I have just finished another stint of night duty. In my occupation – for those who don’t know, I work as a Clinical Nurse in the Psychiatric Emergency Centre at Brisbane’s largest public Hospital – I am expected to work a set
number of night shifts in every four week block.
Although I can carry out my duties and function reasonably well during the night, I don’t think it does much for my private, personal life. Once I get home, I sleep restlessly for long periods. I occasionally wake up for a glass of water, or talk to my long-suffering wife Carlene (who says her sleep pattern is also disrupted during this time). Before I know it, it’s time to grab a bite to eat, and then it’s back to work I go…
Normal life just goes out the window. I don’t go out anywhere, Saturday’s newspapers are not read until Tuesday or Wednesday, bills are left unpaid, the garden and lawn is left to grow wild, our dogs are unsure if they should bark at
the postman and risk being yelled at to ‘Keep Quiet!’, our children (and grandchildren) are not rung and must feel they are being ignored (they are), my computer remains switched off and all emails are left unanswered and this Comicoz web-page-come-Blog remains idle….
Returning to the Real World this morning, and that means being reading emails and taking phone calls again, I see that Life – and indeed Death – has been happening while I have been in that other world.… I have only just learnt the sad news: Jim Shepherd died suddenly on April 15th, and was buried last Tuesday (April 23rd). (Many thanks to Kevin Patrick for sharing this information in his Comics Down Under Blog.)
For those who come in late*, Jim has been Publisher of the Australian comic book, The Phantom since 1987. Of course, The Phantom has been around much longer than that. Written and created by Lee Falk, and first published as a comic strip distributed by King Features Syndicate in early 1936, The Phantom preceded other
costumed heroes like Superman and Batman. In their earliest incarnation, comic books or funny papers were periodicals that simply reprinted the newspaper comic strips of the day. As in the USA, there were many Australian publishers who sought to exploit this new entertainment medium.
* Old Jungle Saying
Sydney-based Frew Publications’ acquired the comic book rights to The Phantom comic strip in 1948, and has published the character continually since that time. The company was founded by four businessmen: Ron Forsyth, Jim Rishardson, Jack Eisen and Peter Watson (FREW being the collective initials of all their surnames), and is now Australia’s longest-running comics company.
Some consider Frew’s Golden Era to be when it was producing all-new Australian comics written and draw by local talent in the 1950s and early 1960s, including Catman by John Dixon (before he had successfully marketed his Sunday Air Hawk newspaper strip), Sir Falcon, The Phantom Ranger and The Shadow.
But there are others - and I am going to stick my neck out here and include myself in that number - who feel that Frew’s Golden Era began in 1987, when Jim Shepherd took over the reigns of the Company….
Jim’s run on The Phantom began from Issue #876. By then it was the only remaining comic magazine in Frew’s stable. After an absence of many years, Jim ensured that the Frew logo was re-instated on the cover of The Phantom, and a regular letters' page gave the readers a sense of community (from Issue #917 in 1988 onward). However, with access to Frew’s library of back
issues, Jim made a discovery that was to best influence his company’s future editorial policy: past comics had failed to reprint stories in full – adventures in the past had been cut and edited to simply fit the format of what had been a 32 page comic. Phantom fans – from Issue #910 A onward – were treated to brand-new reprinting of some of the classic older adventures in their entirety. And Jim felt if that meant expanding the page count, so be it!
I visited Jim Shepherd’s Sydney office in 1989 – it was either during my visit to oversee the printing of the Autumn-Winter Fourth Issue of John Dixon’s Air Hawk Magazine or during the week of the Australian Black and White Artists’ Club’s Award Night later that year (time has clouded the exact reason and I am not in a position to check my filing cabinet) – and I was invited into his office. It was then that I met Jim for the first time in person. We had a lengthy conversation and he gave me some invaluable publishing tips. (He never saw Comicoz as a rival: more that we were both publishers in a genre that the marketplace had forgotten and that we were both passionate about.)
I found Jim to be a very friendly man. He spoke of older days, and of his other passions – journalism and boxing in particular. Jim was sure about his and Frew’s place in The Phantom’s publishing history, but not in a big-headed kind of way. He was not really up to speed with what was going on in the local or overseas comics industry; and just seemed to be content to focus the spotlight on his personal comic hero – Lee Falk! He disclosed to me that, much as he liked The Phantom, his favourite Lee Falk character was actually Mandrake the Magician! So, a little time later (in about 1990, from memory), I was not surprised to see Frew, under Jim’s stewardship, publish a Mandrake comic book run…
Jim and I spoke about other commonalities – we both were publishing comics that were licensed from third parties. He disclosed that he was still not satisfied about The Phantom… He spoke about his desire to see a locally produced Phantom adventure published. He told me that he had written a script that King Features had approved, and was seeking an artist to illustrate the adventure.
