Friday, December 22, 2006

Jeff Wilkinson: Phantoms and Shadows

To outlaws everywhere, he was known as The Phantom Ranger. Yet even though his countless fans knew that he was, according to Navajo legend, 'Kina the Deathless One', few of them ever knew of the man behind The Phantom Ranger - Jeff Wilkinson.

Until now, little was known, or has been written, about the life and work of Jeff Wilkinson. While he never received the accolades later bestowed by critics on his peers, Wilkinson created two of Australia's most enduring comic book characters and made a significant contribution to Australia's postwar comics' industry.

No doubt the Wild West exploits of The Phantom Ranger, and that of postwar Sydney, seemed a world away from Pontefract, Yorkshire, where Wilkinson was born on 9 October 1924.

"There were very few comics around in England when I was young," says Jeff, "but I was always interested in drawing."

"When I was 11 years-old, the head teacher of my primary school, Mr. Luke, assigned me the task of drawing onto paper a wall frieze, which would be placed around the top of the art classroom's wall."

"After I'd started drawing, Mr. Luke removed the paper, put up some scaffolding - and then asked me to draw straight on to the wall!"

Wilkinson's artistic talent was further recognised when he was awarded a bursary (scholarship) to Wakefields College, Leeds, to study art.

"I had to wear a new blazer, tie and cap, but I hated the colours," recalls Jeff. "My old friends decided I was too 'posh' now to be friends with and would no longer talk to me."

Adjusting to a new school wasn't the only problem he had to contend with. While he was still a youngster, Jeff's mother uprooted the entire family while her husband was visiting his parents one weekend and moved them out of their home.

Their father eventually found them, but Jeff's parents were never reconciled. "My father would send gifts for our birthdays and Christmas, which my mother would open and say 'You don't want these' and send them back."

Confronted with an increasingly difficult home life, Jeff left school early when he turned 17 years-old and joined the Royal Navy in 1941.

"I never smoked in my life," says Jeff, "until I joined the services - where everyone smoked!"

Jeffrey initially served with the Royal Navy in the North Atlantic. He was posted to the British aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, where he was a Leading Airman in the Air Gunnery Division (Torpedo Bomber Squadron).

After seeing action in the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, HMS Illustrious was assigned to the British Pacific Fleet, On 9 April 1945, the carrier was damaged during a Japanese 'kamikaze' aircraft attack, which saw HMS Illustrious head for Australia, where she underwent repairs at the Captain Cook Dry Dock on Garden Island, Sydney.

It was while on shore leave in Sydney that Jeff decided to settle permanently in Australia. He was to be discharged from the Royal Navy and transferred to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), in order to stay in his newly adopted country.

Soon after the war ended in August 1945, Jeff was posted to HMAS Albatross, an RAN naval air station at Nowra, New South Wales. It was here that Jeff met his future wife, Marjorie Booth, who was serving in the Royal Australian Air Force as a telegraphist. They were both 21 years-old when they were wed on 16 February 1946 and went on to have three children.

"I was still in the navy when I applied to live in Australia," he recalls. "And it was during a nine-month leave period, while my application to stay was being processed, that I visited H.J. Edwards in Sydney."

Soon after the war ended, Henry John Edwards has quickly established himself in the local comics market. He struck unexpected success with The Lone Avenger, a Western cowboy character created by Leonard Keith Lawson, which debuted in the second issue of Edwards' flagship title, Action Comic, in 1946.

The popularity of The Lone Avenger allowed Edwards to expand his comic book line, which included new Australian-drawn titles such as Tim Valour and The Crimson Comet (both drawn by John Dixon), as well as reprints of American comics, which included titles from such publishers as Fiction House (Wings Comics, Fight Comics) and MLJ Magazines (Pep Comics, Archie Comics).

"When I visited Edwards, he told me to write up any ideas I had and, if he thought they were any good, then he'd buy them."

"I can still picture him," says Jeff. "He was 'the boss' and drove a large Mercedes car. I always said that, one day, I'd drive a car just like it - but that never happened!"

Jeff eventually received his discharge from the Royal Navy and, as he puts it, "my new career was started."

