Originally published on Hopscotch Friday, this is my response to Nat Karmichael’s discussion of The Phantom.
In an editorial piece over at comicoz.com, Oi! Oi! Oi! Publisher Nat Karmichael made the following comment –
Although the [The Phantom comic] is published in Australia, I personally do not consider it an Aussie comic. The character is licenced from an American company. For the main, the comic reprints stories that have been published earlier in its publishing life or from comics first published in Scandinavia or from daily and Sunday newspaper strips collated into comics from its American syndicate. I consider the publication in the same light as I would former Australian reprint companies like Murray Comics or even the present company that endlessly reprint comics based on the television show, The Simpsons. (For those who can remember, Murray was a Sydney company that reprinted mostly large black and white volumes of what we now know as DC Comic characters.) When I, as Comicoz, eventually get around to reprinting and updating John Ryan’s Panel by Panel volume, there will be little detailed analysis of The Phantom comic (or of any other organisation that reprints non-Australian material).
Karmichael goes on to discuss his personal feelings regarding Frew’s The Phantom, including the stewardship of Dudley Hogarth following the death of Jim Shepherd in April 2013. He ends his editorial with an appeal to Hogarth to consider featuring local Australian content in The Phantom, before linking to a Pozible campaign for Oi! Oi! Oi!. The editorial can be read in full here.
While my study of Australian comics and the history of the medium continues, I feel it would be remiss to not make some notes in response to the above.
The Phantom is not only one of the longest running comics in Australia, first landing on these shores shortly after its American debut as a feature in Australian Woman’s Mirror in 1936, it is also one of the longest running print magazines in this country. Russell Marks, for Overland, points out that the Ghost Who Walks runs a close fourth to Women’s Weekly, Meanjin and Southerly.
The Phantom is a comic book in exile from the Americas. Achieving great success in Sweden, Australia and India (Kai Friese writes movingly about how a local edition of the book locating the action in his country had an impact on him here), The Phantom moves around the world like his Brigadoon-like home of Bangalla. Sometimes he is a child of the African jungle. Sometimes he hails from a vaguely Asian island-state, such as in the Billy Zane flick from 1996. But whether the editors of Australian Woman’s Mirror were implying that love interest Diana was a Sydney society girl, or Friese recognizing inserted references to his homeland in stories written by Missouri-born Lee Falk, these reprints had a international audience more loyal, more invested, than in the United States.
And it goes without saying the comic translates best in Italian — L’Uomo Mascherato!
Australia had the honour of publishing a full comic of Lee Falk-penned stories, as opposed to newspaper strips, second in the world. The first was Italy in 1937 (I shake my fist at the no doubt impeccably dressed comic fans of Bella Italia). In America The Phantom only received a book of his own in the 60’s.
The Phantom is the latest descendent of a family of heroes and adventurers, who all maintain the pretence of being the same man. The Phantom comic belongs to multiple countries and tongues — its ‘Phans’ keeping Falk’s creation alive still, many years after the heyday of the pulps in the 30’s. Both character and book form an unbroken line that has survived to this day.
Is The Phantom Aussie? Yes. Australian mothers shared it with their children in the 30’s. The comic from Frew Publications debuted in 1948 and has continued to be in print ever since (Frew is an acronym for the names of the company’s four founders — two of them departed immediately; is there anything more Aussie than that?). But most important of all, The Phantom facilitated local artists and creatives in Australia to make a living. From its place alongside magazines in Australian newsagents, The Phantom has born witness to the rise and fall of the comic book in this country as an economically viable artform.
I fear if Nat is serious about his amendments to Panel By Panel, he will do a disservice to the memory of Frew and Jim Shepherd, as well as the many artists from this country who got their first opportunities — and indeed sustained careers — through ‘licensed’ titles overseas.
As for the prospect of Oi! Oi! Oi! being a showcase for Australian comics. In 2014 there were 228 entries for the Ledgers long list. They ran the gamut from children’s stories to post-apocalyptic violence; autobiography to historical narrative; superheroes, deconstructed superheroes, Australian superheroes — it’s a broad church. Printed American-style for specialist stores, as zines, found on websites and tumblrs, the comic in Australia is a diverse thing. It is an exotic cultural artefact, reaching audiences other than those available in newsagents.
Oi! Oi! Oi! is to be commended for being one of the few publications that pays contributors, but its own reprints of previously published comics has in the past poorly served the original source material. It also, as noted by Laura Renfrew here, was overstretched in its attempt at capturing the diversity of voices in Australian comics.
It is therefore poor advice to suggest, as Nat does before promoting Oi! Oi! Oi!’s crowdfunding campaign, that The Phantom should become a one-stop shop for Australian comics. This felt more like an uncomfortably staged promotional stunt, than a critical assessment of Frew’s output.