Friday, March 12, 2010

Profile: Terry Trowell - Comic Book Artist

There is just one reference to Terry Trowell to be found in John Ryan’s 1979 book, Panel by Panel: A History of Australian Comics. On page 211, readers will see the reproduction of a page taken from a comic book, accompanied by the caption: "A page from The Ghost Rider No.8 drawn by Terry Trowell, who produced many comics for Atlas Publications. Atlas, circa 1951"
And that small glimpse was all that many readers would ever know about the life and work of the prodigiously talented writer and illustrator, Terence James Trowell – until now.
Born on 4 September 1918 in Katanning, in the south-west region of Western Australia, Terry Trowell spent the first six years of his life in Malaya, where his father worked as a mining engineer at Ipoh, a tin-mining region in the Malayan state of Perak.

Trowell returned to Australia with his father in 1926, where he was enrolled as a boarder at Perth’s Guildford Grammar School. Throughout most of his secondary school years, Trowell also attended the A.B. Webb Art School, founded by the West Australian painter, Archibald Bertram Webb. The active youngster represented his school in boxing, football and athletics, before obtaining his leaving certificate, with a ‘distinction’ in drawing, in 1936.

After studying journalism at the University of Western Australia, the twenty year-old Trowell returned to Malaya, where he worked as a journalist on the English language newspaper, the Straits Times.

As a reporter stationed in Southeast Asia, Trowell would have only been too aware of Japan’s increasingly savage occupation of the Chinese region of Manchuria, which flared into a full-scale war between the China and Japan in 1937. Trowell eventually returned home in 1940, soon after Australia joined Great Britain in declaring war on Nazi Germany.

Trowell enlisted in the Australian Army in July 1942, where his unique skills as an artist, combined with his personal experience of the Asia-Pacific region, earmarked him for military service with such specialised branches as Operational Intelligence, the Allied Intelligence Bureau and ‘Z-Force’, a special operations commando unit that undertook dangerous missions behind Japanese lines. Trowell’s own duties included topography and map-making, as well as interrogating prisoners of war in Malaya at the end of hostilities.

Discharged with the rank of Australian Army corporal in July 1946, Trowell travelled to England where he studied art, before crossing the English Channel to France, where he lived and worked as a freelance artist for several months.

Trowell decided to return to Australia in 1948, travelling en route through the United States, before eventually disembarking in Perth later that year. On his return home, Trowell secured work painting a series of murals for several hospitals, hotels and other commercial buildings.
Trowell was subsequently commissioned to illustrate a series of social studies’ books, documenting Western Australian history. The first volume, Early Days of W.A. Towns was written by John Stokes, and was published in 1949 by Carroll’s Pty Ltd for use in local high schools.

The following year, he moved to Melbourne, where he was joined by his wife, Patricia Aileen Powell, a school teacher who was studying music and training to be a concert pianist. This period marked the beginning of Trowell’s involvement with Australia’s then-booming comic book publishing industry. At some point during late 1950 – early 1951, Trowell commenced work as a freelance writer and illustrator for Atlas Publications, a Melbourne company which had scored an early commercial success with the superhero comic Captain Atom in 1948, and was rapidly expanding its comic book range.

Trowell’s first series for Atlas Publications was The Grey Domino (63 issues), a masked vigilante described as "the hooded nemesis of crime", which debuted in 1951. Hidden behind that grey hood was Hugh Standish, a former commando who first adopted his secret guise while operating behind German lines during World War II. With peacetime, however, came new threats in the shape of resurgent racketeers, foreign spies and international crime syndicates. Standish travelled the world as a racing car driver, accompanied by his chief mechanic, Homer Briggs, and his old wartime comrade, Captain Jim Falstaff. The trio, who were later accompanied in later episodes by Standish’s girlfriend, Vicki, was continually embroiled in adventures and intrigue around the globe.

The early editions of The Grey Domino, like so many of the comics released by Atlas Publications, were published in the ‘landscape’ format. This layout initially became popular amongst Australian publishers which reprinted newspaper comic strips in comic magazines, as the rectangular layout allowed them to reproduce the strips without needing to cut and paste the black & white artwork to fit the more ‘traditional’ portrait-format comic magazine.

Some Australian publishers, like Atlas Publications, however, persisted in using this format for titles featuring new, original artwork, created especially for comic magazines. Yet Trowell, like other artists of the time, appeared reluctant to adapt his storytelling style to suit this landscape format. Instead, he composed his early Grey Domino stories in rows of 2-3 panel tiers, which gave the appearance that this comic book was, in fact, comprised of reprints from an established newspaper strip.

It’s worth speculating if this approach was adopted at the behest of the publisher, which labelled many of its early magazines with the logo, ‘World Famous Comic’ – a marketing ploy designed to persuade readers that they were purchasing a comic based on a well-known, international (i.e. British or American) newspaper comic strip, rather than a new, unproven Australian series.
As a result, some of Trowell’s early issues of The Grey Domino seem ‘hemmed in’, as if the artist hadn’t yet figured out a way to break free of the restrictive page layout imposed upon him. His efforts weren’t helped by the publisher’s imposition of advertisements for MacRobertson’s chocolate bars directly over his artwork, resulting in some pretty crude trimming of individual panels.

Nonetheless, Trowell’s storylines were set in exotic locales and featured a compelling cast of glamourous women and implacable rogues, and were illustrated with considerable aplomb – a creative combination which helped make The Grey Domino a popular success for several years.