At that time Comicoz had already co-produced an Air Hawk comic with Cyclone Comics (Air Hawk Summer Special #3, in the summer of 1988). During those days, I used to come down from Brisbane and stay on Gary Chaloner’s lounge room floor. As a result, I was in contact with the other members of the Cyclone gang. This collective met informally at a local inner-Sydney pub with some of the others in the local comics scene, calling themselves (for reasons that was never explained to me) The Yugel Club. Name-dropping time: it was at The Yugel Club that I first met David De Vries, Glenn Lumsden, Tad Pietrzykowski, Steve Carter, as well as the occasionally present and always wonderfully eccentric Bodine Amerikah. It was there I established a rapport with – perhaps because we were both from Brisbane – and saw the then-developing artwork of one Jason Paulos.
I informed Gary Chaloner about Jim’s artistic needs for his
Phantom story, and I do recall that Gary actually showed me – on a
later visit to Sydney – his wonderful Ray Moore-inspired artwork that he had submitted to Jim Shepherd. I wonder if Gary still has these originals he worked on for Jim? As history now records, Gary did not get the
gig; Jim’s story ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ (first published in the 1990 Phantom, Issue #951A) was illustrated by Australian comic-legend, Keith Chatto. Jim and Keith thus became the first Australians to write and illustrate a Phantom story. They worked together on a couple more occasions on other original Phantom adventures in the Australian comic (#962 and #1000). And somewhat ironically, former Cyclone Comics and Yugel Club Members Dave de Vries and Glenn Lumsden ended up writing and illustrating a Phantom mini-series for Marvel Comics in 1995. Another Australian, Glenn Ford, illustrated Jim’s last Phantom adventure in Issue #1131 in 1996.
Jim Shepherd’s publishing term at Frew Publications ensures his place in the History of Australian Comics, and I would like to acknowledge and honour his contribution here. With his passing, though, I am left with the question (that I am unable to answer at this point in time): Wherefore now for Frew?
Although this must be a stressful time for Jim’s wife Judith and family, I am hoping that, once they have had time to grieve, they may consider assuming the role as interim Publisher – or even appointing a temporary Editor – to continue the Phantom comic. There are those who have had some experience in the area (whether they are available and/or have the inclination may be a different story): Gary Chaloner, Lindsay Foyle (who ably edited The Bulletin for a while), Jason Paulos, Kevin Patrick, Cefn Ridout…. just to name a few.
For all of the short-comings of Frew, and there were some - but these do not need to be discussed here at this time - there may be a greater sadness associated with the passing of Jim Shephed. If The Phantom is allowed to fade into comic book history due to the passing of it Publisher Jim Shepherd, we lose our last remaining link to the Golden Age of Australian Comics. And as a result, I somehow feel all Australians lose a historical link to this sometimes neglected form of popular culture....
Comicoz is Nat Karmichael's publishing imprint. Nat is committed to preserving a permanent collection of Australian comic and comic strips. He feels that there is a need to recognise comics' contribution to and depiction of Australian culture.
Since 2011, Nat has self-published over twelve comic-related books and was Publisher-Editor of
Oi Oi Oi! -- the last series of nationally-distributed comic books of original stories to appear on Australian newsstands. He is a member of the Australian Cartoonists Association and edited the Association's journal Inkspot for 14 issues from late 2015. For numerous years he was the Lead Judge in the Ledger of Honour Awards for the Comic Arts Awards of Australia (formerly the Ledgers). These days Nat dreams of retiring from his occupation as a Clinical Nurse in the Psychiatric Emergency Centre in Queensland's largest public hospital, so that he can spend more time with his long-suffering wife and their six children and fourteen grandchildren. And perhaps publish some more comic-related books.
Comicoz acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay respects to elders, past, present, and emerging, and extend that respect to all First Nations peoples.
Australian Publications since 1976:
1 x Poster
19 x comics (one a co-production with Cyclone Comics in 1988/9, one a co-production with Cowtown Comics in 2022)
2 x Paperback books
10 x Hardcover books