Wilkinson's first published work for HJ Edwards was 'Dusty Malone', about a government agent thwarting gunrunners in Hong Kong, which appeared as a back-up strip in Tim Valour Comic No.7, circa 1948.

He also did humour strips for Meteor Publications' Radio Comics, which appeared under his pen name 'Wilkie' in 1948 ("That was my nickname in the Navy," according to Jeff.)

Jeff drew similar one-page gag strips, drawn under his 'Wilkie' and 'Wilko' pen names, for KG Murray's line of American reprint comics in the kate 1940s, including 'Harry Screwball' (published in Superman) and 'Hector', 'Looie' and 'Barny' (appearing in Adventure Comics and Superboy).

It was while he was doing freelance figure illustration work for local advertising agencies that Jeff took the idea for a new comic to Frew Publications in Sydney. Frew was formed by four men - Ron Forsyth, Jim Richardson, Jack Eisen and Peter Watson - who each invested £500 to form the company which took its name from the first letter of their surnames.

Frew's first comic book was The Phantom, which featured reprints of the popular American comic strip, which also appeared in The Australian Woman's Mirrror magazine. The premiere editon, simply titled Enter The Phantom, appeared in September 1948 and, after a handful of issues, became one of Australia's bestselling comic books - and still continues to be published, every fortnight, to this day.

"I came up with the idea for this character, The Phantom Ranger," he explains. "It wasn't meant to be a Western 'cowboy' comic, but set in the modern day. Essentially, The Phantom Ranger would appear when any skullduggery occurred."

"Frew liked it and they went into production," he adds. The Phantom Ranger became Frew Publications' first Australian-drawn comic book, making its debut in October 1949 and quickly became a popular title.

"I had to produce an entire issue every two weeks," says Jeff. "I had a formula where a 'baddie' came along and The Phantom Ranger would try and sort him out and get into trouble, instead - but he would triumph in the end."

Jeff would meet with Frew publisher Ron Forsyth nearly every week ("There was nothing like email or software packages back then!"), delivering him the completed artwork for one issue, before sitting down to discuss the next edition.

"Ron was an okay bloke, with a down-to-earth attitude," recalls Jim. "He used to carry his money around in a 'french letter' [condom] - this went back to his days in the war, so that, if he landed in the water, his money would be safe and dry!"

The character quickly spawned its own line of merchandise, which included Phantom Ranger costumes and a Phantom Ranger Junior Deputy's badge.

"The Phantom Ranger was a success. At one pont, the Sydney department store David Jones had a Phantom Ranger display on the top floor."

By the time The Phantom Ranger radio serial began broadcasting in Sydney and Melbourne during 1952 (played on-air by veteran Australian actor, Charles 'Bud' Tingwell), Jeff had already left the series after producing the first 19 issues.

While Peter Chapman, who was then editing The Phantom comic book, took over as the writer-artist on The Phantom Ranger, Jeff was busy creating his next comic book series for Frew Publications.

To the outside world, Jimmy Grey was a wealthy, layabout playboy. The son of the millionaire safe manufacturer, Silver Grey, Jimmy led a double-life as The Shadow - masked nemesis of crime!

Sometimes The Shadow would discard his rubber face mask and don the disguise of 'Limpy', a petty thief, which allowed him to move freely through the criminal underworld, gathering information on crooks and their schemes.

"I always worked completely on my own and The Shadow was no exception," says Jeff. "I would start with the script and dialogue, then create a rough draft [of the artwork] to determine the number of pages that a given story sequence would take, before drawing in the figures, backgrounds, etc."

"My son and his friends would often visit me while working, and say 'Mr. Wilkie, what happens next?', and I'd always say. 'Wait and see and buy the comic!' "

The first series of The Shadow debuted in May 1950, and ran for 23 issues, with Jeff responsible for the first 12 issues in the series. The comic was handed over to Peter Chapman, who wrote and drew the remainder of the initial series, and stayed with the comic when it was relaunched in 1952.

That didn't mark the end of Wilkinson's involvement with Frew Publications, for whom he also produced a boxing-themed comic, Kid Champion, which appeared around 1954.

