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Friday, 25 September 2020

‘The Bruce Who Walks’: When The Phantom Came to Australia (and Diana Palmer was an Aussie)

Jim Blair at his Underwood 5 at The Bulletin in Sydney.
Tarcoola is a goldrush ghost town named after a racehorse. It sits in hot desert air in the Far North of South Australia and is a junction for both the Ghan and Indian Pacific passenger trains, the first of which links Adelaide with Darwin through the Red Centre and the other the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean across the Nullabor Plain. Today Tarcoola’s population is the same as Bangalla’s – a big fat zero.
Lee Falk at his typewriter

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.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

FuNkOmaTiC Typewriter in Dum Dumville

Once the pandemic is completely under control – at least in this part of the world – I’m looking forward to receiving word that New Zealand screenwriter and film director Taika Watiti is planning a Covid-19 craziness movie, based in Dum Dum. Yes, there IS such a place, woven into the Tweed of New South Wales and appropriately situated between Mount Warning and Stokers Siding. More to the point, one passes through Dum Dum on the road from Nimbin, the dope capital of Australia. What’s more, it could be said (as I once found to my cost) to be on a steep downward slope to Mullumbimby, where some years ago the infamous FuNkOMaTiC portable typewriter ended up. Mullumbimby is nowadays the heartland of our counterculture and 5G conspiracy theorists. So all in all, Dum Dum is just the spot to set a Watiti movie, one with the working title of How the FuNkOMaTiC Spread 5G and Killed the World. It’ll be a must-see.

Taika Watiti is, of course, ideally suited to the task of making a Coronavirus-conspiracy theories spoof movie, if he can fit it in around The Mandalorian and plans for a live action film adaptation of the post-apocalyptic cyberpunk Akira. Watiti has already produced such great works as the Zombie flick What We Do in the Shadows (with Watiti, above, as Viago Von Dorna Schmarten Scheden Heimburg [né von Blitzenberg], aged 379, above), Jojo Rabbit and that masterpiece, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, based on a novel by Barry Crumb (below). Equally, Watiti’s co-Kiwi Rhys Darby, of Flight of the Conchords fame, would be a must for a starring role, having appeared in both What We Do in the Shadows (as a werewolf) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. In particular, we would have to have Darby reprise his role as Psycho Sam in the Wilderpeople movie, complete with his aluminium colander hat to keep what’s left of his brain free from infiltration, and his belief the Earth beyond the bush to be a globe full of “form-fillers”. Darby, don’t forget, also proved his credentials for extreme creepiness as Guy Mann the lizard-man in the X-Files season 10 third episode Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster. And oh, Darby will play the FuNkOMaTiC typist, given his real-life background as an army Morse-code operator. I think you’ll agree this whole project will fit together perfectly.

Above, Barry Crumb typing one of his novels on an Olivetti Lettera 32, and below, Sam Neill and Julian Dennison in colander protection hats provided by Psycho Sam in Wilderpeople, and Rhys Darby as the lizard-man in the X-Files.

Watiti’s starting point for his script should be my April 2013 blog post “Kinky Friedman and the FuNkOMaTiC Typewriter”, which was in a way an explanation for the mysterious disappearance of the FuNkOMaTiC in Mullumbimby, based on Friedman’s book Kill Two Birds & Get Stoned (a title in part borrowed from that fabulously weird Irish writer Flann O’Brien). Kill Two Birds is about Walter Snow, the author of The Rise and Fall of Nothing At All and like O’Brien an alcoholic. Snow is snowed under with writer’s block while trying to finish the “Great Armenian Novel” on a typewriter. His creativity is numbed by “wacky tobaccy known as Malabimbi Madness”. For Malabimbi, read, obviously, Mullumbimby. If you think this is all getting a bit far-fetched, bear in mind the “rumors about US-funded bioresearch laboratories in Armenia being part of a Coronavirus disinformation campaign launched by Russian media”. And that Armenia is going to take its 5G from Huawei. Everything fits, right?

Mullumbimby plays a vital part in the movie, and not just because of the FuNkOMaTiC mystery. Already, much to its eternal shame, dubbed the “anti-vaccine capital” of Australia, Mullumbimby seriously bumps the figures in the staggering estimate that one in eight Australians are stupid enough to think 5G spreads Coronavirus. The idiots also think 5G causes cancer and affects the immune system, and that we’re in danger of a “soup of electrosmog”. Psycho Sam, how are you with your aluminium colander? But where does the FuNkOMaTiC fit in? Well, it turns out that conspiracy theorists believe the irrational fears of the people of Mullumbimby began just after August 2012, at about the time the FuNkOMaTiC arrived there. Which might explain why, seven months later, I could find neither hide nor hair of it in the town.  And why, just a few months ago, when Covid-19 was exacerbating unfounded fears about 5G in Mullumbimby, I received a very strange (unpublished) comment on my blog about the whereabouts of the FuNkOMaTiC.

No doubt there are some readers out there who don’t know about the FuNkOMaTiC, or of its peculiar powers. So let me just repeat some of its claims when sold on eBay. “FuNkY, Atomic, Retro. The funkiest, most atomic typewriter ever made! … Earthy, Original and Modish; Unconventional and Bizarre. It’s Outlandishly Vulgar and Eccentric … And Atomic in this context?: EXTREMELY cool, one step up from tubular … And retro? Folks, this is retro with an “r”, an “e”, a “t”, another “r” and an “o”: Yes, that’s right: R – e – t – r – o! This is a one-of-a-kind FuNkY atomic typewriter … Just look at those colours – Geiger counter Green! Violent Violet! Mushroom Cloud Orange! Wow!!! These are such FuNkiLY strong colours they could blow a hole in the Ozone Layer. These FuNkY atomic colours are so strong they could withstand an A-Bomb blast! Now that's Atomic! Wow upon wow! It’s a unique, one-of-a-kind FuNkOMaTiC!”

       Not convinced about any of this? Just remember Nakajima ALL sold the rights of the FuNkOMaTiC to China. Yes, now it all makes sense. No?

Saturday, 19 September 2020

How Joe Namath Came to Replace Shere Hite in the Olivetti Typewriter Ads (By the ‘Mad Man’ in Charge of the ‘Olivetti Girl’ Campaign)

While writing my last post, I suspected there would be some reaction suggesting Shere Hite’s subsequent criticism of 1972’s stereotypical “Olivetti Girl” advertising campaign was fair and reasonable. Having read closely the wording in each and every one of the "Olivetti Girl" ads, I had no doubt – before publishing – that Hite had every right to be offended by them. HOWEVER, that was never the point of the post. If I failed to get across to readers my objective, I apologise. Perhaps I should have been more straightforward. The post was about the media, which over a period of 43 years from 1977 to 2020 misquoted the wording of the ads, and in the process distorted the truth. The fact is, having read what the ads ACTUALLY said, I remained far more offended by what Hite and others claimed they said than what they really did say. There remains, in my opinion, a significant difference between “The typewriter is so smart she [the Olivetti Girl] doesn’t have to be” and “What can an Olivetti do that other typewriters can’t do? It can think for itself.” A HUGE difference! So my main concern here is the repeated reference to the incorrect wording, especially at a time when there are so many claims about “Fake News” and such a great loss of faith in the accuracy of the media. Running obituaries for Hite which contain the invented wording does nothing if not undermine trust in the media.

       I thank Craig for his compliment and Richard Polt, Bill MacLane and Marcin Wichary for their comments. Bill is right to say that objections to the wording of ads across a very wide range of products were common in 1972. Richard suggested it was understandable that Hite may have – in the period between 1977 and 1982 - misremembered the exact wording of the 1972 ads, or may have paraphrased the ads. Of course, that’s not to excuse journalists for taking Hite’s word for it, and repeating her words rather than checking what the ads actually did say. In relation to Richard’s comment about the very apparent sexism in the ads, and the use of the word “girl”, I will go into some background about the ad campaign later. Marcin commented on phrases that are “very much [like]” but “said with different words”, which is all very well EXCEPT they WEREN’T the words used. I believe the difference in the inferences are very clear. And the actual wording is what should have appeared in stories and obituaries. My analysis was never meant to include a history of sexism, merely to prove that the ads were misquoted. Marcon talks about ads “dripping with sentiment” and about “privileged white men”, all fine in retrospect. But let’s look at what happened at the time.

       In 1972 there was a strong reaction from feminists about the wording of the ads – and responses and justification from Olivetti and its advertising agents. In June of that year a lengthy article by Barbara J. Siegel appeared in the [MORE] journalism review*, titled, “The new woman and the advertising industry”. Part of it was devoted to the Olivetti ads, under the sub-heading “Typewriters and putdowns”. Siegel said the Olivetti Girl campaign had “made feminists particularly indignant”. She said the tagline “Once an Olivetti Girl, always an Olivetti Girl” suggested “that women do not aspire to move on to better positions but accept being secretaries”. (*For more on [MORE], here is a useful link.)

       Siegel went on to report that before the Olivetti Girl campaign was launched, the executive managing editor of Art Direction, Joyce Snyder, was given an advance look at it in order to build publicity around the ads, but “the publicity that resulted was not exactly what the agency had in mind”. So Snyder arranged a meeting with George Lois  of Olivetti’s agents Lois Holland Callaway, Olivetti’s New York corporate advertising manager Gil Wintering, and representatives of the feminist movement. (Lois was in large part the inspiration for Mad Men’s Don Draper). The feminists wanted the campaign cancelled, and Lois certainly had initial misgivings. After the meeting he wrote to Snyder saying, “We are going ahead with the campaign, but I did want to tell you that you got to me enough that I did kill one of the commercials.”

George Lois

       Lois justified the campaign as a “breakthrough” in that it was the first of its kind to appeal directly to secretaries. “Normal women wouldn’t object to it,” he said, which is in itself offensive. Another group to object to the campaign was the 28,000-member National Secretaries’ Association, whose international president Angeline Krout told Olivetti, “Your current campaign … appears to be at 180 degrees variance with our concepts, especially where the ads refer to secretaries.”

       (The City College of New York says, “Lois’ Olivetti campaign proved to be controversial with many, and especially caught the attention of the 1968-formed National Organisation for Women due to his stereotypical portrayal of a woman’s career limitation through his 1972 Olivetti Girl campaign. As a response, Lois followed up with using Joe Namath in lieu of the female secretary and a flirtatious female boss to demonstrate that the gender struggle is about the power dynamic instead of the sexual. Remarkably this did not assuage the NOW organization, who persisted in viewing the struggle as sexual by nature.”)

In September 1972 Eileen Foley, writing from Detroit for the Times-Miami Herald Service under the headline “Few ads get pat of approval from women”, pointed out that according to a chapter of the National Organisation for Women (NOW), “pat” stood for “praise for advertising truth” and “pan” for “protest of advertising nonsense”. Olivetti had received a “pan”. Foley said NOW rated the Olivetti Girl ads the “second worst for promoting negative images of women”. But she quoted Wintering as saying, “These commercials were not done to offend women, just the very opposite. We are the first I know of in our category (of product) that puts women in the decision-making position.  That campaign was directed to the woman. It is essential that we talk to her. It was done with breeziness, humour and charm – all qualities we associate with women. We used the word ‘girl’ rather than ‘woman’ because we wanted to create the type of feeling of The Girl of My Dreams or The Girl Just Like the Girl Who Married Dear Old Dad. We felt that two brains were better than one.” Wintering added that comments about the campaign “all came from the National Organisation for Women”.

       Lois himself said Olivetti's effort to break down IBM’s market monopoly came about because “secretaries felt that IBM gave them status”. “So we conceived the Olivetti Girl, who would out-status everyone. We told secretaries that Olivetti was the typewriter to type on. And we were putting across a message that was being seen by her boss, her girl friends, and all those reluctant purchasing agents. We produced six ads and nine TV spots that showed the Olivetti Girl as the star performer in her office, as the secretary who typed faster, neater, sharper, as the girl most likely to succeed. (One of our headlines summed it up: ‘When you want to do something right, give it to the Olivetti Girl!’) In a few weeks, brand awareness of Olivetti leaped, and sales of Olivetti typewriters went through the roof.

“The Olivetti campaign burst on the scene in 1972, just as the National Organisation for Women was flexing its muscles. NOW attacked the campaign for stereotyping women as underlings (they were furious that only men were shown as bosses while only women were shown as secretaries) and they called me a male chauvinist pig. They picketed the Olivetti building on Park Avenue and sent hecklers up to my office to unnerve me. Something had to be done. Who can fight a woman’s fury? I capitulated. I would do an ad and a TV spot, with a woman executive giving orders to a male secretary. I cast an actual woman exec (not an actress) as the boss. I cast [New York] Jets great Joe Namath as the secretary (because he could type). I invited the women of NOW to view the spot, but when they saw the boss ask her secretary for a date at the conclusion of the spot, they were aghast. (‘You do very good work, Joseph. By the way, what are you doing for dinner tonight?’) ‘It’s an old story,’ I said. ‘The boss always tries to make the secretary.’ They cursed me (I swear), walked out and never bothered this male chauvinist pig again.”

Sunday, 13 September 2020

The Hite Report and the Lies About the Olivetti Typewriter Ads

Shere Hite appeared in "Olivetti Girls" ads to help her pay college fees
while at Columbia University in 1971.
Now that Shere Hite, sex educator and feminist and author of 1976’s The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, has passed away, it’s time to bury the false story about the Olivetti typewriter advertisement which allegedly propelled Hite toward the women’s movement.
The story relates to Hite being one of the models who appeared in the “Olivetti Girls” series of ads, which appeared in US newspapers from February 1972 and in magazines such as LIFE and New York in March and April that year. The ads were part of Olivetti’s drive to break into an office electric typewriter market dominated by IBM with the Olivetti Editor series and the Praxis 48. (Ironically, Hite herself used an IBM.)
More than 10 years later, in November-December 1982, a series of newspaper articles about Hite claimed that the tagline in the 1972 Olivetti ads contained the words, “The typewriter is so smart she [that is, the Olivetti Girl] doesn't have to be.” This was simply untrue, as the ads said nothing of the sort. Yet in obituaries which have appeared for Hite around the world this weekend, the false claim has been repeated ad nauseam, unchecked and unsubstantiated. A few minutes’ research would have confirmed the truth. Surprisingly, the supposed fact-checking New York Times is among the many guilty parties.
What the ads really said were words to the effect that the Olivetti Girl was someone about whom “people [are] saying terribly nice things”,  because she typed mistake-free copy as a result of using a typewriter with a “brain” – a machine which could “actually think for itself”. “She may  be prettier than other typists, but she’s not necessarily brainier.” She was “sharper, looser, never uptight” and could have fun. The typewriter eliminated common mistakes such as “flying caps”, improper spacing, “shading or ghosting” and “crowding or piling”.
Now, no matter which way one interprets these words, or thinks of them as seeming to be condescending, they do NOT state that the typist did not have to be smart. Nor is there any suggestion the models used in the ads are “leggy dumb blondes”, as so many articles would have us believe. That is purely a personal interpretation, and not the stated view of the advertiser. The whole premise of Hite’s argument for becoming a feminist fails. At best she has exaggerated what the Olivetti ads said, or worst she lied. Just because Hite said the story was true doesn’t make it true.
The false story (some versions of which stray so far from the truth as to claim the ads appeared in Playboy magazine), dates back to at least 1977. In its May 9 issue of that year, German news magazine Der Spiegel said, “Just a few years ago, Shere Hite from New York could be seen as a two-legged office machine in the canyons of Manhattan. At that time, the young woman had to play the part of a typist in a TV commercial: As ‘Olivetti Woman’ [sic] it was her job to ‘introduce a typewriter that was so smart that the user could easily appear a bit stupid’. The mimodrama was the trigger for the sex world bestseller of the 70s and made the former Columbia doctoral student a star guest on American talk shows. Because New York feminists who protested the Olivetti commercial convinced Hite that their strip was typical of the role played by many women in the United States - a silent majority of sexual objects ‘whose feelings are suppressed and exploited’. Hite began to be interested in the attitudes of her sex comrades on the subject of sexuality and sent out the first questionnaires. Four years later (and $35,000 in debt) she submitted the Hite Report - a work that summarises the statements of 3019 women on the subject of sexuality and appeared on seller lists almost overnight.”
Hite died from the rare neurological disorder corticobasal degeneration last Wednesday in North London, England, aged 77. She was born Shirley Diana Gregory in Saint Joseph, Missouri, on November 2, 1942. 

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Tytell Collection Goes to Internet Archive

One could easily sense in the comment from Richard Polt that a great wave of relief had swept across the world of typewriter historians and collectors when Jason Scott revealed last month that the Internet Archive had taken possession of the Tytell Collection. “You are doing a wonderful thing by taking care of this unique collection and sharing it with the world,” said Richard. “Thank you.” John Cooper also responded: “Thank you so much for preserving this priceless collection!” And so say all of us.
Jason’s blog post, “An Archive of a Different Type”, told all. For those who haven’t already seen it, it’s at
Pearl and Martin Tytell
Elaine Wooton, a protégée of Peter Tytell’s and herself a forensic document examiner (in Washington DC), had contacted Jason, asking if the Internet Archive “might want some of what is destined for deep storage or the trash compactor”. After looking at what Elaine was sorting through, Jason announced, “We will take all of it.” He described it as “standing at the final chapter of a family history that spanned many decades and represented both a disappearing world and a fascinating story”.
“While some of the items in the Tytell Collection might be outside the realm of what we would normally acquire, it seemed right to just accept the entire set, as together it tells a stronger story than having parts of it discarded or stored elsewhere. This was, after all, a multi-generational family business and the already-whittled results of years of maintenance and caretaking by Peter Tytell; there didn’t seem to be a reason to arbitrarily cut it down further.”
The collection has been moved into classifications, such as books, ephemera, typewriters and equipment. Jason lists some notable examples: “The subject matter of the hundreds of books in the collection range from criminal law (related to the investigative arm of the company) to graphology (study of handwriting) as well as overviews of law enforcement, detective work, and extensive guides of typewriter history.
“Hundreds of samples, both printed and hand-made, of typewriter output, separated by years, brands and models. This may be one of the most important pieces of the collection, and one that will be digitised as soon as possible; they represent hard knowledge and evidence of what typewriters were capable of or what brands had which abilities at what time. These cards were used by the Tytells in court cases …”
“Brochures, stand-ups and manuals related to typewriter and print. There are thousands of pages of documents in this collection related to the sale, operation and overview of typewriters.
“Typewriters of every description; standard commercial models now long out of production and sale, as well as custom or extremely-low production examples, such as machines that type in Arabic or Hebrew. They will not be stored away never to be seen again; they will, however it is worked out, play a part in telling the story of typewriters and the family that lovingly worked on them for so long.”
The Internet Archive already provides an enormously useful service to typewriter historians, and by taking care of the Tytell Collection it will help add a great deal to our collective knowledge. I add my thanks to those from Richard Polt and John Cooper.