Sunday, July 19, 2015

Jet vs Sky Riders (Part 2): Who Drew It?

Jet, No.11 (ca.1967)
In a previous instalment of Comics Down Under, I drew attention to the similarities between the Swedish war comic book, Jet (published by Centerforlaget), and Sky Riders, published by Colour Comics Pty Ltd (K.G. Murray Publishing Company). In my efforts to try and establish - or disprove - any commercial and/or editorial links between these two companies, I unearthed my copy of Sky Riders No.3 (circa. 1967), which featured "The Gladiator of Malta (George Beurling)". This story was also published in Jet No.11 (circa 1967), and both editions of these comics used the same cover illustration and the distinctive jet tailplane logo (See at left).
 
Sky Riders, No.3 (ca.1967)


The story itself is a comic-book biography of the Canadian fighter pilot, George Beurling (1921-1948), a reputedly maverick airman who flew with the Royal Air Force during World War Two, and achieved fame flying the Supermarine Spitfire over the besieged island of Malta, where he claimed the first of thirty-two confirmed "kills". He was subsequently transferred to a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) squadron stationed in England, where he continued to fly combat missions. He died in an air crash in Rome, in May 1948, reportedly flying to Israel to take up a role as a fighter pilot with the fledgling Israeli air force. There appear to be some superficial discrepancies between the comic-book account of Beurling's life, and other accounts I've read online, which may be due to editorial oversight, or the dramatic demands of the comic-book medium.

I'd previously stated that my recollection of the stories published in Sky Riders was that they were of inferior quality to those appearing in comparable British "pocket-library" comics of the 1960s, such as Commando and War Picture Library. Looking at "The Gladiator of Malta" with fresh eyes, I have to revise this admittedly harsh opinion, and concede this story was well-drawn and certainly on a par with many of the European artists whose work appeared in British war comics throughout the 1960s. While the artist's style is not immediately recognisable (to me, at least), several panels throughout the story bear the artist's indecipherable signature (See below).
Sky Riders, No.3 - page 32

Sky Riders, No.3 - page 23

I'm posting these images online in the hopes that someone may recognise either the artist's drawing style, or help decipher their signature. I'm inclined to think that this story may have been originally published in one of the second-tier British war comics of this era, such as Sabre Library or Club Library. If we can establish whether this story originally appeared in a British war comic, and was subsequently syndicated to Sweden and Australian publishers, this might help us establish the commercial and editorial links between British, European and Australian publishers which seemed to have emerged - and gathered strength - throughout the 1960s and 1970s (Images courtesy of Traderea, AusReprints.com and the author's collection).

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Art is a Lie: The Lo-Brow Low-Down on High Art

Susan Butcher and Carol Wood were, at spasmodic intervals throughout the 1990s, responsible for Pox, one of the smartest, funniest and most incisive comic magazines ever to come out of Australia. Butcher and Wood were (and remain) true pop culture omnivores, and could capture the visual essence of their favourite media texts (be it a TV show, a comic book or popular music), while conveying their unique styles. Pox was like a grown-up, sophisticated Australian version of Mad Magazine, but without the inside back-cover fold-in poster (Okay, yes, I know we've had an Australian edition of Mad Magazine since 1978, but it apparently no longer publishes Australian content, so they no longer qualify. So, there!)

If, like me, you've been suffering from Pox withdrawals in recent years, don't despair. Butcher and Wood have not gone into retirement, but have instead been toiling away for a US art magazine, Artillery, penning acerbic comic-book styled biographies of famous artists. Have you ever wondered how the life of Picasso would look like, filtered through the prism of Popeye? What about the bohemian antics of Norman Lindsay, recast as The Phantom?

Well, wonder no longer, because local comics artist-turned publishing mogul, Bruce Mutard, has taken it upon himself to collect Butcher and Woods' Artillery strips into a new book, Art is a Lie. But if you want to savour this fine tome, then you're going to have to put your money where your, um, mouse-click thingy is? (Hard to believe I used to edit an Internet magazine back in the 1990s, but there you have it...) Seriously, Bruce needs your help - and hard-earned cash - to help make this book a reality.  If you want to get your hands on a copy of Art is a Lie, along with a bushel of handcrafted Wood & Butcher art goodies, then whip out your credit card and choose from a range of pledge packages via the project's Indiegogo website. If you need further persuasion, then sample some of the preview pages from the Art is a Lie page on Facebook (Here endeth the plug).

Monday, July 13, 2015

Jet vs Sky Riders: A Swedish-Australian connection?

