Almost 60 years after the death of Jimmy Bancks (July 1, 1952) and almost 90 years after he first drew Ginger Meggs, it is hard (for anyone who wasn't alive then) to realise just how significant Bancks and his creation were.
Ginger Meggs, under the name of Us Fellers, was first published in 1921 in the Sunbeams pages of the Sunday Sun.
Novelist Ethel Turner edited sunbeams. She wanted to edit a children's paper, not a children's section in a Sunday newspaper. For 27 years she had edited a children's page in the Town and Country Journal but had been out of regular work since June 1919, when the paper went out of production.
In her book, The Diaries of Ethel Turner, Philippa Poole detailed how Turner had approached The Sun about starting a children's paper, Rising Sun, in July 1919 but nothing had happened. In September 1921 she agreed to edit the new children's section Sunbeams, but only on the understanding that the children's paper would follow. The four-page Sunbeams section was first published on October 9, 1921 and on November 13, 1921 a comic section was added without Turner’s consent. On the top half of the back page was Bancks' Us Fellers.
Monty Grover, the editor of the Sunday Sun, had asked a number of artists to draw a comic about a small girl and a group of boys which he wrote the scripts for. The basic formula was the boys were to get into trouble, and the girl, Gladsome Gladys, was to get them out of it. Grover selected the submission offered by Bancks, who was at the time working for The Bulletin.
Us Fellers alternated with a number of other comics for several months, and it wasn't until March 12, 1922, that it took up its position on the front page and became a weekly feature.
Turner was not happy for the comics to run in her section. She was also unhappy with their content, which she thought unsuitable for a children's section. She had decided to "resign or have the comics taken away". However she stayed, and so did the comics, and Us Fellers re-appeared in the November 27, 1921 edition of Sunbeams.
Ginger had been one of the boys in the first episode of Us Fellers. By the end of the year, Bancks had taken over the script writing from Grover and manoeuvred Ginger to be the centre of attention; it was not long before Gladys disappeared.
There were other changes too. Ginge had started out as Ginger Smith, but six months on he had become Ginger Meggs. By then he had a dog, Mike, and a younger brother, called Dudley. He also scored a best mate, Benny, a girlfriend, Minnie Peters, and a rival for her affections in Eddie Coogan. Within a year, just about the entire cast had been introduced, including Ginger's biggest problem, Tiger Kelly.
Barry Andrews, in Nellie Melba, Ginger Meggs and Friends said, "The main point should be made about Ginger's emergence then (and the main point about his evolution... as an important factor is his success over half a century) is that the basic ingredients of the strip were concocted in its first year, when Bancks established a recognisable and identifiable world centred on an "average" family and settled on two or three plots which could allow innumerable variations without changing in essence."
In September 1922, Hugh Denison, the owner of The Sun, launched the Sun News Pictorial in Melbourne, sending Monty Grover to be editor. Bancks also went to Melbourne to work on the new paper. He lived in St Kilda and worked from a studio over Queen's Walk on the site of the Civic Square in Swanson Street. Us Fellers started appearing in the Saturday editions of the Melbourne paper in October 1922.
J. C. Williamson's were so impressed by Ginger Meggs that they included a song, Ginger Meggs: The Sunbeams Song, in their 1923 pantomime. All this early success was not lost on the rest of the Australian newspaper industry. A comic section was introduced to the Sunday News in Sydney in January 1923. One of the comics run was The Clancy Kids, drawn by Percy Crosby, which was renamed The Australian Clancy Kids to try to give it a local flavour. It did not work and Syd Nicholls, an artist working on the Sunday News, was asked by the paper's managing editor, Errol Knox, to "draw a domestic strip. The Sunday Times and Sunday Sun are both running a colour comic and we have to do something to compete."
Nicholls' answer was Fat and his Friends. It was first run in September 1923. Almost a year later it was renamed Fatty Finn. Not only had the name changed, but lead character had evolved from an English boy look-a-like to a boy scout look-a-like. He'd lost weight, changed his clothes and looked surprisingly like Crosby's Skippy.
George Aria, who worked with Nicholls on the Evening News, also created a Meggs competitor in 1924, The Aria Kids, which ran in the Australian Women's Mirror. Bertie, the main character in The Aria Kids, looked even more like Skippy than did Fatty Finn.
In April 1923, Denison launched the Evening Sun in Melbourne to take on The Herald, which was then being run by Keith Murdoch. By August, Bancks was drawing a new comic The Blimps, which ran three days a week in the evening paper. It was a busy time for Bancks, as he was also drawing political cartoons for the new paper as well as Us Fellers. The Blimps was in reality a daily version of Ginger and it carried a credit line, "The Blimps - By Bancks, Creator of Ginger Meggs", just in case anyone didn't notice the similarity. Six months later The Blimps became Australia's first daily comic.
The Evening Sun was not the success Denison had hoped for and just over a year after starting it he closed it. The Sun-News Pictorial was sold to The Herald and Weekly Times. Denison said the Sun News-Pictorial had achieved a financial success but losses on the Evening Sun had nullified the feat. Had Denison launched the Melbourne papers two or three years earlier, the venture might have worked. Desmond Zwar in his book, In Search of Keith Murdoch, said, "Murdoch had always expected such a move would come from Sydney and that it would come from Denison's Sydney Sun. Hugh Denison had made no secret of his aspirations in Melbourne and had warned Murdoch, long before, that he would enter the morning paper field first and then switch over to an evening paper."
