Thursday, June 25, 2015

Yaroslav Horak: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

While recently browsing through a box of old magazines and newspapers in an antiques shop, I came across a tattered and torn copy of The News, a tabloid newspaper produced by the Australian Journalists Association and the Printing Industry Employees' Union during a wartime industrial dispute with Sydney Newspaper Proprietors' Association. This copy of The News, dated Tuesday, 17 October 1944, caught my eye because it contained a brief profile of a talented young high-school student from Sydney, Yaroslav Horak (See image). The text of the article reads as follows:

Sixteen-year-old Russian, Yaroslav Horak, of Centennial Park, pupil of St Mary's Cathedral High School, displays a poster he has entered in the Australia-wide Second Victory Loan School contests. Born in Manchuria, Yaroslav came to Australia four years ago. He has since learnt to speak English fluently.

Yaroslav Horak, of course, went on to become a talented and highly sought-after comic book artist in Australia following World War Two, creating such popular characters as Jet Fury (originally a back-up feature in Michael Chance Comics), along with The Mask, which was controversially banned by Queensland's Literature Board of Review in 1954, at the height of anti-comics hysteria in Australia (A comprehensive interview with Yaroslav Horak was published in the Australian Cartoonists' Association's Inkspot magazine in 2009).

Emigrating to Great Britain in the 1960s, Horak worked for British comics publishers, such as IPC's popular Battle Picture Library series, and went on to succeed John McLusky as the illustrator of the James Bond comic strip appearing in The Daily Express newspaper (An informative profile of Horak's work on James Bond appears on the Dave Karlen Original Art Blog).

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

RIP John Dixon (1929-2015)

I must confess I didn't want to make a long overdue return to the Comics Down Under blog on such a sad occasion, but I only recently became aware that the Australian comic-book creator, John Dangar Dixon, died in Bonsall, California, on 7 May, 2015. I have touched on different aspects of John's lengthy comic-book career elsewhere on this blog, such as his work on The Adventures of Biggles (H.J. Edwards, mid-1950s), Catman (Frew Publications, 1958) and The Phantom Commando (Horwitz Publications, 1959), but have yet to publish a full-length appraisal of his life and work. The closest I came to doing so was a feature article I wrote about John's comic-book career, and his lifelong obsession with aircraft, for Flightpath, an Australian aviation magazine, back in 2001 (Flightpath, coincidentally, is published by Yaffa Media, which previously reprinted some of Dixon's earliest Catman stories as give-away show-bag comics in the late 1960s and early 1970s).

John's diverse career as a comic-book author/illustrator and commercial illustrator spanned continents and decades, which saw him develop from being an untried comic-book artist in Sydney during the late 1940s, to become one of Australia's most successful newspaper comic-strip artists, penning the adventures of Air Hawk & The Flying Doctor comic strip for over a quarter of a century (ably assisted by some of Australia's best comic-book illustrators, such as Hart Amos, Keith Chatto and Paul Power, during the 1960s and 1970s). When he eventually retired the Air Hawk series in 1986, Dixon emigrated to the United States, where he became art director and illustrator for Defense and Foreign Affairs magazine; when the end of the "Cold War" led to the demise of that magazine, Dixon soon found work as an illustrator for Jim Shooter's Valiant Comics imprint during the 1990s.

I only ever spoke with John Dixon once, via telephone, back in 2001, when I was researching the article I wrote for Flightpath magazine and we briefly corresponded (via snail mail) for a short time thereafter, as I asked him further questions about his early days as a comic-book artist work for H.J. Edwards in the 1940s and 1950s. I was struck by his modesty and humility, and was surprised by how he looked back with with apparent embarrassment at some of his early published work. He may have blushed to look back on his early episodes of Tim Valour Comic or The Crimson Comet, but even at its so-called "crudest" level, Dixon's work displayed real panache, boasting luscious rendering, technical virtuosity and an innate understanding of comics worked as a storytelling medium. Even today, I find myself repeatedly drawn back to some of his earliest back-up stories, such as "Prince Ahmoud" and "Sgt. Dean Butler", which appeared as one-off stories in various H.J. Edwards comics published in the late 1940s. These stories convey a youthful exuberance which shows a driven young artist, determined to make a living from his craft, already displaying the skills that would help make him one of the best Australian comic-book/comic-strip illustrators of his generation. Many thousands of Australian kids and teenagers no doubt felt this way, too, as they helped make Tim Valour Comic and The Crimson Comet amongst the best-selling Australian comics of their day.