During my research trip to Sweden in 2012 - undertaken as part of my PhD thesis on The Phantom - I had the chance to discover many fascinating examples of Swedish comic books published in the 1960s and 1970s, the contents and appearance of which greatly resembled similar comics published in Australia during this same period. Like their Australian counterparts, many of these Swedish comics spanned numerous genres - war, jungle adventures, romance, Westerns, etc. - and contained a diverse mix of translated comic-book series from Britain, the United States and Western Europe.

As an aviation enthusiast, I was particularly interested in a Swedish magazine titled Pilot (originally titled Pilot-22), an aviation-themed war comic initially published by Centerforlaget throughout 1965-1970, and subsequently by Semic Press (1970-1984), after the latter company acquired many of the titles previously published by Centerforlaget in 1969. To give you some idea of Pilot's unique mix of stories, one issue I picked up during my trip (No.1/1983) contained reprints of the French fighter pilot series, "Buck Danny", the British World War Two hero, "Battler Britton", and a European-drawn comic-book adaptation of "Biggles", the famous aviator hero created by the British author, Capt. W.E. Johns.

I was idly trawling the web, looking for further copies of Pilot, when I came across references to another Swedish air combat-themed comic book, Jet, which was also published by Centerforlaget during 1965-1968. Looking through the (incomplete) cover gallery for this series appearing on the Grand Comics Database, I was struck by how oddly familiar this cover seemed to me. Then I realised why - the revamped logo and cover design for Jet (which seemed to have taken effect sometime around 1967) was adopted for a similar aerial-combat comic book, Sky Riders, published by Colour Comics Pty Ltd (an imprint of the KG Murray Publishing Company), in Australia around 1967-1968. Just compare the following two covers from these remarkably similar publications:

 
Jet, Vol.3, No.12 - circa 1967 (Centerforlaget)
Sky Riders, No.2 - circa 1967 (Colour Comics Pty Ltd)















Is this evidence of a hitherto unknown connection between Swedish and Australian comic-book publishers? Despite the strong superficial similarities between these two comics, I'm inclined to think not. At present, I can't verify the sources of the stories that appeared in either Jet or Sky Riders; I have two copies of the latter title in my collection, but don't have them to hand as I'm writing this blog post. However, my memory of those Sky Rider comics was that they contained European-drawn stories (most likely produced by one of several Spanish comic art studios active in the mid-to-late 1960s), presumably intended for the British market.

However, my recollection of the contents from these Sky Riders comics was that they were of mediocre quality, and I suspect they would have been used - if they were published at all - by some of the minor British war comics publishers of the period (DC Thomson's Commando and Fleetway/IPC's War Picture Library and Battle Picture Library series, which dominated the British market at the time, typically featured superior artwork supplied by Spanish and/or Italian comic-art studios and European feature syndicates).

If that is the case, then the publication of Sky Riders in Australia is more likely consistent with Colour Comics Pty Ltd's growing reliance on European/Spanish-drawn comics originally produced for British publishers, which was especially evident in the company's range of romance and Western titles from the mid-1960s onwards. However, this would only be confirmed if we uncover any original British war comics of this era which sported the distinctive tailplane logo device used on both Jet and Sky Riders, and could match-up the contents of the British, Swedish and Australian editions to see where any further similarities or differences may lie. As yet, I've not seen any examples of a comparable British title - perhaps someone out there on the Internet reading this might be able to shed more light on this topic?

Yet another intriguing mystery from the publishing history of Australian comics, waiting to be solved! (Images courtesy of Grand Comics Database and AusReprints.com)

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

The "Lost" Phantom Interview (2008)

PREFACE: I wrote the following feature article to coincide with the 60th anniversary edition of The Phantom (No.1518), which was published by Frew Publications on 5 September 2008. This article was scheduled to appear in the August 2008 edition of Collectormania, which was at the time a leading Australian antiques and collectables magazine (I had been writing a regular "Comics Down Under' column for Collectormania for several years at this point). However, the then-editor of the magazine decided to reschedule the article for the following issue; I objected on the grounds that my story would be published several weeks after Frew's anniversary issue would appear on newsstands, and withdrew the article from publication. It was subsequently republished online at ChronicleChamber.com, but it was later removed from that website after it underwent a significant makeover. I've decided to reprint the original, expanded version of article intended for Collectormania magazine on this blog (The edited version that was scheduled to appear in September 2008 was trimmed down by nearly 650 words). Obviously, some of the content is a little dated, and, sadly, Jim Shepherd is no longer with us. But I hope Phantom "phans" everywhere will enjoy this long-lost article, which has been updated to include links to relevant Phantom-related websites as well.