Murdoch had been the Sydney Sun's Melbourne correspondent from 1912 to 1915, and was given control of The Herald in 1920 by Theodore Fink. He immediately started an overhaul of the paper in part to strengthen it in case of a Sydney onslaught. When it came he was able to repel the invaders quite neatly.
Murdoch liked Bancks and his work and kept him on at the Sun News-Pictorial after the takeover. Bancks created another comic, Mr Melbourne Day by Day for the Sun News-Pictorial. When he returned to Sydney, Mr Melbourne was taken over by Len Reynolds who continued it until he died in 1939. It was then taken over by Harry Mitchell. Us Fellers was moved in June from the Saturday to the Tuesday edition and run in colour. In place of Us Fellers in the Saturday paper was another Meggs imitator - Billo and Co drawn by R. Shaw. It didn't last and disappeared in March 1925.
Bancks put out the first of the Ginger Meggs Annuals in 1924, and they were to continue for the next 35 years. Ten years later it was estimated that almost two million copies of these annuals had been sold. There was also a Meggs film, Those Terrible Twins, for which Ginger acquired a sister and it was screened to packed houses in 1925.
Working for Murdoch, Bancks was re-acquainted with his old colleague from The Bulletin, Percy Leason. He had been lured to Melbourne by Murdoch to work on Melbourne Punch, which had just been acquired by The Herald. Murdoch also convinced his old friend cartoonist Will Dyson to return from London to work on Punch. The two had met when Dyson was a war artist and Murdoch a journalist visiting the Western Front during The Great War. The three artists became friends and held a number of joint exhibitions.
Ross McMullin, in his book Will Dyson, wrote, "Jimmy Bancks was a jovial kindred spirit who combined with Dyson in impromptu foolery.
"A favourite Dyson and Bancks exploit required their presence in a train, where one opened a window and the other promptly closed it. A swift escalating exchange of insults followed, to the alarm of other passengers. Just when it seemed that a nasty fight was about to commence, Dyson asked Bancks which school he attended, Bancks concocted a likely-sounding but non-existent institution in reply, and Dyson's response was to exclaim, "Why, that was my school - this would not have happened if you had been wearing the old school tie!". With that he would vigorously shake Bancks's hand, apologised profusely, and added, "Have the window anyway you want it, dear chap!" As the artists beamed warmly away at each other, the great relief of their fellow passengers was obvious."
Bancks returned to Sydney and the Sunday Sun in 1925 and concentrated on Us Fellers, which by this time was being run in papers all over Australia. In 1929, it was being syndicated overseas. Bancks was now one of Australia's highest paid black and white artists and some people were saying he "was getting more than the Governor".
It was around this time that Bancks and Nicholls clashed. Fatty Finn was very popular in Sydney and had gone from imitator to competitor. There had also been a film about Fatty and his goat Hector, Kid Stakes, in 1927. One scene featured Nicholls at his drawing board, and for three years, from 1928, there were Fatty Finn Annuals.
Fatty Finn was better drawn than Us Fellers and was regarded as one of the best-drawn comic strips in the world, but Nicholls was also frustrated with the limitations of the strip.
What Bancks and Nicholls quarrelled over was which of their two characters could or should use the word "beaut".
Nicholls believed Fatty had said the word first and that Ginger should not. Bancks believed it was just another word in the language and either or both could use it. There was a heated phone conversation between then and neither would back down. While their paths crossed frequently in the Sydney journalistic world they rarely spoke to each other again.
In 1930, Bancks travelled to England to watch the Australian cricket team on its tour of England. He left behind enough Us Fellers strips to run each week while he was away. He stayed in the same hotels as the Test Team and saw every game they played on and off the field and mixed freely with the cricketers. Two of his friends, Alan Kippax and Arthur Mailey, were also on the tour. It was a momentous trip as the English were getting their first taste of Don Bradman who remembered Bancks as "a very kind and lovable man with a great sense of humour". Bancks included Bradman in a Ginger Meggs strip in 1932.
When Bancks returned to Sydney, he married Jesse Taite. She and their child died in childbirth a few years later. In 1938 Bancks married again, this time to Patricia Quinan and, in 1944, they adopted a daughter, Sheena.
Bancks worked from home and was rarely seen in the newspaper office until his weekly drawing was completed. Once there, a staff of spelling experts had to go through the artwork for mistakes. Baume said he "once found 12 in one issue".
Bancks attributed the success of Ginger to "character - I never let Ginger forget that. Even if what I thought was a great idea depended on Ginger giving his father cheek or doing something unworthy or mean, then I would abandon the idea".
Ginger didn't live in any one place in Australia. He didn't move around either. The way Bancks drew the strip, it could have been set almost anywhere in the nation. But it had considerable similarities to the outer Sydney suburb of Hornsby, where Bancks had lived from 1900 to 1909.
There were other influences too. The Little Boy from Manly had been around all of Bancks' life. As a Bulletin artist, he would have been conscious of Livingston Hopkins's image, created in April 1885, to symbolise Australia. In Hop's words, the Little Boy "...typified the well-meant impetuosity of a young Colony and eventually represented the State of New South Wales and Australia in many Bulletin cartoons".
