Thursday, June 12, 2008

Word Balloons 6, October 2007

“You end up feeling a bit like Indiana Jones at times.”
An interview with Mick Stone.
Conducted by Philip Bentley, August 2007

Having interviewed a variety of artists and writers in previous issues, I thought it was high time that I looked at the other end of the scene, namely that of collectors and dealers.

Mick Stone has been passion-ate about comics for much of his life and growing up in the 1940s and 50s meant that he had a healthy exposure to home-grown titles, as well as US characters in reprint. His experiences, then, take the saga of collecting comics in this country, that I have been chronicling in my own recollections, back a decade.

Mick is the proprietor of Melbourne’s Camberwell Books and Collectables
www. He also made a significant contribution to the 1990s history of Australian comics Bonzer (Elgua Media, 1998), in particular through his index of all known titles 1900-60; something I found an invaluable resource in preparing this interview.

PB: I’m interested in your early experiences with comics. The question of how you discovered them is perhaps a bit redundant given that they were a fairly ubiquitous part of childhood during this period.
MS: That’s true. I was a pretty early reader. I can recall around 1949, at the age of four, reading the comic strips in the Herald every night; things like Mandrake the Magician. The other two primary forms of entertainment for kids at this time were radio serials and movies of a Saturday afternoon, and they, and comics, all complemented one another. I can remember sitting next to the radio, it was one of the big furniture style ones in the corner of the lounge room, listening to Tarzan and Superman. I found out later that Leonard Teale [Australian actor who went on to be a mainstay of local TV] played both characters with his rich, mellow voice.
PB: And comics?
MS: Heaven was to have a bunch of comics. One of the seats of urban power among boys at this time was to have a fantastic collection. There was an old lady over the back fence who had a collection of comics and we used to traipse over there and borrow them. These were titles like Captain Marvel [Australian reprints of the American Fawcett line]. There was also an older girl down the road who had a box full of various titles and I would go there and read them. You would also borrow and swap comics with your friends.
PB: What were some of your favourite comics or characters from that period?
MS: Well, everyone loved the Phantom [reprints of US newspaper strips, published by Frew from 1948 to the present]. I think I started reading him in the late 1940s when he was in the Women’s Mirror. He’s a sort of a peculiar Australian phenomenon who’s far more popular here than he is in America. And if you had a bunch of comics, the Phantom was always the one your father would want to read. [Laughs.]
PB: What other titles did you like?
MS: There was Mandrake the Magician [another US newspaper strip reprinted here as both strips and comic books]. I think I was in love with Narda, she was this beautiful, cleanly drawn woman. I was also a great fan of the Disney material [Australian reprints published by Walter Granger, 1946-78], especially the Carl Barks stories, although I wasn’t aware of who he was at the time. [Because Disney didn’t run credits.] He had a luminescent sort of art and favoured stories about lost civilizations and the like. I’ve had a fascination with archaeology ever since, and in the early 1970s saw a lot of ancient ruins on an extended tour of Africa.
* * *
PB: Any particularly memorable tales of finding ‘lost’ collections?
MS: When I returned from overseas it was clear that there was a prime collection out there because many of my friends had acquired some classic titles: things like Fatty Finns Weekly and other comics from the 1940s, all in mint condition. We were all mates, but no-one wanted to give away their sources. Anyway, [fellow collector] John Melloy’s wife let slip that he had seen an ad in the Age, so I went straight to the State Library and looked in the For Sale column of all the Saturday Ages for the eighteen months that I had been away. Sure enough there it was, an ad saying “Old Comics For Sale”. So I rang the number and explained to the bloke, because he wanted to know, how I had got onto him. He was a travelling salesman and it was clear he had been sourcing the goods from a country town, but he wouldn’t say where. Well, some time later, I was chasing old bottles at a bottle collectors show at Williamstown. In the swap and sell section I saw this collection of old comics and magazines. Don’t ask me how, but I knew instantly that they were from the same mother lode. I overheard the proprietor tell someone that he had stopped off at this shop in Talbot [Central Victoria] and that it was like walking into yesterday. So I rang the Talbot Post Office and described what I was looking for and they said: “Oh, that’ll be the Weilandt’s Store”. As I later discovered, Mr Weilandt had taken the shop over in the 1920s as a going concern and had never returned anything. There were sheds and barns out the back full of stock. He had actually died a few months before, but I made an arrangement with his son to go up and view it. I went up with [fellow collector] Ian Atkinson and there it was; it was like entering Tutankhamen’s tomb, or maybe another pharaoh as it had been ‘raided’ over time and not all the material was still there. There was something like a ten foot high stack of Pals magazine, all with their original football inserts; not so many comics, but lots of old toys. Some time later I compared notes with [another collector] Colin Williams, who had acquired a lot of stock from the traveller while I was overseas. Colin told me how he was looking at them all one night and he decided that the answer must be in the issues themselves: “They know where they’re from”. A lot of them were unclaimed subscription copies that had surnames on them. So he took a note of all the names and then starting from the more unusual surnames began to cross-reference them against the electoral roll. After only three of four names he had locked in to Talbot. I thought that was brilliant deduction. So he started going up there and buying in small portions. Mr Weilandt would say “That’s four pence ha’penny and three more at nine pence, that’s two shillings seven pence ha’penny, that’ll be twenty-seven cents”. He was just charging cover price on everything.
The rest of the interview can be found in Word Balloons 6.

“Hearken to Me Faithful Ones!”
The Rise & Fall of Newton Comics.
by Robert Thomas

Editor's introduction
At first glimpse, the Newton Comics venture may appear to have been little more than a failed attempt to reprint Marvel Comics in Australia. But as Robert Thomas shows in this article the Newton experiment was much more. It was part of a colourful episode in Australia’s publishing history led by the larger than life Maxwell Newton.

