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Speaking to Jim Shepherd

Jim in the Frew office (image courtesy Fairfax media)

Publisher of the world’s longest running Phantom comic Mr. Jim Shepherd is a very important man in Phantom circles. Joe Douglas has the pleasure of chatting to the man behind Frew about his publication and his love for a man in purple tights… G’day Jim, thanks very much for joining us here at First off, for those who came in late, tell us how you first became publisher of the world's longest running Phantom publication.

Jim Shepherd: In 1987 I was running a quite successful book publishing company of my own when I was asked by the then partners in Frew to handle some business negotiations on their behalf. Later the same year, one of the partners died and the other decided he wanted to retire. I agreed to buy a small stake in Frew and later purchased 50% of the company. The opportunity later arose to purchase all the issued shares. By 2001 I became the sole owner. CC: The Phantom is a huge pop culture icon in Australia. What is it about the character that makes him so endearing to Australian readers in particular, do you think?

JS: Almost certainly because the character has been around for so long…as a syndicated newspaper and magazine strip since the late 1930s for example. It has out-lasted so many syndicated Australian, American and British strips and today ranks No.2 (behind Ginger Meggs) as the most widely distributed comic strip in Australia. Frew has been on the scene since September, 1948.

1948 Frew #1

CC: Are you Phantom phan yourself, do you still collect Phantom memorabilia or do you just concentrate on putting the book out?

JS: I don’t collect merchandise, although a huge amount comes my way as gifts. I do collect Phantom publications of every type. If anybody out there has a copy of a comic book published in Russia, please get in touch! I think it is the only example of an international Phantom comic book I do not possess.

CC: Do you have a personal favorite Phantom story?

JS: I still love some of the very early Lee Falk stories and especially the original, The Singh Brotherhood. In no order, other Falk favourites are The Phantom Goes to War, The Golden Circle and The Slave Traders.

CC: You were lucky enough to have met the Phantom’s creator, the late Lee Falk. For those of us who never had that honour, tell us a little about the man.

JS: I first met Lee when he and wife Elizabeth came to Australia in 1988 and saw him at least once every year until his death. With one exception (when he returned to Australia in the 1990s) we always caught up in New York. He was a highly intelligent man, always friendly and interested in so many things. Despite our age difference, we hit it off because we quickly discovered we shared so many interests….the theatre (his real passion in life!), jazz and classical music, , magic and among many other things, boxing! At many of our longish lunches in New York, we often never broached the subject of comics, but concentrated entirely on the merits of boxers from the golden era of the 1940s and 1950s.

CC: Lee Falk’s other comics hero, Mandrake, almost comes hand in hand with the purple clad hero. Even though they have only appeared together on few occasions the characters seem almost inseparable. Do you personally enjoy the Mandrake strips?

1946 Harvey Comics Joe Palooka #7

JS: I loved the Phil Davis era with Mandrake and rate it one of the best illustrated comics of that time. Sadly, a lot of the Mandrake ‘magic’ faded when Davis died, but of course, that can be said for so many other famous strips ranging from Dick Tracy, Joe Palooka, Prince Valiant.

CC: This may go in hand with the previous question but apart from The Phantom are you a fan of any other comic books or strips? JS: Far too many to mention in detail! I grew up with vintage Buck Rogers, Dick Tracy, Joe Palooka, Prince Valiant, Flash Gordon and still like to read classic adult/adventure strips of the period. I was also something of a fan of old Australian strips such as Wanda The War Girl! Wish I’d kept the hundreds of old Australian comic books I once owned!

CC: Much of Frew’s output in the last few years has been reprints of Egmont stories. How exactly do you choose which stories to print?

JS: When I first became involved with Frew, I was extremely selective about Semic and later, Egmont stories, because fairly early, I embarked upon a plan to bring back as many complete (unedited) Lee Falk stories as possible. Now that Frew has re-published so many old Falk stories in their entirety, I have almost been forced into purchasing almost every new story published by Egmont. Once sufficient years have passed, I will probably cut back a little on new Scandinavian stories and bring back more of the old Falk adventures.

CC: Recently Frew has printed many multi-part Egmont tales. Due, I assume, to the availability of the scripts and art there is often a “filler” issue between one part of the story and the next. If Frew has these stories to use as “fillers” would it not be better to print those “filler” stories until all issues of a multi-part story are at your disposal rather than having the story interrupted by an unrelated tale, or is Frew not able to do this? JS: Go back a little and you will note that we did, in fact, publish Semic and Egmont serial stories in an unbroken line. Sadly, Egmont now follows a schedule of having long gaps between episodes of serial works and it is not unusual for a four-part story to be spread over 12 months. I’d like to run part stories in a continual line, but this is not possible.

