Promoting Prosperity: The art of early New Zealand advertising, by Peter Alsop and Gary Stewart (Craig Potton Publishing, 2013), 440 pp., $79.99; From Earth’s End: The best of New Zealand comics, by Adrian Kinnaird (Godwit, 2013) 447 pp., $59.99
You approach Promoting Prosperity: The art of early New Zealand advertising as if through a cheering crowd. The back cover and cover flaps are decorated with encomiums and endorsements by figures ranging from Martin Snedden to Al Brown to Gareth Morgan. And in a way the cheerleading is not misplaced, as meticulous production values do indeed render its images ‘luscious and valuable’ as Brian Sweeney, one of the book’s essayists, exclaims. But if the book is a celebration, what exactly is it celebrating? Is it period-era graphic art? Is it New Zealand as a little industrial powerhouse in the South Pacific? Or is it the power of persuasion and propaganda? Do values all come down to marketing, best profile forward?
Containing around 750 images, most of them in full colour, exquisitely rendered, this heavy tome is not quite a history of commercial poster illustration between 1920 and 1960, because it only partly fills in a complex narrative and doesn’t attempt much in the way of cultural contextualisation. (What else was going on at the time?) Instead, it’s a decorous sampling of graphic design that complements Alsop and Stewart’s 2012 book Selling the Dream: The art of early New Zealand tourism. The new book is fundamentally volume II of the same project, showcasing place-specific commercial art.
Eleven essays by various specialists tackle aspects of the familiar story: New Zealand as an exotic South Seas location with jungle-like rainforests, active volcanoes, snow-covered mountains, geysers and lakes – and a friendly indigenous population. But New Zealand is also ‘the Empire’s orchard’, ‘white and British’, ‘a Dominion … (and no longer just) one of the colonies’. So this is a revisitation of an old world-view, but the aim seems to be to suggest a new world continuity of catchy slogans and polished graphics. ‘The New Zealand Initiative’ began, we are told, with Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the first salesman, painting a verbal picture of desirable real estate, pitching a concept, selling a vision. Victorian posters however were largely monochrome, based on blocks of lettering.
Advances in technology, along with new tricks of design developed out of Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts and other aesthetic trends in Europe, helped create a sudden efflorescence in poster art just before World War One. It was a number of commercial art illustrators who trained in Great Britain’s art schools and who emigrated to New Zealand after World War One who were principally charged with inventing a new visual lexicon for New Zealand identity, one that could be used to help brand the nation’s products.
These illustrators included George Bridgeman, Joseph Moran, David Payne, Stanley Davis and Marmaduke Matthews, and they worked for government-sponsored organisations, including the Railways Studios, the National Publicity Studios, the Health Department and the Fruit Marketing Board. Some of them worked for leading advertising companies, but the goal was the same: to use the power of mass production and eye-catching design to encourage conspicuous consumption. This was print advertising as a kind of entertainment, utopian in aspect, colourful and ubiquitous, a powerful medium in the age of primitive cinema and radio.
Such advertising, as revealed in Promoting Prosperity, conflated nationalism, patriotism and commodities, creating a merry masquerade, a conspiracy of happiness, where faces were drawn as relentlessly smiling masks. Daily life in these posters is given a lit-up, almost lurid intensity; and made streamlined, sleek, radiant, frictionless. Here, New Zealand is a dreamland destination populated by Empire loyalists. Turned into a curious hybrid, a Britain of the South Seas, the attractive rustic idyll that commercial art presented was a far cry from the grim, dour, Puritan reality – where square pegs were hammered into round holes – which some of our parents and grandparents still remember. There are hints of this compulsory conformity in the hectoring slogans and authoritarian admonitions on the posters, with their implication that a regimented way of life devoted to the galloping consumption of the right products is the best way of life.
Posters were produced in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s to promote a cavalcade of assembly-line products, from electrical appliances – toaster, stove, jug, iron, radio – to household products – Creamoata, Taniwha soap powder, Bournville Cocoa – to brands of car products – tyres, petrol, motor oil.
Besides the domestic idealisation, posters also functioned as a kind of calendar art, where time seemed to stand still for a season, offering summer or winter wonderlands. Other posters reveal how totemic emblems were shrewdly snapped up as exclusive trademarks. The anchor was used to promote a firm’s butter no different from any other firm’s butter; a stylised pounamu hei tiki became a trademark for one particular company’s bacon and ham.
