Monday, May 26, 2008

Interview: Kevan Hardacre

Comic books, like other popular entertainments, offer readers the promise of escape from their everyday world, a brief chance to experience bold adventures in exotic locales, far removed from their own. But what of the writers and artists who create these stories? Is this ‘just a job’ to them, or do they, too, lose themselves in the fantasies they create for others?

For Kevan Henry Hardacre (left), art was an escape from a bleak working life in northern Australia. Born on 23 October 1927, Hardacre grew up in Rockhampton, the so-called ‘Beef Capital of Australia’, in central Queensland.

“I was the most competent student in Lakes Creek Primary School and I went onto sixth grade before being co-opted into work at age 14,” he recalls.

“This time was the late period of the Great Depression and children were required to work by their parents, so that the families could survive with a modicum of decency,” he explains. “World War II was on the way, anyway, and our educators wanted to unload the poor children into work places, and then, into the armed services.”

Kevan’s father, a former health officer with the Rockhampton City Council, found a job for his son with his new employer. “It was the meat processing works at Lakes Creek, on the big, brown, lazy Fitzroy River,” explains Kevan. “It was an ‘essential industry’.”

“I did three rotating shifts from the start. I still feel a weird sense of wonderment remembering the work at night from 11:00 pm until 7:00 am. A big change for a child,” says Kevan.

“I was fearful of the place and the uncouth culture of the workforce, the overt intimidation and the below the belt pervasiveness of it all until, I got the hang of it and was able to hold my own. I knew I was different.”

Even at that young age, Kevan showed a talent for art well beyond that of his peers.

“I was always encouraged to draw by my father and teachers,” he says. “My father would sit us up at night around the big, old, worn communal table and sketch horses and other bush motifs for us, or tell us yarns about his days in the western Queensland bush, outback west.”

“He would talk about shearing sheds and greasy wool, with larrikins and larks – ghost stories, wild stories, adventure,” recalls Kevan. “Places like Barcaldine and Hughenden, Emerald and Longreach and Cloncurry – they crackled into wide-eyed vision out of the arid, wild, wild west.”

Throughout his adolescence, Kevan continued to develop as a completely self-taught artist, while filling his thirst for knowledge about the wider world through books. He read true-life adventure stories, as well as devouring books on natural history and art. Kevan also loved word derivations and always kept a dictionary handy. But, like many teenaged Australian boys growing up in the 1940s, he was ever mindful of conscription and military service.

“I was scheduled for call up when I turned 18-years-old in October 1945, but two months before that date the Americans dropped their nuclear bombs on [two] Japanese cities and that ground the war machine to a shuddering halt.”

Around this time, Kevan secured a job as a window dresser for an advertising contractor, Ted Leach. “He was a bronzed, strong young man, who had returned from army service in the Middle East and, later, New Guinea,” he recalls.

It may not have been the world of art he was seeking, but it offered a way out from what he called “the slaughterhouse blues.”

“I did display work, mainly window dressing, placing large cut outs of Black & White and De Reske Cigarettes up high on the greasy shelves of fish and chip shops and milk bars. Pharmaceutical and cosmetic advertising material was better when installed in much cleaner pharmacies.”

“I traveled a number of times to Gladstone and Mackay doing this work. The work in the chemist shop windows was still arduous, as these windows were extremely hot in the tropical summers. They were airless with tenacious dust always there. It was extremely difficult trying to avoid dropping a sweat blob onto the newly installed crepe paper decorations. One drop and the stretched paper went ‘bling!’ Start again.”

Hardacre, determined to forge some kind of career for himself in the field of art, made the move to the ‘big smoke’ and left Queensland for Sydney in 1949.

“I was prepared to do anything in the line of ‘art’ – whatever ‘art’ means to anyone,” he says. “I was lucky to get into the inner circle of artists then resident in upper and lower George Street and I was offered an opportunity to secure a studio there, in George Street, if I could find the right amount of ‘key money’.”

“The ‘key money’ was to be passed over to the outgoing artist who had initially paid the same amount to the landlord for the right to pay him rent on a small room,” explains Kevan. “I paid £500, a large amount back then, when wages were about £10 to £20 a week. Installed and bunking there illegally, strip-washing from a bucket after hours, and dining from street stalls in Chinatown nearby, I secured some work from Trevor Morgan, the printer on the next floor down.”

Back then, Kevan aspired to join the ranks of artists like Virgil Reilly and Wynne W. Davies, whose full-colour illustrations graced the covers of the tabloid-sized Australian Women’s Weekly, or those cartoonists who, as he puts it, “fearlessly frolicked through the page of The Bulletin magazine, with its pink-paper covers.”