In his book, The Inked-in Image, Vane Lindesay wrote, "The Little Boy from Manly was probably a justifiable image before Federation, for, from its inception The Bulletin, it did most to make Australia believe that she was growing up. But The Little Boy from Manly, like Peter Pan, never grew up. For some reason this symbol of Australia was perpetuated in The Bulletin's political cartoons by other artists long after Federation and nationhood".
There was also the 1919 Raymond Longford film of C. J. Dennis' verse narrative, The Sentimental Bloke, which was first published in 1915. It was unapologetic about being Australian and used local slang to tell the story of a larrikin who decides to reform. He marries his ideal girl but is jealous of a rival. In the film, The Bloke has a mate called Ginger Mick, whose name might have influenced Bancks when naming Ginger Meggs. The film broke all box-office records when released and the critics were unanimous in their praise. Even in London, it was called one of "the two greatest pictures produced in the British Empire."
In Us Fellers, Bancks told a story that was unapologetic about being Australian, used local slang to tell the story about a larrikin kid, had in Ginger Meggs, a character who has a girl friend, Minnie Peters, and who is jealous of a rival, Eddie Coogan.
There was also Jules Archibald and Henry Lawson. Archibald had edited The Bulletin for many years and had established it as a major influence on Australian publishing. Sylvia Lawson said in her book, The Archibald Paradox, that "from 1880 to the years after Federation and the Boer War this journal penetrated its society and gripped attention in ways for which it is hard to find any parallel, even in the highest times of national radio and television".
Archibald pushed Australians to believe in themselves and understand what it was to live in Australia. The Bulletin was at its peak when Bancks was growing up and Patricia Rolfe in her book The Journalistic Javelin, recorded that "any look back at The Bulletin is confused by what are still by many people reverently capitalised as the "Great Days". This was the 1890s, the period of J. F. Archibald's editorship, when the paper had a place in Australian life which no other paper before or since has had".
Lawson, of course, helped make Archibald's Bulletin the force it was. T. W. Heney, then editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, said, in part, at the time of Lawson's death in January 1924, "Lawson united with his understanding of the land and its people to make him Australian of the Australians". With all this nationalism pushing at him it was little wonder that Bancks, in moulding Ginger Meggs, made him unmistakably Australian.
Keith Willey, in You Might as Well Laugh, Mate wrote, "The humour of Ginger Meggs is essentially based in the Australian tradition of irony, the notion that you can't win, which has sustained the battlers almost from the beginning. And Ginger is essentially a battler, who loses as often as he wins; and who takes even his victories with the proverbial grain of salt. When he has no money to buy Mum's birthday present he decides to enter a quiz, not with any great hopes of winning, but in the pessimistic "might-as-well-have-a-go" spirit of: 'Well, I've got nothing to lose'".
Ginger Meggs got his red hair partly by accident and partly by intent. Because of the limited colour printing available when the comic started, Bancks could use only areas blue, red and yellow with his black line work. Ginger's hair could not have been blue and Bancks chose red to go with the name Ginger. Since then every red headed child in Australia has been called Ginger Meggs at least once in their life. Bancks also gave Ginge red shoes and red pants, it was a colour scheme he kept even when the strip went into full colour.
There was a lot of the Bancks family, which Bancks described as a "living comic strip", in Meggs. His mother was a large and dominating woman as was Sarah, Ginger's mother. Bancks described his father as, "good natured and magnificently inefficient" as was Ginger's dad, John, and Ginger was probably the fighter Bancks wanted to be. Bancks was thrashed in the only fight he had at school, but he proudly carried the bruises around for days. Bancks's obituary in the Daily Telegraph said, "Bancks and Ginger, the carrot-haired hero of his strip, were so alike in spirit that they seemed merely different facets of the one character".
In later life, Bancks became a renowned after-dinner speaker and there were times he referred to his early family life. His father had come to Australia from southern Ireland when he was about 20. For 29 years he had worked as a cleaner or porter on the railways. Bancks would tell everybody that his father started work "at seven shillings a day, and when he retired 29 years later, he was receiving exactly the same wage". He described his mother as "a powerful, purposeful woman who fought a never-ending battle with the local tradespeople in an effort to balance her slim budget".
The house the family lived in at Hornsby was owned by the railways and sat next to the tracks at a fork in the line just south of the station. All the family had a dozen or more umbrellas, which was about the only thing they had in abundance. Part of John Bancks' job was to clean the carriages at the end of the line. As there were many absent mined travellers who left their umbrellas on the train, what else could he do but collect them? Bancks claimed it was unwise to incautiously open any cupboard, particularly an overhead cupboard, because you were likely to be buried under an avalanche of umbrellas.
James Charles Bancks was born in Enmore in 1889, the second of five children. His family moved around in his early years. By the time he was three they were living in Metropolitan Road, Newtown, two years later in Abercrombie Street, Redfern, and headed to Hornsby in 1900. There they lived at Peats Ferry Road in what Bancks described as a "shack beside the railway line". Bancks is said to have attended Waitara Convent School and later Normanhurst Public, where he failed to cover himself in scholastic glory. The Bancks family stayed in Hornsby for almost 10 years before heading back to George Street, Redfern, in 1909. He left school at 14 and started work while studying at Julian Ashton's Art School. He had some small successes selling cartoons to The Comic Australian in 1911 and The Arrow the following year. Finally, he got a full time job as an artist, at the age of 28, with The Bulletin for eight pounds a week. The basic wage in 1917 was three pounds a week. It was around this time the Bancks family moved to West Street, North Sydney.
