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Peter Chapman: The “Phantom Artist” of Frew

Peter Chapman

When the first edition of Frew Publications’ new comic book, titled Enter The Phantom, went on sale in September 1948, it was the latest entrant into Australia’s then-booming postwar comic book market.

The ‘boom’ was fuelled by a wartime embargo on the importation of American comic books (in place since 1940), and spurred by the increased availability of newsprint supplies and the easing of government restrictions which curtailed the launch of new, ongoing magazine titles, which were imposed to preserve paper stocks needed for the nation’s war effort.

Australian publishers were handed a captive audience and they launched a flurry of new, locally-produced comic books to meet the rising demand for escapist reading matter. For Peter Chapman, a 23 year-old aspiring artist from Cammeray, North Sydney, there wasn’t a better time to gain a foothold in the comic book business.

The prolific young artist had already become a fixture at Frank Johnson Publications, where he’d written and drawn a slew of comic strips for Johnson’s ‘Magpie Comics’ imprint since 1946, including the sci-fi serial ‘Captain Jerry Winters’ and a jungle drama, ‘Diana Hastings’, for Johnson’s Gem Comics title, as well as contributing stories to the company’s popular True Pirate Comics.

“When I was working at Johnson’s, a famous French writer, Eddie Brooker, who’d apparently had stuff published all over Europe, came along and said he was writing comics, but he couldn’t get anyone to draw them.”

Virgil Reilly, one of the artists from the Daily Telegraph, wound up illustrating one of Brooker's titles, called The Invisible Avenger,” according to Peter.

“Brooker would use a translator to turn his stories into English, but he [Brooker] used too many words, which would ‘kill’ the story.” “I ended up doing The Invisible Avenger for him [Brooker] and took over from Virgil Reilly as the artist.”

Brooker, who by now was employed as a writer on the Daily Mirror newspaper, would try and sell his stories, using Peter’s original artwork, but often without giving Peter a percentage of any fees he received from publishers. “I’d be a rich man now if I kept all that original artwork,” Peter says ruefully.

Brooker wrote some of the early issues of The Phantom Ranger, a cowboy comic which was originally created by British-born artist Jeff Wilkinson, and became Frew Publications’ first locally-produced comic book when it was launched in October 1949.

According to Peter, Frew’s publisher and co-founder, Ron Forsyth, wasn’t entirely happy with Brooker’s efforts. “That’s when he asked me if I could do it [The Phantom Ranger] on my own instead.”

Chapman took over as both writer and artist on The Phantom Ranger, which was not only published under licence in the United Kingdom and South America, but also generated a line of Phantom Ranger merchandise and was adapted into a popular radio serial in the early 1950s, starring Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell.

Peter would also assume the writing and illustration for another Frew comic book, The Shadow, starring an urban masked crime-fighter, which was again created by Jeff Wilkinson. While never achieving the same popularity as The Phantom Ranger, The Shadow would enjoy an equally long publishing life.

(For readers interested in learning more about Frew Publications’ Australian comic book characters, selected issues of The Phantom Ranger, The Shadow and Sir Falcon have been republished in electronic format. For details, visit Vintage Australian Comic Books on CD-ROM)

“I worked with Ron Forsyth from about 1949, and well into the early 1960s,” he states.

“Ron was very good – he used to work over at the Daily Telegraph – but he didn’t have a clue when it came to comics,” according to Peter.

“He was offered two titles from America – one was The Phantom, and the other could have been Abbott and Costello – and, as luck would have it, he took The Phantom!”

Chapman recalls that Ron Forsyth hired Thomas Russell (‘Tommy’) Hughes, who was then working as the Art Director on The Australian Women’s Weekly, to assemble the Phantom comic book and draw the covers as well. (It’s worth noting that both the Daily Telegraph and The Australian Women’s Weekly were then owned by Frank Packer’s Australian Consolidated Press.)

“Ron and Tommy were pretty good friends, so [The Phantom] was a bit of extra [income] for Tommy.”

“Some of Tommy’s covers were pretty rough, but it almost didn’t matter, because The Phantom sold so well,” explains Peter. “The kids knew who The Phantom was, because he’d been around for a while in the [Australian] Woman’s Mirror magazine.”

In addition to producing The Phantom Ranger and The Shadow, Peter would also assist with the production of The Phantom comic book throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.

“The artwork for The Phantom was supplied to Frew on bromides (black & white photoprints), but sometimes they’d be the wrong size,” he says.

“I’d have to cut them [the stories] from 32 pages down to 21 pages, or sometimes go the other way, in order to fill out the pages.”

“I used to do the paste-ups for Frew’s romance comics, by cutting down the original artwork so that it would fill out the 100-page digest-sized format they were using.”

Peter would also occasionally redraw some of the panels, or even entire pages, of a Phantom comic, in order to maintain story continuity, if some of the original artwork was missing, or had been left out due to space limitations.

“I did a few covers for The Phantom throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, whenever Tommy Hughes was away,” he adds.

“Tommy never seemed to actually drop in [to Frew’s offices], he’d always send someone around to pick up, or drop off his work.”

“I always worked from home myself,” Peter explains. “I was living at Dee Why, and then moved to Springwood. I’d always drop my stuff off at Frew, because I had a deadline to meet every second week.”

“Ron [Forsyth] always had a production bloke in there and a young girl assistant as well,” he recalls. “You’d change things [on the artwork] on the spot, in the office – if you got some grammar wrong, or something like that.”

The initial success of The Phantom allowed Frew Publications to expand its business by adding new, locally-drawn titles, such as Super Yank Comics, and other, short-lived titles like Suicide Squad and The Green Skeleton.

“I once went with Ron to see a psychoanalyst who explained why The Phantom was so popular. He didn’t tell us much more about The Phantom than we didn’t already know ourselves, but we partly based our next comic, Sir Falcon, on the explanation that he gave us.”

“A lot of people said Sir Falcon was a rip-off of The Phantom, and I’d say ‘Oh yeah? What about [Australian sci-fi comic strip] Silver Starr? He was a rip-off of Flash Gordon!"

Working for Frew Publications was a lucrative, but demanding job for Peter Chapman. “When I started out in the industry at Frank Johnson Publications, I was getting 30 shillings per page of artwork – by the time I was working at Frew, I was getting £110 per comic book, which was good money at the time, as the average wage back then would’ve been £20 per week.”

“But that meant I did everything, including drawing the covers, doing the cover colours using an overlay sheet, writing the stories and all the artwork and lettering myself.”

“Ron used to have the panel borders, six squares per page, printed on to the art paper, which saved me a lot of time, and I could alter the borders to suit the artwork. I worked so fast that it got to the point where I could do the lettering without using guide lines.”

“Comics were possibly the hardest work I’ve ever done,” admits Peter. “Sometimes I’d have to work 48 hours straight, just to meet my deadlines – I’d do six pages per day, and could easily [complete] a full-length comic book per week.”

Peter left Frew Publications in the early 1960s, just as the Australian comics industry was slipping into decline, largely due to the popularity of television and the reintroduction of imported, full-colour American comic books onto the local market.

He has since enjoyed a lengthy and diverse career as a commercial artist and illustrator, as well as teaching art at New South Wales TAFE Colleges. For the last 14 years, Peter Chapman has conducted his own travelling ‘Art School’, which sees him visiting different towns throughout the state, where he conducts art classes.

“I can teach on virtually any art topic, because I’ve used every technique imaginable, from black and white illustration, to airbrushing.”

“I’ve taught students ranging in age from 7 years to 98 years – and that’s how I met my second wife, Meg Madden, who’s a very good landscape artist, too.”

Recent Phantom Happenings

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