John Richard Flanagan: The Australian Born American Comic Book Pioneer

John Richard Flanagan, November 1947

The Australian Born America Comic Book Pioneer 

Ask almost anyone in Australia who was the first Australian to work in the American comic book industry and they will invariably answer, “Stan Pitt”. It has been that way since Pitt did his first job for an American publisher, DC Comics The Witching Hour (issue 5), which was published in October 1969. But was Stan Pitt really the first or was he the second? What is now known is that there was another Australian who came before Pitt. A man who produced cover art for DC Comics thirty years earlier than Pitt in 1939.

His name was John Richard Flanagan. And this is his story.

Flanagan was born in Sydney in 1895 and attended St Joseph’s College in Hunter’s Hill. His father passed away when Flanagan was only 12, leaving his mother to make a difficult choice. As Flanagan was the oldest male in the house, the burden of providing for the family would fall upon him. She duly enrolled him in an art course and set him on an apprenticeship with a lithographer.

Art school was not easy for him. “The first thing I had to sketch in art school was a skull,” he remembered in 1947. “When the teacher saw mine, he drew cross bones behind it, and it was then that he told me I’d never be able to draw. I vowed that I would make him eat those words.[1]

Through persistence and determination, he came to the attention of Italian born, but Sydney based fine artist Antonio Dattilo Rubbo who was teaching art at the time. Although himself not a great artist[2] Dattilo Rubbo was a great teacher and he inspired virtually everyone who he taught, with a focus on Modernism. Dattilo Rubbo guided Flanagan to the Royal Art Society of NSW where he taught him for five years.

Norman Lindsay saw Flanagan’s work and arranged for the young Flanagan to join The Bulletin in 1915 at the age of 20. Arguably the most famous black and white artist of the era, Lindsay made a point of not taking on pupils officially but was always willing to encourage and assist new talent when he saw it. Such was his talent that Flanagan was handpicked by Lindsay to ‘stand in’ for him while he was farewelling his brother, Daryl[3], who was leaving Australia in January 1916 to fight in France. This was a prestigious, highly sought after and daunting job as Lindsay was producing some of his most famous works of the era and his name was synonymous with The Bulletin.

"The Coming of Spring" The Bulletin, 27 January 1916

Flanagan’s fill in editorial cartoon for The Bulletin, titled ‘Coming of Spring’ appeared on January 27, 1916, and proved to be a popular image, being reproduced as a print by The Bulletin. Flanagan would see this image reproduced in both Canada and America when he eventually travelled there. The art showed a strong Lindsay influence, which was to be expected, but it was an incredible effort for a 21-year-old artist.

Upon seeing the work, Lindsay gave Flanagan the same advice that he had been given, and ignored, years earlier: go abroad. Lindsay had ignored this advice when Julian Ashton had given it to him in 1900, but Flanagan saw the logic and booked passage to America.

Although buoyed by the sight of ‘Coming of Spring’ in Canada and America, he soon found himself having to work his way into the black and white art industry. Basing himself in New York, he adapted his technique and introduced new methods, working with wash and scraperboard[4]. This extended his fine line by giving it white on black, as well as black on white, which was something that Lindsay had never used.

Those early days in New York were anything but easy. “I had a helluva time at first.” He recalled in 1927. “My allegorical ideas didn't go over. Book illustrating was dead. I found magazine illustrating was the money maker.

“My experience was curious. I had no letters of introduction. I had chucked myself, as it were, into the New York cauldron, and it looked as if I were going to be boiled alive when 'Bruno's Weekly' took notice of me.[5]

His hard work and talent paid off and his work began to appear in publications such as Puck and Pearsons, along with newspapers. He managed to illustrate The Story of the other Wise Men by Henry Van Dyke. He also began to cultivate close friendships with Karl Schmidt who edited Puck and Guida Bruno, publisher of Bruno’s Weekly.