Like many freelance artists of the time, Wilkinson produced work for a variety of local comics publishers. Beginning around 1950, Jeff illustrated several titles for Pyramid Publications. He drew at least one episode of the 'Michael Chance' crime series for the company's ongoing anthology title, Pyramid Comics (No.28).

Wilkinson went on to draw the character's lead stories in the spin-off title, Michael Chance Comics. However, the titular character would give way to Yaroslav Horak's masked aviator hero, 'Jet Fury', a back-up strip which eventually took over the title with issue No.17.

During the early 1950s, Pyramid Publications produced an Australian reprint edition of Black X. Orignally known as 'Espionage, starring Black X', the strip was created by Will Eisner and debuted in Feature Comics No.13 (October 1938), before settling in as a regular feature in Smash Comics, where it was largely drawn by Clark Williams during the 1940s.

Wilkinson drew several installments of the Black X strip for Pyramid Publications, which occasionally alternated with reprints of the American series. (This was not an uncommon practice for Pyramid Publications, which occasionally used Australian artists to provde 'fill-in' episodes of other American reprint titles, such as Manhunter Comics.)

Wilkinson returned to H.J. Edwards in the early 1950s, where his first major assignment was Gimlet. This was a comic book adaptation of the children's adventure book series written by Captain W.E. Johns, who was better known as the creator of Biggles.

'Gimlet' was, in fact, Captain Lorrington 'Gimlet' King, a British commando who starred in a series of 10 books published between 1943-54.

While Gimlet never attained the same worldwide popularity of Biggles, H.J. Edwards clearly felt that any comic with W.E. Johns' name attached to it would be a strong seller. This was borne out by the popularity of Edwards' title, The Adventures of Biggles, which was illustrated by Albert De Vine and John Dixon, and was reprinted under licence in Britain during the 1950s as well.

Action Comics, as Edwards' publishing company was now known, launched the Gimlet comic book in 1953. The series was originally drawn by Royce Bradford, before Jeff Wilkinson took over as writer and illustrator.

Despite the fact that Gimlet was based on a licenced character, Jeff says "there were no guidelines to follow" when it came to producing the comic book version.

Wilkinson's next assignment would also mark the end of his career in Australian comics, contributing stories to the Silhouette Library series of digest-sized war, cowboy and romance comics.

Published by Reigate (an imprint of the Cleveland Publishing Company) in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Silhouette Library series anticipated the local popularity of pocket-sized British comics, such as War Picture Library (1958) and Commando (1961).

As the Australian comic book industry fell into decline during the early 1960s, Wilkinson turned his hand to new business ventures, including work as a tiling contractor and as a designer of cameo-styled jewellery.

It would be another 20 years before Jeff returned to the drawing board - but this time in a different country.

"In the early 1980s, Marjorie and I decided to move to the UK for a two-year period - but we wound up staying for good."

Jeff found work as an illustraor for British comics publishers, such as IPC and DC Thomson.

"I left IPC shortly after Robert Maxwell took over [the company] in 1987," says Jeff. "Payment became too slow - sometimes it took longer than two months to get paid."

Sadly, Jeff's wife, Marjorie, died in 1996, after a short illness. Nonetheless, he still continued to teach art for local adult education classes, and only retired when he turned 80 years of age in 2004, due to poor hearing.

Jeff still remains an active artist and is presently working with one of his former pupils, Mila Dunajova (now a resident of the Czech Republic), on two illustrated children's books, which are awaiting publication. He currently lives in West Sussex, England.

Kevin Patrick would like to thank Jeff Wilkinson and Ruby de Claire for organising this long-distance interview, as well as Graeme Cliffe, Neville Bain and Roger Stitson for their research assistance. Any errors and omissions, however, are the author's own.

Images courtesy of Vintage Australian Comic Books on CD-ROM.

Kevin Patrick can be contacted at PO Box 1055, Camberwell, Victoria, 3124, or via email at:


Anonymous said...

Brilliant stuff Kevin. As always a fascinating read. Each time I see something like this it makes me think that I should be spending more and more time on the Australian side of things as well.

Keep 'em coming!

And have a great Christmas!!! May 2007 bring us everything we've ever wished for.

Jayne Paddon said...

This is my Uncle..