Comic-strip Ned’s no cartoon cut-out

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Cefn Rid­out

Ned Kelly By Monty Wedd Comi­coz, 160pp, $60 IF Ned Kelly didn’t ex­ist, we’d have to in­vent him. Few Aus­tralian leg­ends have in­spired as much cre­ative and commercial en­ter­prise as our most no­to­ri­ous bushranger. And the end­lessly turned-over minu­tiae of his short life seems only to spur fur­ther ef­forts to shed new light on the man and his con­tested legacy. Even the hum­ble comic strip took up the chal­lenge four decades ago in the form of a syn­di­cated news­pa­per se­rial nar­rated and il­lus­trated by award-win­ning car­toon­ist Monty Wedd, who died in 2012.

Pub­lished in the early 1970s by the Sun­day Mir­ror to cap­i­talise on the 1970 Ned Kelly movie star­ring Mick Jag­ger, which was par­tially fi­nanced by the news­pa­per’s then pro­pri­etor Ru­pert Mur­doch, Wedd har­boured greater am­bi­tions for his strip. Cre­ator of the pop­u­lar colo­nial comic book cru­sader Cap­tain Jus­tice and a force­ful ad­vo­cate of the comic medium’s po­ten­tial to illuminate and en­liven Aus­tralian his­tory, Wedd swayed his edi­tor to el­e­vate his Ned Kelly from a short-lived film tie-in to an open-ended, “warts and all” ex­pose that even­tu­ally spanned 146 weekly in­stal­ments. Its suc­cess led to Wedd cre­at­ing two fur­ther long-run­ning his­tor­i­cal strips: Bold Ben Hall and his opus The Mak­ing of a Na­tion.

Now com­mem­o­rated in a lav­ish, cof­fee ta­ble edi­tion, Wedd’s Ned Kelly may ap­pear, at first glance, a lit­tle old-fash­ioned to read­ers more fa­mil­iar with the slick styling of con­tem­po­rary ad­ven­ture strips — but that is its strength. Mind­ful of his pri­mar­ily young au­di­ence, Wedd’s lu­cid, metic­u­lously re­searched nar­ra­tive is never less than en­gag­ing, while his sharp vi­su­als and densely de­tailed sto­ry­telling bring a per­sua­sive clar­ity to his ac­count of Kelly’s life. Though he oc­ca­sion­ally gets side­tracked with tan­gen­tial in­ci­dents, for the most part Wedd shrewdly bal­ances the dra­matic and ed­u­ca­tional as­pi­ra­tions of his story as he strives for au­then­tic­ity and Ned neu­tral­ity.

At pains to be even-handed, Wedd’s con­tri­bu­tion to Kelly mythol­ogy won’t set­tle the on­go­ing de­bate that casts Ned as a hounded folk hero cum in­cip­i­ent rev­o­lu­tion­ary or a cold­blooded killer with an acute per­se­cu­tion com­plex. While ac­knowl­edg­ing the Greta Mob’s dis­re­pute as horse and cat­tle thieves, Wedd also dis­plays con­sid­er­able sym­pa­thy for the Kelly fam­ily’s plight, as they en­dure con­stant ha­rass­ment and false im­pris­on­ment at the hands of a largely ve­nal, big­oted and inept le­gal sys­tem.

Wedd clearly out­lines how the litany of in­jus­tice Ned and his ilk ex­pe­ri­ence con­vinces the once and fu­ture out­law that they will never re­ceive a fair go from the pow­ers that be and their squat­toc­racy mates. From his boy­hood clashes with the law and ap­pren­tice­ship un­der gen­tle­man bushranger Harry Power, to his three-year stint in Pen­tridge jail on trumpedup charges and the wrong­ful in­car­cer­a­tion of his mother, to the fateful shootout at Stringy­bark Creek and the doomed Glen­rowan siege, to his rushed trial and ex­e­cu­tion, Wedd fleshes out Ned’s char­ac­ter and mo­tives, un­der­scor­ing the tragic tra­jec­tory of his life.

As the cen­tral pro­tag­o­nist, his Ned ma­tures from a reck­less, wily youth into a moody, volatile yet charis­matic man driven by venge­ful right­eous­ness. At the same time, Wedd sketches brisk, con­vinc­ing por­traits of the main sup­port­ing play­ers, in­clud­ing Kelly’s re­doubtable mother Ellen, his loyal broth­ers-in-arms Joe Byrne, Steve Hart and Dan Kelly, and his chief per­se­cu­tor, pompous Com­mis­sioner Stan­dish. He takes care to show that not all cops are cut from the same cor­rupt cloth — Ned clearly re­spects the brav­ery and skill of some of his pur­suers — but the craven, ex­pe­di­ent politi­cians and ju­di­ciary, fear­ful of an up­ris­ing among Kelly sym­pa­this­ers, don’t get off lightly.

As nar­ra­tor, Wedd pur­pose­fully tries to dis­tance him­self, not al­ways suc­cess­fully, from the events he’s drama­tis­ing, at times adopt­ing an al­most pro­ce­dural, text­book ap­proach, com­plete with maps, stag­ing in­struc­tions, ex­plana­tory asides and vis­ual aids. The strip’s stud­ied pe­riod ver­nac­u­lar and an­ti­quated de­sign re­in­force the il­lu­sion, cap­tur­ing the ap­pear­ance and tone of il­lus­trated Vic­to­rian pam­phlets.

An ac­com­plished draughtsman, Wedd ef­fort­lessly blends an ex­pres­sive, car­toon­ing style with in­tri­cate cross-hatch­ing that emu­lates the look of 19th-century en­grav­ings. And he read­ily uses cin­e­matic flour­ishes when the oc­ca­sion de­mands, such as the ex­cit­ing, im­pres­sively staged Stringy­bark Creek and Glen­rowan set pieces. The lat­ter vividly con­veys the chaos, farce, ten­sion and pathos of the con­fronta­tion. That he achieves this while ob­serv­ing the con­ven­tions of a se­ri­alised comic strip, with its re­caps and cliffhang­ers, is tes­ti­mony to his skills as a graphic sto­ry­teller.

In re­cent years, Amer­i­can and Bri­tish pub­lish­ers have be­gun reprint­ing sem­i­nal news­pa­per comic strips in deluxe, ar­chive vol­umes, in pur­suit of an age­ing, cashed-up read­er­ship. Sadly, the col­lected edi­tion of Monty Wedd’s Ned Kelly falls some­what short of their ex­em­plary pro­duc­tion stan­dards, be­ing let down by in­con­sis­tent print­ing and less than ro­bust cov­ers. Those quib­bles aside, it’s en­cour­ag­ing to see Comi­coz, a small in­de­pen­dent Aus­tralian pub­lisher, make ef­fec­tive use of crowd-sourced fund­ing to cel­e­brate and share this for­got­ten gem, a unique and wor­thy in­clu­sion in the ever-ex­pand­ing Ned Kelly canon.

Monty Wedd’s Ned Kelly ma­tures from a reck­less youth into a man driven by venge­ful right­eous­ness

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