September 2023

Arts & Letters

Purple reign: The 75th anniversary of ‘The Phantom’

By Russell Marks

The first issue of The Phantom, published September 1948

The longevity of the world’s first costumed superhero reflects an Australian publishing success story

Newsagents across the country are currently stocking issue #1952 of Frew Publications’ The Phantom (technically, because of some odd numbering practices, the 1980th issue actually published) – a special issue to mark the 75th anniversary of Frew’s first magazine.

That’s a publishing feat on anyone’s criteria, and one now marked by enough reincarnations that it’s begun to mirror the purple-clad protagonist of its stories. Well, not quite. As every “phan” knows, the present-day Phantom is the 21st of his line, honouring a family tradition that stretches back to the England-born son of a former cabin boy on Columbus’s Santa María, the son vowing revenge on the pirates who killed his father and, apparently, committing centuries of his descendants to the quest for “the destruction of all forms of piracy, greed and cruelty”.

The Phantom’s creator was Lee Falk, theatre producer and director by day and aspiring playwright by night. But it’s for the newspaper comic strip he scripted between February 17, 1936 and his death in 1999 that he is chiefly remembered. Falk had originally imagined his character as Jimmy Wells, a rich American playboy with a crime-fighting alter ego. Had he persisted with that plot, the world may never have known Batman, who first appeared in Detective Comics three years after the Phantom began his run in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. As it was, one writer speculates that by giving him a base in remote jungle territory – initially somewhere on Java, then somewhere in India, and finally somewhere in darkest Africa – Falk “probably cost the Phantom his place as an icon of the American century”.

The Phantom was, after all, the world’s first costumed superhero: he beat Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman, who didn’t start leaping over any tall buildings until Action Comics appeared on American newsstands on April 18, 1938. (Whether he’s also the world’s first costumed super-powered hero depends on whether there’s a way to otherwise explain how a young English sailor created a skin-tight purple bodysuit in 16th-century East Africa: nobody has yet provided one.) But he’s no longer a household name, or so said author Maria Lewis last year in The Phantom Never Dies, her six-episode podcast. In Australia, it would be more accurate to say that the Phantom is no longer a household name for most people under, say, 30. But the character was ubiquitous enough for the Australian Electoral Commission to deploy him as recently as 1990 in campaigns encouraging people in First Nations communities to enrol and vote.

Frew’s story involves fewer slain pirates than its hero’s, though it has carved a small niche in the annals of Australian publishing history. As the postwar nation reconstructed, Ron Forsyth, formerly an advertising manager at Frank Packer’s Sunday Telegraph, wanted in on comics. He owned both the well-regarded Roycroft Bookshop and a for-profit lending library on the fashionable Rowe Street laneway that then connected Sydney’s Pitt and Castlereagh streets. From that vantage point, he saw that cheap comic magazines – which had been a surprise Depression-era success story – were all the rage. Forsyth’s wife, Sylvia, suggested he approach her friend David Yaffa, who was, as it happened, the local representative for Hearst’s King Features Syndicate, which owned the rights to The Phantom.

The Phantom was already popular in Australia, though not via newspapers – the first paper to print Falk’s strip, The Central Western Daily, didn’t do so until August 1957 – but via The Australian Woman’s Mirror, which was The Bulletin’s weekly women’s magazine. The Mirror had included a full page of Phantom strip reprints since September 1936, in which New York had been renamed Sydney, Port Mawitaan had become Port Darwin, and Diana (the Phantom’s love interest) was an Aussie lass. The Mirror had already attempted to put out a comic-book format before the war, but ran into wartime newsprint shortages. Yaffa told Forsyth he could put the Phantom in comics, as long as his reprints didn’t clash with the Mirror’s reprint schedule.

Forsyth saw his chance. He put up £500 and convinced three others – accountant Lawford “Jim” Richardson, Sylvia’s brother Jack Eisen, and John Watson – to do the same. Frew (an acronym of the men’s last names) was born. When the dust had settled, only Forsyth and Richardson remained as co-owners. Forsyth put together the first issue of The Phantom at his bookshop, and after it appeared on September 9, 1948 – at the same time as Bradman’s Invincibles were playing the last match of their undefeated tour of England – its initial print run of 50,000 sold out. Within a couple of years, The Phantom was among Australia’s biggest-selling comics. Forsyth sold his bookshop.

The 1950s was Frew’s golden age. Forsyth and Richardson put out Popeye comics and enlisted the Phantom in additional titles. They also created opportunities for Australian creatives. They leveraged the Phantom’s popularity to introduce some locally created characters, some of which were blatant rip-offs of Falk’s creation. Sir Falcon, for instance, was a Phantom-lookalike in chainmail, and the latest in a patrilineal line that had begun six centuries ago with a young man’s vow to fight crime following his family’s murders. Frew also acquired the licence to create new stories featuring overseas-created characters such as Cat-Man and the Phantom Ranger, who also briefly had his own popular radio serial starring Bud Tingwell in the title role. In the mid 1950s, teenaged cricketer Bill Lawry acquired his lifelong nickname – “the Phantom” – when, instead of the beers his Victorian Second XI teammates had directed him to source at Spencer Street Station ahead of their train trip to Adelaide, he bought comics.

But censorship, television and then the relaxation of import restrictions all worked to further deplete Australia’s comics industry, which, by the mid 1960s was practically dead. The Phantom was by then Frew’s only product, which simply reprinted in magazine form Falk’s newspaper stories, often over and over again. Not that this seemed to exorcise the popularity of “The Ghost Who Walks” in Australia. For kids of that generation, the Phantom was their hero, at least as much as Superman (who had his own TV series throughout the 1950s) and probably much more than Batman (until Adam West kapowed his way into living rooms in 1966).

