The Phantom:
A Publishing History in Australia

by Bryan Shedden

Frew Publications Pty. Ltd.

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European-Created Stories

In November 1981 came a breakthrough -- the publication of the first Swedish-produced Phantom story in Frew's comic book. These stories came from the Semic organisation who had faced the same problem of shortage of new stories and who had obtained permission from copyright holders, King Features Syndicate, to write and draw Phantom adventures. Semic began producing their own Phantom stories in 1972, and they had a style quite divorced from the traditional Lee Falk adventures. Most readers of Semic's Phantom comics (Fantomen) were boys in the 12-16 year age group, and these new stories were obviously aimed to please this demographic. The first Semic story run in Frew's Phantom comic, was The Ghost (#730). This was followed with two more stories The Devil's Triangle (#731) and The Man with the White Mask (#732). Frew then sat back for almost a year to await market reaction, before running any more Semic stories.

It was not long in coming. A small percentage of the hard core readership protested about the "intrusion" but sales were good and Frew decided to slowly slide more European stories into the schedule to overcome the lack of new stories from the Lee Falk / Sy Barry team in the United States. It was January 1983 before another Swedish story appeared -- The Tiger from Rangoon in #763 -- and two more Semic stories followed immediately after.

As Frew moved into 1985, another departure occurred when the company introduced 48-100 page issues complete with glossy coloured covers. The first three of these issues were unnumbered (actually #817A, #825A, #840A), but subsequent ones were designated with an "A" after the number -- the so-called "A-Series".

Another radical change in format commenced in June 1985 with #829. This issue was the first to feature the now familiar yellow stripe across the top of the front cover. It was a welcome addition in some respects because it was used to show the title of the story inside the comic. Until this stage, the story titles were usually not mentioned ANYWHERE in the comic, let alone on the front cover! The yellow stripe was a common feature on Frew Phantom comics until #971 in 1991, when it was abandoned. A description of the contents continued to appear on the cover.

... it was the (very) slow beginning of Frew's Rennaisance period.

The Frew Rennaisance

When Jim Shepherd (b. 21 August 1933) joined Frew Publications in April 1987, a new era began -- Frew's Renaissance. The very first Frew Phantom comic which Jim was involved in was #876 Old Baldy. One of his first initiatives was to bring back the old "Frew" logo to the front cover. The logo disappeared from the cover for some unknown reason from 1972 onwards -- #468 was the last of a continuous run since 1948, but the logo was shown on #487 and #488. It was brought back in #917 (November 1987) and barring an accident, it will remain.

Over his first several months, Jim concentrated on gathering top quality repros of many of the classic Lee Falk stories. In August 1988 a 116 page, unedited, uncensored version of the complete The Phantom Goes to War (#910A) went on sale. In that issue, Frew's new editorial policy was launched with the following message from Jim Shepherd:

Message from the Publisher

This is an historic edition of the Phantom comic. The Phantom Goes To War is the biggest -- at 116 pages -- edition ever published by Frew since the company produced its first issue of The Phantom way back on the 9th September, 1948.

Just as important is the fact that this edition marks the first in what will be a series of classic reprints of Phantom stories in their original entirety. Over the years, many Phantom stories have been edited (and in the case of the Phantom Goes To War, censored) to fit the traditional 32 page comic book format. In this, the 39th publishing year for Frew, a great many exciting things are on the drawing board -- unedited and uncensored reprints of the best of Lee Falk's classic stories, reader competitions and something devoted fans have been requesting for a long time -- the return of a letters page. We intend to call the letter page PHANTOM FORUM and we'd like to hear from Phantom enthusiasts on anything at all to do with the greatest of the Super Heroes. We'll gladly answer your queries on Phantom history -- AND to make things even more exciting Frew will pay $25 to the writer of the letter we consider the most interesting in each issue.

The Forum column appeared for the first time in #917, and proved to be extremely useful for gauging reader opinion. Issue #918A appeared soon after, and boasted to be the first complete printing of Lee Falk's inaugural Phantom story The Singh Brotherhood. Those claims were overambitious since it turned out that Jim used the artwork from the original first issue Woman's Mirror Phantom comic from 1938, assuming that it must have been complete. Unfortunately, the Mirror's editors had "gone to town" on the story, rewriting some of the text and editing panels. The task of reconstructing a complete version of The Singh Brotherhood proved to be extremely difficult, and it was not until February 1996 (#1128), that it finally appeared in celebration of the 60th anniversary of The Phantom adventure strip.

