Changing of the Guard at Frew Publications

Article%20Lead%20-%20narrow1005217542gmqde6image_related_articleLeadNarrow_353x0_gmhati_png1455374121725_jpg-300x0The last few months of 2015 proved to be tumultuous for Frew Publications, the Australian publisher of The Phantom comic magazine. Dudley Hogarth had only recently taken over the reigns as editor from Steve Shepherd (son of the late Jim Shepherd), when Judith Shepherd announced she would standing down as Managing Director of Frew Publications in December 2015. This announcement was published in The Phantom, #1744 – the 2015 Christmas Special, which went on sale in Australia and New Zealand on 17 December, 2015.

And then…nothing. Weeks passed, and no further issues of The Phantom were to be seen in newsagents or comic-book stores anywhere. Frew Publications posted an announcement on their website, indicating that publication had been temporarily delayed, but assured readers that production would resume in the very near future. With no further details forthcoming, the rumour mill went into overdrive. Had Frew Publications gone out of business? Was this the end of The Phantom comic book in Australia? What would happen to readers’ outstanding subscriptions?

ChronicleChamber.com released an episode of its X-Band podcast on 22 January, 2016, where the announcers disclosed that changes were underway at Frew Publications, and assured listeners that Frew Publications had not closed its doors. But still rumours about the company’s – and The Phantom’s – future continued to circulate on Facebook pages dedicated to The Phantom.

Readers’ concerns appeared to be laid to rest yesterday (Tuesday, 16 February 2016), when Glenn Ford – a frequent cover artist on The Phantom comic book – posted an announcement on Frew Publications’ Facebook page. The full text is reproduced here:

I can FINALLY announce that Rene White and I are the new owners of Frew.

Our apologies to everyone who has been ‘curious’ about the state of the company and thank you all for your patience. The last month has been quite a ‘journey’.

By way of a quick explanation, I can say the following: As I’m sure most of you are aware, the business of printing the Frew Phantom comic involves two things, there’s the business owned by Frew, the company, and there is the Phantom licence, granted by King Features Syndicate. One is not much good without the other.

We were approached last year, by Frew’s proprietor and asked if we were interested in buying the business and taking over the licence. There were other interested parties, but we threw our collective hat into the ring, as well. Unfortunately for us, early last December, we were told that one of the other interested parties had been granted the licence. We were disappointed, of course, but went on with our lives.

We were then contacted by KFS in mid-January and asked if we were still interested as the other party had changed his mind and had backed out. We then went into negotiations with KFS, who wanted the contract revised. This took a month of to-ing and fro-ing, but we have all reached an agreement. We are all happy and the licence is now signed.

We were not able to make an announcement of any sort, until after we had successfully completed negotiations with KFS, as well as the proprietor of Frew.

Dudley’s original message still applies: Issue #1745 will be available on February 25. We have just pushed the GO button at the printer’s. The printing will be finished this Wednesday. The pick-up and delivery by Gordon and Gotch, however, takes a week. It is taken to a central warehouse and then distributed, from there, throughout Australia and New Zealand.

The 2016 Annual (issue #1746) will follow pretty quickly – and yes, there will be an 80th Anniversary Special. We are working on this now and we are hoping to knock your socks off with it! Other announcements and publishing schedule information will be made available as soon as it’s confirmed.

Now to the ‘punch line’: We are delighted that Dudley is staying. Between the three of us, we are confident that we can not only maintain the quality that Jim and Judith Shepherd established, many years ago, but also continue the legacy for many, many years to come. We have a lot of ideas, some of which, we hope, will surprise you and some we feel are expected and perhaps long overdue.

The most important aspect of all of this, though, is that YOU now have an opportunity to get your voice heard. If we are to grow this business, we need to hear from you. To this end, we intend to make our website and Facebook page a bit more reactive and responsive. Letters, emails, faxes, smoke signals, etc, are not only welcome but encouraged – we need the feedback. Do we need a forum – and if so, in what form? This may even lead to polls, surveys, competitions – anything which will give us an idea of what you want – and constructive contributions will be rewarded with prizes. We are still formulating a lot of this – it’s early days – but we are excited.

It’s going to be a good year for the Phantom!!!

The announcement coincided with the 80th anniversary of The Phantom comic strip, which was widely covered by Australian newspapers, including The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Advertiser (South Australia). Frew Publications will resume production of The Phantom later this month (commencing with issue #1745), and will release a special 80th anniversary edition of The Phantom (see accompanying image) shortly thereafter.

