September 2008

Arts & Letters

‘The Phantom’, No. 1518

By Kevin Patrick

Five hundred pounds was a lot of money by any measure back in September 1948. Yet that's how much Ron Forsyth chipped in, along with three business partners, to form Frew Publications and launch the Phantom comic book in Australia. None of them could have guessed just how smart their decision would turn out to be. Decades after its competition has vanished from the shelves, Frew's flagship title remains the world's longest-running edition of The Phantom.

Jim Shepherd, a former sports broadcaster who orchestrated the comic's resurgence after buying Frew Publications in 1987, has spared no effort to mark the character's sixtieth Australian anniversary, releasing a phone-book-sized new issue. Sy Barry, the series' longest-serving artist, was lured out of retirement to illustrate the cover, which is wrapped around several classic tales and some rare Phantom artwork, including an unpublished adventure drawn by the late Australian artist Keith Chatto. Diehard fans can test their knowledge of Phantom lore by delving into a specially updated edition of The Phantom Encyclopedia.

The Phantom was created for American newspapers by Lee Falk and Ray Moore in 1936. Clad in a tight purple bodysuit and brandishing his infamous skull ring, The Phantom presides over his jungle kingdom within the mysterious Deep Woods. Feared by criminals as The Ghost Who Walks and Man Who Cannot Die, he is really Kit Walker, the twenty-first descendant of a 400-year-old dynasty sworn to "vengeance against all piracy, greed and cruelty".

Why has this imported superhero resonated with generations of Australians? Perhaps it's because, despite his garish appearance, he is utterly human, unlike so many comic-book crime-fighters. Not only does The Phantom enjoy a normal domestic life - his wife, Diana Palmer, bore him twins - but he can be injured, and even killed. More importantly, he abides by a simple code of honour that many readers clearly admire.

And, for the more mercenary among us, The Phantom is also a very good investment. According to Johnson's Official Phantom Price Guide, a near-mint copy of Frew's first edition, which sold for a few pence in 1948, now fetches upwards of $22,000. Whichever way you cut it, that's not a bad return for a comic book.

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