During the late 1980s, Frew began running faster than at any time since the boom years of the 1940s and 1950s. Glossy wraparound colour covers began to replace the traditional newsprint paper covers, and have been used exclusively since #1071 in 1994. Whenever it became necessary to increase the page content to fit a complete story (rather than edit as in the old days), the publishers never hesitated. But more importantly -- Frew recognised the demographic of their target audience. The bulk of Frew's readers are 20 years and over. The growth area -- 40 years and over. They then modified their approach accordingly. Frew's Phantom comic is now a mature publication targeted specifically at Phantom fans and their requirements.

1989 was a fantastic year for Frew Phantom comics, since it saw the reprinting in complete unedited form of several of the classic Phantom stories from the 1930s and 1940s: Romance and the Vesta Pirates (#925A), Little Toma (#931A), Prisoner of the Himalayas (#931A), Adventure in Algiers (#931A), The Shark's Nest (#932), The Slave Traders (#933), The Golden Circle (#934), Diana Aviatrix Lost (#935A), The Mysterious Girl (#936), The League of Lost Men (#939A), The Precious Cargo of Colonel Winn (#939A), The Return of the Sky Band (#939A), and The Game of Alvar (#939).

The Phantom in Australia

In late 1989, Semic produced a two-part story in which The Phantom visited Australia for the first time. Frew ran the two stories in a single issue and sales went through the roof (The Black Fire in #944A). That blockbuster was followed by the first Australian-created Phantom adventure (Rumble in the Jungle in #951A, reprinted in #1125), with art by Sydney veteran Keith Chatto and story by Jim Shepherd. Doubtless there was a distinct novelty appeal, but Rumble actually outsold The Black Fire. Keith and Jim collaborated on another two Phantom stories in the following couple of years -- Return of the Singh Brotherhood in #962 (reprinted in #1156), and The Kings Cross Connection in #1000. Sadly, Keith Chatto died on 22 October 1992. Born in the Sydney suburb of Kogarah in 1924, Keith burst upon the comics scene after being demobilised from the RAAF in 1946. That year he sold his first story, Destiny Scott, to the Sydney Morning Herald. His list of credits was huge, and included stints ghosting both the daily and Sunday newspaper adventures of the famous Air Hawk and the Flying Doctors for John Dixon, a long run of Skippy comic books, and self-created masterpieces such as The Twilight Ranger and El Lobo. Keith's last cover for Frew was The Phantom #1016, published in July 1992.

Jim Shepherd also wrote another story called The Search for Byron which he gave to Glenn Ford to illustrate. Glenn is the founder of a chain of comic shops throughout NSW, called Phantom Zone. Hampered with his busy schedule and producing three different series of trading cards for Dynamic Marketing, it was more than two years before Glenn found time to finish the job (#1131).

In 1990, Frew experimented with producing a new title -- Mandrake the Magician. Old Mandrake stories from the 1930s and 1940s were printed in complete unedited form. Jim Shepherd's plan was to try to tap into yet another adult market. The project proved successful, although nowhere near The Phantom in terms of sales, and the plug was pulled on the series after 12 issues.

The 1000th Issue

Frew is now well into the new golden era. A period which was celebrated with the release of Frew's 1000th Phantom comic in January 1991 -- a 292 page MONSTER of a comic book which included a bonus replica edition of Frew's first Phantom comic, and a pull-out colour poster illustrated by Sy Barry and George Oleson. Although this issue was numbered #972, it was the 1000th actually produced. This is because #330 was never published, and there were a total of 29 special issues either unnumbered or designated as an "A" issue. So #972 plus 29 minus 1 leaves 1000 -- the 1000th issue actually printed and published. To eliminate further confusion in future publications, Frew dispensed with the use of the A-series for special issues. As from the 1000th edition, the issue numbers continued in strict numerical order.

By the end of 1991, Frew had become the ONLY publisher in the world to have printed every single Lee Falk Phantom comic strip adventure in comic book form. A fantastic achievement -- and one which required a lot of digging through the King Features archives to find original artwork for some of the stories that Frew had missed over the years. However, the story is not over because many of the stories have not been printed for around 15 years and still have to receive the "complete reprint" treatment.

A dark shadow fell over the excitement of Frew's approaching issue #1000. Ron Forsyth, one of the four original founders of Frew Publications and the man most responsible for the success of the company, passed away in Sydney on 21 October 1991. It was Ron who selected The Phantom way back in 1948 when there was such a vast range of titles available to launch Frew into the comic book publishing industry. It was Ron who not only established The Phantom as Australia's No.1 comic book, but launched so many other successful titles. He provided work and opportunities for many Australian artists, among then John Dixon, of Air Hawk fame, who produced Catman Comics for Frew in the early 1950s. At the time of his death, Ron still held the position of editor-in-chief at Frew Publications.