Paul Hogan impersonated him on television. Comedian Austen Tayshus immortalised him in song. Test cricketer Bill Lawry was nicknamed in his honour. And former Queensland Premier Wayne Goss was said to be an ardent fan.
The unlikely inspiration for these celebrity accolades is none other than The Phantom – ‘The Ghost Who Walks, Man Who Cannot Die’. No other comic book character has enthralled generations of Australians, who are no doubt eagerly awaiting the 60th anniversary edition of The Phantom comic book, which goes on sale this month.
Published continuously by Frew Publications since its debut on 9 September 1948, the Australian series is the world’s longest-running edition of The Phantom comic book. And publisher Jim Shepherd has some special treats in store for The Phantom’s diehard followers.
“I can now reveal that (former Phantom artist) Sy Barry has been coaxed out retirement to create the covers for this issue – it will be his first published Phantom artwork in 14 years, and I think he is more excited than anybody about his involvement.”
Not only will the birthday special be accompanied by a new edition of The Phantom Encyclopedia (originally released with issue No.1472 in 2007), but it will also feature some never-before-seen Phantom artwork from America, as well as a previously unpublished Phantom story by the late Australian artist, Keith Chatto, which remained incomplete at the time of Chatto’s death in 1992.
The comic book has come a long way since 1987, when Jim, a former TV sports broadcaster and journalist, was brought on board by Frew Publications’ two surviving founders, Ron Forsyth and Jim Richardson, to rejuvenate the magazine.
"I was busy at the time expanding my own book publishing business and thought my own involvement with Frew would last two years or so", he recalls. "However, when the company eventually became available for purchase, I could not resist the opportunity to buy out the two remaining shareholders. Has it really been 21 years? It seems more like five or six! Which means, of course, I have enjoyed every moment!"
The comic’s renaissance began with the inclusion of new stories created by Swedish company, Egmont, for the European market. Although these began appearing before Jim’s involvement with Frew, they have since formed the bulk of all new stories appearing in the Australian series.
"It did take a little time for Australian readers to warm to the European stories," admits Jim, "but it is now safe to say that they are accepted, as much for their artistic quality as the stories themselves."
But it was Jim’s tireless efforts to reprint the original, classic Phantom stories, written by the strip’s creator, Lee Falk, which won back old fans and hooked a new generation of readers, as well. The first fully restored story, 'The Phantom Goes to War', appeared in issue No.910A back in 1988 - and has now become a collector's item in its own right.
'Working on reassembling Lee Falk's old stories was the first challenge - and thrill - as I found new ways to track down artwork missing from the King Features archives," says Jim. "I think we have now brought back all of Lee Falk's stories in their entirety. However, there may still be a few lacking the odd frame. I've just returned from the USA with a collection of discs containing upwards of 25 old stories and checking has begun."
Yet The Phantom is more than just a comic book – he’s a genuine pop culture phenomenon in Australia. For decades, his likeness had been used to sell everything from plastic skull rings and toy guns, to kitchenware and men’s apparel.
The growing Australian market for Phantom merchandise prompted Nigel Johnson, proprietor of Collector’s Paradise, to publish Johnson’s Official Phantom Price Guide, which went into its third edition in 2006.
“There was such a huge variation in prices for Phantom products throughout Australia, and members of the general public were, in my opinion, being duped by some comic shops about the true value of their collections,” he explains. “I thought that a rough [price] guide was better than none at all – which means that dealers can no longer pull the wool over their clients’ eyes when buying from them.”
The interest in Phantom collectables can vary from one group of fans to the next, according to Nigel. “Many will only collect Australian-made Phantom products, because of their affordability and the vast range available, while other diehard fans want the overseas items as well. Then there are those who just want to read the classic Phantom stories, and are happy to collect the recent Frew reprints, rather than buy the early Australian edition comics.”
Just as The Phantom comic book has changed with the times, so too has its fan-base. The late 1980s saw the formation of a mail-order Phantom fan club, but the days of letter exchanges and printed fanzines has given way to the internet.
Joe Douglas set up Australia’s premiere Phantom fan website, ChronicleChamber, in 2006, after negative experiences visiting another Phantom discussion forum. “Some members were very set in their views and came down hard on anyone who disagreed with them,” he recalls. “I didn’t appreciate that blatant disrespect of others’ opinions, so I created an online forum where fans could discuss The Phantom, no matter what their opinions.”