“Bruno was a queer bird. He edited and published his Weekly in a garret. He talked to me of an exhibition. I was just about worn out at the time, so I let him hang forty or fifty of my large pen-drawings in his garret. That's where my first exhibition was held. Bruno suggested that I do little drawings for his magazine. Sounded all right-but I found I could not get my pictures back from him. They sort of stayed put on his walls.

“But Frank Harris, the great writer and journalist, was running Pearson's at the time. He saw my work in Bruno's garret and tried to  get in touch with me. Frank wrote three letters- they were . . well, mislaid by Bruno. At last he registered a letter- and I received it. The dapper genius made me his Assistant Art Editor. My chief job was making sketches of New York night life. My salary was small,  very small, as the great Frank himself absorbed most of the income from Pearson's. However, Frank Harris gave me my real start.

“My first impressions of Frank Harris, surely one of the greatest figures in modern English literature, were received at his home in Washington Square. He struck me instantly as a man of great taste and refinement. His home was adorned with fine Gothic statues, portraits by Rothenstein and etchings by Zorn. Like Mark Twain, Harris worked mostly in bed in the mornings. He would dictate to a charming secretary. and then meticulously go over the typescript prepared since the morning before. I have known him to re -write a story twelve times before he was satisfied with it.[6]

His work was being noticed in the highest possible places known, with then President Woodrow Wilson buying originals from Flanagan to hang in the White House.

As his fame grew, his work began appearing in more magazines. Cosmopolitan, Everybody’s, Colliers and the Delineator, as well as illustrating books by Arthur Conan Doyle, Somerset Maugham, Queen Marie of Romania, Prince William of Sweden and countless others. By 1922 he had a studio on Broadway and was rubbing shoulders with James Montgomery Flagg and William Fisher.

Maugham was so enthralled by Flanagan’s work that he sent a note of appreciation after being gifted a litho-stone drawing by Flanagan. “I will keep it and treasure it always,” he wrote. “It reminds me of a Rembrandt I once saw in a museum.”

A large part of his skill lay in the lessons he had learnt in his youth, both as an apprentice lithographer and at The Bulletin. “Ninety nine percent of the American writers,” he told reporters in 1927, “know nothing of the methods of reproducing their pictures, knowledge which I gained here (in Australia). There is no apprenticeship system in America and that is something in which Australia is ahead of the United States.[7]

Believing that remaining in one place would limit him, Flanagan began to travel to Europe and South Africa. “I ran over to Europe as often as possible,” he recalled in 1927, “as I find it extremely necessary to get frequently out of one's environment. I travelled and sketched all over North Africa, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and other Mediterranean countries.[8]

It was during one of his visits to Europe that he met The Great Beast, Alister Crowley. “Quite by the way I should like to mention a queer character who, I understand, has a little circle of followers in Sydney, and whom I met more than once on my travels. Alister Crowley is his name, and he is said to be the head of a cult of demon-worshippers. He has what he calls a monastery in Sicily . . . but it must be a monastery of a sort that would have been dear to the heart of Rabelais, that is, if the stories of fair ladies who take an important part in certain of Crowley's ceremonies, are true.[9]

When Flanagan returned to Australia in February 1927, he was being called the highest paid black and white artist in America. He came back to Sydney to host an exhibition at the Australian Fine Arts Gallery. His visit was always going to be a short term one, catching up with family and friends such as Dallito Rubbo, and making money. “Yes, after my exhibition here, I shall return to America, where I shall devote myself to etching.[10]

The exhibition was well received, and he sold over £1,000 worth of art, which set a record for a private exhibition for the era. Amongst those who bought his art were the National Gallery, the Manly Art and Historical Society, the Mitchell Library (who bought a hand-bound volume of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with original pen and ink illustrations).

Once back in America Flanagan never left. His fame continued to grow as he illustrated more famous works, become known for his Fu Manchu illustrations in Sax Rohmer’s books. By 1938 he was illustrating historical works when he somehow found himself with a new commission – from Detective Comics.