I'm saddened by this news, not least because it drives home the fact that so many great Australian comic artists of the past are no longer with us. But John's work has given me, as a comic-book reader, collector and academic-historian, immense pleasure over many years, and I know I'm not alone in feeling this way. For those of you who've never seen or read his work before, then I recommend you check out the new trade paperback collections of Air Hawk & the Flying Doctor currently published by Nat Karmichael, which can be purchased online at his Comicoz website (Nat also wrote a fitting obituary for John Dixon, which you can read here) Image courtesy of Pikitia Press.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Daniel Best & "Newton Comics" Need Your Support. ('Nuff Said!)

Many Australian comic-book fans and collectors of a certain vintage (ahem!) still have fond memories of Newton Comics, the Melbourne publishing company owned by the charismatic (and controversial) journalist and entrepreneur, Maxwell Newton. The company which bore Newton's name unleased a torrent of "Aussie edition" reprints of Marvel Comics titles throughout 1975-76, and for many kids growing up in the 1970s, these comics were their first exposure to the "Marvel Universe" of superheroes, and to comic books generally (That was certainly the case for me, as you'll discover here.)

Adelaide-based comics historian, author and collector, Daniel Best, has spent many years documenting the history of Newton Comics, and you can find much of his research here. But there was always more to Newton Comics - and Maxwell Newton - than the comic magazines themselves could ever tell, which is why Daniel Best has now embarked on his latest book project, Newton Comics: The Amazing Rise & Spectacular Fall. Actually, according to Danny, the book is already written - and he's told me that what he's discovered about the late Mr. Newton will force everyone to reconsider what they think they know about the history of comic-book publishing in Australia (Gulp!) What Danny wants, and needs more than anything else, is your help.

In short, Danny is trying to raise AUD$5,000 to publish this book himself, and to employ a professional designer to come up with a suitably eye-catching cover (The image accompanying this post is an interim cover design). So far, Danny has raised AUD$1,850 in pedges via this book project's Pozible fund-raising page. While that's an encouraging start, we're still a little way off from reaching the target, people. So, if, like me, you still cherish reading those old Newton Comics editions of The Amazing Spider-Man, Planet of the Apes, Dracula or The Fantastic Four - and curse you a thousand times if they still have their Newton Swap Card and colour poster intact! - then make a pledge today (These start from the $25 Reward package, and some of the higher pledge amounts have great comic-book freebies thrown in as well!) Further details can be found on the Newton Comics: Rise & Fall Facebook page, too. So, make your pledge - and face front, True Believer! (Again: 'Nuff said!)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Heroes and Villains Revisited @ State Library of Victoria


The Dynamic Dark Nebula @ Heroes and Villains exhibition, ca.2006
 Regular readers of this blog may recall that, back in 2006-07, I was appointed Guest Curator at the State Library of Victoria (Melbourne, Australia), where I staged the exhibition, Heroes and Villains: Australian Comics and their Creators. (You can read the archived online exhibition catalogue here.) Well, in 2011, I was approached once again by the State Library of Victoria, to record an interview about how the library has affected my my work as a writer, academic researcher and comics historian. The interview was conducted as part of the State Library's then-forthcoming centenary celebrations of its famous Domed Reading Room. Well, nearly two years later, you can now read an edited extract from that interview here. And if you ever find yourself in Melbourne, do pay the State Library of Victoria a visit - not only is it a fantastic reference library (open to all members of the public), but it also has many great gallery spaces dedicated to the history of books, reading & writing, as well as major exhibitions devoted to different aspects of Australian history and culture. And the Domed Reading Room is truly breathtaking, too.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Terry Trowell - "Lost" Paintings Uncovered in WA


Swan River, 1827 - Terrence J. Trowell, 1955
 Sometimes publishing a post on this blog can yield delightful, yet unexpected results, especially when it comes to documenting the history of Australian comics and their creators. Nearly three years after posting my previous entry on the West Australian-born comic artist Terry Trowell, I was contacted by Brian Crisp, a former teacher employed at the Governor Stirling Senior High School in Midland, Western Australia, during 1964-1999. In an email dated November 2012, Brian informed me that, for several decades, the school had displayed a series of four painted murals, depicting historical figures responsible for the early European settlement around the Swan River area from 1829 and onwards. Brian recalled that the artist's surname was "Trowell", and had wondered whether the artist responsible for those murals might have been the very same Terry Trowell mentioned on this blog.
Garden Island, 1829 - Terrence J. Trowell, 1955


At the time Brian first contacted me, the Governor Stirling Senior High School was closed for redevelopment, and was not due to be reopened until early 2013. However, Brian was assured by the school's principal that the murals were safely in storage. But until either Brian or myself saw the murals (or photographs thereof), we could only speculate if they were the work of Terry Trowell.