Also, there was a robust simplicity and earnestness to posters promoting good health that was shared by posters promoting tobacco and alcohol products, which from our sceptical, over-informed, politically-correct vantage point seems nostalgia-inducing, quaint, even incredible. Examining a 1950s poster for Rinso soap powder, you can see how the cartoonish logo borrows from that of the superhero comic book, so that the product, the soap powder, is given the same intensity and an aura of goodness: its ‘efficiency’ invested with a sense of genuine liberation, as if from the chore of washing clothes the old-fashioned way.
So labour-saving devices were being used to symbolise the belief that society was moving towards a heaven on earth, while in turn poster art was being used to create and reinforce certain national myths and aspirations for commercial purposes with a kind of crusading zeal. But in the end there is arguably a smugness, even something creepy, something disturbing about these manipulations – as this book presents them and endorses them, like a Capitalist Realism primer, seemingly proud of its ideological convictions, and the notion that the best kind of business is Big Business: to the victor the spoils.
Dick Frizzell is one of the essayists in Promoting Prosperity, where he writes about his early career in the 1960s as a commercial illustrator working for an advertising agency. He is also included as an essayist – and thereby established as an important crossover figure in New Zealand graphic design – in From Earth’s End: The best of New Zealand comics, where he tells us about his upbringing growing up in Hastings, and his enthusiasm for the then-slightly disreputable art form of comic books.
Comics in the late 1950s were a kind of contraband, all but a few hard to get hold of because of import licensing restrictions. Following on from the 1954 Mazengarb Report on juvenile delinquency, commissioned by the new Zealand government, a Comics Advisory Committee was set up in 1956 to keep out ‘harmful ideas’ and ‘bad influences’. The ‘great comic-books scare’ was part of the paranoia of the era; a moral panic that engulfed the non-Communist world. Comics, it was felt, could challenge social order and decency. More than 250 titles were banned outright, but a few ‘wholesome’ comics such as Illustrated Classics and The Phantom (where natives knew their place) were given the tick of approval.
Dick Frizzell used to copy comic-book artists, such as Carmine Infantino (who drew The Flash), and pin them up on the walls of his bedroom. When he left home to go to Ilam Art School his mother took down his drawings and burnt them. Likewise, at Ilam, at the University of Canterbury, interest in comics was discouraged as a lesser kind of artistic endeavour.
By the mid-Sixties, the Cold War against comic books had collapsed. Comic books were re-admitted to the country, and Pop Art emerged to acknowledge them as a significant and fertile art form. As Frizzell points out, comic books offered a powerful and useful ‘narrative archetype’. Repressive mainstream culture had given birth to an expressive local counter-culture – one that, inspired by American ‘underground comix’ and protest poster art, extolled the comic book as a medium for radical ideas.
Frizzell, the long-time student of the Marvel comic book school of dynamic drawing, created the epochal cover of the 1970 University of Auckland Student Capping Book (which was produced as a lucky-dip ‘superbag’ of printed ephemera), featuring a bare-breasted female caped crusader (reproduced in Kinnaird’s anthology) – a kind of harbinger of today’s bare-breasted Femen activists. Radical cartoons and comic strips began infiltrating student newspapers and small-press publications: the revolution had arrived.
Kinnaird provides a condensed but fairly thorough introductory history of the medium in New Zealand, followed by examples of the work of thirty contemporary comics artists, before ending with some perhaps over-cute meta-commentaries, and hands-on exercises to do with the craft of comics-making, to signal that comics now are sophisticated, ironic, knowing.
From Earth’s End is studious in acknowledging the twentieth-century pioneers and the ideological frameworks within which they operated, which, as with Promoting Prosperity, promoted the virtues of colonialism and Empire. Adventure comics, produced locally, featured heroes cast in a British mould: Harry Hardcastle, Tiger Darrel and Standish Steele, while a distinctively all-New Zealand hero didn’t make an appearance until Eric Resetar created Crash O’Kane: An All Black on Mars in the 1950s. These were emphatically kid’s comics, which is not to say adults didn’t read them too, and not just to vet their conservative credentials, their insistence on the Exotic Other: ‘superstitious natives’, ‘fainting maidens’, ‘foreign villains’.
