Wednesday 2 March 2016

Ned Kelly : The Man Behind the Mask

Unbelievably, already this year two new books have been published about Ned Kelly. The first was the appalling  “Ned : Knight in Aussie Armour’ by Eugenie Navarre which we reviewed over two Posts here a couple of weeks ago. Its such a dreadful publication that I am not surprised that not a single Kelly sympathizer has dared respond to these damning reviews and attempted to defend it, even though several of them made a big song and dance about its imminent release and the Book launch in Glenrowan. If they had any concern for the bloated and ever growing body of Kelly literature they ought now to be apologising for ever promoting it – nailing it to their dunny walls would be too decent a treatment of it!

“Bailed Up” Tom Roberts
The second 2016 Kelly Book is “Ned Kelly : The Man behind the Mask  by Hugh Dolan.  I discovered it by accident at the bookshop of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, where I visited the awesome exhibition of the paintings of Tom Roberts. One of his most famous paintings  “Bailed up” depicts bushrangers holding up a coach on an outback bush track, and I suppose for this reason, among many others in the Exhibition souvenir shop there were a number of books about Bushranging, and inevitably, about Ned Kelly. This one was a modest $20.00, and is the third in a series published by Newsouth Books.

The author, somewhat surprisingly - given the long hair and green bow-tie he wore for his photo - is a retired Squadron Leader, which would explain why his first two works had war themes : one was about an Indigenous War Hero and the other about Gallipoli. He describes these books as  ‘factual graphic novels’ – or in other words ‘comics’ – and he wrote them for schoolchildren. Ive recently reviewed the way in which Kelly history is told in childrens books and found it universally badly done, so my heart sank – was this going to be another sloppy rehash of Kelly mythology masquerading as history teaching, made even easier to ingest by the use of cartoon  cowboy characters ? A further alarm bell went off in my head when I saw on the back cover “Violent Gunslinger or our greatest hero? Find out who Ned Kelly really was

The book has a soft cover and runs to about 80 pages so can easily be read in one session. Hugh Dolan says that his starting point was a Kelly Country tour with Matt Shore the guy from the Kelly Vault, and says he will measure the books  success ‘by city folk touring the stunning vistas of the Kelly trail’.
Can anyone spot the Typo?
I have no idea at all about what the experts might say makes a good comic, but my guess is that this is a good one. The drawings are clear and uncrowded, and the tones are muted to give the whole thing a sort of old fashioned sepia quality. The text is minimal, the dialogues are simple and the text boxes informative. In fact the story told in this comic is surprisingly comprehensive, and I was impressed by the authors attempt to be impartial and fair to all sides. The good and the bad of the Kellys and of the Police are not exaggerated or disguised, and there doesn’t seem to be any attempt to make a hero out of Ned or demons out of the Police. Obviously in such a brief re-telling, theres very little opportunity to deal in depth with many of the contentious and controversial parts of the story, though I think all are touched on. However, there are three versions of the ‘Fitzpatrick incident’.

At the end, Dolan lists the 8 books he says were stacked on his desk for easy reference while doing the writing and it was pleasing to note one was Morrisseys “Ned Kelly A Lawless Life”. He also lists a few websites, and includes the Iron Outlaw Archive as a resource for its collection of newspaper articles and other documents.

Curiously, no link is provided in the book to something I found on Booktopias listing for this book (which they sell for $15.95) – a free downloadable Teachers Guide and Study Notes by Robert Lewis.(Get yours HERE)
This guide ‘shows how to make most effective use of this graphic text in the history classroom so that students can know, understand and critically evaluate the ideas being put. It also offers a set of criteria for helping students evaluate this and other graphic texts.’
Its excellent reading , though I disagree with this:
 So, which was he: a murderer/terrorist or a victim/hero?  There is no way any of us can finally decide this for ourselves. The historians and writers know far more than we readers will, and they disagree about their conclusions. So we cannot come up with a final conclusion about who Kelly was.
As I have repeatedly said, alleging that Ned Kelly was either a ‘Villain or Hero’ and one is somehow at liberty to choose between them, depending on how you happen to feel at a particular moment is an illogical and false dichotomy. Its a tactic used by the sympathiser lobby to blur the distinctions and elevate the idea that Ned was a hero and to minimise the villainy of his life. The truth is that we CAN arrive at a final conclusion about who Ned Kelly was, just as we can decide if we answer the right questions that a cat is not a dog.  
The Study Guide provides  sets of questions to be answered about various stages and events in the Kelly story, and provides numerous links to a variety of relevant resources. To my great surprise and delight I found among them two active links to THIS BLOG, the first to our discussion about Fitzpatrick,(here) and the second at the very end of the guide where it says this:
The strength of feeling that still exists about the Kelly gang can be seen in the fierce debates that are carried on online between the pro-Kelly Iron Outlaw website, and the critical Ned Kelly: Death of the Legend blog:”

I already liked this Comic, but when I read this reference to my Blog in the Study Guide, I liked it a whole lot more. It signified to me that Death of the Legend Blog is not only being noticed, but is now being recognized as a legitimate part of the serious debate about the Kelly story and that we are making a real difference. I am excited by the prospect of a stream of young historians coming to read our discussions and learning from them, and hopefully even contributing.Kelly sympathisers would have to be concerned about this book being widely distributed, because I don’t doubt that a majority of readers would see through the kelly myths if they applied the techniques of reason and critical evaluation they are being taught in this study guide. 

