Friday, December 15, 2006

Virgil Reilly: From Pin-Ups to 'Punch' Perkins

If, on the thirtieth anniversary of his death, Virgil Gavan Reilly (1892-1974) is remembered at all, it would most likely be as the creator of 'The Virgil Girl.'

The Virgil Girl paraded through the pages of Australia's most outspoken newspaper, Smith's Weekly, during the 1920s and 1930s. Reed-thin and elegant, The Virgil Girl excited young men with her (then) scandalously flimsy clothing and saucy jokes about men, dating and divorce.

At the peak of Smith's Weekly's popularity during the interwar years, 'Virgil' (as Reilly signed his work) was one of the paper's premier cartoonists and The Virgil Girl became an institution.

While Reilly is best known as a newspaper cartoonist, many may not realise that he also had a brief, yet prolific 'second career' as a popular comic book artist.

His original background was in commercial art, where he worked as a motion picture advertising artist, as well as drawing propaganda and recruitment posters during the First World War.

Reilly was also an accomplished book illustrator, providing artwork for two collections of poetry by Kenneth Slessor: Darlinghurst Nights (Frank Johnson Publications, 1933/Reprinted in 1974) and Backless Betty from Bondi (Angus & Robertson, 1983).

He also illustrated Martin Cash (1955) and Captain Melville (1956), two bushranger biographies written by the popular travelogue author, Frank Clune, and published by Angus & Robertson.

Reilly's first published comic books appear to have been two one-shot titles, Texas Cody and the Treasure Hunters and Texas Cody and the Phantom of the Sand Dunes, published in 1947 by the little-known publisher, Joseph Swanson Wilkinson.

It wasn't until 1950, with the closure of Smith's Weekly, that Reilly began his short yet intense involvement with Australian comic books.

Invincible Press was a magazine and book publishing company established by Ezra Norton, proprietor of the Truth and Sportsman newspaper stable, which included the Sydney Daily Mirror.

Invincible Press began publishing Australian comic books in the 1940s, including Blake of the Northern Mounted and The Legion of Space, as well as reprints of Bob Clark's popular Boofhead comic strip, which first appeared in the Daily Mirror in 1941.

It was for Invincible Press that Reilly created what was arguably his best-known comic book, Silver Flash and his Frogmen (54 issues/1950-1955). Reilly's fluid art style was well suited to this underwater adventure series, as Captain Flash and his crew patrolled the high seas in their submarine, fighting strange marine creatures and world-conquering villains in the ocean depths.

Reilly was clearly one of the most 'in-demand' comic artists of the early 1950s. In the same year he created Silver Flash, he produced not one, but two new monthly comics for rival publisher Ayers & James.

Reilly wrote and drew the first six issues of The Invisible Avenger (26 issues/c.1950-1952), about a mad Chinese scientist, who used his power of invisibility to carry out his genocidal mission of exterminating the "white races" of the world (He even managed to invade Australia and briefly became the self-proclaimed 'Emperor of Australia'!) The comic was passed over to Peter Chapman, who drew the title character, as well as the back-up strips 'The Blue Ghost', 'Cometman' and 'Secret Service Agent K-7' until issue #26, after which the comic featured US reprint material.

The next major series Reilly did for Ayers & James, who published their comics under the 'Red Circle Press' imprint, was Fighting Fleet Comics (22 issues/c.1950-1952). The title featured two major characters, 'Punch' Perkins, a two-fisted Aussie Naval officer (appearing in issues 1-15) and a top-secret RAF unit called Rocket Squadron (appearing in issues 16-22). Their common enemies were an endless parade of Chinese Communist overlords, who dismissed their opponents as "Englander pigs!"

It is worth mentioning that Reilly did not illustrate many of the covers that graced his Ayers & James comic titles. Occasionally credited to 'Jayar', these primitive and crude covers are poor reflections on Reilly's interior artwork, typified by his graceful brushwork and minimal, yet suggestive backgrounds. Reilly's own covers for Silver Flash, by contrast, look almost painterly and boast unusual, eye-catching colours.

Beginning in 1952, Ayers & James launched a new series called Comics Library, which, oddly enough, only featured all-Australian material in every third issue!

The third issue of Comics Library featured a Rocket Squadron story (#3, December 1952), but the remainder of the issues drawn by Reilly focussed on dramatisations of real-life naval battles.

Published under the confusing sub-heading Navy Combat, these included Destroy the Bismarck! (#6, March 1953), Sinking of the Tirpitz (#9, June 1953), The Navy Says: 'Hit 'Em Hard' (#15, December 1953), The Battle of the Plate (#18, March 1954), The Story of the 3 'Sydneys' (#21, June 1954) and The Battle of the Coral Sea (#24, September 1954).

Naval themes continued to dominate Reilly's comic book work during the 1950s. Aside from a short-lived series featuring his best-known character, Captain Silver Flash (3 issues/c.1955), the remainder of Reilly's work for the Sydney firm Calvert Publishing included Combat (9 issues/c.1956) and Naval Attack (7 issues/c.mid-1950s). (It is unknown whether all issues of Naval Attack featured new stories by Reilly, or reprints of his earlier work.)

He also produced four issues of another war series, Navy Combat, for Consolidated Press in 1955.

Reilly's last known comic book was Refreshment Through the Years, a full-colour promotional comic produced for Coca-Cola in 1956.

Sea Battles (5 issues/c.1961-1962) was published by Jubilee Publications, featuring navy warfare comics by Reilly. However, all of Reilly's stories appearing in these double-sized, 2/- shilling cover price comics are reprints of his strips for Ayers & James' Comic Library series, dating from 1953-1954.

Comic books, however, were just one aspect of Virgil Reilly's diverse and prolific artistic career.

Just as he made his debut as a comic book artist in 1950, Reilly also briefly illustrated the popular Chesty Bond newspaper strip, created by Syd Miller and Ted Maloney in 1938.

Reilly was a prominent cover artist for The Australian Women's Weekly during the Second World War. One of his cover paintings was used as the basis for a wartime stamp issued in July 1940 - and was the third official 'First Day Cover' stamp issued by Australia's postal service.

He remained involved in newspaper cartooning throughout the 1950s and won the Walkley Award for Best Piece of Creative Artwork or Cartoon in 1958, for an illustration he did for Sydney's Daily Mirror newspaper.

This article originally appeared in the March 2004 edition of Collectormania magazine. Silver Flash comic book image courtesy of BSP Gallery Bookshop

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