Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Catman - The Transplanted Superhero

Even though imports of American comic books were officially banned by the Australian government between 1940-1959 (due to a longstanding wartime economic embargo), this didn't mean that American comics never made their way to our shores during this time.

Aside from comics brought in by American servicemen stationed in Australia during World War Two, the immediate postwar era saw Australian publishers, such as K.G. Murray, H.J. Edwards and Young's Merchandising (to name but a few), secure the local reprint rights to comics published by American companies, including Fiction House, Fawcett, DC Comics and Quality Comics.

Then there were the imported comic book characters that got a makeover Down Under - such as Catman.

Created by Charles Quinlan and Irwin Hasen, Catman was a feline-styled caped crusader who made his debut in Crash Comics #4, published by the Tem Publishing Company in 1940.

Crash Comics was renamed Cat-Man Comics by its new publisher, Continental Magazines, with issue #6 and lasted out the wartime superhero craze, before winding up with issue #32 in 1946.

There would have been little to distinguish Catman from his legion of gaudily costumed counterparts, were it not for some stunning cover artwork by L.B. Cole - and the fact that Catman had a shapely female sidekick named, appropriately enough, Kitten!

Catman and Kitten may not have survived the postwar purge of American superhero comics, but one half of this crime-fighting duo found new life in comic books published half-a-world away.

Catman made his Australian debut in the pages of Super Yank Comics (19 issues/1951-1952), a new comic from Frew Publications, who also published the Australian edition of The Phantom.

Although The Ghost Who Walks (as The Phantom was also known) appeared in most issues of Super Yank Comics, and was sometimes featured on the front cover alongside Catman, this comic was essentially Catman's title.

But why did Frew choose Super Yank Comics as the title for their new Australian comic magazine? Their decision to do so was no doubt influenced by a tradition amongst Australian publishers (dating back to the early 1940s) to label their black & white reprints of American comics with titles like Popular Yank Comics and Famous Yank Comics, in an effort to pass off their magazines as "genuine" American comic books. (They would sometimes even add the disclaimer "Price in Australia - 6d", to reinforce the impression that these were imported American comics!)

Yet to those kids who could remember reading imported American comics during the pre-war years, which featured 64 full-colour pages and glossy covers, there was little chance they could have been fooled by such crude marketing ploys.

(This trend was symptomatic of a wider Australian social practice, described by writer and critic A.A. Phillips in 1950 as "the cultural cringe", which reflected an ingrained belief that any Australian creative endeavour was automatically inferior to its British or American counterpart.)

So, why did Frew Publications choose Catman from the plethora of American costumed superheroes, as the star of their new comic?

"I can only imagine that [Frew co-founder] Ron Forsyth, who was a fairly regular visitor to the United States, saw the title and liked it," says Jim Shepherd, the current Publisher and Managing Director of Frew Publications.

"I have no idea whether he negotiated directly with [American publisher] Continental Magazines, or whether he worked through a now-defunct, New York-based organisation known as Transworld Features, with whom he worked closely for many years," adds Jim.

Catman debuted in the second issue of Super Yank Comics, written and drawn by the Australian cartoonist Lloyd Piper. The most noticeable difference about this new, Australian version of Catman was that the character's sidekick was changed to a young boy named Kit!

"Ron Forsyth had an almost strange habit of changing things in the imported titles he published," according to Jim Shepherd. "He didn't like females having or sharing top billing, hence his request to replace Kitten with Kit - but he probably also thought it might be some sort of plug for the young Phantom character, also known as Kit."

Lloyd Piper also drew the Kalar the Caveman strip for Super Yank Comics, in addition to Catman. He also illustrated the short-lived Planetman comic, featuring a science-fiction superhero, which was also published by Frew (5 issues/circa early 1950s).

Lloyd Piper's Catman strip appeared in issues #2-6 and #8-18 of Super Yank Comics (A seventh issue was apparently never published) Catman, however, did not have the staying power of his more popular rivals, such as Superman and Batman, and disappeared with the cancellation of Super Yank Comics.

By the late 1950s, Frew's comic book line-up consisted of The Phantom, The Shadow and The Phantom Ranger and Sir Falcon. They were briefly joined by Giant-Size Phantom (26 issues/c.1957-1960), a jumbo-sized magazine that featured four complete comic books in one.

Giant-Size Phantom not only starred The Ghost Who Walks, but featured reprints of The Phantom Ranger, The Shadow and Sir Falcon - a modern-day Arthurian Knight, whose own solo Frew title, chiefly illustrated by Peter Chapman, had finished prior to the launch of Giant Size Phantom (Sir Falcon enjoyed a short-lived revival when Frew released a further ten issues of the comic during the early-to-mid 1960s). Reprints of Lloyd Piper's Kalar the Caveman and Planetman strips also made occasional appearances in Giant Size Phantom.