This book is the best Kelly book ever written for school aged readers, and I hope all Year 9 kids get a chance to read it, but it can be enjoyed by everyone.
At last, another Kelly book I can recommend.  


  1. Back in the early 'seventies I read Charles Osborne's NK bio while doing a thesis on the great Henry Lawson: and realising that "Stringybark (a fragment)" on p.197 was too bad even for a ballad, idly read down the first letters of each line. The result: " Fuck Ned Kelly"....probably more a comment on writing pot-boilers than a reflection on his subject...

  2. A most interesting revelation - Ned was granted a ticket of leave from Van Diemans Land, I have never read that before. So Kelly even lied about his age - typical. How did Morrisey and McFarlane miss that important fact? And the warders were called screws.

    Comically yours,

    Captain Jack

  3. Well done Captain Jack! For spotting the typo I am awarding you a Koala stamp.

  4. Dee, I was the first to see Ned was Red, so do I get a stamp too!

    Must say the drawings are great. On FB Ned Kelly Central check it out, there's a video showing the place where John Kelly lived and a pub lecture by historian Terry Canningham worth a look. Please excuse my ignorance, but the reason why John was called Red was because there were two John Kellys being deported to Van Diemans land,

    Also in 1857, the talk reported that John's 3 brothers of John Red Kelly, Daniel, Edward and James, and his 2 sisters, Mary and Ann, all immigrated together on the ship Maldon to Melbourne. (I presume)

    Where are the descendants of all those Kellys now. There must be thousands out there somewhere?

  5. Captain Jack should head for Specsavers. My copy of the MacFarlane book certainly mention the Van Diemen's Land ticket of leave. Morrissey's book book which I have before me may mention it but I can't be bothered doing Captain Jack's research for him.

    The book you reviewed, Dee, has many serious errors even on the pages you supplied. Ellen Kelly could read and write, a ticket of leave was not probation other than in the loosest interpretation. Its just a simplistic comic book. MacFarlane and Morrissey have delved into places the supporters didn't even know existed. By far the best Kelly books so far.

    1. No Koala Stamp for you I’m afraid Ron! The Typo you missed was the panel that has NED being granted a ticket of leave from van Diemans land! ( should have been RED ) But you’re right that Morrisseys and MacFarlanes books are the best so far, but this is a comic for kids and is the Best in Class by a long shot.

      And Bill, I don’t hand out the Koala stamp like lollies you know! Theres still one to be had by the person who spots the mistake in the Audio you hear in the Beechworth Courthouse...( to those not in the know, the Koala stamp is the rarely awarded accolade given out to special guests of the marvellous Philip Adams on Late Night Live, who has not actually given me permission to award them but I don’t think he will mind!)

    2. Yes Ron, I probably do need new glasses.As for the 2 books, MacFarlane's book is scrupulous in its selective use of facts, and its aversion to printing anything that may contradict it's hypothesis. Morrisey's book is a polemic that is more like an Andrew Bolt opinion piece, littered with "I reckons" and no list of sources, so it is hard to take the book seriously.

      There, I said it.

      Thank you for the Koala Stamp Dee!

      Yours naughtily,

      Captain Jack

      Love to all!!

    3. Captains always do things naughtily!

      And no need to hesitate to express opinions about our two favourite books! No book is ever perfect, and in my own review of Morrisseys one I was also critical of its lack of proper references. And other than recommending it I have never actually reviewed MacFarlanes book here - maybe I should and that would give others an opportunity to air their grievances about it. And Ive always had enormous respect for Ian Jones writings; his piecing together of the actual history is outstanding but of course I am convinced his analysis is wrong in some important places.

      It would be great to hear more analysis rather than just opinions.

  6. Red Kelly probably had red hair.

  7. Capt Jack,

    Where is there a single MacFarlane fact that is 'selective'. He doesn't attempt a wacky ABC balance. Why should he quote wrong Kelly legendary material to keep Kelly sympathisers like you happy? He quoted the Kelly archival documents, the most accurate records of the time (as did Morrissey who spent months at PROV).

    I don't think you have ever been there.

  8. The good Captain is a well-known IO Kelly sympathizer. As such, his views are suspect and probably wrong.

    1. Well instead of doing what so many sympathisers do, which is just attack the person, why not make a case for why you think he’s wrong? That could be helpful to everyone. No stamp for you!

  9. The Captain is a seemingly affable, courteous fellow with a sense of humour. But he also tried to king hit Macfarlane and morrissey's books which he obviously hasn't read. I don't get how people can trash books they haven't read. WEIRD.


1. Moderation is back on. I haven’t got time to be constantly monitoring what comments are made and deleting the mindless rubbish that Kelly sympathisers have been posting lately. Please post polite sensible comments, avoid personal abuse and please use the same name whenever you Post, even if its a made-up name.