2004 Frew #1389

CC: It’s known that some Egmont re-prints in Frew editions are edited to conceal nudity and such. An example would be the story Giovanna which saw the title characters’ bare breasts covered in the Frew edition. However, in Son of the Pirate Queen (Frew #1389, 1426, 1427) a female pirate’s naked breasts are seen in nearly every page. Also, in the recent Circe’s Island (Frew #1455, 1456) Felmang’s art, while not explicit is defiantly suggestive yet these stories were not edited or censured in any way. I am not saying these decisions were wrong, but could you explain how you decide what stories need censoring which stories do not?

JS: It’s true that for quite a long time, I ‘censored’ many Scandinavian stories. Some of the older stories were far more explicit than current creations. It’s really a matter of public reaction. Since I eased up on my self-imposed ‘censorship’ policy, we have had virtually no complaints. Obviously there is a new level of acceptance out there!

CC: The question of censorship in Frew’s comics raises the question as to what age group you’re aiming your comics at. While young children can easily enjoy The Phantom – indeed many phans started reading the comics at an early age – there are a number of possible “mature” themes in some of Frew’s issues, such as the near murderous rampage the Phantom goes on due to suffering from a bullet wound in the Year One story line. In this day and age that is very sensitive as to what children are exposed to how do you decide what age group to aim your publication at and if the stories you publish are acceptable for that demographic? JS: I have tried hard to establish exactly our audience. The best I can offer is that the bulk of our customers are 20 years and over and that the largest growth area is 50 years and over! Younger girls and boys buy The Phantom of course, but judging by correspondence we receive, I believe sub-teenagers comprise less than 15% of the total. When you think about it, think Mission Impossible when you try to settle on story selection which will not offend anti-violence and semi-adult themes. So many of the Scandinavian stories these days are at least a mite gory and the American dailies and Sundays contain varying degrees of violence. Just try to be careful!

CC: Are younger audiences something that Frew has to keep in mind? Obviously if a book doesn’t pull in more readers it will eventually fade away and getting them while their young seems to be the best way of ensuring you’ll have lasting fans. Has Frew taken, or do you plan to take any steps towards promoting The Phantom to a younger audience?

JS: We do not have any specific plans to promote towards younger audiences. Frankly, there are too few suitable stories available and as previously said, the growth market is with older people. It seems so many older people are re-discovering The Phantom. Now, that’s a highly unusual situation when you compare it to the current United States comics market!

CC: A subject of much discussion in the Phantom on-line community is that of the Phantom being “updated.” The Phantom has always been a modern character for the time in which he is written. In your opinion, would it be at all “wrong” to see the Phantom using, say, broadband Internet rather than that giant, ancient radio he keeps in the Skull Cave to contact Diana and the Jungle Patrol in this techno savvy year of 2006?

JS: The Phantom is far more up-market these days in terms of technology. The Catch-22 situation is that whenever we bring back an old story, he reverts to his old fashioned methods of communication. I don’t think it matters one iota. The true fans simply love the stories!

2006 Frew #1442

CC: Speaking of technology in Phantom stories, Frew has recently published the first two parts of Hans Lindahl’s Cyberspace run of stories (Frew #1442, 1460). These seem to have been well received by phans, but what is your personal opinion on them?

JS: The Cyberspace series has had a slightly mixed reception, but overall, seems to have been popular enough. I have really enjoyed them! There will not be too many more stories on such themes.

CC: Still on the Cyberspace stories, tales such as this really demonstrate the versatility of the character. Do you believe writers should experiment more with The Phantom? Take our hero to different places and put him in situations we might not have expected?

JS: I’m not in favour of The Phantom venturing into sci-fi domains. Nor are the vast bulk of readers. If there is one message contained in reader correspondence, it is that The Phantom should be seen more often in his jungle domain. I agree!

CC: Going off Frew’s publication for a moment, have you seen or read any of American publisher Moonstone’s Phantom comics? The majority of Phans seem to be enjoying these books and they have been selling well as well as raising awareness of The Phantom in America to the highest point it’s been since, possibly, the 1996 feature film, especially among younger readers. Surely this can only be a good thing?

