Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The Strange, Strange Story of Phillip Wearne: Part Two

Continuing the story of obscure Australian comic book artist Phillip Wearne.  You can read Part One here.

Part Two: Phillip Wearne: The Comic Book Years

Phillip Wearne was a precocious child to the point of hyperactivity.  He attended the Glenelg Public School, graduating in 1938 and moving to what was then called Intermediate, now called High School.  It was while studying at Adelaide Technical High that Wearne’s artistic talents were spotted.  In the late 1930s and through the early 1940s school inspectors would visit classes and enquire about students.  Those who showed a particular aptitude or talent were often told to further their talents in any number of specialist schools around Adelaide.  Wearne was tapped on the shoulder and sent to the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts after completing his leaving Certificate in 1940.

The South Australian School of Arts and Crafts was established in 1861 and is the oldest public art school in Australia.  The principal at the time was the artist and etcher, F Milward Grey and boasted such teachers as Sir Ivor Hele.  During Wearne's time there the school was located on North Terrace, opposite Pultney Street, but was demolished in favour of new buildings when the University of Adelaide was upgraded in the 1960s and 1970s.

Wearne undertook a number of subjects at the school including Geometric Drawing, Lettering & Showcard Writing, Dimensioned Sketching and Perspective, all of which he passed without any real distinction.  At this time Wearne was living with his family on Osmond Terrace, Fullarton.  Osmond Terrace lies just over five kilometres from the centre of Adelaide, but, sadly, the house that Wearne grew up in no longer stands, having been demolished in the 1990s in favour of units.
“Towards the end of the 20th century the utilisation of Atomic energy as an almost infinite source of power made space-travel possible. Space-freighters transported valuable cargoes from the uranium, thorium and mercury mines of the asteroids. Space pirates attacked and looted many of the freighters. Earthmen organised the Legion of Space to check this piracy, they equipped it with a fleet of armoured space-ships.”
-Introduction to The Legion of Space
Milward Grey encouraged his students to express themselves and Wearne decided to create a comic book from scratch as a project. As he would do when faced with such a challenge in his life, Wearne took shortcuts.  In this case he not only lifted the title but also the basic story of a then relatively unknown science fiction novelette called The Legion Of Space by Jack Williamson.  Williamson’s story had appeared as a serial in Astounding Stories in 1934, which, presumably, is where Wearne saw and read it.  

Wearne took the story and was able to create the artwork to go with it, an impressive feat for a seventeen year old who would have been referring to period comic strips of the time.  Looking at the art it becomes clear that Wearne was influenced by the strips of the day, ‘Speed’ (Flash) Gordon by Alex Raymond, Tarzan by Burne Hogarth, Red Gregory by Syd Miller and Tightrope Tim by Reg Hicks. These strips were available via interstate newspapers, in South Australian publications Wearne would have been reading the likes of Ben Bowyang by  Alex McRae, Alec The Airman by Lionel Coventry and Joe Jonsson’s Uncle Joe’s Horse Radish.  Wearne took a lot of shortcuts when it came to the actual art.  Not wanting to create new characters, he based the cast on famous film stars such as Edward G Robinson, Gary Cooper, Raymond Massey and others. He also reused panels in the same story, sometimes in the same sequences, merely flipping them or moving them into different angles.  Once finished Wearne approached a customs importer that he’d been working part time for named Henry ‘Harry’ Hoffmann.

Henry Edward Hoffman, (he spelt his name both with a single and double ‘n’) at times called Harry to distinguish himself from his father, also named Henry, was born at Birkenhead, near Port Adelaide, in 1896 and lived there for all his life, finding work as a clerk.  In 1915, at the age of 18, he, like thousands of other young Australian men, signed up to fight in the Great War.  He entered the Australian Infantry Service as a lowly private and left, nearly four years later, as a Lieutenant Colonel. Along the way he saw action in France, was gassed twice and shot once.  His final exposure to mustard gas saw him discharged from the AIS as being medically unfit for duty. No matter, he had done his part.  He returned to Adelaide and settled down to a quiet life as a customs import agent, working for Smith Channon & Co.  He moved up in the firm to become a partner, a position he held until his retirement in 1961.  Hoffmann’s world was tragically interrupted in 1934 when his son, Lyall, fell out of the back of a truck that he was playing on, resulting in the truck running him over and fracturing his skull.  He lapsed into a coma and sadly never recovered, dying at the age of 10.

Phillip Wearne, aged 17
When Wearne approached him Hoffmann was intrigued by the idea of publishing comic books.  The first thing he did was to encourage Wearne to continue his work.  As an import agent, Hoffmann would have known how popular comic books were in the early 1940s and as such knew that a publishing venture was more likely to succeed than to fail and that, in doing so, he would corner the market in South Australia by becoming the only publisher of comic books in the state.  Hoffmann was also smart enough to understand that any such venture would need more than Phillip Wearne, no matter how talented Wearne might want people to believe, in order to be successful.  He asked Wearne to sound out others at the School of Arts.  Flushed by his success Wearne approached two other students in his figure study class named Max Judd and Doug Maxted.