While Australian “phans” are no doubt relieved by this news, this announcement points to intriguing new creative possibilities for The Phantom and Frew Publications – not least because we now have a former Australian artist on The Phantom comic book appointed a co-owner of the company which has produced this magazine since 1948. Glenn Ford has been an active figure in Australian comics fandom since the mid-to-late 1970s, and launched The Phantom Zone chain of comic book/pop culture retail stores in 1989. It will be interesting to see whether Glenn Ford and his team (Dudley Hogarth has been retained as editor) can successfully chart new directions for Frew Publications and The Phantom comic magazine in a challenging (digital) media environment.

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The Phantom Show comes to Wollongong (Australia)

vd-phantomThe 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)

The Phantom Comic Book Survey: A Statistical Snapshot

The Phantom Comic Book Survey reached 500 completed surveys on 17 September 2012. So, to mark this numerical milestone, I thought I’d take a moment to share some brief statistical insights about Phantom “phans” from Australia, India and Sweden who’ve been kind enough to share their enjoyment of ‘The Ghost Who Walks’ with me for this project.

The majority of respondents were male (84.5 per cent), while female “phans” comprised the remaining 15.5 per – which, based on anecdotal accounts, seems a much higher percentage of female readers than is usually found with most (American) ‘superhero’ comics. Most “phans” were aged between 18-35 years (39 per cent), followed by readers aged between 36-49 years (35 per cent) and 50-65 years (22%).

Most survey responses were received from Australia (53.2 per cent), followed by Sweden (37.8 per cent) and India (4.5 per cent). The remaining 4.5 per cent were a mixture of Finns, Americans, Canadians and expatriate Indians living abroad (whose contributions were, of course, more than welcome!)

Over 56 per cent of respondents first encountered the Phantom in comic books, followed by 24 per cent of “phans” who first read The Phantom comic strip in newspapers or magazines (Interestingly, 9 per cent of respondents said that a family member first introduced them to The Phantom). After their first exposure to the character, an overwhelming majority of readers (76 per cent) followed the Phantom’s adventures in other print media (i.e. after reading the newspaper comic-strip version, they began reading Phantom comic books), as well as other media formats, such as feature films and video/DVDs.

Among the various Phantom titles currently published in Australia, India and Sweden, 32 per cent of respondents read The Phantom (Frew Publications/AU); 24 per cent read Fantomen (Egmont/SE); and 3.3 per cent read The Phantom (Eurobooks/IN). The vast majority of readers (83 per cent) had been reading Phantom comics in their respective countries for 10+ years, while 7 per cent said they’d been reading Phantom comics for between 5-10 years. However, 9.5 per cent of “phans” surveyed said they did not read any currently published editions of Phantom comics. (Of these former readers, 61 per cent stated they’d previously read Phantom comics for 10+ years)

Most “phans” (62 per cent) did read other comics in addition to The Phantom, while the same percentage (62) stated that they’d never joined a Phantom fan club in their respective countries. But 80 per cent of respondents did say they’d purchased Phantom merchandise, with clothing and stationery items being the most popular categories.

And the most popular Phantom “phan” websites (in descending order) were Fantomen.org, The Deep Woods and ChronicleChamber.com.

Now, I should stress that these are just some very basic, top-level, statistical observations, based on the completed surveys received thus far. There are a number of qualifications that should be made about this survey – like the fact that the survey is not (for administrative reasons) open to readers under 18 years of age – which mean that these findings should be treated with caution (The comparatively low response rate among Indian readers – an issue that I’ve canvassed on both ChronicleChamber.com and Phantom Phorum – may also inadvertently “skew” my final research findings) . There has also been a good deal of qualitative data generated by these surveys which I’ve not yet begun to analyse, which will hopefully furnish us with a more holistic picture about the international community of Phantom “phans”.

Nonetheless, the survey results received so far have been absolutely fascinating, and I hope to share these with Phantom “phans” – and the wider academic research community – as I drill down further into the data. But in the meantime, keep those surveys coming! (Image courtesy of Patrick Owsley – Cartoon Art and More)

Why Study The Phantom?

Cinema marquees the world-over have, since the 1989 release of Tim Burton’s Batman, played host to a growing number of films based on comic-book characters – most of them American in origin, but with a few international exceptions, such as the British anti-hero, Tank Girl (1995), or the recent Spielberg-Jackson adaptation of the intrpeid Belgian reporter-adventurer, Tintin.

