The comic that will not die

The Phan­tom ’ s Aus­tralian pub­lisher has set a world record. Ju­lian Lewis ven­tures into the Deep Woods

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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.

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