“But there weren’t any true ‘fan sites’ which covered news about The Phantom, so I decided to fill that gap by launching ChronicleChamber,” he explains. “Not only do we publish interviews with writers and artists who’ve worked on The Phantom, but we also cover new Phantom comics published in Australia, the United States and Europe, as well as items about upcoming Phantom film projects and merchandise.”
“The site is completely open to fan submissions, so if you want to review an issue, write an article or have your opinions heard by the wider Phantom community, then just send us an email!”
So, who reads The Phantom today? According to Jim Shepherd, the comic’s readership is predominantly male, comprised of 60% adults and 40% from the 12-18 years age group. “Our biggest-growing market is amongst the 40 years-plus bracket, with the bulk of regular buyers being professional, or semi-professional types – I’m continually surprised to discover just how many school teachers, doctors, academics and stockbrokers are avid fans!”
According to Nigel Johnson, there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ Phantom fan. “They are drawn from all walks of life, all age groups and all classes,” he says. “It’s good to see grandfather and grandson both buying Phantom comics and t-shirts from me, both with the same level of enthusiasm.”
Indeed, this appears to be the secret to The Phantom’s success in Australia. Just as The Phantom’s own identity is passed down from one generation to the next, so too, has the enthusiasm for The Phantom comic book been seemingly passed on from father to son.
“My dad had a bunch of old Frew issues piled away in his study, which I discovered when I was about seven years-old,” recalls Joe Douglas. “At the time, I wasn’t a very strong reader, but these comics instantly caught my imagination.”
“Even at that age, I was already pretty artistic, so I’d initially just sit and look at the artwork and try to copy it myself. Eventually, though, I wanted to know what the stories were about, so I made myself learn to read, so I could follow the stories in the comics. If it weren’t for those old Phantom comics, my English education would’ve been a lot worse!”
Ironically, comic books like The Phantom were once scorned by educators and psychologists for corrupting impressionable young minds. “Today, however,” according to Jim, “a great many schools subscribe to the magazine and actually encourage students to read The Phantom, because so many of the stories – especially those created in Europe – are linked to historical subjects.”
Because The Phantom is such a compelling figure in his own right, the series has maintained its popularity for decades, despite being illustrated by several different artists, each with their own unique interpretation of the character. But does anyone artist rank above all others as Australians’ favourite Phantom illustrator?
"Our older readers rank the original Phantom artist, Raymond Moore, as No.1, while those in the 30-40 year age bracket place Sy Barry ahead of Moore," says Jim Shepherd. "Jean-Yves Mitton was by far the most popular European artist and I remain a great fan of his work, while today the most popular is Hans Lindahl. Pinned to the wall, I'd have to go for Sy Barry as the most popular artist."
It’s an assessment that Joe Douglas aggress with. “I do think Sy Barry is the definitive Phantom artist, because his work really cemented the character’s look. Ray Moore gave the character his dark, mysterious feel, while Moore’s successor, Wilson McCoy, made him resemble a superhero with his simplistic, powerful style,” he claims. “But it was Barry who moulded these two looks together and made the Phantom look and feel like a ‘modern’ hero.”
Joe also admires the new Phantom comic book stories currently being published in America by Moonstone Press. “It’s great to see a publisher try new things with The Phantom because I think, to some extent, the character has kind of fallen into a kind of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ situation.”
Jim Shepherd, however, doesn’t share this assessment of these new stories. "Few, if any, of the Moonstone creations have rung any bells with me. Far too many of their stories are, in my opinion, too gory and The Phantom character is too often depicted as a dark avenger. I prefer The Phantom to be always cast in the Lee Falk-Sy Barry mould."
Back in 1990, Frew Publications scored an unexpected hit when it published the first Australian-produced Phantom story, ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, in issue No.951A. Written by Jim Shepherd himself, and drawn by Keith Chatto, the story marked a brief experiment with locally-drawn Phantom strips.
"It was a new experience for this old sports writer and the fact that it was our top-seller for that year was gratifying beyond belief," says Jim. "But as much as I'd love to commission more Australian artists and writers to create stories, our current contract with King Features Syndicate does not allow such freedom. The Egmont organization has a hold on this arrangement outside the United States. But I haven't given up hope!"
No matter what the future holds for The Phantom, there can be no doubt that his 60th Australian anniversary issue will become a sought-after edition. When you consider that Frew's 1000th issue, released back in 1991, new fetches up to $100 for a mint-condition copy, comic collectors will be well advised to make sure they grab a copy. In fact, they better make that two copies - one to read and one to put into storage (Image courtesy of the Phantom Wiki website).

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!)