“But no such Olympian triumphs for me; I found that my then skills would only be taken up by the then – proliferating comic book publishers,” he explains. “In the late 1940s, there was a plethora of publications, such as short story magazines, comic books and papers, put out by men trying to get back into ‘civvy’ life after the war and, no doubt, with some ‘rehabilitation’ cash assistance from the government.”

Syd Nicholls regularly produced a black & white adventure comic with pirate stories [Middy Malone’s Magazine], all by himself – so well drawn, straight off the brush. And there was an historical series [Captain Justice] by Monty Wedd. Len Lawson created some sort of a masked cowboy [The Lone Avenger], before he got caught by his own misdoings and ended up in the caboose. Read about that one!” [i]

One of Kevan’s first comic book assignments was to illustrate a cowboy comic, ‘Trig’ Matson. The blonde gunslinger, described as a “range ‘tec” (range detective), originally appeared in Kayo Comic during 1946-47. Unusually for comics of this period, each strip in Kayo Comic was prefaced with an illustrated page of text, which introduced the plot, with the remainder of the story conveyed in comic strip format. While competently produced, neither a writer nor an artist is named on the original series of ‘Trig’ Matson, as is the case with the magazine’s other comic strips, Ace Gremlin and Nutkey and Professor Mikro.

Kayo Comic was one of several comic book titles issued by Calvert Publications, a company formed by accountant Denny White, which became a prolific publisher of Australian comics and popular fiction novels throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

‘Trig’ Matson was deemed popular enough to be rewarded with his own, self-titled comic book. Kevan Hardacre took over as illustrator of the lead feature, which was supported by Crimebusters, an eccentric trio of adventurers drawn by Michael Trueman, and a new series of Ace Gremlin, an unsigned science-fiction series, which has since been attributed to the illustrator, T. Brand. The 24-page ‘Trig’ Matson comic also managed to squeeze in short stories written by G.C. Bleeck, a prolific Australian ‘pulp fiction’ author.

Although credited solely as the illustrator on ‘Trig’ Matson, Kevan says “I am sure that I also wrote some scripts when I did not care for the libretto.”

When asked how he got the job, Kevan says that “the commission could have come from Arthur Gorfain[ii] or Royce Bradford[iii] at Press Features Service, which operated out of Castlereagh Street, Sydney. I understood that Mr. Gorfain was the owner of the business and that Royce Bradford was the Senior Artist or Art Production Manager.”

Kevan’s next assignment, and the one he would be best remembered for, came about through a chance referral from a fellow artist.

“Someone, possibly John L. Curtis[iv], told me about Peter Gormley[v] and I contacted him. He seemed to be a man with experience in publishing – an ex-journalist, I presumed, urbane and well-dressed, although often, most reticent,” he recalls.

“He [Gormley] was then running a press service securing material for publishers such as Young’s Merchandising. I believe that he had ‘stable’ of creative artists and got new work ready for a client list of publishers.”

“[My next comic], Char Chapman, was born out of a meeting with Peter Gormley, who suggested that Ido something like The Phantom comic’, which he said, to my surprise, was the biggest selling comic then published. He proposed that I create a new character with similar appeal, and to write the scripts and draw the artwork.”

“The war was over and, with all that male testosterone running around unbridled, adventurers were re-invading distant places, seeking ongoing adventures and writing about them. One such book, White Stranger[vi], enthralled me, city-bound in Sydney. It was about the white man's rediscovery of ‘the jungles’ in Sarawak and the Celebes, in what is now called Indonesia, and of the wildlife there, some of it human.”

“The word ‘Char’ meant ‘Tiger’ in Malay, I think, and I let it rip,” says Kevan. “The character just bound into life and I was able to draw jungles and pythons and depict much derring-do.”

Char Chapman was a famed big-game hunter and jungle guide who called the wilderness of Southeast Asia his home. However, he was better known to the myriad hill tribes and jungle clans as The Phantom of the East – “respected by peace-lovers – feared by renegades”, as one cover blurb put it. Sporting a pair of goggles and a blue headband, clad in a skin-tight red top emblazoned with an arcane symbol, and complemented by a pair of breeches and riding boots, Char Chapman, despite his eclectic wardrobe, cut an impressively heroic figure.

One is struck by Hardacre’s rapid evolution as an artist during this phase of his career, especially when comparing his early work on ‘Trig’ Matson with those first episodes of Char Chapman. His draftsmanship is much more assured, while his human figures exude energy and movement. And, once he gains an entire comic book to himself, Hardacre becomes more adventurous in his storytelling technique, experimenting with panel compositions and page layouts that better convey his stories’ frenetic action.

Char Chapman – The Phantom of the East[vii] made its debut as a supporting strip in Steel Barr and The Phantom Man Comic, published by Young’s Merchandising Company in 1950[viii]. Steel Barr was a granite-jawed District Commissioner who patrolled the African jungles, battling myriad threats while searching for his elusive opponent, The Phantom Man. Originally created for OPC’s Hurricane Comics series in 1946, writer and illustrator Lloyd Piper[ix] successfully brought his muscular hero to publisher Charles Young’s growing range of comic book titles.

Char Chapman’s adventures frequently took place against the backdrop of the ‘Malayan Emergency’, wherein British and Commonwealth military forces (including elements of Australia’s army and air force) fought against ‘Communist insurgents’ during 1948-1960.

“The Malay people were then trying to stop the British from regaining control of Malaya and Singapore after World War II,” recalls Kevan. “We re-invaded them and frustrated their drive for an independence that they wanted, but which we disallowed. This was done in the name of what we now call ‘security’, which allegedly keeps us safe from other peoples’ striving for independence and human rights.”

“The press was, of course, demonising them and, back then, I naively believed in the media services – and so Chapman was forever defeating the independence fighters. They were then called ‘terrorists’. Sounds familiar? You bet. Today, I would portray Char Chapman on the other side of the fence, as a champion of the people – a freedom fighter, certainly not an agent for neo-imperialism.”

Char Chapman was sufficiently popular for Young’s Merchandising Company to commission a spin-off comic magazine starring Kevan’s hero, which debuted in 1951. The character gained popularity and, as a result, sales increased.

“As I had found that one could not illustrate the fast-moving adventure strip stories where the action is described by script writers, I asked that I be given a free hand – and I got it. I was – and still am – a good visualiser. I roughly pencilled out the panels after jotting down a bare-as-bones scenario and I ad-libbed the dialogue and captions as I went,” he explains. “I could manage a page a day – but John L. Curtis frenetically knocked off three pages each day!”

Sadly, Kevan’s involvement with the Australian comic book industry was all too brief, culminating with Char Chapman – Phantom of the East, which concluded sometime in 1952[x]. But his reasons for leaving the industry were partly economic: “I felt that the publishers paid too little for so much work. But it taught me how to draw and how to work hard at art.”

“I was offered a job at Hudson Publications as a magazine artist, sometime around 1951, I think,” explains Kevan. “Norman O. Hudson then published Outdoors and Fishing and Seacraft magazines. As they prospered, we went on to launch Wheels, Two Wheels, Science To-day and Bride, along with other publications.”

“Initially, I painted covers, retouched photos and did some illustrations, but with the increased number of monthly magazines, we increased the number of in-studio artists – and I was eventually made art director,” he says.

“My job was to study the line-up as presented by the editors and assign the layouts to my artists, as well as commission illustrations with dinki[xi] and typography for headings,” explains Kevan. “Retouching of photographs was a big part of the work, as we printed by letterpress from acid-etched engravings on rough paper, the best then available in those days of short supply. The sizes of photographs and illustrations were strictly controlled, as the engravings were charged by the square inch and the budgets were tight. No big double-page spreads, then.”

Hudson Publications was later bought out by the K.G. Murray Publishing Company, which added Hudson’s titles to its already popular range of consumer and entertainment magazines. After working at Hudson Publications for close to two-and-a-half years, Hardacre re-established himself as a freelance artist, concentrating on the advertising and marketing fields.

He eventually started his own art and design consultancy business, which grew to employ six staff artists over the following two decades.

“We did advertising layouts and brochure designs for some advertising agencies, but I found that it suited my studio best to work directly with the marketing directors of large companies.”

“We designed logos and point-of-sale display units which we fabricated in various materials, from card stock to plastics and wood, brass and steel. I had a client list that embraced the then-largest companies operating in Australia, such as Unilever, Phillips Industries, Nikon and Canon through their agencies, as well as Peter Stuyvesant and Rothmans Cigarettes and Pan American Airways.”

After gradually retiring from the commercial design and production field during the 1970s, Kevan established his own, less commercial art practice, Hardacre Art & Design. He still finds time to select art assignments that reflect his longstanding interest in natural history and conservation. For instance, in April 2004, Kevan worked for the Australian Museum, producing bas-relief, plaque replicas of endangered fish species.

“I still do design work, but now I devote my skills to environmental - care practices,” says Kevan. “I design and fabricate SafetyNests, a range of nest boxes (pictured left) which effectively help to re-establish the habitats that are being lost through so-called ‘development’ and they will save the wildlife for our children’s’ future. I envisage a ‘green chain’ of SafetyNests across the globe.”

