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Russell, James Newton (Jim) (1909–2001)

by Mark Juddery

from Australian

Obituary Jim Russell Cartoonist. Born: Campsie, NSW, March 26, 1909. Died: Sydney, August 15, aged 92.

In 1966, he became the only Australian to be elected to the US National Cartoonists Society. Mr and Mrs Pott are a model of durability: married for nearly 80 years, they still look surprisingly well. In fact, like most comic-strip characters, they never seem to age. Even their absurd Uncle Dick, an overweight, cigar-chomping, heavy-drinking layabout, still survives after 50 years of getting into trouble.

As the man responsible for their daily misadventures, Jim Russell could no doubt identify with the staying power of his most famous characters. Even at the age of 90, his drawings had not lost their form, and the punchlines could still raise a smile. For over 60 years — easily a world record for a cartoonist - he guided The Potts through tens of thousands of strips.

Perhaps his secret was that he was always active, never stopping to relax. A remarkably fast cartoonist, he also found the time to be a sport administrator, songwriter, radio and television personality, magazine publisher and tourism consultant. Even as he "retired" from most of these jobs, he still kept an eye on the drawing board.

Not surprisingly, cartooning was in his blood. His older brother Dan also drew comics. Dan was perhaps the more accomplished (and well-trained) artist, though Jim had a keener mind for humour and parody. Their father, himself a closet artist, encouraged both boys in their chosen field until his accidental death in 1915.

Upon leaving school at the age of 15, the younger Russell worked as a copy boy on the Sydney Daily Guardian, but was soon fired for neglecting his job, preferring to mingle in the art department. He moved on to Smith's Weekly, a newspaper which — due to its policy of using only local cartoonists - had become a launching pad for new talent.

At the time, however, Russell could not advance beyond the role of a copy boy as his drawing ability was still not up to standard. Instead, he drifted through various jobs in factories and as an office boy in Sydney Stadium, where he even spent a short period as a boxer.

While working at the stadium, he honed his drawing skills by sketching famous boxers, publishing his sketches in Sydney newspapers. In 1926 this won the attention of the head artist from Fox Films's Australian division, who offered to tutor him in the basics in exchange for two years' work without pay. He accepted the offer, working as a publicity artist until 1928.

It is ironic that Russell, who would later become the grand old man of the comics, began his career as Australia's youngest political cartoonist, working for the Sydney Evening News until it folded in 1931. His love of sports led him to Referee magazine, which in turn led him back to Smith's Weekly.

For Smith's he would write film reviews and lampoon sporting celebrities in a regular segment, A Mirror on Sport. By 1938 he was given half a broadsheet page to draw a comic strip based on the George Edwards radio serial Inspector Scott of Scotland Yard, taking his dialogue directly from radio scripts.

One of his stablemates at Smith's was the US-born Stan Cross who, in 1920, had originated a strip called You & Me. In its original form, this had been about two drunken louts called Pot and Whalesteeth who would meet to indulge in anti-social behaviour and (more to the point) political comment. By editorial request, it later became more of a domestic strip, featuring the scrapes between Pot and his dotty wife.

Cross left Smith's in 1939 to join the Melbourne Herald, taking the character of Whalesteeth with him. Russell inherited Cross's strips, including You & Me, lightening the tone and renaming it Mr & Mrs Pott in January 1940. The Potts's children and grandchildren (occasionally mentioned by Cross but never seen) were introduced.

More significantly, Russell introduced the unscrupulous Uncle Dick, who (over the decades) has practically taken over the strip. In contrast, Mr Pott — relegated to the role of straight man — has mellowed to the point of respectability, the odd tipple notwithstanding.

During the war years, Russell added two satirical strips to his portfolio, Adolf, Hermann and Musso and Schmidt der Sphy. These were surreal pieces, with sub-human caricatures. According to folklore, they earned Russell a place on a Nazi blacklist.

Like most local cartoonists, Russell would branch out into comic books during the 1940s when import restrictions gave Australian comics a lion's share of the national market. At the beginning of 1947, Jim and Dan Russell began their own publishing company, All-Australian Comics.

The pride of the company was Tex Morton's Wild West Comic, starring the popular country singer. Like many Australian comics, it was a second-string copy of American material — in this case similar comics featuring cowboy actors such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry - but it was linked to the Tex Morton Fan Club, which offered a number of goodies, "all for a one shilling postal note!". Dan, who also handled the art chores, was in charge of the fan club. Jim would contribute a back-up story featuring one of Dan's characters, a lady reporter named Wanda Dare.

Jim would start the 1950s on a low. All-Australian Comics folded after only three years due to rising production costs. Smith's Weekly — struggling with declining sales —folded the same year. Making further changes to Mr & Mrs Pott (such as renaming it The Potts), he sold it to the Herald and Weekly Times for national - and later overseas — syndication.

Without his other artistic duties, Russell took his sense of humour to such radio series as The Pressure Pak Show, presented by Jack Davey. Russell remained a panellist on that show until Davey's death in 1959, then appeared on a few TV shows during the '60s.

In his spare time he promoted his other main interest: sport. He had joined the Australian Olympic Federation in 1948, bringing aboard his media contacts and experience. Edgar Tanner, president of the AOF, later described him as "the most capable sporting public relations man I have ever met".

Russell's favourite sports included tennis (he chaired the Davis Cup publicity committee three times) and swimming. When the Olympics came to Melbourne in 1956, he was an administrator, working closely with the swim team. Still aware of the power of media, he introduced the team to videotape, replaying their previous swims as part of the training.

Dawn Fraser, who broke two world records at those games, gave Russell some credit for the team's excellent performance, which resulted in eight gold medals. But Russell was not a coach, simply an enthusiastic supporter with a few good ideas and handy skills.

As well as helping the Olympics, he continued his work as a publicist. This time, as the Olympics were being held on Australian shores, much of the job involved tourism promotion, which Russell handled with ease. He was so keen, in fact, that he would later run three travel agencies — the last one begun when he was aged 90.

By 1973, his travel expertise had inspired Frank Stewart, Australia's first minister for tourism and recreation, to call on him for "coaching" to draft Australia's first tourism policy.

Yet for all his profitable "hobbies", Russell remained a cartoonist first and foremost. In 1966, he became the only Australian to be elected to the US National Cartoonists Society — perhaps because, with its universal style, The Potts was one of the few Australian comic strips whose humour they could understand. He retired as a writer and cartoonist from the Herald and Weekly Times in 1976 but continued to produce The Potts under a special arrangement. That same year he was awarded an MBE for his eclectic contributions to Australian society.

He was later made the patron of the Black and White Artists Club, a society for cartoonists and — in this position — felt obliged to attend every meeting. In the meantime, he was usually working on something else — keeping busy even in his late 80s.

His wife, Billie, died in 1994, after 63 years of marriage. He is survived by a daughter and two grandchildren. Like most long-running characters, the Potts and Uncle Dick will also survive him — but after all these years they might have difficulty becoming used to someone else.

* Mark Juddery is a Canberra-based writer with a special interest in comics and cartoons.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for James Newton (Jim) Russell

Additional Resources

Citation details

Mark Juddery, 'Russell, James Newton (Jim) (1909–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/russell-james-newton-jim-32805/text40807, accessed 4 December 2022.

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