|Matthew Kelly, the Australian 'Superman'|
Illustration by Daniel Keating
I was asked by Island's editor, Matt Lamb, this question: ‘What would have happened if baby Superman had landed in outback Australia?’
I answered this question in an essay, but also in a fictional biography, which celebrates the life of one Matthew Kelly, Australian superhero.
At twenty, Kelly joined the police force. According to his diaries, his powers began to show themselves more frequently: he ran faster than any man or animal, took a blackjack to the jaw without harm. He could see, he wrote, ‘the nice folds of pale skin and patches of fur’ under the ladies’ straight-up-and-down dresses. Kelly was directing traffic on the corner of Flinders and Swanston Sts when he first used his powers in public: he was hit by a Studebaker. The car was smashed in half. Kelly arrested the driver for drunkenness: he could ‘see the alcohol in the bludger’s blood’.
In court, the young driver’s defence accused Kelly of prejudice, and asked: ‘Were you, Mr Kelly, inebriated at the time of the accident? You say you were hit by Mr Luthor, but you are unharmed, while my client’s vehicle is destroyed.’Lex Luthor was freed.
Kelly continued to work in the force, but was never zealous: he spent his days arresting fellow Irish Catholics for petty crimes. His diaries reflect chronic resentment. ‘The same class of bastards who ordered us over the trenches,’ he wrote in 1921, ‘now hold up my promotion’. He saved his money, and took care of his mother, widowed by alcohol earlier that year.
In 1922 Kelly began punishing criminals at night. He ignored petty theft but was severe with violence. Fire- arms melted in criminals’ hands. Rapists were frozen where they stood. He left tips for detectives: anonymous phone calls about opium, bookmaking, insider trading – often involving Melbourne’s Protestant elite. A judge was found tied up in an illegal brothel. A politician was photographed, from above, in a dry area buying crates of cheap whisky in Camberwell. (No charges were laid, but his career as a ‘temperance’ leader was over.)
In the thirties Kelly’s surviving army comrades began dying of lung cancer and emphysema: partly smoking, partly mustard gas. He wrote in his diary that he could ‘now see the tar and tumours in the lungs of the cop shop secretaries’. He stopped smoking soon after.
Kelly developed a reputation as a ‘fair, tough copper’. He met returned diggers who tried to recruit him into their nationalist paramilitary, who, as he wrote, ‘sing the praises of hardworking white men, without Europe’s decedance [sic].’ A handful of unionists invited him to their communist meetings. Kelly derided their talk of ‘the brotherhood of all men in socialist Australia’. He rejected both as hopelessly utopian.
While he was not given to philosophical speculation, Kelly believed men were too corruptible, too weak, too stupid for any political solution. ‘Hope,’ he told Archbishop Mannix after his mother’s funeral, ‘is the enemy of a good life.’The fantastic illustrations are by Daniel Keating, who also illustrated the Australian editions of Distraction and Philosophy in the Garden, and my recent Meanjin essay on superheroes.