Hardacre’s love of the natural world shines through in his paintings of bird life, landscapes and maritime studies. This is perfectly in keeping with Kevan’s own personal philosophies, shaped by his interest in Buddhism, which, he says, embraces “everything that’s natural and nothing that’s for money only. Caring and sharing – and staying critical of humbuggery.”

The author would like to thank Kevan and Mark Hardacre for making this interview possible, as well as Graeme Cliffe, for his invaluable advice on Char Chapman’s publishing history. However, any errors and omissions are the author’s own.

[i] Leonard Keith Lawson (b. 16 August 1927), creator of The Lone Avenger and The Hooded Rider comic books, drove five female models on a photo shoot to bushland in the Terrey Hills area on 7 May 1954. After binding and gagging them at gunpoint, he raped three of them, and indecently assaulted the other two women. He was apprehended by police and was initially sentenced to death on 25 June 1954, but this was later commuted to 14 years imprisonment. A model prisoner, Lawson was paroled in May 1961 after just serving seven years. On 6 November 1961, he raped and murdered a teenage girl, Jane Bower, and was apprehended by police the following day during a siege at a private girls’ school where, while struggling with a teacher, Lawson’s gun went off, killing a student, Wendy Luscombe. Lawson was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1962 and died at the Grafton Correctional Centre on 29 November 2003.

[ii] Arthur Gorfain (b. 18 April 1912) established Press Feature Service after serving with the RAAF during World War II. His company employed 12 staff and supplied Australian newspapers and magazines with a variety of editorial content, such as puzzles, crosswords, short stories and cartoons. Gorfain is best remembered as the editor and publisher of The Silver Jacket, a popular Australian boys’ magazine published during 1953-56. He syndicated such Australian comic strips as Frontiers of Science to domestic and international newspaper markets, before selling his company to Alan Foley Pty Ltd in 1963. He subsequently established the Sunset Motel chain throughout eastern Australia.

[iii] Royce Bradford was a prolific magazine illustrator and comic book artist whose career spanned several decades. His comic book credits include The Bronze Cat (NSW Bookstall, circa 1943), Cole Steele (Wollumbin Press, circa 1950) and The Cloak tells Tales of Mystery (Horwitz Publications, circa 1959).

[iv] John Leslie Curtis (1917 – 2000) was originally a theatrical poster artist, before entering the Australian comic book field in the 1940s. He illustrated the comic book version of the popular Australian radio serial, Larry Kent (‘I Hate Crime’), and adapted several crime novels by British author Edgar Wallace, such as When the Gangs Came to London, for Australian comics. Some of his best work, including full-colour cover paintings and meticulous, black & white historical comic strips, appeared in The Silver Jacket magazine.

[v] Peter Gormley (circa 1920 – 1999) would later achieve international recognition as the manager of several high-profile musical performers, including the Australian singer Frank Ifield, British pop star Cliff Richard and the Australian-born singer/actor, Olivia Newton-John.

[vi] Wilcox, Harry, White Stranger: Six Moons in Celebes (London, Collins, 1949)

[vii] Early episodes of the strip appearing in Steel Barr and the Phantom Man Comic are titled ‘Cha Chapman – The Phantom of the East’, but the character’s name was altered to ‘Char Chapman’ for its self-titled comic.

[viii] An episode of Char Chapman – Phantom of the East appeared in the back pages of Spike’s Comic No.1, which starred a cheeky, larrikin kid, which was published by Young’s Merchandising Company, circa 1953. This story may have been a previously unpublished installment, left over after the original Char Chapman magazine was cancelled around 1952.

[ix] Lloyd Piper (1922-1984) produced comic books for several Australian publishers during the immediate postwar era, including Frew Publications, for whom he drew the Australian version of the American superhero, Catman, in Super Yank Comics. Piper later became an advertising layout artist, but returned to comics in 1972, creating the adventure strip Wolfe for Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper, before taking over as artist on the long-running Ginger Meggs comic strip in 1974, which he drew until his death.

[x] The original series of Char Chapman – The Phantom of East ran for just nine issues, released during 1951-52. Although later editions, bearing issue numbers 17-19, were published, these were reprints from the earlier series, and were actually published circa 1959. The gap in the numbering sequence has led to the misconception that issue nos.10 -16 of Char Chapman were incredibly scarce when, in fact, they were never published at all.

[xi] ‘Dinki’ is the plural form of ‘dinkus’, a printing term that refers to a graphic symbol or motif, which identifies a recurring editorial feature, such as a letters page or review column, appearing on a magazine page layout.

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