New Book Chapter: The Transplanted Superhero

STK669592My latest academic publication, a book chapter titled “The Transplanted Superhero: The Phantom Franchise and Australian Popular Culture”, has been published in an edited collection of essays titled Superheroes on World Screens. This volume is edited by Rayna Denison and Rachel Mizsei-Ward and is published by the University Press of Mississippi.

My chapter looks at the production history of The Phantom feature film (1996), which starred Billy Zane in the lead role, and was directed by the Australian filmmaker, Simon Wincer. It explored the historical factors which have contributed to the enduring popularity of The Phantom comic strip and comic magazine in Australia, and how the character’s unique pop culture status inspired a group of Australian film producers and screenwriters to bring The Phantom to the big screen. This chapter also looks at how the globalisation of  Hollywood film production eventually saw Village Roadshow Pictures (Australia) become a key production partner in The Phantom feature film, which was partly shot at the Warner Roadshow Movie World Studio in Queensland, Australia.

Writing in the “Introduction” to Superheroes on World Screens, Rayna Denison, Rachel Mizsei-Ward and Derek Johnston make the following observations about my chapter:

Despite being a relative box office disappointment, The Phantom film offers a new lens through which to consider the notions of the popular, the national, and transnational in superhero filmmaking. Through such examples, it is possible to see how “American” films are co-opted by local communities, aware of high-profile American superhero texts being produced by and in their local communities. Consequently, chapters like Patrick’s have the potential to challenge understandings of how the superhero operates (as genre, character, and cultural archetype), providing a means to reconceptualise these figures as less intrinsically American (pg.12)

Superheroes on World Screens can be purchased online directly from the University Press of Mississippi, as well as through leading online bookstores. An online preview for Superheroes on World Screens is also available on Google Books.(Cover image courtesy of Previews World)

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Frew’s Phantom Cover Makeovers

The Phantom comic book, like all forms of genre-bound entertainment, adheres to a formula which blends novelty and familiarity in near-equal measure. We know that, in most instances, when we open an issue of The Phantom, there is a good chance the story will be set in the jungles of Bangalla; that “The Ghost Who Walks” will be confronted by a new threat to himself, his family, or to the jungle domain he is duty-bound to protect; and that, after surmounting overwhelming odds or dangerous obstacles, The Phantom will use his quick wits, finely-honed instincts and sheer physical strength to overcome evildoers (whose jaws will, at some point, come into contact with the Skull Ring worn on his right fist).

In the Australian context, part of the enduring appeal of The Phantom comic  magazine (produced continually by Frew Publications since September 1948) must be attributed to its regularity (each new issue goes on sale every fortnight with clockwork regularity), its ubiquity (there would be very few newsagents or newsstands in Australia which didn’t stock this comic), and – at least until the mid-1980s – its visual familiarity. Since the early 1950s, Frew Publications seldom departed from its tried & tested cover design formula, wherein the reddish-orange “Phantom” logo would be plastered across the uniform blue backdrop, punctuated by the barest hint of background detail – the hint of jungle foliage, the deck of a boat, or a glimpse of a brick wall. The purple-costumed Phantom stood out in stark relief against this purposefully bland background, which was no doubt a useful sales technique which ensured that The Phantom got noticed amidst the once-crowded comic book sections of retail newsagency outlets and on newsstand racks.

Yet even within this limited visual palette, Frew Publications began updating the visual appearance of The Phantom throughout the 1960s, arguably in response to increased competition from full-colour, imported American comic books, which had been readmitted to Australian shores in 1960, after a wartime ban on their importation(imposed in 1939-1940) had been lifted after two decades. While Frew Publications freely adapted cover designs used on contemporaneous American editions of The Phantom, only rarely did the company reprint any actual stories from these 1960s-era American editions (It is most likely that Frew Publications would have used its exclusive rights to publish The Phantom comic book in Australia – secured from King Feature Syndicate’s Australian representatives, the Yaffa Syndicate – to ensure that these American versions of The Phantom were not resold in Australia). Consider the following comparison between (left) The Phantom, No.11 (Gold Key/Western Publishing, 1965), and (right) The Phantom, No.349 (Frew Publications, 1967):

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The cover on the left, rendered in vibrant colour, was painted by acclaimed American illustrator, George Wilson. The cover on the right clearly borrowed the foreground figures from the Gold Key edition, but Frew’s (anonymous) cover artist dispensed with the dramatic background created by Wilson, in favour of the featureless blue backdrop. Frew Publications was still using paper covers on The Phantom, which could not adequately reproduce the rich, four-colour artwork seen on the glossy-covered Gold Key comic. This was entirely in keeping with Frew’s frugal production values, which relied on a limited palette of bold, flat covers – such as purple, green and orange – which could be printed on flimsy paper covers.