Whilst those of my generation may have dismissed the line as mere reprints, and those who grew up in the 80s and 90s may have never heard of it, to those children of the ‘70s Newtons may have been their first exposure to Marvels, or indeed comics. Moreover, the fairly eccentric publishing regimen followed means that the line is full of curious twists and turns that do imbue it with a sort of lovable goofiness. And their scarcity today means some are just as rare as those comics of the earlier age mentioned by Mick Stone in his interview. Philip Bentley

There were some interesting sales in the Australian comic book market on eBay in 2002. A frenzied bidding war resulted in record prices for the following comic books:

· Amazing Spider-Man 1 $360
· Fantastic Four 1 $204
· X-Men 1 $204
· Incredible Hulk 1 $202
· Silver Surfer 1 $112

The Comic Price Guide website currently values a near mint copy of Amazing Spider-Man 1 at around US$40,000, so why is $360 considered a record? More like a bargain price surely? That would be true if referring to the original Marvel version from the USA. However, this is the Australian comic reprint. $360 for a 30¢ black and white reprint? So what’s the story here?

The tale begins with the Perth-born journalist and newspaper entrepreneur Maxwell (Max) Newton. The company in question was Newton Comics, which during 1975-76 was licensed to reprint Marvel comics for the Australian market. Maxwell Newton (1929-90) has been described as brilliant, complex, creative, driven, gifted, passionate, unorthodox, excessive, extreme, erratic, and, sadly, ultimately self-destructive. He made friends and enemies, polarising both in equal measure through their loyalty or loathing of him. At the height of his career he rubbed shoulders with politicians and prime ministers, captured the attention of thousands of readers through his news-papers, fought the establishment of the newspaper industry and commanded the respect of his peers with his influential economic and political columns. By contrast, the depths of his career were equally extreme. While constantly battling the life-long demons of booze and prescription drugs, he would endure bankruptcy and police raids on his offices. He also, briefly, boasted the largest brothel and pornographic publishing house Melbourne had ever seen, prior to his self-imposed exile to the US in the 1980s.

* * *
In 1971, Maxwell Newton began publishing the Melbourne Observer, later renamed the Sunday Observer, seizing the opportunity to fill a gap left after the paper’s previous owner had closed it down, leaving Melbourne without a locally produced Sunday newspaper.

Having secured updated printing facilities, Newton now had to tackle the problem that many new publishers face when publishing a once-a-week newspaper. The Sunday Observer only saw the presses operating on weekends, therefore Newton needed to publish something during the week to keep the presses running. His solution was two-fold: he used the presses to publish soft-core pornography, pop magazines and comics.

Marvel Comics had revolutionized the comic world in the early 1960s with characters such as the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Uncanny X-Men and other now heroic icons. However It was unlikely that Newton knew what Marvel Comics were besides being a commodity to feed his presses and generate cash. What he did do was employ people who were in the know. One of these was journalist and wheeler-dealer, Martin (Marty) Dougherty.

Dougherty had always had a general interest in comics from a reader’s point of view. Charged with the responsibility of producing comics for Maxwell Newton’s Regal Press, Dougherty travelled to the US and met with Marvel executives, including then publisher Stan Lee, securing a licence to reprint Marvel Comics in Australia. [To be strictly accurate it appears Dougherty met with members of Transworld, the company charged with licensing Marvel characters world-wide, although Stan Lee was apparently in attendance. Ed.] An initial payment of $30,000 was made and Marvel released enough black and white proofs to begin printing the first few comics.

In early 1975 an advertisement was placed in the Sunday Observer seeking an experienced comic enthusiast to edit the upcoming Newton Comics series. Nineteen-year-old Melbourne University engineering student, John Corneille, who was looking for a distraction from his studies, was chosen from the respondents. Corneille was already well-versed in Marvel lore and comics fandom in general [see “My Life in Comics” in WB 2 & 4] and his knowledge would prove invaluable in his position as editor.

Marty Dougherty was keen to emulate the up-beat Marvel style bulletin and letters pages and so John Corneille became ‘Gentle John’, the editor and respondent for the “Marvel Mailbag” letters page. Corneille recalls, “The name ‘Gentle John’ was coined by Marty. I still cringe when I hear it!”

The first Newton Comics titles rolled off the presses in May 1975 accompanied by the biggest advertising campaign for comic books ever seen in Australia. The first titles, published in fortnightly rotation, were Amazing Spider-Man, Planet Of The Apes, Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and the Incredible Hulk. The forty-four page comics sold for 30¢ [as against the imports which were 25¢ for thirty-two pages of which only twenty were story, Ed.] and were published in black and white with colour covers and colour super-hero posters in the centre.

Maxwell Newton flooded the market with thousands of comics. The heavy promotion initially paid off with sales of up to 30,000 recorded for the first issues, dropping to around 20,000 for the second and third issues. After a few months sales had dropped to 6,000-8,000 per issue. It soon became apparent that sales projections were grossly overestimated, with print runs being too high and returns from newsagents being substantial. Marty Dougherty returned from the 1975 Christmas holiday break to find Maxwell Newton had closed the venture down during his absence. Dougherty persuaded Newton to resume publishing with a revamp of titles and schedules.

The rest of the articles can be found in Word Balloons 6.

Also reviews of Nicki Greenberg’s The Great Gatsby “an audacious work”, Something Weird Quarterly 2 “original takes on the notion of ‘horror’”, Bedford & Pop’s The List “a tightly paced psycho thriller” and Shiranui by Gary Lau “a visually striking project let down by some basic flaws in the story”.