John (Jack) Gibson. The 'Hell' cartoonist of Australian MAN magazine.
John (Jack) Gibson
The 'Hell' artist / cartoonist of Australian MAN magazine
Born Burwood, NSW, 1904. Died Glebe, NSW, 1980.

- Greg Ray

Just ONE page on the Collecting Books and Magazines web site based in Australia.
Page updated 22nd April, 2010.

Jack (as he was called) Gibson (or 'Gibby' as his friends called him) grew up in Burwood, NSW, and completed primary school there. He started work as a signwriter and then moved on to illustration. He also found some work as a self-taught draughtsman. But what he really wanted to be was a writer and he had a number of humorous articles published in newspapers between 1927 and 1933. Many of these he illustrated too. His local paper 'The Great Northern' was one of the first publications to take his work.

Gibson also flirted with being an actor and appeared with the Neutral Bay Players Club at the Mosman Town Hall in The Mummy with Mumps during the Club's 1929-1930 season. In the 1930s he spent some time as a model constructor and designer for one of Sydney's amusement parks. He started contributing to the Sydney publishing group K G Murray in 1937. At that time some of his cartoons took on a cubist style but he soon reverted to a more traditional approach.

The first of his famous Hell cartoons appeared in 1938.

In the December 1937 issue of Man, Gibson wrote a two-page feature on modern art in which he attempted a brief survey of surrealism, concluding that: "a lot of people would rather have something they can understand". The introduction to that article read: "Man's modernist artist affected the modern style because he was not satisfied with 'drawing things as they are'. 'I endeavour to twist existing forms into decorative designs, not to distort nature into unrecognisable monstrosities', he says."
The first of his famous Hell cartoons appeared in 1938.

He first hit on the Hell idea when he was drawing a couple of men digging a hole in the ground. They dug so deep they suddenly crashed through the ceiling of Hell, whereupon one of the men accused his friend: "You and your six feet more!"

Hell made the cover of Man on September 1939, in full colour, and the next year a number of three-page, folding versions of the intricate cartoons were published. Before long Hell became a regular feature, almost always depicting a new arrival in Hell, with a comic blockline explaining how they got there. The head devil, "Ye Bosse" was frequently featured and was a favourite character among servicemen during the war.

To many people, the monthly Hell cartoon remains the single most memorable feature of Man magazine. While the magazine was generally considered too naughty for young people to see, those that managed to gain access were often less interested in the nude studies than in Gibson’s mind-boggling visions of the underworld, with their incredible sadistic contraptions, their sometimes seductive demonesses, their suggestive landscape backdrops that often looked like certain human body parts and their appallingly bad puns.

Taking a long view, some might even put the Hell cartoons in the same tradition as the crowded nightmare portrayals of artists like Breughel and Bosch.

Caricatures of course, but always with the nagging subliminal subtext that any of us can make our own demons and torments in our everyday lives – if we aren’t careful with our choices.
In his 2002 memoir Sweet and Sour, former Man art-room staffer Herbert Young recalled Gibby as “brilliant in his own way”.

He had crooked eyes, sore elbows and a habitual hangover – as well as a nervous giggle.”

Quite apart from Hell, Gibson was a fine illustrator whose early work in both line drawing and painting displayed a strong sense of the Art Deco style.

Gibson's art work also appeared in other Murray magazines such as Man Junior and Cavalcade.

In 1945 Man attempted to launch a similar Gibson feature, "Our Town", which, like Hell, was an extremely detailed double-page spread. Unlike Hell, Our Town depicted merely mortal quirks and never gave the cartoonist the same scope for his imagination. It did not last long.

Another Gibson trademark cartoon was his "crazy train", in which a misguided steam loco found itself in numerous ludicrous situations. This idea must have struck a chord with train buffs: similar cartoons, written to order by Gibson, were published in the rail industry magazine “Rail Transportation” in the early 1950s.

Gibson also wrote and drew for the strange, quirky magazine Pertinent, whose editor, Leon Batt, combined Gibson’s work with that of “Kings Cross witch” Rosaleen Norton to illustrate the first edition of his own book of poems, titled Not for Fools.

Jack Gibson’s son John followed in his father’s footsteps, pursuing a career in cartooning. For professional and personal reasons he adopted his step-father’s name – Jensen – and achieved great success in England where he is still highly successful and respected.

In recent correspondence – prompted by the appearance of this web page – Mr Jensen kindly shed more light on his father and his work. He noted that Gibby was married three times.

His first wife - and my mother - was Re Bowley, one of eight brothers and sisters who arrived in Australia, from South London, in 1918: that is, before peace broke out! They were married in 1929 and broke up around 1933. They were totally unsuited to each other. Re (shortened version of Ruby Elsie) was too young, too romantic and too conventional for Gibby who was a third generation Australian.

Gibby was, if not truly bohemian, at least relaxed and freewheeling about life.

His second wife was Daphne Winslow, English born but much better suited to Gibby. They fought and quarrelled as is the way of many married couples, but always returned to each other. They were both profoundly fond of each other despite the hiccoughs along the way. Daphne was a lovely person, tall, willowy and the owner of a lovely sense of humour. She acted at what was then the Minerva Theatre in Kings Cross.

Daphne died of cancer sometime during the 70s. Dad felt the loss very deeply,” Mr Jensen recalled.
Gibby next married an old friend, whom Mr Jensen remembers only as “Pam”. The marriage was relatively short-lived.

Dad was a difficult person to cope with: a child at heart,” Mr Jensen said.

Gibby made models for Sydney's Luna Park. His favourite creations were the horrors of the Ghost Train. The clay models were baked in Mum's ordinary kitchen oven, usually at a time when dinner should have been under way.”

During the 1940s, Mr Jensen said, his father received about 15 pounds for each Hell cartoon – not a princely sum, but combined with other freelance jobs he was probably reasonably comfortable.

After he retired K.G. Murray’s art department “set about cutting up and re-jigging old Hell drawings”, Mr Jensen said.

This did not please Gibby at all. Nor was he offered any cash in compensation! He had reached a stage when he claimed he just couldn't think them up anymore (or he didn't want to). I believe him. After 55
years in the business I know just how he felt
.”

Gibby’s nephew, well-known Sydney columnist Mike Gibson, wrote in 1974 that his uncle was “one of the bohemian artists who lived in or around Kings Cross. Others included Syd Nicholls, Virgil Reilly, George Finey, Unk White and George Sprod.”

Gibson stopped cartooning in 1973. He said the fun had gone out of it. By then his Hell series had been running for over 35 years. The year after he retired Man magazine folded.

For a short time he illustrated some advertisements for a furniture shop in Sydney then took on some other work for the shop before he retired. He moved into a boarding house in Glebe where he was beaten up several times by people after his pension. He died in 1980.”

Much information in this article supplied by the Black and White Artists’ Society.
Illustrations above - Small details from the original 'Hell' illo used in the August, 1941 issue on 'Man' (Page author's collection).

Any problems or questions? Email John at chiefchook@gmail.com

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