The most macabre chapter in the history of Australian comics drew to a close on November 29, 2003, when Leonard Keith Lawson died of a heart attack in his cell at the Grafton Correctional Centre. A generation of children once knew him as the creator of The Lone Avenger, but none of them could have foreseen the fate which awaited Lawson, who ended his days as one of Australia’s most notorious criminals.
Born on August 16, 1927, the adolescent Lawson displayed a keen ambition which outstripped his modest artistic abilities, as he made the rounds of Sydney’s booming wartime publishing industry, determined to become a professional comic-book illustrator. Lawson’s earliest work leapt from one genre to the next, as he searched for the breakthrough character that would captivate readers.
That opportunity came when Henry John Edwards, a former magazine executive, launched his own publishing company in 1946 with Action Comic, produced entirely by Lawson. Edwards struck gold after Lawson’s newest creation, The Lone Avenger, appeared in the second issue. The masked cowboy made Action Comic a bestseller and laid the foundations for Edwards’ publishing empire, which added magazines and paperback novels to its growing stable of comic books. Lawson created another popular cowboy hero, The Hooded Rider, for Edwards in 1951, cementing his reputation as one of Australia’s most successful comic-book artists.
Unbeknownst to many, Lawson, now married with two children, enjoyed taking photographs of scantily-clad models for men’s magazines. In May 1954, Lawson hired five women from a modeling agency for a photo-shoot in secluded bushland. Lawson raped two of the women at gunpoint in front of their bound and gagged companions. Bizarrely, Lawson paid them their modeling fees and drove them back to Sydney, where he was subsequently arrested.
Lawson’s sensational trial was held amidst growing public outrage over comic books’ harmful influence on Australian children. Lawson was eventually sentenced to 14 years imprisonment, whereupon he took up painting and was released after serving 7 years.
Authorities considered him a model prisoner, but Lawson was far from reformed. In November 1961, Lawson raped and murdered 16 year-old Jane Bower, an aspiring model who posed for a portrait in his apartment. Lawson, armed with a rifle, subsequently drove to an exclusive Sydney girls’ school, where he held 150 pupils hostage, one of whom was killed when Lawson’s rifle went off as he scuffled with the headmistress. Lawson was apprehended by police and was sentenced to life imprisonment in April 1962. Towards the end of his life, he drew recreations of Action Comic covers for fans and collectors; for them, at least, the virtuous character of The Lone Avenger still outshone the terrible deeds of his creator.
— Kevin Patrick
See also: Crimson Comet; The Lone Avenger