This first Golden Age of New Zealand comics was crude, formulaic, simplistic, but fitted out out with Kiwiana and a New Zealand topography. Kinnaird tells us that ‘the early Fifties were the peak of the comic book industry in New Zealand with newsstands selling hundreds of titles every week.’ Then, censored, outlawed and turned into symbolic bonfires, comics became associated with the outcast and the alienated, with escapism and teenage angst. It’s a phenomenon that is well-caught by Toby Morris’s comic-book story ‘Dreamboat, Dreamboat’ (2002), included in From Earth’s End and dealing with small-town conformity in New Zealand in the late 1950s.
How comic books emerged as a vehicle for personal expression in the 1970s is also well-traced, with the independently produced underground comic book series Strips front and centre in this episode. Strips, rather fugitive and hard to get hold of in its earliest numbers, ran for about a decade from 1977, and was the product of a community of like-minded creators who drew mostly while listening to anthemic rock music.
The prime instigator of Strips, Colin Wilson, was a progidy who left New Zealand in 1980 and went on to draw British comic books, among them Judge Dredd and 2000 AD, as well as later generating the artwork for a series of glossy hardcover French comic books. Wilson was also responsible for Captain Sunshine, a single-issue full-colour comic put out in 1977 and funded by an Auckland company planning to launch a solar watch for children, which never eventuated. New Zealand vegetation was not to look so artfully psychedelic and Gothically-haunted again till Chris Slane penned the full-colour comic-book Maui: Legends of the outcast in conjunction with poet Robert Sullivan in 1996.
Many of the contributors to Strips worked at casual jobs, but their after-hours work in this homemade table-top publication was an assertion that: ‘I draw, therefore I am.’ Strips subverted the trope of the superhero with anti-heroes, and with unlikely female or ethnic superheroes, as in Lawrence Clark’s The Frame and Joe Wylie’s Maureen Cringe. One artist in particular zoomed in on the whole sub-cultural moment, using the comic strip format to address social fault-lines: dawn raids, solo mums, class aspirations, gender roles, identity politics. Streetwise in Ponsonby, Barry Linton showed the rougher, wilder, more macho side of the Seventies, but Linton’s strongest characters were women: feral, assertive and capable. To this he added a highly idiosyncratic technique. The most highly tactile comic artist New Zealand has yet produced, his grasp of texture and the reverberations of his dense, black, felt-tip cross-hatching stand comparison with the intricate penwork of Robert Crumb. Plosives and gutturals also mark Linton’s speech balloons distinctively, while the ripples and zigzags of his lines affirm an intricate relationship with the percussive and lyrical rhythms of reggae music. (Later, Linton would produce artwork for the New Zealand reggae band Herbs, while Joe Wylie produced artwork for the punk rock group Toy Love.)
Bodgies and widgies to beatniks and hippies to punks and hipsters, Adrian Kinnaird’s history mostly covers the waterfront, but his commentaries on the comics artists associated with the 1980s Flying Nun music stable is crampingly minimal, and regionally his emphasis is on metropolitan Auckland and inner-city Wellington. Despite this, he does show the history of comics in New Zealand to be complex, with as many strands as a braided river. If the essence of a good comic-book artist is, as Frizzell puts it, a ‘facility to compress information into a series of highly memorable images’ hand-drawn in panel after panel, it was a knack which fascinated a series of New Zealand fine-arts practitioners, including Colin McCahon, in the 1940s especially, and Rita Angus, who drew kid’s comic strips for the Press newspaper in the 1930s. Nowadays a whole raft of artists acknowledges the inspirational energies of comic books, from Bill Hammond to John Reynolds, Mark Braunias to Seraphine Pick.
But perhaps the most effective elevation of the comic book to a place of centrality in the New Zealand cultural canon (if you except Murray Ball’s Footrot Flats) is Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville (first published as a comic book in 1998), with its story of an American comics historian who travels to New Zealand to research the life of a comic-strip artist born on the East Cape, and discovers a world which for the locals is unified and made meaningful by a community obsession with comics. In From Earth’s End Horrocks is a guest proselytiser for the power of the ‘co-mix’ (as Art Spiegelman has termed it) of words and pictures, those compressed pictograms that can articulate extraordinarily subtle shades of feeling as well as gross-outs of the picaresque and the nihilistic.
If sometimes Kinnaird’s choice of excerpts of comic book sequences suggest the drawings are undertaken as a rebellious act, synonymous with arrested adolescence and childhood disaffections prolonged into adulthood, or else that comics as autobiography by other means dwell on oppression and depression, and are anything but ‘comic’, he also shows that comic books are a valuable form of truth-telling, even when – or especially when – based on exaggeration, caricature, irreverence.