At the time Maxted was working at Kelvinators, selling fridges to earn his living, but, much like most young boys of the period, wanted to draw comic books.  As he later recalled, “Phil Wearne said he was producing a comic book together with Max Judd and would I draw some comic strips for the publication, which I did.”  It wasn’t as simple as that though.

“While I was working at Kelvinators,” Maxted recalled in an interview in 1995, “a chap came up to me, I think it was the foreman, he says, ‘There’s a chap outside wants to see you, Doug’. So I went out and it was a certain Mr Hoffman, Harry Hoffman - he introduced himself. He said, ‘Oh, Mr Maxted?’ I said, ‘Yes’. He said, ‘Well, now, I’m producing comics’. He said, ‘I’ve heard of you from Phil Wearne, who is in your class at art school and I believe you’re a cartoonist’. He said, ‘Would you be willing to draw a few cartoons for my comic?’  He said, ‘Do me a sample of your work’.

“So I went away and I thought up this old character, sort of a very ebullient old man who was very energetic and I called him Uncle Si. All he had was three hairs on top of his head and a full beard and so forth, and just a shirt and waistcoat and red trousers sort of thing. Anyway, there was no dialogue. He just went into sort of a comical childish action, because it was for a comic, and nothing too sophisticated, very simple, but a simple joke. He wanted half a dozen pages. Anyway, he was very pleased with them when he saw them. He said, ‘Yes, you can keep going with that’. It was very good and the pay was good. It was the equivalent of the basic wage in those days I was getting for each page. Well, I could knock out a page in about six hours. There were six frames a page and it took me an hour to do a frame, so it was about six hours. So it was good pay.”

Hoffmann publishes Wearne, 1953
Hoffmann became the first publisher to break the Sydney-Melbourne comic book publishing market, concentrating on all original work (as opposed to importing reprint material) by Adelaide based artists.  Max Judd’s Sky Police borrowed heavily from Hurricane Hawk but worked well enough for Hoffmann to keep going.  Three Star Comics, introduced in 1944, saw the beginning of a series of colourful one shot comics with names such as Real, Modern, Crack, Extra, Click, Champion, all of which showcased Judd and Maxted to great effect.  Maxted’s Uncle Si became a regular as he (Maxted) became the unofficial staff artist for Hoffmann’s line of comics, able to work in the field of funny animals, cartoons and serious art.

It wasn’t to last.  By 1947 Hoffmann pulled up shop and gave up on publishing comic books and retreated back to his life of a customs agent. He wasn’t alone, cheaper, post war, imports and an increase in the price of newsprint drove several publishers out of business but, before that would happen; Hoffmann would have to deal with Wearne.

Hoffmann was moving far too slowly for Wearne’s liking.  Part of the problem was that Wearne wanted to own the copyright to his work and, as the writer/artist that came first, felt that he was the star of the publishing venture.  Wearne had become problematic and his ego was further buoyed by an article in The Mail, one of the major newspapers in South Australia, introducing him to the public.
The Mail, 21st August, 1943
The article, titled ‘Lad, 17, Draws Virile Adventure Strip’, showed a beaming Wearne and detailed how he had created the first comic book ever to be published in South Australia. Milward Grey, quoted in the article, was generous, stating that Wearne’s work showed, “…much promise” and praising the efforts of all his students.  Hoffmann, who was name checked as Harold Hoffmann, was described not as the publisher of the comic, but as Wearne’s ‘partner’.  This, added to Wearne’s habit of hiring others, was too much to bear.  Hoffmann wasn’t to be trifled with though and quickly informed Wearne’s colleagues who the true power behind the venture was.

The splash page to Wearne's Legion Of Space
Wearne was nothing if not impulsive.  While waiting for Hoffmann to establish the comic book line and the copyrights to fall into place, he decided, at a whim, to join up in order to fight in the war.  Armed with letters of reference from both Hoffmann and Milward, Wearne enrolled in the R.A.A.F with the hopes of becoming a pilot.   His enrolment form was a perfect read.  Wearne, a month shy of his 18th birthday, detailed his academic career as being perfect along with his expertise in wrestling, boxing, swimming and ju-jitsu.  His file showed that he was neat, ‘appeared intelligent’ and that ‘he should do well with training’.  A further assessment saw him upgraded, he was ‘above average’, ‘bright and alert’, and had a ‘good educational background’. All in all, Wearne was described as a ‘good type’.  Wearne was duly accepted into the Royal Australian Air Force with the view of being a pilot.  As he was underage, his mother, Gladys, signed the forms for him.