JS: I have every Moonstone edition. I’m not really impressed with most of the art and most of the stories. For some unaccountable reason, the Moonstone creators seem to be trying to turn The Phantom into a B-grade ‘super hero’.

1991 Frew #972 - The first of the Annuals

CC: The Frew Annual is an issue that is much looked forward to every year. However, a number of phans have said they’d like to see one or two changes in the Annual’s format, for example haveing a free poster instead of or as well as the replica issue. Other’s have suggested keeping the Annual itself full of Phantom stories but instead of the free replica they’d prefer a reprint of Mandrake the Magician strips. Would you ever consider changing the format of the Annual?

JS: Frew’s Annual is by far our largest seller each year. I have no plans to dramatically ch the current format and unsurprisingly, even new chum fans seem to appreciate seeing old Frew editions, cute as many were! During 2007, Frew will commence adding bonus items to selected editions (similar to the Lee Falk tribute issue earlier this year). We have something really special planned to accompany our 1500th edition which will appear in April, 2007. It’s so secret I’m not dropping even a hint at this stage. I’ll include a Mandrake story in the Annual only if it is a Phantom crossover.

CC: Something else phans have been asking for are books reprinting Falk’s strips in chronological order rather than the “miscellaneous” way they are appearing in Frew at the moment. It has been suggested that perhaps the Annual could adopt this format. Would Frew ever consider doing anything along these lines? JS: Another Catch-22 situation. It’s far too late to even think about publishing a chronological run of Lee Falk dailies and Sundays. There would be far too much repetition. A pity, but when Frew started, stories appeared at random!

CC: Would you consider publishing Mandrake as a regular book again?

JS: No. We tried Mandrake some years ago and the results, while passable, were not economically viable.

CC: New issues used to have original covers produced by artists such as Glenn Ford and Antonio Lemos rather than the “photocopied” covers we see now. Is there any chance Frew will return to original cover for their books?

JS: Yes. However, our research has proved beyond doubt that editions sporting a cover linked to the contained story work far better than one-off, theme-style covers. Glenn Ford is always welcome and Antonio Lemos and ‘Tessa’ (Terry Welsby) are still contributing.

CC: In a recent interview one of Moonstone’s Phantom writers said that they have to follow strict guidelines laid down by King Features when creating a Phantom story. Does Frew have to follow any similar rules or guidelines?

JS: King Features does not insist on anything from Frew (other than the best possible good taste). We have a strong and wonderful relationship.

1989 Frew #925A

CC: There are a number of Falk stories that have been out of print for over ten years, such as Romance and the Vesta Pirates. Do you plan to reprint these stories anytime soon?

JS: Commencing early 2007 there will be upwards of 20 older Falk stories slotted into the schedule. All have been out of print for upwards of 17 years.

CC: Does Frew have any plans to publish any more stories from the Charlton Phantom editions?

JS: No. It is now not possible to obtain pristine repros of any Charlton material. More’s the pity!

CC: Frew has been printing Phantom comics for close to sixty years now. Surely you must be doing something right! Why do you think the comic has been able to last for so long when others lose popularity?

JS: Return to my previous comment re the continual exposure The Phantom receives in Australia. Add to that our cover price!

CC: Although The Phantom is arguably Australia’s most popular comic the book doesn’t have a large presence at Australian conventions such as SupaNova, other than Glenn Ford signing and stores selling back issues. With these cons becoming more and more popular would Frew ever consider having a Phantom stall at any of these cons? I’m sure there are many phans who would love to help out and many more who would visit.

JS: Frew has been represented at a number of Australian conventions, but admittedly, not for some years. My feeling is that the current Cons are aimed directly at the super hero audience. The Phantom is way outside this market. Frew editions have, however, been exposed at a number of up-market promotions in Canberra and currently, in Melbourne.

1996 Frew #1131

CC: One of my favorite Phantom stories is Search for Byron (Frew #1131). Is there any chance will see you pick up the writers pen once more?

JS: Not in the immediate future. Loved the experience (and thanks for your comment!), but I am so busy on so many other fronts (mainly sporting) as an historian for the Sydney Cricket Ground and NSW Sports Centre Trusts and as Patron and newsletter compiler with the Veteran Speedway Riders Association of Australia. That’s just the tip of the iceberg!

CC: Thanks very much for your time Jim, I wish you and Frew the very best for the future! It’s been a pleasure!

JS: The pleasure has been all mine. Thanks for the opportunity.

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