However, Brian's detective work and persistence has paid off! The murals, he has since discovered, were presented to the school by a local businessman and art benefactor, Sir Claude Hotchin (1898-1977), as a gift to mark the school's official opening in 1959. The murals (measuring approximately 2m x 1m each)  have been in storage for the last two years while the school underwent redevelopment, but now Brian has had a chance to photograph them.

Legislative Council, 1837 - Terrence J. Trowell, 1955

They are signed "Terence J. [James] Trowell", and are dated 1955 - this clearly coincides with Trowell's return to West Australia during 1952-56, after working for eastern state publishers, including Atlas Publications (Melbourne). Even if these murals were unsigned, few eagle-eyed Australian comic collectors would have had trouble recognising Trowell's distinctive style of illustration, especially amongst those familiar with his painted covers for Jet Black - Racing Driver!


York, 1831 - Terrence J. Trowell, 1955
 Brian has very kindly agreed to let me reproduce cropped images of the four painted murals on this blog, and has promised to share any further findings from his research into the Sir Claude Hotchin art gift to Governor Stirling Senior High School. Thank you, Brian!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Tribute to Jim Shepherd (1933-2013) – Publisher of The Phantom

Richard Fry, convenor of the Lee Falk Memorial Bengali Explorer's Club (Australia), recently announced that Jim Shepherd, the Australian publisher of The Phantom comic magazine, died shortly after collapsing at his Sydney home during the evening of Monday 15 April 2013. This is without doubt a very sad day indeed for "phans" of The Phantom, in Australia and around the world.

Jim Shepherd was best known to thousands of Australian readers as the publisher and managing director of Frew Publications (Sydney, Australia), which has published The Phantom comic magazine since September 1948 - making it the world's longest-running series of Phantom comics, and one of the world's oldest, continually published comic magazines.

But Jim had enjoyed a diverse and exciting career as a journalist, broadcaster and author, long before he met "The Ghost Who Walks". Born 21 August 1933, Jim became a well-known and respected sports commentator, firstly in Sydney's newspaper circles, before branching out into radio, and later became the Sporting Director for Sydney's Channel 0 (later Channel 10) television station during 1964-1970.

As a journalist, Jim covered a wide variety of sports, including rugby league, boxing, soccer, athletics, golf, tennis and cycling. His encyclopaedic knowledge of sports and sporting stars would serve him well for his next career. In 1974, he compiled and wrote The Australian Sporting Almanac (Hamlyn, 1974), the first of many successful sporting reference titles he would produce on behalf of other publishers, as well as for his own book imprint, Sportsbook Publishing Co. These included The Encyclopedia of Australian Sport (Rigby, 1979), Rothman's Australian Rugby Yearbook (Sportsbook, 1983), Great Moments in Australian Sport (Angus & Robertson, 1987) and Big Rev Kev (Lansdowne, 1983), the autobiography of Australian racing driver Kevin Bartlett, co-authored with Jim. Motor racing remained a lifelong passion for Jim, who began racing stock cars on the local speedway dirt track circuit, before progressing to Formula Two (2000cc) road racing events. Such was Jim's enthusiasm for the sport that he wrote two books on the subject, A History of Australian Motor Sport (1980, Sportsbook) and A History of Australian Speedway (Frew Publications, 2003) - indeed, Jim later delightedly told me that his Speedway book was a near-total sell out!

Jim's involvement with The Phantom dates back to 1987, when Frew Publications' surviving founders, Ron Forsyth and Lawford "Jim" Richardson, approached him for advice on how they could rejuvenate their company's sole remaining comic-book title. Jim came on board with The Phantom No.876 ("Old Baldy", 1987) and steadily undertook incremental changes designed to improve the magazine, such as reinstating  the old "Frew" logo on the front cover of the comic, along with the inclusion of the new "Phantom Forum" letters page (No.917, 1988). But arguably his greatest achievement was to commence reprinting unedited and uncensored versions of classic Lee Falk Phantom stories from the 1930s and 1940s - many of which had been ruthlessly edited by Frew Publications in the past - commencing with the landmark publication of "The Phantom Goes to War" (No.910A, 1988). This was, according to Bryan Shedden (creator of The Deep Woods fan website), the beginning of the "Frew Renaissance".

