp fiction goliaths of the overseas publishing world, with Bancks drawing on his own childhood experiences growing up in North Sydney’s Hornsby. Later artists like former children’s presenter James Kemsley Jr and Chatfield (himself a stand-up comedian – extracurricular activities is possibly an aid to Ginger’s unflappable energy some 90 plus years on) continued to move the kid into the present day.

In a sense Ginger Meggs has not only moved with the times, much like that stalwart elderly Victorian dandy the Doctor transitioning into a Converse-wearing David Tennant, but he connects the present with an almost-forgotten era in Australia publishing history when local comic creators, as well as stand-in pulp authors, flourished.

Due to a protectionist pushback against the US export practice of dumping pulp texts in Australia, in effect out-competing any resident creators, there was from 1939 to 1959 a rarely remarked upon comic book industry. A Golden Age Down Under, if you will. Writers and artists were able to make a living from telling Australian stories (borrowing heavily from genre tropes defined by pre-War American adventure serials, but no matter) to Australian readers. Unfortunately the legislative case in favour of this largely rested on the idea that American material unduly influenced minds with images of sex and violence. The Australian term ‘wowser’, a self-righteous, moral guardian, springs to mind and it was a weak position to take as opposed to the more solid economic argument that local cultural products deserved to be reinforced.

Unlike many local publishers who found themselves out-competed by the return of overseas pulp and comic imports, Ginger Meggs survived the reversal of this period of publishing protectionism. In fact, Bancks had succeeded in securing ownership of the comic title for his family’s estate, and with the packing of paper baron Frank Packer backing his transfer of the strip to the Sunday Telegraph, which led to an exodus of readers. The precedent set by Associated Newspapers Ltd v Bancks [1951] is of immense significance, particularly in light of recent legal discussions surrounding the Kirby estate, or Siegel and Shuster.

As Lindsay Foyle notes in his New Matilda piece:

“Jimmy Bancks moved his Ginger Meggs comic from the Sunday Sun to the Sunday Telegraph on June 3, and 80,000 readers moved newspapers with Ginger. Back then Bancks was by far the highest paid person in Australian media.”

The cruel irony parallel is clear. There was a time when this entertaining comic strip about a red-headed delinquent was a prize for newspaper men to fight over. It was a strip that belonged to a recognizably Australian publishing industry that the government at the time fought to protect, rejecting cultural cringe in favour of supporting creatives at home instead of abroad. Now a media company is happy to consign its fate to an obtuse online poll.

It’s an ignoble blow to the strip that was once merchandised to the hilt, was made into a film in the early 80s and no doubt inspired countless other Australian creators like Chatfield – take for example Patrick Alexander, Dean Rankine, or Dillon Naylor – to pursue a professional career in children’s comics.

APN’s dropping of Australian comic strips like Ginger Meggs, Swamp by Gary Clark and Insanity Streak by Tony Lopes would not only be an overt bean-counting exercise in cost savings, but a feat of cultural erasure.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Emmet O’Cuana is a freelance writer, critic, and podcaster based in Melbourne.

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