Alexander (Alex) George Gurney

Born Portsmouth, England 1902
Died Melbourne, Victoria 1955

By Lindsay Foyle

In 1939 Alex Gurney was working for the Herald and Weekly Times group on The Herald in Melbourne drawing political and sporting cartoons. It was a job he had been doing since 1934 when he had taken over from Sam Wells who had gone to England to work on The Daily Dispatch in Manchester. However, Gurney believed Wells would replace him when he returned to Melbourne. Gurney suspected he would be asked to take over the Mr. Melbourne cartoon, which had been started by Jimmy Bancks in 1926 and was then being drawn by Len Reynolds. Taking over some else's comic was something he did not want to do. He had had experience in drawing comics and had drawn Stiffy and Mo for Beckett’s Budget in the late twenties. He had also drawn Ben Bowyang for The Herald in 1933, before taking on the political cartoons.

He thought The Herald might be interested in a new comic especially as the newspaper artists all over Australia were campaigning against the importation of syndicated comics from Britain and America.

Gurney started to develop a comic about a character called Bluey. He then added a second character who he called Curley. He drew both in a variety of situations and clothes but couldn’t find the right spot for them to make the comic work. Every combination was considered. Bluey was married with a child. Curley was single and happy to chat up girls. When it became Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ “melancholy duty” to declare war on Germany in September 1939 and the Citizen’s Military Force recruited 75,000 men and compulsory training for the home defence was introduced, Gurney placed Bluey and Curley in the army.

Bluey became the old digger from the First World War and Curley the new recruit. But as the comic evolved their age difference disappeared and they became mates of the same age. Melbourne journalist and long-time friend of Gurney’s, Keith Dunstan said, “They were the type of characters one would expect to meet in Bay 13 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.” Gurney wanted them to run over a full page as Jimmy Bancks’ Ginger Meggs did and drew six episodes ready to show The Herald.

When Gurney was told Wells was returning to The Herald and his old job Gurney produced his Bluey and Curley comics before anyone had a chance to mention Mr. Melbourne.

Just over a year after war started The Picture News (owned by the Herald and Weekly Times) published the first Bluey and Curley comic in November 1940. When the magazine folded the comic moved on February 1, 1941 to The Sun News-Pictorial, which was also part Herald and Weekly Times group. By then Gurney’s original idea of a full page once a week comic had been altered. The Sun News-Pictorial wanted a daily comic. It was a good move and the daily caught on with the readers. It also caught all over Australia becoming the best known and loved comic of the Second World War and was syndicated to newspapers all over the country. In total there were 53 publications running Bluey and Curley including newspapers in Canada, New Zealand and New Guinea. However, at The Sun News-Pictorial there was still some interest in the original full-page version. It was suggested to Gurney might draw it as well as his daily strips. It was a suggestion he did not take up.

There was even talk of Bluey and Curley being run in the United States if only Gurney would drop the Australian slang. He would not do this, as it would have taken away the Australian substance he wanted to keep in the comic. “Struth”, “blimey” and ‘flamin” might be words that are disappearing form our language now, but back in the forties they were very much part of the Australian lingo. Gurney even used the indigenous slang word for bloody “plurry” in some of his early drawings. But after the war Australian editors seemed to develop a strange sensitivity to Australian slang. In 1952 the editor of The Sun News-Pictorial wrote to Gurney expressing his concern about “cripes” and “struth” being used in the comic and suggesting that they not be used. There was a second letter 1954 complaining about “the large part liquor plays” in the strip. The editor obviously was having a problem as he tried to justify the strange direction by saying, “I am no wowser but I think it is time to take stock.” Given his concerns and the small part these words and drinking played in keeping Bluey and Curley Australian he probably was a wowser.

“Bluey and Curley reflected the popularly held image of the digger as a fighting man without peer but more interested in his beer and gambling,” says John Ryan in his book Panel by Panel. “Resenting all authority; a confidence man with the ability to laugh at himself; and a ready disciple of the ‘you can’t win’ attitude.”

Typical of the larrikin style of humour in Bluey and Curley is displayed in one strip where a Pommy officer says, “So you refuse to salute a British officer. Eh, what would you do if one of your Australian officers came along?” To which Bluey replies, “I’d just look him up and down from head to foot…and if he looked like a decent coot – I’d bite him for a few bob!”

The larrikin image started to emerge late in 19th century. It was much the same Australian character portrayed in the writings of Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and C J Dennis. It was also the same style of Digger humour displayed in Cec Hartt’s cartoons emanating from the First World War. It was there in the comics Ginger Meggs and Fatty Finn too.

