If you find yourself in Melbourne, Australia, on Friday, 25 September 2015, then come and join me as I discuss “The Business of Comics” with John Lenarcic at RMIT University. This free event is being held as part of the Designa Monologues series of lectures, and promises to be an entertaining and (hopefully) thought-provoking discussion about the business of comics in Australia – past, present, and future (Event runs from 5.30 pm-6.30 pm, Friday, 25th September, 2015. Venue: RMIT University, Academic Building, Level 2, Room 16, Melbourne campus)
My 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)
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):
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).
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 , 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 ). 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).
My 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).
I have belatedly learned of the recent death of John Dangar Dixon (pictured left, early 1970s), one of Australia’s leading comic artists, who died in Bonsall, California, on 7 May 2015. His name may not be widely known amongst Australian “phans” of The Phantom, but during his long career, John Dixon made a memorable, although brief, contribution to Frew Publications, the Australian company responsible for producing the world’s longest-running edition of The Phantom comic book.
Although he was arguably best known for the internationally syndicated newspaper comic strip, Air Hawk & the Flying Doctor (1959-1986), Dixon enjoyed his earliest success as a comic-book author and illustrator, creating the aviator-adventure series, Tim Valour Comic (pictured below), for publisher H.J. Edwards (Sydney, Australia) in 1948. This was soon followed by a costumed superhero series, The Crimson Comet, created for the same publisher in 1949. Both titles would go on to become two of Australia’s longest-running, and best-selling comic book series, and each were exported to Great Britain during the 1950s – a remarkable achievement for any Australian comic book, then and now.
Ron Forsyth, one of the co-founders of Frew Publications – which has published the Australian edition of The Phantom since 1948 – was impressed by Dixon’s work and hired him to redesign and relaunch one the company’s earlier superhero titles, Catman, in 1958. Dixon also drew several issues of Sir Falcon, a modern-day knight created by Peter Chapman (which was heavily modelled on The Phantom) during the late 1950s. Dixon also illustrated several covers for Frew’s Giant Size Phantom Comic during this period, but sadly, never had the opportunity to draw his own version of The Phantom. Yet as these cover illustrations show, Dixon’s interpretation of “The Ghost Who Walks” would have been nothing less than terrific and, in my opinion, easily matched the early work of American comics artist Sy Barry, who would take over drawing The Phantom newspaper comic strip in the early 1960s (see below). I have written a brief tribute to John Dixon on my companion blog, Comics Down Under, but I would also refer readers to Queensland publisher Nat Karmichael’s tribute to John Dixon, who will be remembered as one of the finest comic-book illustrators of his generation (Images courtesy of Comicoz and The Deep Woods websites).
The State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, recently hosted an exhibition titled Pulp Confidential: Quick & Dirty Publishing from the 40s and 50s. This exhibition, which featured many rare Australian “pulp-fiction” novels, comic books and other periodicals from the 1940s and 50s, was assembled from the archives of the Frank Johnson Publishing Company, which were acquired by the State Library in 1965.
This exhibition will be of particular interest to Phantom “phans”, because it featured many comic books and “pulp-fiction” novels and magazines illustrated by the Australian comic-book artist, Peter Chapman, who later became a staff artist and editor for Frew Publications (Sydney), which has continuously published the Australian edition of The Phantom comic book since 1948.
Interestingly, Peter Chapman was sometimes called upon to redraw sections of The Phantom comic book during the conservative 1950s era, especially if some of the original (American) artwork depicted scenes deemed too violent to safely make it past the gaze of Australian censors. You can see an example of Peter’s “censored” artwork in The Phantom No.1720 (Replica Special No.4), which reproduces Frew’s original edition No.188 (published in 1961), and has a censored sequence from Part Two of “The Seahorse”, redrawn by Peter Chapman (Take a close look at the panels from this story where The Phantom has been lowered underwater by the evil Baron Danton, and you’ll see what I mean – that’s not the work of the original artist, Ray Moore!) For more details about Peter’s life and work in Australian comics and beyond, you can read my 2007 ChronicleChamber.com interview with Peter Chapman here.
Although the Pulp Confidential exhibition closed on 10 May 2015, you can still visit the State Library of New South Wales’ exhibition website, which features a video documentary narrated by the exhibition curator, Associate Professor Peter Doyle (Macquarie University, NSW), wherein he interviews Peter Chapman at his home in rural New South Wales (Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales).
The Phantom Show is an exhibition curated by Peter Kingston and Dietmar Lederwasch, featuring contributions from over 30 Australian and New Zealand artists, who have paid tribute to The Phantom through original artworks encompassing paintings, drawings, screen print illustrations, ceramic works and sculptures. It is on display at the Wollongong Art Gallery (New South Wales, Australia) until 28 June 2015.
The Phantom Show was originally exhibited at the Australian Galleries in Paddington (Sydney, Australia) from 9-21 December 2014. You can read The Sydney Morning Herald‘s December 2014 profile on exhibition co-curator and artist Peter Kingston here, which includes a delightful online video interview with Peter, dressed as “The Ghost Who Walks”, surrounded by his numerous wood sculptures of The Phantom, which he’s created over several decades. Truly a decicated – and talented – “Phan”! (Video still image of Peter Kingston courtesy of The Sydney Morning Herald)