The Strange, Strange Story of Phillip Wearne: Part Two
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
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|
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|
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 splash page to Wearne's Legion Of Space|
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|
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