In January 1992, the magic #1000 issue was passed and warranted ANOTHER huge issue -- this one running to 308 pages and with a replica of the second Frew Phantom comic. In January of each year since, Frew have released a 300+ page special issue. These issues have all sold for Aus$10 but represent wonderful value since they contain the equivalent of an extra 10 issues each year.

The 50th Anniversary

Frew's amazing milestone -- 50 years of continuous publication of The Phantom comic book -- was marked in style on 9th September 1998. A special 212 page issue was produced, which included a 16 page full colour editorial feature (a first for this comic), and a separate 44 page Index for all Phantom comics Frew had produced to this time. Friday is the usual release day for the Phantom comic, but the precise anniversary date fell on a Wednesday. Fortunately, Frew's distributor, Gordon & Gotch, obligingly agreed to alter their distribution schedule and the Anniversary issue was released precisely 50 years after the first issue. In the evening of the same day, an invitation-only celebratory dinner was held at The Taronga Centre, Mosman. The staff of Frew Publications were joined by about 100 guests, many flying thousands of kilometers to be present for the occasion. A detailed report of the proceedings, including transcripts for most of the speeches, is available HERE.

The Frew Staff

At this point in time, the staff at Frew consist of only three regulars: Jim Shepherd is publisher and managing director; his wife Judith is senior editor; and Ruth Le Brun is secretary. However, the tasks undertaken by each of these three people are extremely diverse. Ruth and Jim are responsible for all of the translating of the Swedish stories that Frew publishes, and have been for the last 2 years. Prior to that, translation was done by a Norwegian girl by the name of Astri Forsyth. Judith Shepherd works on piecing together the comic strips into a format suitable for comic book publication. Re-lettering of the translated Scandinavian stories is done by a Sydney-based letterer.

Jim Shepherd says that his greatest joy in working at Frew Publications is tracking down top quality repros of original Phantom stories. The underlying problem with this task is that many years ago King Features Syndicate copied all the original artwork for the Phantom strips onto microfilm and destroyed the originals. They did not realise at the time that the microfilm only had a relatively short lifespan, and many of the films are now no more than a pile of dust. The end result is that the first four or five years of Phantom strips can no longer be provided by King Features Syndicate. This is where Jim has had to rely on Phantom collectors from around the world. Bob Griffin from Michigan USA, dug into his personal collection of original newspaper strip repros to provide the majority of the artwork for the 60th anniversary complete reprint of The Singh Brotherhood (#1128). Bob also provided his original repros for the first half of The Sky Band which was published in complete form by Frew in September 1996 (#1147). Unfortunately, the entire story was not available and Jim had to rely on original repros of old Italian Phantom comics. This meant that the text balloons from the English versions needed to be cut and pasted over onto the Italian versions. But the hard work is paying off. Frew were recently called upon by Semic to provide high quality art for Semic's reprint of The Diamond Hunters (Fantomet Nr.7 1995). Once again this was possible with the assistance of Bob Griffin.

There are currently no artists on permanent staff. Frew use about 5 freelance Sydney-based artists for the production of covers. Antonio Lemos is the most commonly used cover artist, closely followed by "Tessa" -- an artist who prefers to keep his identity anonymous. Jim Shepherd has even extended his talents to providing covers for an increasing number of Phantom comics in recent times. Some nice computer graphic covers have been produced by Glenn Ford (#1000, #1041, #1131, #1209, #1219), although Glenn is no longer a member of the Frew art staff. The first cover in the entire history of Frew's Phantom comic which was not drawn by an Australian, appeared on #1080. When Jim Shepherd visited the studios of Romano Felmang in 1994, he persuaded Romano to draw a cover for him. Felmang has also drawn a second Frew cover, which appeared on issue #1152.

Of the four founding members of Frew Publications, only one survives. Ron Forsyth died in 1991, Jim Richardson died in 1987, and Jack Eisen in the 1970s. Peter Watson is still alive and well, though he was never actually involved with the production of The Phantom comic book -- he withdrew from the partnership before it started. Peter was a Spitfire pilot during World War 2, and is still president of the Australian Spitfire Pilots Association.

Frew are licenced to distribute their Phantom comic in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. The typical print run for each issue is currently 60,000. Although Frew are not permitted to release precise details of their sale figures, I have heard that up to 75% sale against the print run has been achieved in the past. The annual specials usually sell out completely. Quite an achievement really, when you consider that the large American comic book publishers are lucky to reach 60%. It is also interesting to note that the hard times that have fallen upon American comic book publishers have not been felt by Frew ... it's still a case of "steady as she goes."

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Bryan Shedden /
Last updated 7 August 1999