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No.1472 in 2007), but it will also feature some never-before-seen Phantom artwork from America, as well as a previously unpublished Phantom story by the late Australian artist, Keith Chatto, which remained incomplete at the time of Chatto’s death in 1992.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 agrees 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!