Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Original Art Stories: Panel By Panel - Phil Belbin

Most people are very familiar with John Ryan’s ground-breaking book Panel By Panel and it's very distintive cover, but how many people have ever seen the concept sketch?  Published in 1979, Panel By Panel was the first, and still one of the best, books devoted to the history of comic books in Australia.  Since then other books have come along, notably Comic Books in Australia and New Zealand in 1994 and Bonzer: Australian Comics 1900s – 1990s in 1995.  Ryan was first though and his research is still the yardstick that many people measure themselves upon.  He communicated with many artists and writers and spent years tracking people down.  Just prior to his untimely death in  December 1979 he was still tracking people down and making arrangements to speak and correspond.  There was a personal cost to his research though, but that's a post for another time.

When Cassell, the publishers of Panel By Panel, approached Ryan about the book he had a definite idea of who he wanted to draw the cover – artist Phil Belbin. Born on the 9th of August 1925, Phillip Belbin started his art career at the Sydney Sun in 1942, working in their art department.  He served with the R.A.A.F in World War II from 1943 to 1945, which took him away from art.  Once the war ended he went to work for Frank Johnson, remaining there until 1950.  He also joined K.G. Murray in 1947 which would prove to be his steadiest employer.   He remained with Murray until the 1970s, drawing covers, cartoons and doing art corrections.  He’s well known to collectors of Gredown comics as being one of their stand-out cover artists.  As well as comics, Belbin also worked in the commercial art world, he was fast, reliable and very, very good, thus he was perfectly suited to be the cover artist for Panel By Panel.

The cover itself came out perfectly, from Ryan’s initial notes (ie: who he wanted to see on the cover) and the request that Belbin draw characters in the style of their original artists.  The entire project took him only a two days of actual work, from sketch to finished, coloured, art.  The tight deadline wasn’t  Ryan’s fault, that came from Cassell who moved the entire project forward and needed the finished cover for advertising purposes.  As Belbin later wrote to Ryan, “As you can imagine, it wasn’t an easy assignment and I could have spent a week on it, rather than the couple of days (actual work) I had.  Nevertheless, I did have a lot of fun doing it.”

Here, for what might be the first time in a long while, if not ever, is the original sketch that Belbin provided to both Cassell and John Ryan for approval.

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