Flanagan was known to the owners of Detective Comics. Indeed, he was one of the artists that Jerry Siegel had approached to illustrate the then unpublished Superman strip. “About ten or fifteen years ago,” he recalled in 1953, “I got a letter from a fellow named Jerry Siegel. He said he had an idea for a comic strip which he would entitle Superman. He wanted me to do the art for the strip, I thought he was crazy, and I still do – a million dollars’ worth.[11]” The time frame of fifteen years or so previous places Siegel’s letter to Flanagan in 1937 – 1938. Siegel had approached others to either take over from Joe Shuster or assist him but was turned down. As it stands, there would have been no way that Flanagan would have turned down work to produce the number of pages required for a full comic book for less than he could make drawing a single illustration. In hindsight, it was easy for him to refuse.

In 1939 Flanagan illustrated six original covers for the company. These covers were Adventure Comics, issues 36, 37, 38 and 39, followed by More Fun Comics 45 and 48. His black and white line work for Adventure Comics #39 also appeared on an ashcan[12], Radio Funnies #1. A 1940 comic, Double Action Comics #2, reprinted the cover to Adventure Comics #37. And there it ended, but, from March to October 1939, John Richard Flanagan, also known as Jack Flanagan, became one of, if not the, first Australian artists to produce original work for an American comic book company. He beat Stan Pitt by thirty years.

Flanagan moved to York, Pennsylvania after World War II, married, settled down and began a family. He still gave exhibitions and produced work for newspapers and magazines. His son, Dennis, became editor of Scientific American in the 1940s. It was his son who inspired him to continue drawing, and to continue to improve. “Sometimes I like to look back over my work,” he said, “and I like to keep up with what Dennis is doing.[13]

He settled into a quiet life in York. In 1948 he became part owner in a company called Craftmen and began to design stained glass windows for the Rudy Glass Company. He also joined the Academy of Arts as an instructor in 1955. He remained in this role until his passing on 22 December 1964.

John Richard Flanagan remains largely unknown in Australia, but he was one of the most famous black and white artists in America between the two wars, and beyond. And he will always remain the first Australian artist to produce original work for the American comic book industry as we know it, beating out the mighty Stan Pitt by thirty years. That is a fine achievement indeed.

Detective Comics Inc. March - October 1939


[1] Fu Manchu Artist Told he Couldn’t Draw. Sunday News (Pennsylvania). 1 March 1947
[2] Art critic and author Robert Hughes once described his work as consisting of, “…muddy genre portraits of very wrinkled old Tuscan peasants.”
[3] Later Sir Ernest Daryl Lindsay
[4] Scratchboard, as it is called in North America and Australia (sometimes referred to as scraperboard especially in Great Britain), is a form of direct engraving where the artist scratches off dark ink to reveal a white or coloured layer beneath. Scratchboard refers to both a fine-art medium, and an illustrative technique using sharp knives and tools for engraving into a thin layer of white China clay that is coated with dark, often black India ink. There is also foil paper covered with black ink that, when scratched, exposes the shiny surface beneath. Scratchboard can be used to yield highly detailed, precise and evenly textured artwork. Works can be left black and white, or coloured.
[5] The Triad for March 1927
[6] Ibid
[7] Sydney Artist Success in New York. Sydney Morning Herald, 15 November 1927
[8] The Triad for March 1927
[9] Ibid
[10] Ibid
[11] Famed Artist Turned Down Offer To Draw Superman. Sunday News (Pennsylvania). 1 March 1953
[12] An ashcan comic is an American comic book originally created solely to establish trademarks on potential titles and not intended for sale. The practice was common in the 1930s and 1940s when the comic book industry was in its infancy but was phased out after updates to US trademark law.
[13] Fu Manchu Artist Told he Couldn’t Draw. Sunday News (Pennsylvania). 1 March 1947

Study Of An Old Man by John Richard Flanagan


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