Hornsby provided the perfect environment for Meggs. Fifteen miles north from the centre of Sydney, it had a rural flavour but also had a touch of the city. Of his time there, Bancks said, "It was not a noteworthy boyhood, but it was highly enjoyable, with the delights of swimming-holes, orchards, cricket and football. Remembering these pleasant happenings has resulted in hundreds of ideas".
According to Lorna Ollif in her book There Must Be a River - A History of the Hornsby Shire, it was also where Bancks had his first drawing lessons. His teacher was Mrs Patterson, the wife of a ranger with the Kuring-gai Chase Trust. Bancks was described as having a limited ability to draw, but he did posses a keen sense of humour and an ability to produce amusing sketches of his contemporaries and surroundings.
About 100 metres west of where the Bancks house stood, a small-unnamed stream started. It flowed down to Waitara Creek and on to Berowra Creek. Bancks likely played in this creek, as it was the closest to his home. In August 1996, that creek was finally given a name by the Geographical Names Board, Jimmy Bancks Creek.
In 1930 the Sunday News, the home of Fatty Finn was merged with The Sunday Guardian. Fatty Finn continued on the front page of The Sunday Guardian's comic section until October 1931, when The Sunday Guardian was merged with the Sunday Sun, the home of Ginger Meggs. Both comics continued, with Us Fellers on the front page and Fatty Finn inside. The Guardian had been started in 1923 and was originally run by Robert Clyde Packer. His son, Frank, started his cadetship on the paper. Eric Baume, who had worked on The Guardian since day one was made editor of the Sunday Sun.
In his book, A Fine Line, Geoffrey Caban points out that it was around this time, "Frank Packer, not yet in the newspaper business, financed Eric Porter and the cartoonist Jim Bancks to produce an eight-minute animated film of Ginger Meggs".
In 1935 Eric Baume, then editor of the Sunday Sun, claimed Bancks had "created a post war character which was to sweep the Commonwealth and New Zealand. Ginger Meggs is the most human character created by any cartoonist in the second and third decades of the century. Not because Ginger is loved by the 280,000 readers of the Sunday Sun is this assertion made, but because the sheer Australian characteristics of the lad have endeared him to readers of newspapers in every part of this country and of New Zealand."
Not long before, Bancks had received a substantial offer to move to the United States and to take Ginger with him. Arthur J Lafave wanted to syndicate the strip but believed it would be easier to market if Bancks was living in America. He also wanted Bancks to do a daily version as well as his weekly edition. In 1923 Percy Crosby had created a similar comic strip, Skippy, which was syndicated across America and had made him a multi-millionaire. Skippy had also been made into a movie in 1931, starring Jackie Cooper, which received rave reviews, as did its sequel Sooky. According to Jerry Robinson in his book, Skippy and Percy Crosby, the movie was a great success in the eyes of everyone except Crosby. He never forgave Hollywood or anyone connected with the film for what they had done to his character, and knocked back all offers for a third movie.
Baume wanted Ginge to stay with the Sunday Sun and made Bancks a counter-offer. Bancks stayed in Australia.
"This", said Baume, made Bancks, "the highest-paid artist or journalist in the southern hemisphere, and other countries, especially the United States of America, will be the poorer". At the time, about three million Australians a week - almost half the population were reading Meggs.
In May 1933, Baume sacked Nicholls giving no reason. The last episode of Fatty Finn to run in the Sunday Sun appeared on June 18. Nicholls could not prove anything but he always suspected that Bancks had forced Baume's hand. Denis O'Brien, in his book The Weekly, says Packer wanted Ginger Meggs for the about-to-be-launched Australian Women's Weekly, "but the artist Jim Bancks, a close personal friend, had a binding contract to draw his strip for Associated Newspapers". Packer then approached Nicholls about drawing Fatty Finn for The Weekly".
Although out of work, Nicholls turned him down. Packer had offered only a quarter of what Nicholls had been getting at the Sunday Sun. In the end, Packer settled for the American syndicated strip Mandrake the Magician, paying only five pounds for a full-page episode.
In Sir Frank, by R S Whitington, there is a story about how Packer and Bancks "used to play golf together regularly for what Sir Frank called the Championship of East Asia". For this regular Thursday afternoon competition a deux, Sir Frank supplied two silver tankards as trophies at a cost of 5 pounds each. At the end of the year, the winner received the tankard of his choice; Bancks did most of the choosing". Others say Packer would regularly say to Bancks he would double his already substantial salary if he ever got tired of working for the Sunday Sun.
Two years after his first offer, Packer made Bancks an offer he didn't refuse. Packer's first son Clyde had been born on July 22, 1935, and Packer wanted Bancks to be Godfather. Bancks was a regular visitor to the Packer home and knew both Clyde and his younger brother Kerry well. Kerry has been known to boast that Bancks taught him to draw Ginger Meggs and, with a little prodding, is able to demonstrate.
Bancks, too, was making offers. He was interested in turning Ginger Meggs into a daily strip but was worried about the volume of work involved. He asked several cartoonists if they would do the drawing while he wrote the scripts. Stan Clements was one of those who turned him down.
"I didn't want to lose my identity," he explained. Hearing that Bancks was looking for someone to draw Meggs, Nicholls approached him, pointing out that he was the better artist and Bancks the better writer. Bancks turned him down, certain the two of them would never be able to develop a working relationship.