In Frew’s fourth decade, Forsyth and Richardson – then both in their 70s – made some innovations. They began reprinting some of the new, non-Falk stories being commissioned by a Swedish publishing company, Semic. They introduced glossy covers. And in 1987, just before Richardson died, they hired Jim Shepherd.

Shepherd had been a broadcaster and sports journalist – he was sporting director for Sydney’s Channel 0 during the latter 1960s – but knew very little about comics or walking ghosts. By the late 1980s, Frew was the last Australian company publishing black-and-white newsprint reprints of American material. The King Features Syndicate people weren’t happy with what they perceived as a decline in Frew’s quality, so Shepherd was sent to New York to placate them.

It wasn’t inevitable then that he would become Frew’s sole owner, or that he would oversee such a revival in the company’s fortunes that phans would soon begin referring to a “Frew renaissance”. Understanding the new market created by comic collectors, Shepherd sourced high-quality original artwork and began printing uncensored, unedited, “complete” reprints of Falk’s strips. He introduced editorial features and a letters page. He welcomed into the fold the Queensland collector Barry Stubbersfield, who quickly became Frew’s go-to historian. He published large specials every Christmas and gigantic annuals every January. He even scripted some of his own original Phantom stories set in Australia.

It helped that the Phantom’s popularity was experiencing its own renaissance through Saturday morning cartoons and a live-action, blockbuster film with Billy Zane in the purple tights. Partly shot in Brisbane, The Phantom bombed in most places except Australia and the Nordic regions.

It’s tempting to explain the Phantom’s popularity in Australia in terms of colonial politics. At first, Falk wrote the character as a white man – indeed, generations of white men – administering wisdom and modernity, and keeping the democratic peace among various fictional tribes of Africans. And while the references to cannibalism and “superstitious tribal nonsense” have long been discarded, the Phantom remains a white man living on black peoples’ lands that are nevertheless still called “Phantom Country”. It’s not difficult to draw parallels with the ways white Australians have typically seen their relationship with First Nations.

But the White Man’s Burden interpretation only gets us so far. It doesn’t, for instance, account for The Phantom’s enduring popularity in post-independence India (where a handful of publishers continue to reprint Falk’s stories in various languages), or Fiji or Papua New Guinea. “The Phantom was a more dependable hero [than Superman or Batman], always there when you needed one – and cheap, at one and a half rupees,” recalls Kai Friese of his childhood in Delhi in an essay in Translation, a journal of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard. “There were none of the cruel advertisements for unobtainable goods. The Phantom had matte covers and reassuringly crappy production values. He was a castaway on our side of the pond, a Third World kind of guy.”

Shepherd’s arrival at Frew preceded the World Wide Web by just four years, yet his innovations never extended as far as getting the Phantom online, or even into colour: the newsprint still depicted the purple of his bodysuit as a closely patterned series of small black dots. When Shepherd died suddenly in April 2013, his wife, Judith, who’d been the comic’s senior editor for many years, and their son, Steve, kept the Ghost Walking until they hired graphic designer Dudley Hogarth as their new publisher.

Judith Shepherd announced her retirement in the Christmas 2015 issue. And then – nothing. As the weeks ebbed into months, phans wondered whether Frew had disappeared into the Deep Woods. Inside the Skull Cave, though, there was activity aplenty. Frew was being sold, abortively to one buyer and then to a pair of phans, Rene White and Sydney artist Glenn Ford, who’d created covers for the Shepherds. A new agreement with King Features was forged. Frew moved from its Castlereagh Street office to a business park in Alexandria, in Sydney’s inner south.

The Phantom’s return to newsagent racks in March 2016 heralded another renaissance almost on the scale of its hero’s Major Treasure Room. There were new titles, new collectables, new content from new sources, and even the occasional all-colour edition. Frew revived its other characters from the postwar era and made hundreds of mint-condition back issues available to excited collectors on its new website.

And, in a nod to Forsyth and Richardson’s early energy, Frew began commissioning its own stories, often from local creatives. Once a comic that for decades simply reprinted old American comic art, most issues of The Phantom now contain at least some newly commissioned content.

Against the odds, The Phantom has found a place in the digital world. Social media has facilitated a small community of phans and artists who meet at annual ComicCons. At least one doctorate has been earnt in Phantom history, by Dr Kevin Patrick, whose book The Phantom Unmasked was an invaluable source for this essay. Among the comic’s most committed phans are the small group of Australians who maintain the Chronicle Chamber fansite and a regular podcast, X-Band (its name taken from the radio frequency via which the Phantom communicates with the commander of the Jungle Patrol). As a Red Cross “phundraiser” following the Christmas 2019 bushfires, the Chronicle Chamber phans compiled a 52-page booklet of donated Phantom art.

These innovations haven’t stopped the Phantom’s transition from mass entertainment to niche interest. Writers are tinkering with other innovations, including the idea that the next Phantom might be a woman. Nobody has yet suggested that the character, who for 21 generations has lived in Africa, might have dark skin.

And yet, The Phantom has survived the superhero comics’ retreat into specialty comic shops: 75 years on, most newsagents across Australia still stock Frew’s fortnightly issues. Perhaps there’s wisdom in the Old Jungle Saying after all: “The Phantom is dead. Long live the Phantom!”

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a criminal defence lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University, where he completed a PhD in Australian political history. His most recent book is Black Lives, White Law: Locked Up and Locked Out in Australia. He lives on Kaurna land.

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