On December 8, 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and 14 days later the first American troops arrived in Brisbane. It wasn’t long before there were suggestions that Australian soldiers were copying the images they saw in Gurney’s comic strips. Soldiers with their head sticking out of an ill-fitting collar like turtle poking out of his shell, a cigarette permanently dangling from his mouth and fond of his beer.

It was an image authorities in the Army did not like, but it went over well with the Australian population. “Every load of Army mail to the Middle East, Malaya and to New Guinea outposts during the Second World War contained Bluey and Curley comic-strips cut from the newspapers and included in letters from home to the troops,” says Vane Lindesay in his book The Inked-In-Image. He goes on to point out “In one recorded instance, a woman from Coburg, Victoria, had a remarkable collection of 2,300 Bluey and Curley strips clipped from The Sun News-Pictorial and kept for the return of her prisoner-of-war relative.”

There were a number of armed services publications during the war, which ran cartoons and comics, sent in by their readers. It was not unusual to see Bluey and Curley imitations in The AIF News, Table Tops, Guinea Gold and SALT. Most of them dawn by servicemen and women intended to be read by servicemen and women and all of them identifying with Gurney’s creation of Bluey and Curley.

Elena Taylor, Curator at the Australian War Memorial has pointed out, “All published material of the Second World War was subject to war-time censorship regulations prohibiting material considered likely to cause disaffection, discourage enlistment, or influence public opinion against the war.” She went on to say, “These restrictions help to explain the total absence of any published cartoons concerning death. Cartoons depicting frontline fighting invariably see the protagonists adopt a pose of nonchalant bravado which denies the existence of any real fear.” For some these restrictions may have proved to be a problem. But for Gurney they probably didn’t cause a second thought. Bluey and Curley were larrikins and as such nonchalant bravado was a natural state.

Gurney was born in Portsmouth in 1902 but his father, William Gurney died when he was only five months old. His mother Alice brought him back to Hobart where she had grown up. She remarried and he grew up sharing a house in Cascade Road with three stepbrothers. Gurney attended Macquarie Street State School in Hobart and was keen on cartooning, but at the age of 13 he started work as an ironmonger. From there he moved to a seven-year apprenticeship as an electrician with the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commission and commenced a correspondence course in art while studying at night at Hobart Technical School. He was soon selling cartoons to The Mercury and Tasmanian Mail in Hobart. He was also getting cartoon published in The Bulletin, Melbourne Punch and Smith’s Weekly after it started being published in 1919. In 1924 he published a book of caricatures of notable Tasmanians, Tasmanian’s To-Day and this brought him to the attention of a number of publications on the mainland. In 1926 he was offered a job with The Herald and Weekly Times in Melbourne working on The Morning Post.

While on The Morning Post he met Junee Grover and they soon married. When The Morning Post was incorporated with The Sun News-Pictorial in 1927 they moved to Sydney where Gurney thought the climate might be better for work. They set-up home in Manly a suburb of Sydney that was a pleasant ferry ride from the city, and not far from where a number of other cartoonists lived. Their son John was born there in 1929. He was to get three sisters Jennifer, Susan and Margaret.

Gurney created the comic Stiffy and Mo for Beckett’s Budget in 1927. It was the first comic in Australian based on live characters. Roy Rene (Mo) and Nat Phillips (Stiffy) were two vaudeville comedians who were very popular at the time. There was even a book of Gurney’s Stiffy and Mo comic strips. But Beckett’s Budget folded and Gurney was out of work again.

He then took a job on The Sunday Times. The paper had a history of running comics and first published a comic section in the early twenties, which was also sold separately from the paper. In February 1925 a new comic section was introduced with all the comics drawn by Australian artist. While the new section met with some success it fell short of expectations and in August was revised and renamed as Pranks. Again, it fell short of expectations and was revised again in May 1929 with the entire centre spread taken up with a comic called Daggs drawn by Gurney. In November the comic was renamed Daggsy. While the comic had started-out being about a family it evolved into a full Ginger Meggs, Fatty Finn competitor centred on the activities of a small boy. It might have gone on to be better known but the paper went out of production in 1930, one of the many papers in Sydney to fall victim to the depression.

Gurney turned to freelance work but found it hard to find. He would draw tins of jam one week and cover for War Cry the next. Then he would be drawing covers for Humour of the World and hand lettering for anyone who wanted something. While it was hard finding work, getting paid for it often proved even harder.

In 1931 Gurney was getting regular work with The Guardian only to see this paper disappear too. Next it was work on The World, where his father-in-law, Monty Grover was the editor for a short time. He had also been the founding editor of The Sun News-Pictorial and The Sun in Sydney. It was Grover who wrote the first scripts for Us Fellers, which Bancks evolved it into Ginger Meggs. Unfortunately, The World folded and in 1932 the Gurneys headed to Adelaide and work on The News drawing political cartoons. Hall Gye had been the first political cartoonist to work on the paper. He always claimed Mr. Melbourne was a copy of comic he had drawn soon after The News started in 1923.

