Growing up, illustrator Toby Morris rarely saw the New Zealand he knew in comics – until he discovered Terry Teo.
The school library. Hampton Hill Primary. Tawa. 1990. I’m curled up in a corner on the carpet so the teacher can’t see what I’m reading and I’m having a moment. It’s a comic that looks a bit like Tintin, but feels like… here. In the book, two hunters walk through the bush when out of nowhere a pig shoots out of the ferns. Startled, a hunter drops his gun and it fires into the air. “Crikey dick!” he says. Crikey dick? That’s what my grandad says!
Before long the teacher spots me and I’m kindly shooed back towards a ‘real book’ like a chicken that’s accidentally wandered away from the coop. I tuck it in between some big hardcovers to find another day. It stays with me though: Terry and the Last Moa. Terry Teo.
I remember the power of that moment of recognition. It’s hard to explain how rarely I saw my New Zealand in the culture I consumed as a 9-year-old in Tawa. I heard New Zealand in What Now, the news and my parent’s Front Lawn album, but I rarely saw myself, my mum or my house. I never saw our Tongan neighbours and never heard anyone say ‘stink buzz’. In all the books and all the movies and all the hours of TV I consumed, I never once saw gorse on the hills. TV was all Gillette ads and Wella women; clean-shaven bankers lounging on Lamborghinis. My dad had a moustache and caught the train. So did all his mates. I was a scruffy dorky skateboarding kid from the boring burbs. Terry Teo was a scruffy dorky skateboarding kid from the burbs too, but he actually got into adventures.
Terry and The Gunrunners in 1982 was the first book. It was adapted into a TV series in 1985, featuring the classic ‘Oh oh, oh oh’ theme song (by Don McGlashan!) and a cast that included Billy T James and Robert Muldoon. In 1986 the second book, Terry and the Yodeling Bull, came out, and in 1990 the trilogy was completed with Terry and the Last Moa – the one I first found. But Terry lived on: Gunrunners was reprinted in 2015, and in 2016 an underrated modern TV reboot was released.
New Zealand comics and cartoons have come a long way since 1990. These days, Victoria University Press – arguably the country’s most respected literary publisher – releases comics by Sarah Laing and Dylan Horrocks. Dylan and Coco Solid (Aroha Bridge) have been arts laureates, while bookshops around the country stock New Zealand comics like Three Words, Dharma Punks and Rufus Marigold. Katie O’Neill’s Tea Dragon books have reached an international audience and inspired a board game and a line of soft toys, while Rachel Smythe’s million-readers-an-episode webcomic Lore Olympus is being turned into an animated series by the bloody Jim Henson Company.
There’s Michel Mulipola who draws WWE comics and Marvel trading cards, and Ant Sang, Giselle Clarkson and Mat Tait who get commissioned by Auckland Museum. The School Journal now prints comics, schools encourage kids to read them and NZ On Air even funds a monthly non-fiction comic series. On our screens, we see distinctly New Zealand animated series like Aroha Bridge, Barefoot Bandits, Jandal Burn and Kiri & Lou. Choice.
But back then it was slim pickings. I’d devour any comics I could get my hands on, but that didn’t happen that often. English joke comics like Buster and Whizzer & Chips got passed around school for snacks, while Tintin and Asterix were the main meal. Occasionally, old copies of 2000AD, Phantom, Commando or Mad magazine would show up at my grandma’s op shop, but that was about it. Now I know there were other New Zealand comics out there emerging from the muck like tadpoles slowly growing legs – Strips, Captain Sunshine, Razor, Jesus on a Stick – but none of them made it to this kid in Tawa in 1990.
But Terry did. And for that, I think Bob Kerr and Stephen Ballantyne deserve a lot of credit. They took something fringey and dragged it into the mainstream, made it unashamedly kiwi. They were ahead of their time, and they did it bloody well.
Reading it again today there’s still a lot to like. There are bad puns like Asterix (Last Moa takes place in Port Manto) and cheeky Tintin references. There are subversive jokes tucked away in the Dominon Herald paper the adults all read, and there’s the skinhead character whose grawlixes (those cartoon symbols that suggest swearing) include National Party logos. There’s graffiti on a wall that says ‘Free George Wilder’.
The landscape and language are unmistakably kiwi, but there are loads of subtle little actions and jokes that ring true too: Terry drinks a carton of juice, inflates it and pops it with a stomp. His brother Ted is desperate to find out the league score and is later disappointed when his team gets smashed. They ride around on the back of utes a lot.
Terry was special. We see echoes of his deadpan humour and unpretentious personality in Taika Waititi’s films for example, and there’s a whole generation of New Zealand comic artists, myself included, who wouldn’t be here without him. I think the books deserve credit for the path they paved. I’m going to stick my neck out here: I think Terry Teo is the great New Zealand comic.
Watch the latest episode of Two Sketches in which Toby meets Terry’s creator Bob Kerr. Watch how nervous Toby is, hear Bob talk about the story behind Terry’s creation and see Toby’s attempt to draw his own take on the iconic character.
Made with the support of NZ On Air
Watch previous Two Sketches here.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.