While he waited to turn 18, Wearne applied for, and was granted, an extension to his eventual induction into the R.A.A.F.  He then used the time to create a second comic for Hoffmann.  Titled The Space Legionnaires, it picked up where The Legion of Space ended as Wearne continued to mine Williamson’s story.  This time Wearne made sure that he was listed on the copyright forms as the co-publisher.  He wanted people to know that he was more than just an artist.  It made no difference to Hoffmann. Giving him the co-publisher title was a minor inconvenience, and a small concession for Hoffmann who was by now thoroughly sick of Wearne.  As Maxted later remember, “According to Hoffman, Phil was throwing his weight around and holding up production.”  The result was a win for Doug Maxted and Max Judd as they quickly moved up the pecking order and quickly emerged as able replacements for Wearne.  Maxted was faster than Wearne, was more agreeable and happier to work.  Judd was a better artist and able to create solid war stories which young boys loved.  Both men also had another advantage, neither were going to war.  Wearne was called up in mid-December, 1943.  He could no longer avoid it, he was going to serve.

In the short amount of time that Wearne had deferred his enrolment, he had managed to land in court twice.  Continuing a family habit, Wearne was charged with traffic offences, speeding.  These came about due to his employment as a taxi driver around Adelaide.  The R.A.A.F were about to discover what Hoffmann had already found out, Wearne wasn’t what he appeared to be.  Describing himself as a ‘cartoon book publisher’, a misnomer as, at best, he was a co-publisher, Wearne completed his ground training without distinction.  His results showed that he was more talk than action, scoring ‘above average’ on Leadership and Enterprise, but average in every other way, barring Persistence, for which he was marked down to ‘below average’.  The general remarks section of his final report described him as being careless, but did note that he showed initiative and intelligence.  He had done enough to be sent to flying school at Point Cook, Victoria.

Part of Wearne's RAAF report card
For Wearne, flying school was where he wanted to excel.  The thought of being a pilot, much in the mould of an Errol Flynn type, appealed to him. Sadly the reality was going to be a lot different as he was about to be found out. Almost 3,000 WWII fighter and bomber pilots came out of Point Cook, including noted aces Nicky Barr and Bill Newton, but Wearne wasn’t one of them.

Wearne failed Elementary Flying School miserably.  He trained in a deHavilland 82, logging 10 hours flying as a co-pilot and was assessed in two different areas, Flying Test and Personal Characteristics.  Out of a possible 1000 points available for the Flying Test, Wearne scored 586.  Out of a possible 100 points in Personal Characteristics, he did worse, scoring a miserly 45.

The comments on Wearne’s sheet were now starting to look very familiar.  “Does not possess the required aptitude,” they read.  “Full of his self-importance. Not impressed with his work. Much doubt if he has an aircrew outlook. Lacks airsense (sic), reactions slow.”  He wasn’t technical enough, he couldn’t judge height, and he was throttle shy and jerked the rudder.  He was knocked back on three faults, ‘No Enthusiasm, Rough on Controls and Forgets Instructions.’  Even worse, it was discovered that Wearne became airsick when flying, a death sentence for a potential pilot.

As he was of no use the R.A.A.F as a pilot Wearne was shuffled off to Bradford Park, NSW, in order to be trained as a clerk or a recorder.  In terms of action that Wearne sought, this was as demeaning as it could get.  Wearne filled in his time corresponding with Hoffmann over the ownership of The Space Legionnaires.  Although Hoffmann wasn’t willing to be pushed around, when Wearne brought legal action against him Hoffmann wanted out and couldn’t divest himself of the work fast enough.  He promptly wrote to the Register of Copyrights to forfeit any rights he may have had in the work and also wrote to Wearne handing over the copyright in full.  Wearne promptly registered the work in his own name.  He was thinking forward, having made a contact in Sydney and wanted to sell his work to Ezra Norton and his Invincible Press.

Wearne still had the R.A.A.F to contend with.  His service record was blotted by an instance of being unfit for duty due to ‘alcoholic stimulants’, loosely translated, he had gotten drunk the night before and was massively hung over.  He waived the rights to a trial and accepted the seven days field punishment, not the first time he would be find himself on the wrong side of the law and, sadly, it wouldn’t be the last.

TOMORROW: Wearne sues Hoffmann, leaves the R.A.A.F. and continues to draw, drive cabs and steals lots of money

1 comment:

geoff harrison said...

A most interesting story. Wearnes splash page for The Space Legionnaires seems to be a direct swipe from the pulp magazine cover of Astounding Stories for October 1939. This item can be seen on ebay at Pulp Magazines For Sale. It is on sale at present.