New Zealand comic-book sales in the 1940s and 1950s were dominated by reprints of syndicated strips imported from the United States and Australia, re-packaged for the local market by two large comic printing and publishing houses, Feature Productions in Lower Hutt and Times Printing Works in Newton, Auckland.
Comics were popular and demand outstripped supply. Booksellers and stationers were reported to each sell between 100 and 500 comics each week. In 1945 a Wellington newsagent claimed that he could have sold 400 on Friday nights if stocks were unlimited.
The ghost who walks
Some comic-book heroes of minor importance in the United States became very popular in New Zealand. Brick Bradford led the science-fiction hero stakes, while The Phantom (‘the ghost who walks’) outsold his caped competitors. Both were printed under licence by Feature Productions in Lower Hutt. Brick Bradford ran for 108 issues, while The Phantom became the longest-running locally printed comic ever, with 556 issues between 1949 and 1960. The Phantom still sold in most New Zealand magazine shops in the 2010s.
The National government elected in 1949 loosened import controls. In 1949 around 48 comic titles were sold in New Zealand, and this increased to 214 by 1952.
Feature Productions was best known for its local runs of American strips Brick Bradford, Mandrake the magician and The Phantom. FP was run by brothers Hugh and Jack Warnes. At their peak they published 10 separate comic titles a week.
Times republished everything from the American comic Teen-age romance to the Australian I hate crime!, often with locally drawn covers. Times was a family enterprise run by John G. Helleur. Comics were 80% of the company's business.
In 1942, as a 13-year-old schoolboy, Eric Resetar published his Buck Rogers-inspired Crash Carson of the Future with the help of his older brother, Ian. Eric had to write to the Department of Internal Affairs to request a supply of paper on which to print his comics. They sold in their thousands, mainly to American servicemen stationed in New Zealand, despite being aimed at children.
Opportunity for local creators
From 1945 Times printed a series of locally created publications by Auckland artist and entrepreneur H. W. (Harry) Bennett. Supreme feature comics ran for 33 issues over a three-year period. Other New Zealand comic artists in this period were Eric Resetar and Jack Raeburn, who produced Sparkles.
In 1952, due to pressure from moralists and the government, the Helleurs had to discontinue many of their more commercial overseas titles for older audiences, such as Black magic, illustrated by American comic artist Jack Kirby. In the years following the crackdown, they struggled to maintain a successful operation, and the company closed its doors in 1954. This was a sign of things to come.