Friday, December 01, 2006

The Australian Spanish Western Connection

The Spanish Connection
By Kevin Patrick

At first glance, there’s nothing remarkable about my copy of Double Barrel Western. Published in Sydney by Gredown Pty Ltd, this undated comic book, like so many others produced by this company, is an ad hoc collection of overseas comic strips.

Yet its contents say a great deal about the ‘globalisation’ of the comics industry - and its impact on the Australian comic book market.

For much of the postwar era, Australian publishers looked to American companies as the source for most of the material used in their locally printed comic magazines.

By the early 1970s, this was no longer the case, as titles like Double Barrel Western clearly show. While its stories are undeniably set in the American West, most of the featured comics were drawn beyond America’s borders.

Two stories featuring the drifter known as ‘Mestizo’ were written by Carlos Echevarria and illustrated by Luis Bermejo (b.1931). Another tale, ‘The Strange Death of a Gunman’, is credited to artist Jose Ortiz (b.1932), while an episode of the Western series ‘Gringo’ (copyright dated 1966) was written by Manuel Medina and drawn by Carlos Gimenez (b.1941)

It’s no coincidence that these Spanish-sounding creators were finding their way into Australian comic books. Their journey to our shores dates back to the mid-1950s, when European comic art studios, such as ALI (Belgium) and Bardon Art (Spain), began promoting their writers’ and artists’ work beyond their domestic markets.

Perhaps the most significant of these new companies was Spain’s Selecionnes Illustradas, or ‘SI’, as it was known to its many clients. Launched in 1954 by Spanish comics’ creator Josep Toutain (1930-1997), SI was formed in response to the near-monopoly held by the Bruguera publishing house over the Spanish comics market. SI bypassed Bruguera altogether, by syndicating Spanish-drawn comics throughout South America, Europe, New Zealand and South Africa.

By the early 1970s, these European comic art agencies were making inroads to the American market, as their stable of writers and artists began to feature prominently in American ‘adult’ horror and fantasy comics that became popular during this period.

It wasn’t long before Australian publishers were taking advantage of these comparatively cheaper sources of comic art. KG Murray, which used to rely almost solely on DC Comics material for its editorial content, began using European/Spanish material in its non-superhero titles, such as Super Giant, and their various Western comics, including Bumper Western Comic and Fastest Gun Western.

KG Murray also introduced readers to Spanish comic artists when it launched its own range of horror comics aimed at ‘mature readers’ in the mid-1970s, featuring Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella. These titles, originally launched by Warren Magazines throughout the 1960s, were amongst the first American comics to regularly use Spanish artists.

While little is known about the company’s origins, Gredown Pty Ltd emerged in the mid-to-late 1970s as KG Murray’s main competitor, flooding the local market with countless one-shot reprint comics. Gredown’s one-time Art Director was Phil Belbin (1925-1993), a prominent Australian comic artist of the 1940s, who reportedly painted many of the covers for their inexhaustible supply of science-fiction, Western and horror comics.

Returning to the contents of Double Barrel Western, there are other enigmatic names that appear throughout the comic. The two ‘Mestizo’ stories carry the imprint ‘NORMA’, which indicates the strips were syndicated by Norma Editorial, a Spanish comics publisher established by Rafael Martinez in 1977.

‘Editorial Vilmar - Barcelona’ is another term which regularly accompanies the Spanish-drawn comic stories that appeared in Gredown’s reprint comic books. This appears to be another comic art agency (or publisher) which flourished in the 1960s and 70s, specialising in Western and war comics.

Despite the heavy Spanish presence, American artists aren’t entirely excluded from comics such as Double Barrel Western.

Although uncredited, ‘The Ancient Plainsman’ (about a wealthy 20th century hunter who channels the spirit of an American Indian) dates from the 1950s-era American Comics Group line, which produced solidly crafted, albeit sanitised, horror comics, such as Adventures into the Unknown.

‘Vendetta’, written by John Albano and illustrated by Frank Thorne, about a tribal medicine man who becomes a werewolf to avenge his daughter’s murder, originally appeared in Devilina No.2 (May 1975), an ‘adult’ horror magazine published by Atlas/Seaboard. Filling out Double Barrel Western is ‘Lost Mine’, by Steve Ditko, which appeared in Charlton Comics’ Ghost Manor No.30 (August 1976).

Clearly, Gredown favoured horror comics above all other genres, even turning to American horror titles as the source for strips in a Western comic book!

The horror comic connection, however, isn’t entirely coincidental. During 1970-75, Skywald Publications challenged the dominance of Warren Magazines in the American black & white comics market, by launching rival horror titles like Psycho and Nightmare.

Skywald was jointly formed by ex-Marvel Comics production manager Sol Brodsky and Israel Waldman and regularly used Spanish artists. However, Waldman’s involvement is especially significant, as he specialised in comic book reprints using material from defunct publishers, which were sold through American discount stores during the 1960s and 70s, under Waldman’s I.W. Publications and Super Comics imprints.

According to Stephen Sennitt’s 1999 book, Ghastly Terror: The Horrible Story of Horror Comics, Skywald made extensive use of SI’s pool of Spanish artists, an arrangement which apparently meant “Skywald [comics] would be syndicated internationally for years to come”, presumably via Selecciones Illustradas’ worldwide contacts.

That could certainly explain why so much Spanish material from Skywald Magazines appeared in Gredown’s Australian horror and science-fiction comics. Given Israel Waldman’s involvement with Skywald Magazines, and in repackaging comics using material from failed comics’ companies (especially minor 1950s publishers, such as Stanmor, Media, Ajax/Farrel, etc), it’s quite plausible that he was responsible for supplying Gredown Pty Ltd with its share of American horror comic reprint material, including content from the Atlas/Seaboard line, which collapsed in 1975.

It’s also worth noting that Gredown’s horror comics frequently used material from New York-based Eerie Publications, which, under the auspices of publisher (and former comic artist) Myron Fass, produced an infamous range of horror comics, including Horror Tales and Tales of Voodoo Tales during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This article was originally published in the November 2006 edition of Collectormania magazine. The author would like to thank Daniel Best and Dillon Naylor for their assistance in researching this article. However, any errors or omissions are the author's own.

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