The historical significance of Australia’s first-ever comic book, Jimmy Rodney on Secret Service, has little to do with the contents of the magazine itself, but rather the circumstances which led to its publication. In 1939, the Australian government banned the sale of imported American magazines as a wartime austerity measure. This handed Australian publishers a captive market, free from foreign competition. However, newsprint rationing and government bans on the launch of new, ongoing periodicals threatened to stymie domestic comic-book production.
The New South Wales Bookstall Company (est.1879), which published cheap paperback fiction and operated an extensive network of retail bookstalls, overcame these restrictions by producing single issue, “one-shot” comic magazines for the duration of the war. Its debut title, Jimmy Rodney on Secret Service, released late in 1940, thus became the first comic book to be entirely written, illustrated and published in Australia.
The story behind its creation reveals much about the formative years of Australia’s comic-book industry. Tony Rafty (born Anthony Raftopoulos, October 12, 1915 –October 9, 2015) was a freelance Sydney newspaper cartoonist, specializing in caricatures of sporting personalities, when he met one of the company’s directors, Brendan Dowling, who invited Rafty to submit a comic book for publication. Despite having read few comic books himself, Rafty agreed and set to work on a fast-paced, wartime espionage adventure.
When Professor Cooper, the inventor of a “sub-sea ray” is murdered by a spy gang led by the mysterious “Zon,” Jimmy Rodney of the Secret Service is sent to apprehend the killers and retrieve the location of Professor Cooper’s blueprints. Rodney infiltrates the gang, where he poses as a crew member aboard their submarine and defeats the spy ring before it can carry out its plans to sink a troop ship convoy.
Rafty’s brisk, energetic artwork is frequently undermined by his awkward page compositions and redundant text captions, which attest to his unfamiliarity with the medium. Nevertheless, it was the first such Australian publication to feature an original story created exclusively for comic magazines; virtually all Australian comics published prior to this were compilations of newspaper comic strips. The comic also featured a short story, “Phantom Raider” (subtitled “Enemy agents at work off Australian coast”), written by Rod Maynard.
Jimmy Rodney on Secret Service turned out to be Rafty’s first and only comic book. He enlisted with the Australian Infantry Force in 1942 and was stationed in New Guinea as an official war artist. Returning to Australia, he embarked on a lengthy career as a newspaper cartoonist, and was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1990 for cartooning in the media.