This is Kathleen O’Brien

By Gwylym Owen

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Kathleen O’Brien (1914–1991), was an Australian comic book artist, book illustrator and fashion artist. O’Brien is most notable for her 1943 comic strip, Wanda the War Girl, the first Australian comic strip to gift an account of dynamism during and after World War II from a female perspective.

Kathleen Mary O’Brien was born in Mackay, Queensland (in her grandfather’s hotel) on 18 October 1914, the daughter of Patrick and Kathleen Mary O’Brien.

As a teenager girl, she travelled everything over Australia with her parents, whilst her father prospected for gold, broke horses and worked in the outback. Her mother’s engagement in art inspired her to become an artist. O’Brien boarded at a Brisbane convent and studied art at the Brisbane Central Technical College, before touching to Sydney in 1937, where she studied for three years later than noted Australian artist J.S. (John Samuel) Watkins (1866–1942).

In 1942 the editor of The Sunday Telegraph, Cyril Pearl, was looking for a supplementary strip to replace Mary and Elizabeth Durack’s Nungulla and Jungalla. Journalist, Bob Slessor, suggested to O’Brien that she think about coming stirring with something. Her idea was a girl in the armed services, Pearl liked the samples and asked her to prepare a strip for the paper.

Wanda was a tough independent young, long-legged curveous redhead, whose series of adventures had her encountering Japanese soldiers and German spies. The before stories were written by journalist, Clifford William Brain, but O’Brien took over the writing of the strip after the war.

Professor Jane Chapman, in her 2011 lecture at Macquarie University, considers that Wanda was inspired by Tarpé Mills’ comic strip, Black Fury (a syndicated American strip, which appeared in The Sunday Telegraph) and Jane by Norman Pett (which appeared in the UK Daily Mirror). According to John Ryan in his Australian Comic anthology, Panel by Panel, “O’Brien developed an unique style which resembled some of the decree of William Dobell.”

Wanda the War Girl first appeared in The Sunday Telegraph on 18 July 1943. Wanda was reputed to be more popular gone school children than Superman. Wanda moreover had a similar appeal like servicemen, with her image often painted upon the sides of tanks and planes.

After the halt of the Second World War the strip was renamed Wanda and took upon the mantle of an adventure/detective strip back it was abruptly terminated mid-story on 25 November 1991. O’Brien basing her storylines on books by Ashton Wolfe, the head of the French Sûreté, combining methods he detailed afterward current newspaper stories, thus Wanda was committed in struggles taking into consideration black-marketeers, foreign spies and smugglers.

The strip was similar to collected into several comic books. Wanda the War Girl was published as a one-shot by Consolidated Press, whilst The Wanda Comic was the first and the fifth in Consolidated Press’ Supercomic Series.

At the same time O’Brien worked as a commercial artiste and baby book illustrator, illustrating twelve books, including Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid (1943), Australia’s first unabridged financial credit of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (1943), Ella Greenway’s Peter Cat (1950) and Nourma Handford’s Carloola Backstage: A Career Novel for Girls’ (1956).

In 1947 she married Robert Blanche. O’Brien briefly taught art at Springwood Ladies College and had a notable career as a fashion artist. O’Brien’s illustrations appearing in advertisements for Myer, David Jones, Georges and Farmers department stores.

Kathleen O’Brien (Blanche) died in her Hazelbrook home on 8 May 1991.

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