Frew Publications are responsible for the best English language Phantom comic in the world. They hold the record for producing the world's longest unbroken run of Phantom comics. The first issue was released on 9th September 1948, and in 1998 Frew celebrated their 50th year of continuous publication of the Phantom. There have been in excess of 1400 individual Phantom comic books published under the Frew banner. The only publisher that comes close to Frew is Egmont (formerly Semic), who publish in Sweden, Norway, and now again in Finland (they stopped for a while). Semic began publishing a regular series of Phantom comics in 1950, but it is unlikely that they will overtake Frew in terms of the total number of Phantom comics they've produced.
But perhaps it would be interesting to read about the history of Phantom comics in Australia and Frew's development. With this in mind I have transcribed most of an editorial feature article The Phantom 55 Years Young, which was published in Frew's 1000th Phantom comic (#972). I've made a few corrections and changes plus I've added some details which Jim Shepherd filled in for me.
Frew Publications began in 1948 with four men throwing in 500 Australian pounds each, and funding their own publication house. The four founding members were Ron Forsyth, Jim Richardson, Jack Eisen and Peter Watson. The first letter of each man's surname was used to create the company name -- FREW. Unfortunately, before the very first comic was produced, Jack Eisen and Peter Watson withdrew from the company, and Ron Forsyth and Jim Richardson were left to go it alone -- which they did for the next 40 years!
FREW is Born
The first comic title picked up by Frew was The Phantom. The Phantom became available as a monthly publication on the understanding that stories published would be well removed from the then current schedule of the Australian Woman's Mirror. Ron and Jim were obviously uncertain of how successful their publication would be because the first two Phantom comics were not numbered.
The first issue went on sale on 9th September 1948 with a cover price of sixpence. It contained the story The Slave Traders, but Frew retitled it Enter the Phantom. Ron Forsyth recalled that as all the comics of the day were given exciting edition titles he decided to follow suit with more dramatic title touches. The binding on the first Frew Phantom comic defied all modern rules. The cover design was in landscape format (horizontal) and the staples were on the short edge of the cover. With the release of their first comic book, Ron and Jim kept their fingers crossed because the Australian newspapers were running huge comic supplements and the comic book market was in danger of being swamped as publishers pumped out everything they could find.
Frew's second issue was also released unnumbered in the same odd binding configuration, and again played with the actual story title. The second issue was Queen Asta of Trondelay, which Frew renamed In the Tiger's Lair. While Frew eased The Phantom into the comic book market, the Woman's Mirror continued with its weekly serial feature and it must be said that this regular exposure must have helped sales growth for Frew's Phantom comic book. The third Frew issue of The Phantom was the first to carry a number and a change was made to staple the spine in traditonal portrait fashion. Not so issue #7! Frew returned to the landscape format but with the staples at the bottom of a vertical cover.
Incidentally, replicas of the first five Frew Phantom comics have been published in recent years, as bonuses with the annual blockbuster specials. The year of publishing and Frew issue number which accompanied each replica are shown in the table below:
By the release of issue #7, some sales results were known -- and they were mildly sensational. The Phantom had leaped ahead of most of the opposition and plans were laid to publish other titles, including three Australian-made titles: The Shadow, Sir Falcon and Phantom Ranger. A scanned selection of these old comics is available on CD-ROM from Roger Stitson (authorised by Frew Publications). Many American titles were also published, and the total number of Frew titles peaked at about 30 in the mid-1950s.
Replica Year Frew Issue #1 (unnumbered) 1991 #972 (1000th issue) #2 (unnumbered) 1992 #1000 #3 1994 #1063 #4 1995 #1094 #5 1996 #1125 #6 1997 #1156
- The 1993 Blockbuster special (#1032) did not contain a replica issue
- The replica of #6 has an aweful barcode printed on the cover!
Buoyed by the success experienced with The Phantom, Frew launched a new title Super Yank Comics, in about November 1950. It was a monthly publication, that featured both Catman and The Phantom. The only issues in this series that did not include The Phantom were #1 and #6, and #7 was never published. Super Yank Comics finished after issue #19 in about May 1952. Many odd stories saw the light of day as mainly back-up features to The Phantom ... Halar the Cave-Man, and Planetman in particular. This old Frew series is now a treasure trove for researchers, complete as it is with now long forgotten stories and advertisements for Phantom and Catman luminous rings, The Phantom's Anti-Crime Club, "become a Phantom Ranger Deputy" and "Meet the Phantom Ranger".
Super Yank Comics
In January 1951, the last of the sixpence Phantom comics (#30) appeared and the price was increased to eightpence. Only a year later, the cover price was increased again, this time to ninepence (#45, Apr 1952). This cover price remained until June 1956 (#96), after which the price was raised to one shilling.
The Great Competition
In 1953 Frew brought out a special Christmas edition of The Phantom with eight extra pages and followed with the first oversize edition (not numbered but meant to be #65A) at 48 pages for one shilling. This issue was the first to reprint an old story and had the first wraparound cover. The Christmas edition was repeated again in 1954 with another unnumbered edition (#76A), plus an unnumbered New Year special immediately following it (#76B). The special unnumbered editions were not to reappear again until 1985.
