comic strip artist, illustrator, commercial and fashion artist, was born in her Irish grandfather’s pub in Mackay, North Queensland, on 18 October 1914 [ sic ], daughter of Patrick and Kathleen Mary O’Brien. Her mother, who modelled Aboriginal figures in clay and was an expert hand-weaver, inspired Kate (also known as Kath) to become an artist. After a peripatetic youth travelling around the Australian interior with her family (her father was a gold prospector, horse-breaker and general outback worker), she boarded at a Brisbane convent. The sisters encouraged her talent for drawing and reassured her about the propriety of attending evening life classes at the Brisbane Technical College, which they arranged for her. In 1937, she left for Sydney to study art with J. S. Watkins for three years.

In 1942, when Sunday Telegraph editor Cyril Pearl was looking for an Australian comic strip to replace Mary and Elizabeth Durack 's Nungalla and Jungalla , Bob Slessor (brother of the poet) suggested that O’Brien prepare a sample. Wanda the War Girl (retitled Wanda after the war) appeared from early 1943 until abruptly terminated mid-adventure in 1951. Initially influenced by Black Fury , an earlier wartime comic in the Telegraph drawn by another woman, the American Tarpe Mills, and by Petts’s extremely successful English stripper Jane , O’Brien’s Wanda increasingly acquired a vernacular Australian character. John Ryan called it 'one of the first comics to reflect a female point of view’ and believed it gradually 'developed a unique style which resembled some of the work of William Dobell and represented one of the most original and individual styles ever to appear in Australian comics’.

The strip was collected into comic books. Wanda the War Girl was published as a one-shot by Consolidated Press c.1944-46, while The Wanda Comic was the first and Wanda the fifth in Consolidated Press’ Supercomic Series (1947-1950s) – the only ones of the 66 published that were not US reprints (Mick Stone in Bonzer p.174). It brought Kate a certain amount of fame. She was mentioned from time to time in 'Granny’s’ column in the Sydney Morning Herald and she was invited to live at Merioola, Chica Lowe’s 'bohemian’ artists’ house in the eastern suburbs where everybody who was anybody in the arts gathered. She became involved in the activities of the loosely federated group of artists who infested the place (including painters Anne Wienholt and Mitty Lee Brown ) but split with them when they disapproved of her involvement with an ex-naval man, Robert Blanche, who had come to Sydney from India in 1947. The group apparently considered him unlikely to accept her life as an artist, but she nevertheless married him in 1947.

After the war O’Brien took over writing as well as illustrating Wanda , basing some of her stories on the books of Ashton Woolfe, head of the French Surêté, combined with items from the newspapers. In the late 1940s she sent her material down to Sydney from the Blue Mountains, where she lived for a short period after her marriage. She briefly taught art at Springwood Ladies College; Joan Kerr was one of her pupils (another was the Sydney fashion artist and women’s magazine editor, Jill Chalker). The Judy O’Neill Comic (Golden Comic, published J.S. Wilkinson c.1948), ’32 pages of packed action’ half in colour, which cost 6d, had a woman ace detective thwarting the nefarious plots of Otto Skrenk, one of Himmler’s deputies, Saki See, chief torturer to the Japanese Kempi, Arthur Fezzi, a henchman of Mussolini, and Boris Karkoss, an ex-terrorist, all of whom had fled to post-war Australia with atomic weapons. Although retrospectively admired as 'well drawn, witty and a real gem’ (see Shiell, p.144, full page ill. p.145), only one issue was ever published. No artist is identified on the cover, but the style is obviously O’Brien’s even though Mick Stone’s checklist of comics (in Shiell ed. 1998, p.161) claims it was by Jack Kilgour .

At the same time O’Brien worked as a commercial artist and book illustrator. Altogether she illustrated 12 books with Hans Christian Andersen’s Mermaid a favourite. She illustrated Australia’s first unabridged Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass in Australia (ACP: Sydney, 1943: reprints 1944, 1946 and 1947 – all on increasingly poor quality paper) – one of several wartime versions of Alice produced along with other British classics to compensate for the fact that UK books were no longer being shipped to Australia. O’Brien’s Alice is a bold, confident and assertive little girl in a short wartime skirt. She illustrated Ella Greenway’s Peter Cat (Colorgravure: Melbourne, 1950) and one of Nourma Handford’s 'Carcoola’ books – Carloola Backstage: A Career Novel for Girls (Dymock’s Book Arcade: Sydney, n.d. [1956]).

O’Brien had a distinguished career as a fashion artist. Her fashion illustrations for Georges, Farmers, Myers and David Jones department stores gained international acclaim. Advertisements for which she did the artwork won New York’s prestigious Retail Advertising Week’s Sekleman Award in 1962 (Hordern Bros) and in 1973 (David Jones), the former being the first presented to a retailer outside the USA. She continued to produce extremely stylish fashion drawings until arthritis forced her to stop in about 1984. Late in life she was cared for by the second of her four daughters, Cynthia Blanche, who described her mother as strong-minded, strong willed and an enemy of pretension. Kate O’Brien (Blanche) died in her Hazelbrook home on 8 May 1991.

Kerr, James Semple
Kerr, Joan
Date written:
Last updated: