Tarcoola is where the noted Australian journalist and author James Beaton Graham Blair spent his earliest years. Bangalla is where The Ghost Who Walks spent his earliest years, in the Skull Cave in the Deep Woods. It was Jim Blair who, as editor of The Australian Woman’s Mirror, introduced The Phantom to an appreciative Australian audience of 170,000-plus Mirror subscribers on September 1, 1936. That was a little more than six months after Lee Falk’s classic comic strip first appeared in the United States. The first instalment run by Blair was retouched for Australian readers, with Diana Palmer returning “home” to Sydney Harbour (what on earth was she doing in Clarksville USA when she first met Kit Walker at age eight?). Diana encounters “The Singh Brotherhood” before she even steps foot back on Sydney soil.
Over the past 84 years, Australians have come to love The Phantom more than any other nationality of comic strip readers. The Phantom had immediate appeal here. He was the first comics character to fight crime while wearing a distinctive skintight costume and hiding his true identity behind a mask (which shows no pupils). He has no ridiculous superhuman powers – Aussies don’t care so much for that fanciful sort of stuff. And in many ways The Phantom is Ned Kelly-ish, pistol-wielding, justice-fighting, head covering and all. You could go through the motions of hanging him, but like Kelly he won’t go away. He’s immortal, The Man Who Cannot Die.
Russell Marks, a criminal defence lawyer and academic at La Trobe University, touched on this in 2013 when he wrote, “Of course The Phantom is not an Australian character, but it’s surprising how many people think he is. The Phantom is Australia’s favourite comic hero, regularly out-selling the flashier, glossier Batman, Superman and Spiderman by as much as 10-to-one … The Phantom’s anger is never uncontrolled, always appropriate. More often he is impossibly calm, even ‘laid back’, even during fist-fights. Do Australians like to see themselves in The Phantom where Americans can’t? Australians may recognise the not-quite-human stoicism at the heart of The Phantom’s character. Life’s vicissitudes do not bother him. He simply acts to make the situation right again, or adjusts to the new reality. He is practical, no-nonsense, fiercely egalitarian, just, honest, wry, quick-witted, unflappable, solitary, courageous, loyal and even shy with women. Long-time Phans invoke the character’s famous dry humour with a kind of pride. If Australians like the Phantom, perhaps it is because we recognise in him our national character, our Australian Legend.”
Jim Blair (1903-1991) would seem an unlikely candidate to be Australia’s first 'Phan'. Born in Port Augusta, he was the grandson of South Australia’s longest serving telegraphist, Jim Beatton, who had worked for the post office from cadet in 1855 to postmaster in 1905. Jim Blair went to Woodville District High School, worked for the Adelaide Steamship Company and studied part-time at the University of Adelaide. His first profession was as an accountant but he had begun writing at university. Blair had humorous short stories published by John Webb in The Bulletin in Sydney in 1933 and the next year moved to Sydney to join Webb’s staff. The Bulletin’s stablemate The Australian Woman’s Mirror had been launched in 1924. In 1933 a serious rival appeared in the form of The Australian Women’s Weekly, and in December 1934 the Packer publication started to serialise Falk’s first comic strip, "Mandrake the Magician". When Jim Blair was appointed editor of the Mirror in July 1936, he quickly responded to the Weekly’s challenge by signing on The Phantom. Blair scored another world-first with a Phantom comic book in May 1938.
Frank Packer bought The Bulletin in November 1960 and closed the Woman’s Mirror the next year, moving The Phantom to Everybody’s Magazine, where he remained for six years. Blair bailed from The Bulletin once the Packers took it over. Blair who had served in New Guinea during World War II, rejoined The Bulletin on his return to Sydney and worked mostly as deputy editor under David Adams during the period 1946-1961.
It would be hard to imagine family man Blair as one of Australia’s earliest pulp fiction writers, yet some the titles and covers of his collections might suggest otherwise. In 1941 came Miss Pennycuick’s Nightie and in 1954 Pardon My Intrusion, the latter with a cover that would have made Carter Brown blush. The contents, however, were of a much milder nature.
As for The Phantom in Australia, he eventually ended up in the hands of a former sports writer called Jim Shepherd (above, 1933-2013), a man whose inventive and bedazzlingly haphazard approach to recording real sports history made him ideally qualified to create Phantom fiction. After taking over Frew Publications in Sydney in late 1989, Shepherd himself later wrote some Phantom scripts, illustrated by Keith Chatto, including one (“The Kings Cross Connection” in 1992) in which The Ghost Who Walks walked into the office of Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke right here in Canberra. Shepherd was confident Hawke wouldn’t complain about being dragged into the storyline - Hawke was this country’s highest-ranked Phan (or Phantophile, as The Sydney Morning Herald described Kit Walker’s army of devotees).
The SMH dubbed Walker’s first arrival here* in 1989 (in “Wuluti's Secret”, below) as “The Bruce Who Walks”, describing it as a culture shock as historic as Mick Dundee visiting New York City. The Phantom landed in Darwin on a Qantas flight. That story was actually commissioned by the Swedish Phantom publishers Team Fantomen, written by Englishman Norman Worder and drawn by Spaniard Carlos Cruz. Shepherd had to brush a few things up when he discovered there was a koala in a gum tree in the Red Centre, and that Kit Walker had walked from the New South Wales coast to Uluru (1765 miles). (*Apart from being reworked into the first story back in 1936.)
On September 9, 1948, Frew Publications produced its first Phantom comic book, Enter The Phantom. Frew had gained an agreement through Yaffa Syndicate (established as Newspaper News by David Yaffa in 1925), the Australian representatives for Hearst's King Feature Syndicate, The Phantom’s original US publisher. The arrangements included Frew being prevented from publishing stories that were still running, or had just ended, in the Blair’s Australian Women’s Mirror.