Nicholls and Clements, both out of work with nothing offering that they thought worth the taking, joined forces. They produced The Fatty Finn Weekly in 1934 and many other comic books followed. One Middy Malone edition sold over 80,000 copies. It was a business partnership that was to last around 15 years.
In August 1934, the Theatre Royal opened with a new play, Blue Mountain Melody with music by Charles Zwar and text by J C Bancks. Bancks said, "The story begins in the Blue Mountains then changes to a brief cabaret scene in Darlinghurst; shifts again to Palm Beach and then returns to the Blue Mountains". Bancks explained the story was about a young painter who turns to boxing to earn money to continue with his painting. It was a reasonable success and ran in both Sydney and Melbourne.
Packer launched the Sunday Telegraph in 1939 with Australia's biggest comic section, all imported from the United States. The Australian Journalists Association sent letters to the Federal Government complaining about the cheap syndicated imports and the Australian Black and White Artists' Club wrote to every member of Parliament asking for some action to stop the "fast-growing practice of publishing in this country American syndicated press copy and drawings".
For a time it looked as though the Government was going to take some action. But World War Two started and everyone's attention turned from stopping imported comics to stopping Hitler. The Sunday Sun was revamped to take on the Sunday Telegraph. Part of that revamp was to rename Us Fellers to Ginger Meggs.
Packer was only 33 when the war started and he joined the Army. This kept him away from a number of his social and professional commitments, though not as many as could be expected, according to Ezra Norton, the owner of The Truth.
The Truth regularly ran photos of Packer in Army uniform attending the races or some other social event. One of the duties Packer did relinquish at the time was that of President of the NSW Amateur Boxing Association. Ten years earlier he had been their Heavyweight Boxing Champion. Bancks, too old at 50 to join the Army, took on Packer's duties and became Acting President of the NSW Boxing Association.
While soldiers would paint Ginger Meggs images on the sides of tanks and trucks, the war made little difference to the character. Ginger's father was not conscripted into armed services. However, there were posters in the background several times promoting War Bonds and twice there was direct appeal for the war effort. Ginger and his mates shot down a Japanese plane in 1942 with a skyrocket, and General Macarthur appeared 1943. But little else. Bancks wanted life to go on for Ginger and his mates uninterrupted, and to give everyone a reminder of better times.
The then Prime Minister, John Curtin, understood what was happening and said, "Ginger Meggs is Australia's Peter Pan. Most of us can recognise in him our own youth, but unlike him, we had to grow up". At the end of the war Dame Mary Gilmore suggested that "Australia is still young and daring enough to be "Ginger" at the peace table - will Dr. Evatt please take note!"
In 1946, Bancks made a trip tothe US visiting Lafave in Cleveland. At that time Dan Russell was in America along with his brother Jim. Jim had taken over drawing The Potts at the end of 1939 from Stan Cross and was keen to find out if there was a chance of Lafave syndicating the strip. Bancks introduced them to Lafave and The Potts was soon running in about 40 papers across the United States. But what Lafave really wanted was to syndicate a daily Ginger Meggs. Bancks was still not interested in doing the work.
Lafave pointed out that Crosby's comic Skippy had gone out of circulation on Crosby's 44th birthday (December 8, 1945) after he and King Features had been unable to agree on new contract terms. There was nothing around to replace it.
Lafave pushed for Dan to take on the drawing of the daily strip with Bancks writing the scripts. From time to time Dan did draw Ginger - for books and some advertising projects. He even says "on one occasion I drew the comic for two weeks when Bancks was unable to do it". But realising what a taskmaster Bancks was, and the demands of the Americans, he turned the job down. He thought he "could satisfy Bancks with the drawings and I thought he could satisfy the Americans with their needs. But I didn't think I could satisfy both at once and keep up with the daily deadlines".
The daily strip didn't happen, but the weekly strips were syndicated and Ginge was being read in newspapers in London, Boston, Dallas, New York and St. Louis. It was also being translated into French and Spanish, and read in South America.
In 1949, Bancks signed a new contract with Associated Newspapers. He was to work exclusively for the Sunday Sun, drawing Ginger Meggs. The contract was to run until March 27, 1959 (10 years), and he was to receive 80 pounds a week. In what many say was a strange move, the editor of the Sunday Sun, Tom Gurr, decided to move Ginger Meggs, in January 1951, from the front page of the comics section to page three. He said he was forced to do this because of the new printing arrangements and he wanted to keep Meggs on a colour page.
However, he might have been trying to lower the profile of Ginger Meggs - not to damage Meggs but to protect the Sunday Sun. Bancks had suffered a heart attack a few months earlier and, although he was back working, he was not fully recovered and there was always the chance of a relapse. If ever he was unable to produce the strip, there would have been a big hole on the front page of the comics. But if this was the case he didn't tell Bancks of his concerns.
Gurr told Bancks about his decision to move Meggs and, despite Bancks' complaints, Meggs failed to appear on the front page of the comic’s section. Bancks pointed out that his contract specified that Meggs would run on the front page. Gurr replied that the strip was on the front page because he had placed the section heading, Sunday Sun Comics, on the same page as the strip.
