The Phantom Commando
The Phantom Commando
By Kevin Patrick
Stanley Horwitz made his fortune from war. No, he wasn't an arms dealer, or a spy who sold military secrets to foreign powers.
Instead, Stanley Horwitz (1921 – 2001) made his money from the works of Australian writers like J.E. Macdonnell and W.R. Bennett, whose bestselling war novels formed an important part of the Horwitz Publications’ empire.
During the late 1950s, Horwitz expanded its publishing activities into comic books, launching a mixture of locally drawn titles and reprints of American comics, including many Western and war titles from the Atlas/Marvel Comics line, such as Two-Gun Kid and Combat Kelly.
John Dixon, who by this time was doing cover paintings for many of Horwitz's war paperback novels, was approached to create a new comic for the company.
Dixon responded with The Phantom Commando, an adventure comic set during World War Two. Wearing a simple, Lone Ranger-styled mask beneath his flying helmet, The Phantom Commando was Bruce Harcourte, a fighter pilot who flew combat missions in his rocket-equipped P-51 Mustang from his secret island base in the Indian Ocean.
The Phantom Commando's identity is known only to his mechanic, 'Tiny' Winkle, and his girlfriend Julie Standish, who works for Allied Intelligence.
Having drawn the aviation comic Tim Valour for a decade, Dixon was reaching his artistic peak when he produced the first issue of The Phantom Commando in 1959.
Sadly, Dixon had to relinquish the comic after just three issues, to concentrate on his newspaper strip, Air Hawk & the Flying Doctor.
The Phantom Commando was taken over by Maurice Bramley (Born c.1910), a prolific magazine illustrator who'd worked on such publications as The World's News since the mid-1930s.
Bramley began working for Horwitz Publications in the late 1940s, illustrating covers for the company's line of Western paperback novelettes, under the 'Sporting Western' imprint.
By the time he took over The Phantom Commando in 1960, Bramley was the principal cover artist for Horwitz's war and Western comics, as well as contributing strips to such titles as Frogman and Navy Combat.
Under Bramley's hand, The Phantom Commando went roaring into action over Europe, flying everything from Sunderland Flying Boats to Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers.
Bramley also ignored Dixon's original concept by recasting The Phantom Commando as a mysterious, masked aviator, who aids the Allies on all battlefronts in times of crisis.
He even intimated that The Phantom Commando might, in fact, be immortal - but any resemblance between him and a certain Ghost Who Walks is purely coincidental!
'Tiny' Winkle drops in and out of the series, while our hero's wartime girlfriend Julie Standish appears to have been dumped for the blonde Sally Saxon - whom he leaves behind in Sydney, when he races off to war once again in 'Flames Over Korea' (PC#16, 3rd series, c.1970).
It's not "all war and no play" for our hero. A one-page strip, 'The Commandos, featuring the Masked Trumpeter' (PC#8, 1st series, c.1962), shows The Phantom Commando hitting some high notes as a big band trumpeter, with 'Tiny' Winkle on the drums!
Occasionally, The Phantom Commando takes a back seat to narrate some one-off war stories, all written and drawn by Bramley, such as 'Polaris' (PC#14, 1st series, c.1963) and 'Gators Smell Blood' (PC #15, 1st series, c.1964)
Despite these occasional absurdities and lapses in continuity, The Phantom Commando remains an immensely entertaining comic.
While Bramley never possessed Dixon's slick art style or command of storytelling techniques, his scratchy pen line lent a suitably grim 'look' to The Phantom Commando.
Sometimes Bramley clearly poured a lot of effort into a key panel, or a character portrait, producing truly dramatic images.
The Phantom Commando is also significant because it was the last, original Australian comic of the postwar era.
Horwitz Publications produced two series of The Phantom Commando. The first series ran for 16 issues, published on an irregular basis between 1959-1964.
The second Horwitz series confusingly starts with #13 and only lasts for two issues released between September-October 1965. (Horwitz ceased publishing comics altogether the following year.)
Roger Morrison's 1997 price guide, Australian Comics 1924-1966, claims the second series ran for issues #13-18, with #15-18 appearing after 1966.
However, it is possible that issues #15-18 of The Phantom Commando actually comprise a third series, published by Page Publications Pty. Ltd. (Surry Hills, NSW), on an irregular basis between c.1967-1970.
The original Horwitz editions all have a one shilling (1/-) cover price, with slick covers and bear the Horwitz "Teenage Code of Approved Reading" seal on the cover. The Page Publications editions have 12¢ and 15¢ cover prices, do not have slick covers and don't feature the Horwitz seal. Page Publications is also clearly identified as the publisher on the inside back covers.
This article originally appeared in Collectormania magazine (April 2005) and was partly based on material previously published online at ModernTales.com. Kevin Patrick can be contacted at PO Box 1055, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, or via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org