For his next series, Trowell inherited a cowboy comic titled The Ghost Rider (57 issues). Created by J. Morath, the comic starred Steve Jarrett, a wandering cowboy who dons a black mask to become ‘The Ghost Rider’, whenever trouble looms. Under Morath’s pen, however, The Ghost Rider remained a crudely drawn ‘horse opera’ that failed to live up to the excitement promised by the magazine’s dramatic title. Morath left the series (and, it seems, Australian comics altogether) after the fourth issue, to briefly replaced by the Italian-born illustrator, Andrea Bresciani, who illustrated the fifth issue.

Terry Trowell took over as writer and illustrator of the series with the sixth issue, and the improvements were immediate and dramatic. Trowell recast Steve Jarrett as a former Confederate Cavalry officer, who roams the American west during the violent aftermath of the Civil War, bringing criminals to justice disguised as The Ghost Rider.

Not only did Trowell remodel The Ghost Rider’s appearance, dressing him in a Confederate tunic and cavalry hat, but he also equipped him with the lightning-fast ‘change-over’ gun draw, which saw The Ghost Rider reach for his gun with his left hand, and flick it across into his right hand. Joining Jarrett on the open trails was The Mariposa Kid, a dashing gunfighter known as ‘the Mexican Robin Hood’, who made his debut in the sixth issue.

From the outset, Trowell’s work on The Ghost Rider marked a significant advance in his ability as a comic book storyteller. Gone were the muddy grey halftones which occasionally obscured early installments of The Grey Domino, replaced with a more confident, thick-thin variation of brush work, and a judicious use of cross-hatching and shading.

Trowell made greater effort in varying the composition of individual panels, giving each page a more expansive appearance. Perhaps the series’ subject matter, set in the sprawling plains of the American West, inspired Trowell to ‘open up’ his visual style, as well.

In 1952, Terry Trowel returned to Perth, where he established his own commercial art studio. Nonetheless, he kept working as a freelance comic artist for Atlas Publications, continuing to write and illustrate both The Grey Domino and The Ghost Rider. To these, Trowell added a new title, Rhino Beresford (10 issues), which was released by Atlas Publications in 1957. Accompanied by his loyal aide and ‘gun-boy’, M’Bolo, the phlegmatic British hunter, Major Beresford, is known and respected throughout French Equatorial Africa as ‘Bwana Kifaru’ (‘Master Rhino’), able to best any man – or beast – in the jungle.

Trowell headed eastward once more in 1956, to take up the role of Art Director for Modern Motor, which was published in Sydney by Modern Magazines Pty. Ltd., a company that also produced such special interest titles as Modern Boating and Australian Cricket.

Capitalising on his role at Modern Magazines, Trowell re-entered the local comic book market, producing several new titles for his employer. Chief amongst these was Jet Black – Racing Driver (11 issues), which debuted in 1958 and clearly reflected Trowell’s passion for the subject matter – fast cars! Jet Black himself was a former World War II fighter pilot, who is now the premier driver for the Cougar Racing Team, managed by his wartime colleague, George Faversham. Accompanied by Jet’s girlfriend, Rusty Redd, the trio became entangled in foreign intrigue wherever they went on the international racing circuit.

Modern Magazines Pty Ltd was keen to align Jet Black with its own motor racing publication. Trowell’s richly painted covers were adorned with the blurb, ‘Modern Motor presents Jet Black’, while the comic featured text stories and photos taken from Modern Motor, profiling contemporary racing drivers and their vehicles. Trowell also designed a series of full-colour ‘Famous Racers’ posters and ‘Race Games’ (depicting well-known racing circuits), which were printed on the comic’s back covers. Each issue of Jet Black was endorsed by the publisher as "an original story, based on authentically drawn scenes and cars, which is both entertaining and educational for readers of all ages."

Around this time, Trowell also produced three issues of the True Western comic book series for Modern Magazines Pty. Ltd. These comics, titled Truth about Jesse James, Truth about Custer’s Last Stand and Killer Marshal – Truth about Wyatt Earp, offered factual accounts about famous figures from America’s ‘Wild West’ era. While these comics strived to convey a documentary-styled tone, they also acknowledged the enormous popularity of Hollywood western movies, with Killer Marshal – Truth about Wyatt Earp mimicking scenes from the 1957 film, Gunfight at the OK Corral.

Trowell’s other major comic book for Modern Magazines Pty Ltd was the truly offbeat, one-shot title, Purple People Eater. Taking its name from the popular song recorded by Sheb Wooley in 1958, Purple People Eater was a freewheeling romp of a comic, full of space aliens, a hip-swivelling Elvis look-alike, beatniks and a spear-wielding witchdoctor that not only defied description, but mirrored some of the best satirical comic strips then appearing in America’s famous Mad Magazine.

The year 1960, however, saw Trowell return to Western Australia, where he established a new company, Trowell Purdon Advertising, which specialised in advertising layouts and illustrations. The following year saw Trowell enter Australia’s burgeoning television industry, working for the West Australian branch of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, where he appeared on a children’s television programme to use puppets for on-air drawing lessons. He subsequently joined the J. Gibney & Sons Art Studio as their chief illustrator and designer in 1962.

Sadly, Terry Trowell’s life and work was cut all too short on 23 October 1964, when he died from a war-related medical condition. While the history of Australian comics is all the poorer for his untimely death, Terry Trowell nonetheless left behind a significant body of work which entertained countless readers and enriched the comic book medium.

The author would like to thank Sally-Anne Trowell and Mark Trowell for their generosity of time and invaluable assistance in the preparation of this article, as well as Graeme Cliffe for his editorial comments and advice. However, any errors and omissions are the author’s own.

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