Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Panther - and Other Comics You've Never Heard Of

     The reviews of Black Panther have been so good that I shall probably check out the movie when it comes on TV. But I won't be reading the comic. I've now 68, going on 69, and I haven't been "into" superhero comics for decades. Nevertheless, I am reminded of a comic published in Australia during the 1960s ie when I was a teenager, called The Panther. Although the character himself was not black, his costume was, and he was essentially a rip-off of inspired by The Phantom.
     Created and drawn by Paul Wheelahan, The Panther was the hero of 73 comics in the period 1957-1963. Raised originally by panthers, then adopted by an African tribe, the Panther roamed the world clad in a skin-tight black costume over his muscular frame, the top of his head covered by a black cowl, somewhat like Batman's, bearing two panther-like ears. But unlike the Phantom, he did not carry firearms because, as he explained in one issue, a man with a gun is likely to use it in haste, and regret the damage he has caused for the rest of his life.  Although published in Australia, the story was not set here. Indeed, he appears to have operated everywhere except on the island continent.
     Towards the end, Wheelahan created another character, The Raven, a man framed for a crime by his evil brother, and who based himself in a castle on the mist-shrouded moors.
     I mentioned that the Panther was based on the Phantom. The latter is very popular in Australia. (He is also exceptionally popular in Papua New Guinea. They have no hang-ups about a white man ruling a jungle full of black savages.) The understand the background you must realise that, despite its small population, Australia hosted a wide variety of weekly general-interest women's magazines. Of these, the Woman's Mirror used smaller pages, and seldom printed in colour. However, from the onset of the Phantom in 1936, the Woman's Mirror ran the strip, until the magazine itself disappeared in the 1960s. Nevertheless, in 1948, a company called Frew commenced publishing Phantom comics, which it still does today. Indeed, when Frew wanted to republish the first Phantom adventure, they had to go back to the old issues of the Woman's Mirror.
     In those days, the Australian Women's Weekly and Woman's Day were weekly, not monthly, magazines, and as such published condensed versions of popular novels in serial form. I first encountered Agatha Christie in the pages of the latter magazine. However, it was the Weekly, which, from 1948, used to publish Mandrake the Magician, written by Lee Falk, the author of The Phantom.  It was when the Weekly dropped Mandrake that he also dropped from the consciousness of most Australians.
    I mentioned that Frew publishes the Phantom comics in Australia. In the 1960s it occasionally used to come out with large comics containing both the Phantom and one or two others specifically written in Australia. You will be aware that the Phantom is "immortal", his identity passing down from father to son. Likewise, The Phantom Ranger, whose adventures were set in the American west, and Sir Falcon, a modern day medieval knight. Jeff Wilkinson, the creator of the Phantom Ranger, also provided Frew with The Shadow, which was not the same as the American pulp hero, but a comic strip character who hid his identity behind a skin-tight rubber mask. (It must have been very uncomfortable!)
     Another one which commenced in 1949 and ran for 56 issues was Yarmak, who was essentially a rip-off of Tarzan.
     Then there was Devil Doone, a suave, Errol Flynn type adventurer, who ran from 1945 to 1971. I've afraid I only ever read two adventures - mainly because they didn't appear in publications directed at children.
    One comic that triggered my imagination more than any was Silver Starr, the Australian version of Flash Gordon (not to be confused with a more recent American comic of the same name). The irony is that I read only a single adventure, when I was about eight, "The Gnome Forest", but it left a lasting impression. I can still remember most of the plot and highlights: the futuristic vehicles travelling on the branches of gigantic trees, the huge snake and elephant, the pygmies and their ray guns, the giant and his force field belt, the bold princess running her fingers through the hero's hair, the escape down an underground river pursued by enemies armed with needle guns, and Silver Starr flying with a rocket back-pack as he uses his own ray guns to collapse the roof of the cave. You can read one of the comics here.
     These, then, were some of the comics you have never heard of if you didn't live in Australia or New Zealand in the 1950s or '60s. Are the ones which replaced them any improvement? That's not for me to say, because comics are something I have outgrown. Besides, although the artwork is often very good, none of them can be considered quality literature.