Bancks and Gurr argued for four weeks without Bancks making any headway. After Meggs had been run inside for three weeks and Bancks had satisfied himself that Gurr was not going to relent, he informed Associated Newspapers on February 26, 1951, that they had broken their contract he had with him. He signed a new contract offered by Frank Packer at Australian Consolidated Press. Meggs was to move to the Sunday Telegraph, and Bancks, according to old friend, filmmaker Ken G. Hall, was to be paid "£10,000 a year when, as the boys say, a quid really was a quid".
Associated Newspapers immediately sought an injunction to force Bancks to remain with the Sunday Sun. The following week Meggs was back to the front page of the comic section and in colour.
The matter went before the Chief Judge in Equity, Mr Justice Roper, on April 4. Roper agreed with Bancks, and said in his judgment, "There were indications The Sun acted as though it felt it had a right to do what it had". He went on to say where there was a conflict of evidence he thought Bancks was the more likely to have an accurate recollection of what had been said.
While there were changes in the life of Bancks in 1951, there were changes in the life of Nicholls too. A new flood of cheaply imported American comics, coupled with a rise in the cost of paper, had forced him to close the business he and Stan Clements had started in the mid-thirties. Clements went looking for work. One of the places he looked was Australian Consolidated Press. ACP produced a number of books in competition with Nicholls and Clements.
"Packer saw me there," said Clements. "He probably thought I was there to pinch ideas. But he didn't ask what I was doing - he just he punched me down the stairs."
Nicholls too went looking for work. In December, he found a new home for Fatty Finn in the pages of the Sunday Herald. The reappearance of Fatty Finn in a Sunday newspaper re-established the professional feud between Nicholls and Bancks. It had started in the early 1920s but had been in abeyance since 1933, when Fatty Finn had lost his home in the Sunday newspapers. It was also the time Sydney's Sunday newspapers dropped colour from their comics saying rising costs had forced them to do so. Newspapers in other states must have had different costs - their comic sections continued to run in colour.
Ginger Meggs moved to the Sunday Telegraph on June 3, 1951. He appeared, not on the front page, but as a double page centre-spread. Bancks, for the first time, drew himself into the strip reassuring the Meggs family, and the readers, that life would go on as before in the new paper.
As well as Ginge moving, 80,000 readers moved from the Sunday Sun to the Sunday Telegraph. With that sort of following, Bancks could more than justify his high salary. The following week, Ginger Meggs was on the front page of the Sunday Telegraph comic’s section.
Gilbert Mant, in his book, The 20th Century Off The Record, wrote, "The enforced demise of the Sunday Sun as an entity was a sad affair for journalists. Tom Gurr had built it up into an entertaining, informative and influential newspaper...
"Early in 1953, our proprietors, Associated Newspapers Ltd, put on a sumptuous dinner at Usher's Hotel to celebrate a Sunday circulation of 500,000, a landmark in Australian publishing history, far ahead of any other newspaper in the Commonwealth. Not long afterwards, Associated Newspapers was taken over by Fairfax. The Sunday Sun was merged with the Sunday Herald (150,000) to create the Sun-Herald. We moved to a new Fairfax building in Broadway (Alcatraz, we called it) and life was never quite the same again."
The October 1953 merger brought together some of the best comics then being published in Australia. Fatty Finn, The Potts, Radish, Bib and Bub and Wally and the Major. The Sun-Herald quickly established itself as Australia's biggest-selling Sunday newspaper. John Ryan, in his book Panel by Panel, says, "Some of its success can be attributed to its comic section which contained a reasonable percentage of Australian strips".
Ken Hall said that Bancks was "my best friend and I think I knew him as well as any man did.
"My patent admiration was shared by everyone who knew him and he had a legion of friends."
Writing in Richard Rae's Cartoonists of Australia, Hall goes on to describe an evening late in June 1952. There was "a group of regulars who drank at the American Club every Friday night".
"Jim had asked Arthur Mailey to join us. We'd had a lot of laughs and a lot of looks into the "Cup that Cheers". Arthur went 'round the group, perhaps not at that moment in his best bowling form, earnestly asking, "What is your greatest ambition?" He got the usual facetious answers like, "To live to 90 and be hanged for rape" and some less timeworn but also less publishable.
"When he asked the question of Jim, the answer was simple: "To stay alive". Four days later I got a 6am call to say that Jim Bancks had died in the night."
Bancks had died on July 1, leaving an unfinished Ginger Meggs strip on his desk.
Packer and Murdoch both issued statements. Packer's said, "His understanding of human nature - the dashing to the depths the hopes and ambitions, or the realization of castles in the air, as depicted in his comic strips over the last 30 years - stamps him as a genius in the understanding of his fellow man and the problems that face him from day to day".
Murdoch, who held a conviction that newspapers had an obligation to publish Australian comic strips, said "Mr Bancks' death has come as a great shock to me. I am only one of millions who had a deep affection for Bancks and his craft. He was undoubtedly one of Australia's greatest black and white artists. He worked for me in Melbourne way back in the 1920s. He wanted to go back to Sydney, and I let him, on the understanding that I would receive his work. I have always been sorry that I allowed him to leave my organization. Bancks created a family which not only amused Australia, but stirred the warmer affections and feelings in everybody".
Although they had hardly spoken for over 20 years, Syd Nicholls went to Bancks' funeral service. Their personal conflict over, he sat at the back of the room, his head bowed and a hand covering his face. At the end of the service he wiped tears from his cheeks.
