Daniel Best remembers his friend, the great late Ginger Meggs artist.
BY DANIEL BEST
On my hallway wall I have several pieces of original artwork, all framed and on display.
It’s mainly art by Americans, friends of mine, like Norm Breyfogle and Stephen R Bissette, along with Trevor Von Eeden, John Romita, Mike Zeck and friends no longer with us, Dave Simons, Mike Esposito and Jim Mooney.
Amongst the collection is a sketch of Ginger Meggs riding a skateboard with the inscription:
“For Danny. With many thanks for your part in Ginger’s South Australian history. Thanks mate!
– James Kemsley”
Everyone who has seen this sketch has asked, what part of Ginger’s history? What happened? The answer isn’t that complicated.
In 2004 I made contact with James Kemsley and asked if I could interview him as part of an on-going series on my then web site. James readily agreed and we spoke several times over the phone, via email and in person when he invited me to attend a Meggs XI cricket game at Tandunda.
James and myself hit it off, and our calls would go for hours, much to the amusement of my (then girlfriend, now) wife. But that wasn’t my claim to history.
I got a frantic phone call from James in mid 2004 telling me that the Sunday Mail in Adelaide decided to drop Meggs in favour of American sourced strips, most of which seemed to cross promote FoxTel. James was furious, so was I. This was Ginger Meggs!!! An Australian icon. If ever there was a strip that needed to be in Australian newspapers, it was Ginger. For 83 years he’d been in the paper, no way was he going to go quietly.
The more we spoke a plan began to hatch. James decided that we’d hit up as many radio stations as we could, and, to maximise the results, I’d join in and agree to be interviewed at the same time as he was. This meant word could get out twice as fast.
I then contacted people I knew in the media industry and, before we knew it, the requests were coming in for both of us to speak out. We also began a petition, which was to be presented to the editors of the Sunday Mail. On the same morning I spoke to the ABC, James spoke to 5DN. Once we were both finished I rang him and we compared notes. We expected more media exposure but within two hours of the pair of us going to air the editors at the Sunday Mail had offered James a new contract and were begging for a new Meggs to appear that very Sunday. We’d won the war with our first shots, something that impressed and amazed us both.
James told me, both verbally and, of course, in writing, that I was now part of Ginger Meggs official history which is only a few years off hitting the century mark. I may be a very minor footnote, but I’m in there. I was thrilled and proud to be a friend of James Kemsley, as were countless others. He was generous with his time, and funny to speak to. I miss him.
James isn’t with us anymore, and we’re all poorer for his passing. Jason Chatfield has taken the mantle of being the Ginger Meggs cartoonist now and he’s doing pretty darn fine with it. James would be proud to see Jason’s strips appearing everywhere and he’d even happier to know that Meggs is still going strong. As it should be.
This conversation came out of a few phone calls that I recorded, with James’s permission, in 2004. My comments are in bold; James Kemsley’s comments are in italics.
I begin by asking James about his background and how he began cartooning. We soon got onto the topic of the fastest cartoonist in Australia, WEG.
I guess I was one of these kids who always enjoyed drawing and copying Disney cartoons and general animation type things, Popeye and whatever. I always found it very relaxing to draw, and it was the one thing that my parents thought that I could do at a very young age and so they encouraged me. I also wish they had encouraged me to sing or play cricket, but they didn’t encourage me as much, so I am not able to do those other two things. But just at a very young age I started drawing and then I got to a stage when I was about 15 or 16, it might have been as late as 18, I was living in a country town in Victoria and they had their local problems.
I did a cartoon protesting against one of their local environmental problems and it was published in the local newspaper and this was back in about 1960, it must have been 1965 or 1966, and they approached me about doing a cartoon once a week for the paper after that, which I ended up doing for about two and a half years, so I guess that is how I got into it.
The Victorian cartooning scene in the 1960s was dominated by WEG and Jeff Hook in Melbourne and on a national scene, people like Bruce Petty and Paul Rigby. I was more along the lines of trying to copy WEG, Rigby and Hook more than anybody else as they were the cartoonists that I really enjoyed. At the same time I had always been a Wizard of ID fan and that is the humour I enjoyed.
Like all kids, I used to read the Sunday comic veraciously, probably up until I moved to Victoria where there were no Sunday comics as such in those days. I used to enjoy reading Ginger Meggs, Uncle Joe’s Horse Radish and Fatty Finn. The Australian comics are the ones that appealed to me really.
After growing up enjoying the work of the legendary cartoonist WEG, James became friends with him. James recounted how WEG once drew Ginger Meggs in a political cartoon once and promptly mailed it off him to keep. In 2003, James was the President of the Australian Cartoonist Association.
Last year it was quite a thrill and pleasure to present WEG with what we call our Jim Russell Award, which is an award for contribution to the art form shall we say and he was a recipient last year. It is not so much something that you win, but you are rewarded.