Late in 1954, worldwide censorship was applied to comic strips and comic books in a bid by puritans to rid light reading of sex and violence, and The Phantom came under a degree of fire. Censorship was a curious mix of self-regulation by publishers and an Australian Government department with distributors nervously adding their share of blue pencil.
The first Lee Falk story to be so hacked around was The Return of the Sky Band (#74/75, September/October 1954). Scenes where shots were fired were edited to eliminate gun smoke and other scenes where victims were in the process of falling after being shot were re-drawn to have the victim's legs still firmly planted on the floor. Other stories to be so treated included The Singh Brotherhood, The Slave Traders, Hamid the Terrible, and Lago the Lake God. Famous scenes in which The Phantom was dropped into an anthill or about to be torn apart by rearing stallions, stabbed to death by sacrificial idols (The Thuggees), or cut to ribbons by the propellers of ships (The Seahorse), all ended up on the cutting room floor.
Worse, even the then slightly daring, for the time, scenes of women in modestly revealing gowns had to be inked over to spare readers the sight of shapely thighs! (check out Diana and Sala in The Singh Brotherhood!).
In late 1955, Frew began publishing The Phantom every three weeks instead of monthly and then launched a daring experiment. From December 1955 a new publication hit the newsstands -- The Phantom Adventures. Adventures were not comic books but "stories to be read", based on Lee Falk yarns and illustrated with a few pictures by one of the many freelance artists who submitted covers for Frew's still large range of comics and one-shots. Adventures boasted striking glossy colour covers, ran to 28 pages and sold for one shilling. At a time when 32 page Phantom comics sold for only ninepence, it is perhaps not surprising that the experiment did not work. Unlike the Tarzan devotees who loved the paperback novels and the comic books, it seems that Phantom enthusiasts were only interested in comics. Only three monthly issues were published, and copies of Adventures are now collectors' items, more in demand than when first released!
The Phantom Adventures
The year 1956 was an important one for the Australian comic book publishing industry. Television was about to be introduced and publishers knew they would shortly face the same problems as their American counterparts, many of whom went to the wall when TV fever swept the nation.
The Great Competition
Frew met the forthcoming challenge head-on with the launch of the biggest competition in Australian comic book publishing history (#97). Readers had to count the number of pygmies in a large drawing and vie for the grand prize -- a 28 day "Round the World" trip for two, flying on a QANTAS Super Constellation, valued at £2,200 (probably Aus$20,000 today). The trip started in Sydney and went on to Fiji, Honolulu, San Francisco, New York, London, and Rome with a return leg through Beirut, Karachi, Colombo, Singapore and Darwin. The competition was only open to children between the ages of 6 and 12. They could enter as many times as they wanted, but had to cut out an answer coupon from a Frew Phantom comic for each entry.
The winner was announced in issue #100 ... Errol E.Marshall, aged 15, of Mt Gravatt, Queensland! Frew never seems to have nominated the official pygmy count, but you can have a try yourself with the above scanned image (a higher resolution image is available by clicking on the above thumbnail).
During much of this time, many Australian newspapers carried The Phantom as either a daily or Sunday strip (or both) and when The Woman's Mirror folded, the now defunct Everybody's Weekly newspaper picked up the serialisation rights to the Sunday stories and continued to publish them into the late 1960s.
Over the years, serious collectors and researchers must have become slightly confused with Frew's publishing schedule. During 1956 the name Frew (representing the first letter in the surnames of the four members of the original partners in this enterprise), was replaced by Magazine Publishers. This represented one of a number of trading names utilised by Frew. The famous Frew front cover logo designed by Sydney artist Tom Hughes (a prolific producer of front covers from the very early days) disappeared after issue #488. It was not until #917 that the logo reappeared!
From 1956 onwards, Australian comic book publishing began to slowly disappear. Television made severe inroads to sales and in 1959, import restrictions were lifted and those local publishers reprinting American titles in black and white suddenly found themselves in competition with imported American colour comics selling at the same price and more than often carrying current stories.
The Slow Decline
As rivals closed the door for the last time, Frew battled for years to keep such locally-drawn titles as The Phantom Ranger, The Shadow and Sir Falcon viable, but all the time amid shrinking circulations only The Phantom held fast. Importers predicted The Phantom would disappear under an avalanche of American titles. But to their surprise, The Phantom kept selling well (though nowhere near as well as in the glory days of the late 1940's and early to mid 1950's) and proved to be unshakeable as marketleader in the basic adventure / crime area. Superhero characters claimed the honour of best seller but their reigns were invariably brief and The Phantom continued to fight back to the No.1 spot.
Frew added the GIANTSIZE range to its then dwindling stable of titles, with the first bimonthly issue appearing in April 1957. Each comic ran for 92 pages and sold for two shillings. With a couple of exceptions, The Phantom was the dominating character, backed up by various other characters. The series ran for 26 issues, with the last appearing in about April 1961. The GIANTSIZE range was profitable and prompted Frew to re-think its publication schedule. From #146 in 1959, Frew Phantom issues went on a fortnightly schedule. But with so few new stories coming from America, the company had no option but to stick to a regular reprint operation in which the same stories appeared every 2-3 years with new covers. There were occasional highlights such as the big promotions given the Married at Last issue in April 1978 (#634) and later, the Diana's Expecting issue in 1985 (#822), but generally the comics were left to sell themselves with minimal promotion.
GIANTSIZE Phantom Comics
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