The custard-pie slapstick and nose-thumbing reached an apogee in the 1980s and early 1990s, partly in concert with the disillusionments given voice by the punk-rock movement, and Kinnaird catalogues those associated with this ‘New Wave’, notably Cornelius Stone and Roger Langridge – subverting the superhero trope with their grotesque invention ‘Knuckles the Malevolent Nun’ – and later Simon Morse and Martin Emond, with their gallery of bendy, hulking, graphically-slick creations.
Emond in particular, coming up with skaterboi street urchins and tattooed punkettes, distilled Nineties disaffection. Emond’s host of oddball confections slouch and hunch their way through sequences of panels, lithe and elasticised, but also attenuated of limb and torso, as if anorexic self-harmers, existing on a diet of pill-popping and staring into space with ginormous baby-deer eyes. Emond’s scissor-legged pixie-princesses, attended by mutant creatures somewhat reminiscent of unicorn and elf, became associated with the Illicit clothing label, while Emond himself left New Zealand to work in comics and in film in California.
Such progress was typical of many of New Zealand’s most ambitious comic-book creators, though some, like Simon Morse and Dylan Horrocks, came back, while others did not. Roger Langridge, for example, proved not just a virtuoso of line drawing, as well as deeply knowledgeable about the pop culture roots of comic books, from silent movie comedians to Looney Tunes cartoon features to surrealist art to absurdist theatre, but also versatile and resilient in establishing a career as a comic-book artist in Britain.
Anthologising ‘the best of New Zealand comics’, Kinnaird establishes its current state of splendid diversity, while emphasising that at its core it’s a modest, egalitarian, frugal, communal art form – almost a guild, and possibly even a cult of mutually supportive talents. Its activism embraces topics from spirituality to environment degradation to corporate ethics to the paranormal. It’s this last which ensures comic books retain for many their notoriety and marginal status. Yet at their best, as in the phantasmagorias of Trace Hodgson and of Tim Molloy, whose pharmaceutical dreaminess and poison candy colours exert the fascination of the conspiratorially secretive and the waywardly occult, the results are richly resonant and involving. The graphic novel, as Emily Perkins points out here, has its own distinctive discipline and requires a different kind of concentration to prose writing, yet at heart expresses the same primal urge to tell a story.
Butted up together is a sprawling hotchpotch of styles, from the domestic comedy of Sarah Laing and the soap-opera serialism of Timothy Kidd, to the Noah’s ark reworking of a celestial flood unleashed on Wellington, told by Tim Bollinger using a rinsed-rainbow effect of prismatic watercolour, to the magic toyshop genre of hip-hop mannequins, talking robots, saddled moa and canny possums employed in their different ways by James Davidson and Ned Wenlock. Jared Lane, as a New Zealander living in Melbourne, contributes the dystopian urbanism of ‘Zombie-Proof Fence’, while Karl Wills refers us, all over again, to the uncertainties and self-consciousness of being a teenager, with changelings emerging dripping from cocoons of childhood into the territory of the schoolyard bully and consequent nemesis. Chris Slane retails moody mythology based on true tales of nineteenth century Māori, while Barry Linton’s recent work offers a pan-Polynesian mythography of oceanic voyaging, sailing for the paradisical.
Looking for dark gritty urgency and bold brash inkwork, I found it best rendered (certainly in the reduced-size format which Godwit has chosen for Kinnaird’s book) in Ant Sang’s excerpt from The Dharma Punks (2001), with its skinheads and anarchists uncoiling out of pools of oily-looking blackness. Sang’s protagonist, Chopsticks, is an action-doll figure, fragile and somewhat vulnerable, yet also an emblem of heroic fortitude and powers of endurance, as if bolstered by his supersized bovver boy boots, as well as by the purity of his Buddhist-influenced beliefs.
He looks like the product of a labour-intensive art form, done for love, drawn that way, part cyberpunk, part steampunk, emphatic black outlines a deliberate confrontation with the airy, depersonalised and homogenous look of advertising graphics today – their sugar-sweet colouration emphasising consumer conformity and packaging while styling the mesmerising hard-sell of a commodity, same as it ever was.
DAVID EGGLETON is the editor of Landfall Review Online.