Ron Forsyth decided to expand Frew's comics' range by reviving Catman in 1958 - this time under the pen of John Dixon.

"Ron once told me he admired John Dixon's work and commissioned him for Catman, because he felt at the time that Frew's comic range could do with an uplift," according to Jim Shepherd.
John Dixon recalls that Ron Forsyth asked him to revamp Catman: "I wasn't asked to follow [the previous series'] style - I was given free reign."

John did indeed give Catman and Kit a makeover - he streamlined Catman's costume, gave the duo their own supersonic Cat Jet and a mist-shrouded mountain hideaway dubbed 'Cat Rock'. Catman frequently had to rescue his blonde, adventurous fiancée, Terry West, and her father, Doctor Martin West, from his foes' villainous clutches!

Teeming with Cold War spies, robots and aliens, the Catman comic was a showcase for some of Dixon's best work. The action-packed storylines were backed-up by Dixon's dynamic artwork and sophisticated page layouts.

Dixon only wrote and drew 12 issues of Catman between 1958-1959. Given that Frew actually published 22 issues of the comic, it's likely that issues #14-22 consisted of reprints from the first dozen issues. (Issue #13 was apparently never published)

"I was working on a revamp of Catman about the time I was trying to sell [the newspaper strip] Air Hawk," recalls John. "When the Sunday and, later, the daily version did sell [to newspapers], I quit comic book work so I could concentrate on Air Hawk."

This wouldn't be the last time that Aussie comic fans would enjoy the adventures of Catman. Commencing around 1965-1966, Page Publications (the magazine publishing arm of the Yaffa Syndicate company) reprinted Dixon's version of Catman. The series actually began with issue #12 and finished around 1968 with issue #26.

The reappearance of Catman during the mid-1960s was by no means accidental, as Page Publications may have been trying to capitalise on the popularity of the Batman TV show, which began broadcasting on Australian televison sometime during 1967, and was being promoted by rival publisher KG Murray on the cover of its own Giant Batman Comic.

So, how can collectors distinguish between the Frew Publications and Page Publications series? Early issues of the first solo Catman series published in 1958-1959 featured the famous 'Frew - Publishers of The Phantom' colophon in the top left-hand corner and feature a 1/- (one shilling) cover price. The second half of the Frew series (issues #14-22) did not feature the Frew logo on the cover and the title was altered from 'The Adventures of Catman' to 'Catman'. These later issues list the publisher as Tricho Pty. Ltd., which was apparently one of several company names used by Frew during the 1950s.

The Page Publications series also began with a 1/- cover price, but later issues featured 12 cent and 15 cent cover prices. Like the earlier Frew series, the comic's title often alternated between 'The Adventures of Catman' and 'Catman', but Page Publications was always listed as the publisher on the inside back cover.

One later Page Publications' issue of Catman, featuring the story 'The Secret of the Swamp' (which first appeared in issue #12 of John Dixon's original Frew series), appears to have been reprinted several times, possibly as a giveaway showbag comic. It is numbered as either issue #24 or #26 and both editions feature different back cover advertisements, dated December 1970 and July 1971 respectively.

More recently, the American publisher AC Comics reprinted an installment of John Dixon's Catman series in the 50th issue of Men of Mystery (released in 2004), an anthology title which showcases reprints of 'Golden Age' superhero comics from the 1940s and 50s.

This is an expanded and revised version of an article which originally appeared in the April 2004 edition of Collectormania magazine. The author would like to thank Graeme Cliffe and Neville Bain for their assistance in researching this story. However, any errors and omissions are the author's own. (Cover image courtesy of The Deep Woods website) Text copyright © Kevin Patrick 2004-2007.


spiros xenos said...

Kevin, I remember getting a Catman comic in a showbag in 1971 (possibly even 1972). I don't recall the theme of the showbag, nor the story, I just recall a yellow background to the cover.

Bud Plant said...

Kevin -I just discovered Adventures of Catman when I stumbled across them at San Diego Comic-Con. I realized the art was quite good, but didn't put John Dixon and these together until just now, when my Google search led me to your EXCELLENT, informative article (and also to Lambiek's bio of Dixon, also quite helpful).
So I'm very grateful for your work, and you've turned me onto yet another corner of comic collecting. If you know of any sources for Dixon's original comics, like Catman and Capt. Strato, I'd be most grateful if you can direct me. Many thanks.

Bud Plant
Bud Plant Comic Art
Grass Valley, CA