Frew Publications would, on occasion, attempt to reproduce the full-colour American cover designs more faithfully, while omitting some visual elements which bore no relation to the contents of a specific issue of The Phantom, as seen in these two covers. Once again, the cover on the left (The Phantom, No 7, Gold Key/Western Publishing, 1964) is painted by George Wilson. Frew Publications’ (again, uncredited) cover artist has redrawn Wilson’s design as a black-line illustration, but has removed the background figures of the “super apes” appearing in the American story. The issue shown here (No.350, 1967) actually contained two entirely different Phantom stories: “The Marshall Sisters” (Part 1) and “Adventure in Algiers” (Part 1).

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Why did Frew Publications freely adapt elements of these Gold Key cover designs, without reproducing any of the interior stories for their Australian readers? Oddly enough, Frew Publications did reprint two Gold Key stories – “The Rattle” and “The Test” (originally published in The Phantom, No.2 [1963], and each drawn by Bill Lignante) – in The Phantom (No.236), back in 1963. I suspect it was because the Gold Key stories – which typically ran between 12-15 pages each – were not sufficiently long enough to flesh out Frew’s 32-page editions (which carried little or no advertising), and thus required more pages of artwork per issue. Cost may have also been a factor – did the licensing fees for using these newer American stories, prepared specifically for comic magazines, greatly exceed the licensing fees incurred to reproduce older newspaper strip episodes of The Phantom?

Whatever the reason, these austere adaptations of American cover designs did, in their own way, reflect Frew Publications’ modest efforts to update and modernise the outward appearance of The Phantom comic book. It could be argued that this process began when Frew first published the work of American artist, Sy Barry, who bought a more dramatic and realistic style to The Phantom newspaper comic strip in 1961 (Barry’s first daily newspaper Phantom story, “The Slave Market of Mucar”, was reprinted by Frew Publications in The Phantom, Nos.212-213 [1962]). This continued to be the case throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, as Frew Publications took greater efforts to produce more “modern” cover designs that mirrored Barry’s dynamic, muscular interpretation of The Phantom (Frew would often use Barry’s artwork as the basis for their cover designs). The way it did so was a reflection of the enforced economies of Australia’s comic-book publishing industry, which by this time was struggling to compete with television, radio and popular music for the attention of the youth audience that increasingly spurned comics in favour of more exciting forms of electronic entertainment (mages courtesy of Comic Vine, the Grand Comics Database and MyComicShop.com).

New Journal Article: ‘(Fan) Scholars and Superheroes’

mia-155My latest academic journal article has just been published in Media International Australia (No.155, May 2015), and is titled ‘(Fan) Scholars and Superheroes: The Role and Status of Comics Fandom Research in Australian Media History’ (pp.28-37). The abstract (summary) of this article is as follows:

Comic books, eagerly consumed by Australian readers and reviled with equal intensity by their detractors, became embroiled in post-war era debates about youth culture, censorship and Australian national identity. Yet there are few references to this remarkable publishing phenomenon in most histories of Australian print media, or in studies of Australian popular culture. This article demonstrates how the history of comic books in Australia has largely been recorded by fans and collectors who have undertaken the process of discovery, documentation and research – a task that, in any other field of print culture inquiry, would have been the preserve of academics. While acknowledging some of the problematic aspects of fan literature, the article argues that future research into the evolution of the comic-book medium within Australia must recognise, and engage with, this largely untapped body of ‘fan scholarship’ if we are to enrich our understanding of this neglected Australian media industry.

This article was based on a paper I gave at a conference held at Swinburne University of Technology (Melbourne, Australia) in November 2011, while I was writing my PhD thesis on The Phantom comic book in Australia, India and Sweden. The important contribution that fan-authored scholarship can make to the formal, academic study of comic books was only reinforced for me, as I drew upon (and duly acknowledged) numerous fan magazines (“fanzines”), websites and other resources during my research. The original version of my article did contain specific references to The Phantom, and discussed the community-building function(s) of the “Phantom Forum” letters column in the Australian comic book edition, along with the emergence of Australian Phantom “phan” literature, such as comic-book price guides, story indices, and websites. However, due to space limitations, I had to substantially edit the original version of this article, and opted to remove references to The Phantom, given that I’d discussed these in an earlier article for the UK academic journal, Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, which was published online in 2012.

Media International Australia (formerly Media Information Australia) is Australia’s oldest media studies journal, established by the distinguished academic, Professor Henry Mayer, in 1976. Media International Australia is available (in print and/or electronic versions) through most Australian university libraries and some state/public reference libraries (Check your nearest university/public library’s catalogue to see if they carry Media International Australia). You can also purchase individual issues of Media International Australia directly from the publisher, the University of Queensland (Click here for details).