The comic that will not die
The Phantom ’ s Australian publisher has set a world record. Julian Lewis ventures into the Deep Woods
WHEN Sydney publisher Frew brought out its first The Phantom comic in 1948, it didn’t number it in case there was no No 2. It needn’t have worried. More than 1500 issues later, the publishing venture started by Sydney businessmen Lawford ( Jim) Richardson and Ron Forsyth is the sole survivor among the dozens of Australian comicbook publishers who thrived before television was introduced. What’s more, Frew Publications this month sets a world record: 60 years of uninterrupted publication of The Phantom .
Living up to the Phantom’s alternative name as the Man Who Cannot Die, the Frew publication has become the comic that will not die, not just lingering in childhood memories but thriving in spite of the death of its creator, Lee Falk, in 1999.
The Phantom is a seemingly immortal crime fighter determined to wreak vengeance on the Singh pirates who killed the father of the first Phantom. Frew publisher Jim Shepherd mixes long- lost material with innovative approaches to keep the character at the forefront of Australian comic- book publishing.
If you have been lucky enough to fulfil the dream of every Phan by finding a copy of that original, unnumbered first Frew comic in mint condition, it could fetch more than $ 20,000: an impressive appreciation in value for a children’s comic that sold originally for 6d, or 5c. ( Beware, however, of replica early- edition issues published in recent years.) During the past 60 years, nearly 350 stories by the prolific, Missouri- born Falk have been published by Frew, along with many recent stories from here and overseas. Published every fortnight or so, each Australian edition sells about 30,000 copies. Then there are the special compilations combining classic Falk tales for those who came in late.
‘‘ Naturally we are delighted to be celebrating 60 years of The Phantom ,’’ says Shepherd, a former Sydney journalist and sports commentator who started with Frew as a consultant in 1987, and now owns the company.
Shepherd painstakingly seeks out and restores Falk stories that were often insensitively trimmed in Frew’s early publishing days for reasons of space, editorial convenience, or even censorship in the decades after World War II.
Shepherd has also contributed four of his own authorised Phantom stories, including one in which the Phantom, during an Australian adventure in 1992, meets former prime minister Bob Hawke.
In another bizarre plot twist for a jungle ruler, a recent story from Scandinavia, where The Phantom is oddly popular, depicted the masked hero entering an Elvis look- alike contest in his quest to catch the bad guy.
The Phantom predates Batman and Superman; Falk’s first story, The Singh Brotherhood, appeared in American newspapers in 1936, following the success of his earlier creation, Mandrake the Magician. Shepherd regularly republishes Falk’s classic tales, staying as faithful as possible to the original artwork and storyline. To do this, he travels each year to his licensee’s headquarters in the US to ferret out missing artwork and long- lost material for his Australian and overseas readers. He says his trip this year to New York was particularly fruitful, as he coaxed legendary Phantom artist Sy Barry out of retirement to do the wraparound cover for the Frew 60th- anniversary special edition. Though Barry was not the first artist to draw Falk’s imposing jungle ruler, he became the comic’s longest running and arguably most professional artist, drawing daily and Sunday strips for a remarkable 33 years from 1962 to 1995.
Says Shepherd: ‘‘ When Sy asked if I had any special instructions about the cover design, I simply gave him a brief description of the planned contents. For how can one possibly advise an artist of Sy’s status?’’
Shepherd has included three of Barry’s classically illustrated stories in the anniversary edition, including a 1952 adventure where the Phantom’s love interest, Diana, dresses as the Phantom, and another from 1979- 80 that describes the formation of the Jungle Patrol, which helps the Phantom police his mysterious homeland from the Skull Cave in the Deep Woods.
The anniversary edition also commemorates the Frew publication of Falk’s story The Slave Traders, which appeared here on September 9, 1948, under the title Enter the Phantom .
The now- defunct women’s title Australian Women’s Mirror , introduced local readers to the mythology of the masked crime fighter in 1936. The Mirror also produced a short run of Phantom comic books until the shortage of newsprint during World War II made it impossible to continue.
For many readers, perhaps the most useful special feature of the commemorative edition will be an updated second edition of the Phantom Encyclopedia. Compiled jointly by Brisbanebased Phantom historian Barry Stubbersfield and Shepherd, it contains a wealth of information. As Phantom readers know, ‘‘ Today, as always before, striking suddenly, mysteriously, the Phantom ( and his Australian publisher) works alone.’’ The Frew 60th anniversary Phantom special edition is out now.