But ‘comic-book movies’ are perhaps the most visible apsect of the superhero phenomenon, and its impact on global media culture. Images of superhero characters have been emblazoned across a dizzying array of licensed merchandise for decades, while popular culture abounds with references to superheroes and their characteristic traits, a sure sign that they have entered the lexicon of everyday life.

For the majority of people who’ve rarely, or never, read comic-books, the proliferation of superhero characters in mass media might seem a relatively recent phenonmenon. Yet as any dedicated comic-book fan will tell you, the birth of the superhero dates back to the closing years of the Great Depression, when Superman made his debut in Action Comics No.1, cover-dated July 1938.

Yet long before the ‘Last Son of Krypton’ leapt into comic books, the New York Journal-American newspaper unveiled a new comic-strip character on 17 February 1936, who – according to a growing number of comics historians – was the true foreunner of the costumed superhero genre as we know it today. And that character was The Phantom, created and written by Lee Falk, and originally illustrated by Ray Moore.

But The Phantom, it seems, has been histroically overshadowed by the truly staggering popular reception that greeted the debut of Superman, and his equally colourful cohorts (such as Batman, Captain America, et al), from the 1940s onwards. Perhaps he simply wasn’t “super” enough to stand out amongst the growing throngs of super-powered crime-fighters that  crowded American comic-books for the duration of World War II. Even as costumed superheroes reasserted their status (after a decade-long hiatus) as the dominant American comic-book genre throughout the 1960s, The Phantom remained a secondary character, despite earning his first self-titled American comic-book series in 1962.

Strangely, though, The Phantom has found greater favour with overseas audiences, both as a newspaper/magazine comic-strip serial and in comic books – and nowhere has The Phantom enjoyed greater popularity than in Australia, India and Sweden. And it is this intriguing publishing phenomenon that forms the basis for my PhD thesis/research project, titled The History of The Phantom Comic Book in Australia, India and Sweden (Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, 2011-2013/Project Number: CF11/2607-2011001525).

Interesting as this topic might seem (both to myself, as well as to fans of The Phantom), it does not necessarily answer the bigger question – why study The Phantom? Why not another comic-book character? Indeed, why study comic books at all?

Well, I believe there are several good reasons for doing so. Firstly, because the debut of The Phantom coincided with the birth of the American comic-book industry, the creation of the comic-book superhero genre, and the formative stages of the character-licensing industry. By examining the array of artistic and commercial forces that shaped the creation of The Phantom, we can perhaps gain new insights about the early ‘pre-history’ phase of the superhero franchise industry that currently dominates so much commercial entertainment today.

Secondly, the international popularity of The Phantom in Australia, India and Sweden throws up some interesting challenges to longstanding notions about American media/cultural imperialism – the idea that American media content fans out, unchallenged, from the United States, and is received and consumed without question in foreign markets. The fact that The Phantom is a relative commercial failure in his American homeland, yet has been ‘adopted’ – in often quite remarkable ways – by audiences in Australia, India and Sweden, suggests that the international reception of American media products is far from assured – and rarely, if ever, predictable.

Thirdly, many of the earliest arguments levelled against American media/cultural imperialism (dating back to the 1960s and 1970s) frequently ignored how international audiences responded to, or appropriated, American media content. Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, this academic oversight has been substantially redressed through the emergence of cultural studies (particularly as practised and popularised in the UK) as an academic discipline. Yet while cultural studies has paid considerable attention to national and international audience responses to popular music, television and cinema, practitioners in this field have historically shown comparatively less interest in popular print culture – such as magazines, paperback novels, fan publications, or comic books – and their readerships. While this trend has undergone a welcome, albeit gradual reversal, studies of comic-book reading practices, and of comic-book readers and collectors, remain relatively few (There does, however, seem to be more activity in this area concerning the reception of Japanese manga and anime, and its regional Asian equivalents, amongst Western audiences). This study of international fan communities of The Phantom will, I hope, add new insights to current academic thinking and knowledge about comic books and their audiences.

That, in short, is why I think studying The Phantom is worthwhile. And I look forward to hearing from those readers in Australia, India and Sweden who volunteer to complete my online survey, and hopefully discovering why they, too, find The Phantom a fascinating example of global comic-book culture. (Image of The Phantom courtesy of the King Features website)