Jim's accomplishments at Frew Publications are well known to many "phans", so I won't reiterate them here. (However, for further details about Jim's life and career, you may wish to read Steffen Hoppe's interview with Jim on Fantomet.org; Joe Douglas's interview with Jim at ChronicleChamber.com; and my own interview with Jim, also published on ChronicleChamber.com).

That Jim was so willing to give up his time to speak with "phans" about The Phantom says much about the man's generosity and enthusiasm for his work. I first interviewed Jim about Frew Publications and The Phantom back in 2001 for a piece originally intended for the Australian comic fanzine, Read Me!, but was later published online at OzComics (The interview didn't survive the site's revamp as a Facebook-based forum, and was eventually republished in 2007 at ChronicleChamber.com). Over the years, we remained in contact, particularly when I had occasion to write about Frew Publications' earlier comic-book series (such as The Phantom Ranger) for my 'Comics Down Under' column, then appearing in Collectormania magazine (Some of these columns have since been reprinted here on Comics Down Under).

Jim always took the time to answer my (no doubt tiresome!) requests for information as best he could, based on whatever surviving information was available in Frew's publishing archives, or from recalling his own conversations with the late Ron Forsyth. Jim even took the trouble to reprint one of my letters, concerning the origins of The Phantom comic strip, as a mini-article in The Phantom ("Historical Look at Lee Falk and The Phantom" - The Phantom, No.1445, 2006). We also shared an interest in Australian aviation history, which we discussed on several occasions.

Little did he or I know at the time that my own interest in The Phantom would eventually lead me to write my PhD thesis about The Phantom comic book in Australia, India and Sweden. And it was for this research project that I last met Jim at Frew's Sydney office on Tuesday, 10 July, 2012. He was, as always, sitting behind his cluttered desk - the true sign of a productive person, I've always said! - in his dark-panelled office, adorned with framed Phantom film posters and original artwork, and facing a display case packed with fascinating Phantom merchandise. Once again, over the course of a 2-hour interview, Jim shared with me his insights and opinions about The Phantom, and why this character continues to fascinate Australian and Swedish audiences to this day. It is my hope that I'll be able to distill and share some of Jim's insights when I submit my PhD thesis for examination later this year, and in any scholarly publications arising from my research. I hope it will be a fitting enough tribute to Jim's dedication to publishing The Phantom for over a quarter of a century.

I'll try and post further news about Jim's passing as further details become available. Nonetheless, I'm sure that Phantom "phans" throughout Australia, and around the world, would like to join me now in extending my sincere condolences to Jim's wife, Judith Shepherd (Senior Editor, Frew Publications), and their extended family at this no doubt difficult time.

Update: The funeral service for Jim Shepherd will be held at the Northern Suburbs Memorial Garden and Crematorium, at 2:15pm, Tuesday 23 April, 2013. The family has requested that, in lieu of sending flowers, well-wishers can make a donation to the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute instead (Thanks to Richard Fry for circulating this information).

(Photo of Jim Shepherd courtesy of The Deep Woods; image of A History of Australian Speedway courtesy of Defunct Speedway Tracks (UK); image of The Phantom No.1445 cover courtesy of Collectoroz.com Connect; image of The Phantom No.876 cover courtesy of Collectoroz.com Connect).

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Publishing Makes Strange Bedfellows

Launched in 1946, Adam was the latest addition to Sydney publisher K.G. Murray's range of "men's magazines", an appeared ten years after the debut of the company's flagship title, Man. Originally billed as featuring "The World's Best Fiction & Cartoons", Adam had, by 1949, changed its editorial tack, and was now promoted as a more "red-blooded" men's magazine, emphasising real-life adventure, sports stories and straight-shootin' westerns. The cover for the August 1949 edition shown here, illustrated by Hart Amos, gives a pretty clear idea about the intended audience for the "new-look" Adam.

But what's especially interesting - and decidedly odd - about this issue of Adam was the outside back cover, which carried an advertisement for K.G. Murray's new Superboy Comics magazine, launched earlier that year. Perhaps KG Murray's advertising staff reasoned that Adam readers could be persuaded to buy a copy of Superboy Comics for their son, or younger nephew. Or did they know - or at least suspect? - that more than a few young kiddies might have tried sneaking a peek at the more risque photos and cartoons to be found in Adam? A more mundane explanation may be that K.G. Murray simply didn't have an advertisement to run on its outside back cover of Adam, so they might as well try and spruik one of their newer comic books, anyway. Whatever the reason, it only shows that magazine publishing, like politics, occasionally makes strange bedfellows (Images courtesy Rare Book Collection, Monash University Library)