The News was part owned by Keith Murdoch and part by the Herald and Weekly Times. In 1933 Gurney was moved back to Melbourne to work for The Herald and Weekly Times group. Alex and Junee had no special liking for Melbourne and given a choice probably would have lived in Sydney where Junee had been born and spent part of her childhood. They also liked Adelaide but as the only work Gurney was being offered was in Melbourne, then Melbourne became home. They moved into a two-story house in Ripponlea. When Gurney took on drawing Ben Bowyang he only had to go into the office twice a week and the upstairs room with the best light was converted to a studio.

The concept for the comic had come from a series of letters written by C J Dennis and signed Ben Bowyang, Gunn’s Gully. The letters first appeared in 1923 and soon built up a large following and for a while where illustrated with cartoons drawn by Sam Wells. Then someone in 1933 had the bright idea of converting the letters into a comic. Wells was about to head overseas so Daryl Lindsay was commissioned to do the drawings with Dennis supplying the jokes. The idea petered out when Dennis wasn’t able to supply the martial and the project was then passed onto Gurney to do the drawings and write the gags.

The Gurney family stayed in Ripponlea until the late 1930s when they moved to Merton Avenue, Elwood. By then Gurney was drawing political cartoons five days a week and a sport cartoon for the Saturday paper and no-longer working from home. Down the road from the house in Ripponlea lived Bluey Anderson. He was a linesman who worked for the Melbourne City Council and both he and Gurney belonged to the Elwood Angling Club. They were good friends and often took a small boat out fishing on Port Phillip Bay. Gurney used Bluey’s name in the Bluey and Curley comic. And it was Bluey’s square head that Gurney used as a model for Bluey. Curley got a round head because it was the opposite of Bluey’s square head.

There were two sayings about humour that Gurney used to use: “No joke is ever funny if it has to be explained” and “A person only has a sense of humour if he can see the joke when it is on himself.” Gurney was always searching for jokes to use and apparently rarely laughed when told one. In his mind he was already working away trying to fit it into panels for a Bluey and Curley comic. Not that that stopped people telling him jokes or sending them to him from all over Australia. It happened all the time in the hope that he might use the joke in the comic. The search for the right material went on day and night and often Gurney would burst out laughing when he worked out how to fit a joke into the comic.

Gurney became an accredited war correspondent and made many trips to army camps all over Australia, New Guinea and Pacific islands. On one trip he contracted malaria, which was to give him trouble on and off over the following years. While away Gurney kept up the routine of spending about six hours a day drawing comic strips.

Gurney also hoped to become an official war artist. General Blamey, who said, “After all, Bluey and Curley could hardly be called art,” prevented him in doing so. Although peeved at Blamey’s attitude, and knowing full well American artists doing similar work were war artists, Gurney accepted Blamey’s ruling with good humour saying, “What the hell does Blamey know about art?”

Gurney visited many army camps and was always the centre of attention as he sketched and swapped stories with the soldiers. Some of the jokes could only be described as outrageously dirty. But those telling them wanted to see them used in Bluey and Curley. There was no-way this could happen as Gurney never used any questionable material in the comic. Not that he was a prude; he enjoyed hearing the jokes and told many bawdy jokes himself. But if he thought he could use an idea that came from a dirty joke he would put it through what he called ‘dry-cleaning’ first. It would be innocuously disguised when run. This made the joke even funnier to the reader who originally told to story because he knew the unabridged version too. In return for getting ideas from readers, Gurney gave the drawings of Bluey and Curley comic strips away to anyone who requested one.

When the war was over and the troops were demobilised, Bluey and Curley were too. They continued their existence in the comic as civilians trying to make a living at anything that Gurney could make a joke out of. One day they would be lion-tamers the next lighthouse keepers, deep-sea divers or private detectives.

Gurney and Bluey and Curley seemed like they would all go on forever but on 4 December 1955 Gurney died from a leaking valve in his heart. An unfinished Bluey and Curley comic was on his drawing board. Bluey and Curley survived with Norm Rice taking over only to be killed in a car accident on New Year’s Eve 1956. Les Dixon then took on drawing Bluey and Curley for the daily newspapers till he retired on July 26, 1975. The management at The Sun News-Pictorial took the opportunity to retire Bluey and Curley too, with some people saying that they were now to ocker for the Australian public. Lucky those same people weren’t giving advice to Paul Hogan. His very ocker Paul Hogan Show was the most popular on Australian television that same year.

Alex Gurney entered the ACA Hall of Fame in 2014.

Further reading