The Story of Cowtown

Dillon Naylor spills the beans

My first memory of comics were the Australian Disney reprints that seemed to be always lying around my house, mostly Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories by writer/artist Carl Barks. My Dad and uncle were both comic book fans and most likely buying them for a nostalgic kick themselves, I suspect. I began to amass a pile of these things and desperately needed more of them and soon the collector bug had bitten hard and I was rummaging through the closets of friends from school and younger cousins, constantly harassing them for their stash of comics. I’d wake up before dawn and bike miles to Sunday markets to go through old cardboard boxes of junk looking for a fix. Much easier to find were Tintin and Asterix books via the school library.

One memorable morning, I found a strange black and white 70’s horror mag called EERIE full of terrifying images; Killer robots, drug crazed madmen, monsters, gangsters, demons and vampires. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I didn’t know they made things like this. Naturally I read it a hundred times and began collecting them, DC and Charlton ‘mystery’ comics and 1950s EC reprints. The horror motifs fused with the Disney Ducks and a kind of ‘funny animal noir’ cartoon style emerged in my own drawings.

For some reason, I by-passed superheroes almost all together. They never really interested me much. An exception might be Batman and The Spirit because they were more like shadowy detective stories. I studied and imitated the work of Russ Manning (STAR WARS, MAGNUS ROBOT FIGHTER) Wallace Wood, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby’s Marvel monster stories, British illustrators Ron Embleton and Dan Lawrence (THE TRIGAN EMPIRE) and anything by Berni Wrightson.

I met other like-minded souls that every school had; a bunch of kids sitting under a tree each lunchtime talking about Dr. Who and the like. I was constantly drawing at all times and filling up page after page with characters and stories. I began by copying faces and figures and redrawing them into stories of my own design – black biro straight onto newsprint type paper and coloured with markers.

Around the early 80’s, as I was starting high school, the characters of Da ‘n’ Dill emerged. ‘Dill’ being a radioactive human bird and ‘Da’, a goblin-like blue alien, both with violent tendencies. The entire premise of the comic at that time was the stalking of a geeky guy with glasses known as Ian. It was pretty daft teenage absurdism, but was a big hit with friends and fun to do, so I didn’t stop. Hundreds of pages were spent documenting this and eventually I had the idea to staple them into books entitled FRANKIE LAINE’S COMICS AND STORIES, draw covers and make one-off issues. These things circulated the school and, amazingly, always came back – ragged but in one piece.

After discovering a new shop called MINOTAUR that specialised in selling comic books, old and new, my horizons expanded quickly. It was now possible to get all sorts of weird and wonderful things beyond the outer-suburban newsstand and soon I was soon knee-deep in older work like The Spirit and the new wave of indie comics like LOVE AND ROCKETS and EIGHTBALL, HEAVY METAL, Euro albums and undergrounds. This caused me to take comics more seriously and I started experimenting with brushes, ink and better paper.

While in MINOTAUR, I spotted a notice on the window looking for contributors to a local anthology called Fox Comics, one of the only things like that going at that time, and made contact. The guys there were good to me and I got my first published pages in there but I could clearly see they had higher aims and ambitions for this magazine and I was way out on my own tangent. I met a lot of great people through the magazine – Greg Gates, in particular, gave me a lot of sound advice and broadened my tastes quite a lot with his amazing collection of books. With his assistance, the first mini-sized comic called FRANKIE LAINE’S COMICS AND STORIES was printed in 1996. Completely nutty stuff but done with almost manic conviction and energy. Four more of these self-published comics followed, roughly one per year.

At the start of 90s, local comics creators began to emerge with more confidence, united by comic conventions that began to regularly appear. The conventions threw like-minded creators together and provided deadlines to create new material. This, together with the boom in black and white indie comics created a very productive atmosphere for everyone. It was at this time I made contact with Gary Chaloner who was doing some very professional looking comics, and I was invited to do some inking on his title THE JACKAROO and a four issue series for the US called PLANET OF THE APES: URCHAK’S FOLLY. This experience gave my work some much needed discipline.

Comics had always been a staple ingredient of the showbag experience and were often an entry point for young readers. I have strong memories of arriving home from the Royal Show and gorging myself on Bertie Beetles while curled up with The Phantom or a random issue of Bumper Batcomic. These comics were stuffed in there without much thought, because they were normally unsold issues from the newsagencies and therefore often the stuff nobody wanted. But that was going to change.

