Brendan Akhurst, one of Australia’s leading illustrators and cartoonists, passed away earlier this year after a brief battle with cancer. He was 73. As BJ Akhurst, he was best known to Street Machine readers as the creator of the long-running Wayne & Vicky comic strip and countless other illustrations. His iconic image of Wayne’s XP Falcon and a souped-up A9X hatch facing off at the lights, which appeared on the cover of our 30th-anniversary special, is as recognisably Street Machine as our masthead.
First published in the August 2022 issue of Street Machine
The adventures of Wayne Clodpole, his voluptuous girlfriend Vicky and their Holden-baiting XP coupe were the perfect reflection of our homegrown modified car lifestyle, viewed through a screen of healthy, self-deprecating humour. The cars are beautifully drawn, instantly recognisable, but stupidly tough. You can almost feel the ground shake and smell the fuel. And who didn’t see themselves in the couple’s relationship – the car-obsessed bloke and the spunky sheila who loves him anyway?
“None of us really knew where Brendan got his inspiration from, but some of the characters were based on real people,” Brendan’s widow Michelle says. “Wayne and Vicky were based on Brendan’s neighbours when he lived in western Sydney in the 70s. He changed Vicky’s name so as not to offend.”
Wayne & Vicky debuted in black and white in the Dec ’81/Jan ’82 issue, edited by Geoff Paradise, and went full-colour in Feb/Mar ’83. The duo’s last appearance first time around was in Oct/Nov ’83. Perhaps BJ knew it was the last one: the strip ends with Wayne’s hands turning into breasts mid-drag race and then crashing into the offices of the Australian Women’s Weekly.
In 1984, Wayne & Vicky reappeared in slightly raunchier form in the Bruce Flynn and Mac Douglas-produced Street & Custom mag and, later, Super Street.
I was a massive fan of Wayne & Vicky and also Maynard, a black-and-white strip that ran in Two Wheels throughout the 1980s. So in 2006, I coaxed Brendan into bringing Wayne & Vicky back to Street Machine, which ran all the way through to July 2011. Brendan returned the shout by featuring me in one of the last episodes, immortalising my infamous drag-racing incident in which I somehow ran over myself with a HAMBster. He also continued to illustrate other columns in Street Machine, including AG Workshop, Heroic Tales and Dirty Stuff.
But Wayne & Vicky was only part of a huge body of work from this prolific and talented artist over more than four decades. As well as Maynard and similar cartoons for other special interest magazines, Brendan found mainstream success with syndicated newspaper comic strips Normie (loosely based on The Newcastle Song by Bob Hudson) and Louie the Fly. He also illustrated any number of books by authors as diverse as early-20th-century poet CJ Dennis and latter-day motorcycle hard man Boris Mihailovic.
I first met Brendan in 1995, when I was deputy editor of The Picture and he was getting around in a Valiant Charger. As well as having a good eye for cars, Brendan also drew a good line in pretty girls, which we published every week as BJ’s Babes. Thus I got to know Brendan and witness up close his genius as an illustrator, his gentle nature and his quirky sense of humour, along with the perennial difficulty he had in meeting deadlines, for which he was equally famous and which drove so many of us mad. His excuses were as colourful and creative as his finished work, and, in those far-off pre-internet days, often included the Charger, which wouldn’t start, broke down, got a flat tyre or was damaged in a crash almost every other week.
When I brought Wayne & Vicky back into the fold in 2006, I delegated the task of managing Brendan’s deadlines to Telfo and chief sub-editor Adam Morrissey. “I still have a file of his excuses,” Simon laughs. Adam adds, “I couldn’t help but love him, even as his excuses became as lurid as his art. It was always worth the wait.”
My relationship with Brendan went back even further to 1982, when biker magazine Ozbike published one of the first decent articles I ever wrote, ‘The Evolution of the Motorcycle’. It was a single-page ode to the Norton Commando and was illustrated by Brendan, by now making a living from drawing after a decade with the NSW Water Police. I wrote something similar about a Ducati 900SS for Two Wheels a few years later, and BJ illustrated that one too. He wasn’t into motorbikes so much, but you’d never know that from his illustrations – or his Maynard strip, which reflected the motorcycle lifestyle as accurately as Wayne & Vicky did the car scene.
“I always wanted to sack him because he was so hopeless with deadlines,” then Two Wheels editor Bill McKinnon says. “But I couldn’t, because he was such a lovely fella.” Glen Booth was the editor of Modern Fishing around the same time. “He used to do a cartoon for me too,” he says. “For someone who didn’t fish, he really captured the essence of what it was all about. But you’re right about deadlines.”
Former editor of The Picture and later publisher of Street Machine, Brad Boxall, says for the record that Brendan never missed a deadline on his watch, and prefers BJ be remembered for his drawing talent and humour. “When I first met BJ, we were using him to do caricatures for Rugby League Week,” Brad says. “I asked him for one of dual international and TV broadcaster, Rex ‘Moose’ Mossop, for an interview I had conducted.
BJ duly delivered a tremendous depiction of Mossop’s head on a bull moose, complete with scrotum and testicles. So the publishers thought that was a bit risqué, and they duly lopped off the Moose’s family jewels before printing. When Mossop saw this he blew up, complaining we had castrated the great man, who was renowned as a person of, ahem, great vigour.”
In July last year, Brendan was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which is the one you don’t want to get. Talking to him soon after, he told me his life expectancy was only a few months. Aggressive chemotherapy might extend it marginally. “If my daughter was getting married in three months, I’d do the chemo,” he said, then paused. “But I don’t have a daughter.” I laughed out loud. True to form, he missed his final deadline by some months, passing away on 7 January.
Speaking at Brendan’s funeral, his son Carl had this to say about his much-missed father: “With only one foot ever in reality, the other was free to be skating through fantasy. This let loose Dad’s imaginative perspective and his most steadfast and characterising optimism, as well as his tentative relationship with time.
“Time dilation, Dad would call it. His ability to be late for almost anything. Late for dinner nightly, late for barbershop practice weekly – which was held at his own house – and late for publications monthly. But for his family and friends, he gave his time generously, no matter how late it made him.
“Dad’s technical skill with drawing and art let him share with us his left-field and often hilarious perspective, his ability to highlight humorous unintentional puns when illustrating articles, or when bringing concepts and characters into the visual world. His work was always diligently detailed with an iconic style and tongue firmly planted in cheek.”
Brendan James Akhurst is survived by his wife Michelle, sons Ben, Peter and Carl, granddaughters Claudia and Marisa, and the treasure trove of his life’s work. Bravo!