At first, Nicholls might have thought their professional battles might have been over too. But if he thought the death of Bancks might mean the end of the redheaded kid, he was wrong. Bancks wanted Ginger Meggs to continue and he left control of the strip to his daughter Sheena. Bancks once said, "Creators come and go, but their characters live on...When I pass on, I hope the character I have created in Ginger will live long beyond me".
Packer, too, was keen to see Meggs continue. There would have been a number of reasons; foremost he would have wanted his long-time friend's creation to be maintained. There would have also been the commercial aspects to consider. He had waited 25 years to publish Meggs, and now that he had the strip for his newspaper he would not want to see his valuable asset disappear. Packer offered to help the Bancks family look after Ginger Meggs.
Bancks had left a backlog of unpublished drawings, which carried the strip well into the following year, but still, a new artist had to be found to draw Meggs. A number of artists were asked to submit strips for consideration. Dan Russell was one. But while his drawings were good, Packer thought his brother Jim, who was drawing the Potts had done them.
Ron Vivian, who had been working at Australian Consolidated Press, got the job and his drawings started to appear in April 1953. Vivian was born in 1914 and had been drawing some political cartoons for the Daily Telegraph. He had also illustrated many RAAF magazines during the Second World War.
Soon after missing out on drawing Meggs, Dan Russell took a job on The Truth and The Daily Mirror. In 1953 he moved to Adelaide to work as the daily cartoonist for The Advertiser. After three years, he swapped to The News and Sunday Mail, where Rupert Murdoch had taken control after the death of his father.
For Ginger Meggs, little changed. Ron Vivian kept close to the Bancks style and story line, and the only difference the public might have noticed was the signature. It went from "Bancks" to "Created by Bancks", as Vivian was not permitted to put his name to the drawings. Vivian enjoyed drawing Meggs and said, "There is a little bit of Ginger in each of us.
"Every kid is basically the same," he said. "Every boy knows the Tiger Kelly's of the world, and every parent is a little bit like Mr and Mrs Meggs."
Ginger Meggs continued on the front page of the Sunday Telegraph's Comic Section and was still there when Packer sold both the Telegraphs to Murdoch in 1972. In his book, Rupert Murdoch - A Business Biography, author Simon Regan wrote, "when the deal was first suggested, Murdoch thought Clyde Packer was joking. But the Packer brothers came over to Holt Street and made it perfectly clear they were deadly serious.
"The two papers sold for $15 million, no holds barred and no conditions. A straight deal...because Murdoch was able to house the two papers without real extra cost, they were a bargain. Neither side haggled for a penny and the deal was completed in Canberra two days later."
At the end of 1972 Vivian called in at the Telegraph to drop some Meggs strips off and talk about his coming holidays. He said they were the first holidays he'd had since taking on drawing Meggs almost 20 years before. Someone had suggested he have a few weeks off and the Sunday Telegraph would re-run some of his old strips. It was a break he was really looking forward to.
Vivian was barely back at his drawing board when he died in 1973. A third artist had to be found to draw the weekly Ginger Meggs strip.
Again, a number of artists submitted drawings - among them was Stewart McCrae, the daily cartoonist for the Courier-Mail. Another was Ken Emerson, who had been involved with animation and was drawing two strips of his own, On the Rocks and The Warrumbunglers.
Lloyd Piper, who had been drawing Wolf for the Sunday Telegraph, ended up inheriting Ginger Meggs. Piper said Wolf was "...shot down by a high-flying super hero from the US of A".
He added that it was "not the first Australian strip to succumb to the American way".
Unlike Vivian, Piper was allowed to put his name to Ginger Meggs, the first artist other than Bancks to do so in almost 50 years.
Two years later, Bill Peach wrote a book, Ginger Meggs Summer Lightning, which was published by Angus & Robertson. The following year he wrote a second book, Ginger Meggs Meets the Test. Dan Russell illustrated both, and he was permitted to put his name to the drawings. The books were popular and were reprinted in 1982 and sold around 35,000 copies each.
The final chapter in the feud between Fatty Finn and Ginger Meggs began when Nicholls fell 45 metres from his sunroof to his death on June 4, 1977. It was a sad end for a man who had created a comic strip that had entertained children since the early 1920s. Unlike Ginger Meggs, Fatty Finn didn't continue, and the last Fatty Finn strip ran in the Sun-Herald in July 1977.
With both Bancks and Nicholls dead there was one last move to be played in the battle between Fatty Finn and Ginger Meggs. Just over a year after Nicholls died, on August 27,1978, the Sun-Herald announced that Ginger Meggs was back - back to his original home, as the Sun-Herald was, in part, a continuation of the Sunday Sun.
Ginger was also back in colour, filling the spot Fatty Finn had left vacant. Fatty Finn was all but forgotten, except for two "echoes". In 1980,there was another Fatty Finn film, starring Bert Newton. Sydney journalist and screenwriter Bob Ellis produced a book of the movie, The Adventures of Fatty Finn with illustrations taken from Nicholls' drawings.
Piper claimed he kept as close as he could to the Bancks style with Ginger Meggs, and said, in 1983, "I have worked 30 years in advertising. I understand all the aspects of other peoples wants.
"I have striven to maintain Bancks' character, but admit that his sense of humour was so individual, his successors can hope for, but never really match it."
He went on to say that "Ginger has undergone many subtle changes in his lifetime of sixty years.
"Bancks himself changed him considerably in a gradual way. Vivian did likewise, and my style is different again. Main characters remain the same, and the atmosphere, to a degree, keeps pace with the times.
"Language and social attitudes also dictate change, so that now the former is a conglomerate of old and new colloquialisms. Thus we do not lose contact with nostalgia which is so much part of the strip."
Piper was right about Bancks' style - it had changed considerably over the years. Anyone looking at Bancks' first drawings would not recognise his later ones. There was a steady evolution from his thin tentative lines of the 1920s, to his strong positive strokes of the 1940s. Vivian's style was very close to that of Bancks, and Piper had kept to the spirit of Bancks' style, but in reality he was not happy about what he was doing. He told friends it was "just a job", and that "they don't pay me much and they get what they pay for".
Sixty-six years after the first Ginger Meggs film, Michael Latimer, an English filmmaker who married Sheena Bancks, made another. The film was released at a time when the Ginger Meggs strip was flagging. The film, which starred Paul Daniel as Ginger, Garry McDonald and Ross Higgins, was a success and it gave a boost to the strip's popularity.
Lloyd Piper had only been drawing Ginge for 11 years when he died in 1984.
For the third time, a number of artists were invited to submit drawings to the Bancks family, auditioning for the job of continuing Ginger Meggs. Jim Russell was one. He had been drawing The Potts, Australia's oldest comic strip, since 1939 and was keen to have a crack at Australia's second oldest strip. There were two reasons he didn't get the job and they were both The Potts.
His style was too identified with The Potts and Peter Allen, then editor of the Sun-Herald, didn't want two of his most popular strips drawn by the same artist.
Ken Emerson dusted off the same drawings he submitted in 1973 and sent them in. This time, he was offered the job.
But there was one condition.
Allen had much the same problem with Emerson as he had with Russell. He didn't want three strips in the Sun-Herald drawn by the one artist. Emerson was told he would have to give up one of his two strips. After considering his options, Emerson said, he "had to say no. I didn't want to give up either On The Rocks or The Warrumbunglers".
Latimer pushed for James Kemsley (above) to take the job. The two had been friends for years and Kemsley, having worked on the Ginger Meggs movie, had a good understanding of the character. An actor-sometimes-cartoonist, Kemsley's only comic strip experience to that time had been drawing the cult strip Frogin' in London for the weekly Australasian Express. Peter Allen agreed he was worth a try, and on March 18, 1984, his first strip appeared. The following year, Australia Post released the Ginger Meggs stamp.
Kemsley wrote his first book, Ginger Meggs at Large, which has sold over 300,000 copies. Two others followed; It's Sunday, Ginger Meggs and Wake Up, Ginger Meggs.
Kemsley pushed Meggs back to a level of popularity it hadn't enjoyed for years. 1990 saw Kemsley and Ginger Meggs win the Australian Black & White Artists' Club "Stanley" award for Best Comic Strip. In 1993, seventy-two years after its debut as a Sunday strip, Kemsley began a daily version of the strip for the Illawarra Mercury. It was soon picked up by the Sydney Morning Herald, Brisbane's Courier Mail, Perth's West Australian, then in October 1997 by the London Express, and in the USA by the American Publishing Corporation. Its appearance in the Express made it the first Australian daily strip to appear in a British national daily paper. Five annuals of strips have been published.
In 1999, Kemsley and Meggs signed with the US-based Atlantic Syndication for worldwide distribution. Ginger Meggs now appears in over 127 newspapers around Australia and the world. Apart from Australia, you can now read Meggs in Fiji, the USA, Antigua, Barbados, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, India, Venezuela, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Canada, Brunei, Sweden, the Netherlands, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica and Thailand.
At the 2001 Australian Cartoonist's Association Stanley Awards Kemsley was named Artist of the Year.
James Kemsley died Monday December 3, 2007. His death brought release from the motor neurone disease that he had been struggling with for 18 months.
Fourteen days before his death Kemsley had rung Jason Chatfield in Perth and asked him to take over thewriting and drawing of Australia’s oldest comic strip, Ginger Meggs. The fifth artist to take on the task.
Chatfield, by far the youngest artist to take on guiding the national icon, was born in 1984; the year Kemsley started drawing Ginger. The two had barely started discussing what needed to be done when Kemsley died. It was a task made doubly hard given they were on opposite sides of the continent and Kemsley was struggling with his health.
The two first met in 2005 at the Stanley Awards when Kemsley was president of the Australian Cartoonists’ Association and Chatfield was getting over his 21st birthday and discovered he had become the winner of the Bill Mitchell award sponsored by The Australian. Contact was kept up through the ACA network. Kemsley had been impressed with Chatfield’s attention to detail as much as he was to his drawing talent and computer skills.
Despite the initial difficulties settling into drawing Ginger Meggs, Chatfield is intent on doing so for many decades.
“Drawing Ginge and his friends for 25 years I have found and still find, is a pleasant way of making a living," Bancks said in 1946. "I am also of the opinion that having the luck to hit the popular taste with a feature, there isn't a hope in the world of staying on course unless you put everything you've got into it. You must be pretty much in love with it yourself."
Almost ninety years on, with Ginger Meggs having been drawn longer by other artists than it was by Bancks, there is every reason to think his words still hold true.
© Lindsay Foyle 1996, 2002, 2006, 2009