The people at THE SHOWBAG FACTORY began to consider looking for unique cartoon characters, with stories, language and settings a bit more familiar and relatable than the usually depicted musclemen in spandex punching each other above generic New York cityscapes. They also wanted to regulate any excessively violent and unsavoury material sometimes slipping through and the complaining letters and phone calls from vigilant parents that would follow. Also, they wanted to be able to print exact numbers for each different style bags so no child came home with multiple copies of any one comic.

I approached a showbag company with the idea of creating comics especially for them. The comics I had printed impressed them enough and I wrote and drew two 32 page comics over the summer of 1991. I hardly expected anything to become of this deal and almost had a heart attack when a sizable royalty cheque and dozens of fan letters showed up in the mail.

For the next eight years, one-man operation COWTOWN COMICS began supplying issues of DA ‘N’ DILL, TALES OF THE OVOID and BURR AND SPUD to this captive young audience. They soon became the country’s most widely-read and successful comics with print runs in the tens of thousands for each issue and not a single issue wasted as they all found homes. COWTOWN was soon able to enlist a selection of the country’s local cartoonists to provide their versions of DA ‘N’ DILL from Dillon’s scripts and even provided a training ground for young emerging artists.

COWTOWN COMICS centered around its flagship title DA ‘N’ DILL, though toned-down, somewhat for the younger audience. They were full of dark, surreal humour and not like anything else out there. It was met with an overwhelming positive response from readers and kids would post in letters, drawings, poems, story ideas, and art samples, some of which were published each following issue. One parent wrote to say his kids had adapted one of the longer fairytale style stories into a play, other kids started up fan clubs. A lot of the reaction might have stemmed from the fact it was something kids felt was their own, right down to the local Post Office Box address, in a country that hasn’t had any real local cartoon icons since the days of GINGER MEGGS.

I continued this production for almost ten years and as result there were almost a million copies of my comics printed and stuffed in showbags. I was actually sub-hiring others for a while and it looked like a mini industry could emerge but, sure enough, the company went under, taking the project down with it. Nice while it lasted. After thirteen issues (on average two a year and often reprinted) It came to an unexpected end in 1999 when THE SHOWBAG FACTORY, based in Wangaratta, went into receivership leaving thousands of copies of the newest issue locked inside it’s warehouse. Somehow, a small number of copies of the last comic, DA ‘N’ DILL #7 found their way into other company’s showbags and no payment was ever recovered for this issue.

During this time I was cashed-up enough to try publishing comics through newsagents. My thinking was that I could use the showbag comics as a platform to launch identifiable titles onto the stands. It didn’t really work. In 1995 I secured permission to create a Martin/Molloy comic, based on the then very popular Tony Martin, Mick Molloy radio show. It was a success, being one of the few Australian comics to make good sales, but after the third issue the program ended and therefore the comic. Still… nice while it lasted.

At this point I was doing a lot of promotional material for the music scene. Festival and band poster, t-shirt designs and album covers. For two bands I was a big fan of, THE FIREBALLS and THE FAT THING, I produced promotional comic books that were sold at gigs and record stores. One comic for the band SATELLITE was included in a CD booklet.

Another project was a comic based on a bunch of inner-city bohemians living in a share-house (not very unlike my life at that time) called Pop Culture and Two Minute Noodles. This resulted in several issues, often including guest art from the great pool of talent we have here but… ultimately, I couldn’t shape it the way I really wanted. I wanted to do long, complex, bitter-sweet stories about these characters but all I could manage were short stories or gags. It still resonated very well at the time and in retrospect, the stories have become interesting little time capsules.

At the turn of the century, kids’ magazines stared to appear that included comics so, taking along my showbag comics, I demonstrated to K-Zone magazine that I could suit that market and they tried me out. (No kids’ mags were taking local content at that point, so I’m proud to have helped turn the tide there) Early issues featured coloured versions of some of the DA ’N’ DILL showbag comic stories and then later, new stories.

After a year I introduced a new female character to balance the mostly male Da ‘n’ Dill strip. BATRISHA THE VAMPIRE GIRL was a much simpler, stylised strip, influenced by the toy design work I was doing at the same time and an intentionally animated quality. It proved to be even more popular and it replaced DA ’N’ DILL, running until 2017.

Da ‘n’ Dill were moved to the the colour comics supplement in the Sydney Sun Herald and ran as a six panel gag strip for several years.

K-ZONE developed a sister publication called TOTAL GIRL in 2003 and I wrote and illustrated a comic serial in there called ROCK ’N’ ROLL FAIRIES over many years.