The Strange, Strange Story of Phillip Wearne: Part Three

Continuing the story of obscure Australian comic book artist Phillip Wearne.

Part Three: Wearne Grows Up

By mid-1945 Wearne was busy trying to get himself out of the R.A.A.F.  The war had finished and he wanted to pick up his career where it left off.  He had managed to obtain leave for the legal action against Hoffmann in 1944 and now he wished to be released so he could finish the third instalment in the Space Legion series.  Sensing that the R.A.A.F might refuse his request, Wearne approached the Federal Member for Boothby to contact the Minister for Air, Arthur Drakeford, to plead his case.  The book, T.N. Sheehy wrote, would earn Wearne the rich sum of £300.  If Wearne couldn’t be given leave, then surely he could be released from duty earlier than expected? The reply was as expected; Wearne would have to go through the proper channels, the same as anyone else.  Another tack was tried when Horace Wearne fell ill.  Again bypassing the regular channels, Wearne contacted Sheehy who contacted Drakeford.  This time the R.A.A.F, like Hoffmann, had reached their breaking point with Wearne and duly released him.

Wearne in the RAAF. Obviously
before he got airsick
When Wearne was finally released, in October, 1945, it was to the Thyer Rubber Company, where he was to be employed as a rubber worker.  Horace, although described as being ‘gravely ill’, would last until June, 1946, before he passed away at the age of 47.  Once back in Adelaide Wearne went right back to his old jobs.  He approached Hoffmann with the view of having his comic books reprinted and new strips published, only to find that he was not a wanted commodity.  Hoffmann, twice bitten, wanted nothing to do with Wearne and was more than content to continue publishing comics with the more reliable, and more stable, duo of Doug Maxted and Max Judd.  Wearne then re-joined the City Taxi Service as a cab driver, working his way up to a supervising position before he decided to move to Sydney in December, 1949, believing that he would be offered a position with Ezra Norton.

Ezra Norton was the son of John Norton, the proprietor of The Truth. Ezra grew up around newspapers and as soon as he was able he began to work in the industry.  Ezra was disowned by his abusive father, as was his wife, Ada, who promptly took to the courts to gain control over the newspaper empire John Norton left his estate to his daughter, Joan in his will. Once Ada succeeded, she, Ezra and Joan each received a third of the estate, thus allowing Ezra to gain control of The Truth. Choosing to do battle with Sir Frank Packer, Norton then founded a daily newspaper, titled The Daily Mirror in 1941.  It was at the Mirror that Wearne often told people that he had serialised Legion of Space for publication, but there is no record of the strip ever appearing on a daily basis, or even as a Sunday strip. In the mid-1970s comic book historian John Ryan began to note what strips appeared where in Australia by physically reading every newspaper stored and having other, trusted, people do the same for Melbourne, Adelaide and Hobart.  Nowhere does a mention of Wearne or a Legion of Space newspaper strip appear in Ryan’s copious notes.   The likely scenario was that Wearne was hired as a staff artist and did uncredited spot illustrations for The Mirror and other Norton publications.

In 1955 Wearne successfully filed
suit against Hoffmann for
 ownership of his work
What Wearne did do was to arrange for his two 1944 comics to be reprinted by Norton’s comic book line, Invincible Press in 1949.  Sales of the two reprints were good enough for Norton to commission two more Space Legion books, which Wearne duly delivered in early 1950. Unlike his previous efforts, where he at least attempted to disguise the source material, Wearne now outright plagiarised Jack Williamson’s work.  And that was it.  Wearne’s comic book career was finished.  Williamson’s own Legion of Space book was finally published as a paperback in 1947. This was followed up by a magazine reprint in 1950.  By now it was clear, for anyone who cared to look, that Wearne hadn’t written his work, but no matter, Wearne was long gone, drawing an end to his career as a comic book artist.

Wearne failed as a comic book creator due to his inability to come up with another solid concept or even an idea.  He could keep mining the Legion of Space series for as long as Jack Williamson was being published in the USA, but that was it. He seemed incapable of generating any original ideas and was also reluctant to work with other writers.  If he had recognised his limitations as a writer and worked only as an artist, he could have forged a career along the lines of his peers, Australian comic book artists such as Keith Chatto, Len Lawson (who, despite his later criminal actions, was writing and drawing one of the most successful comic books of the early 1950s with The Lone Avenger), John Dixon and Maxted. But Wearne’s ego would never allow him to relinquish control.

Many artists broke into the comic book scene at the same time as Wearne.  The downturn in the Australian comic book industry came in the 1950s when imports began to flood the scene in the form of cheaply manufactured reprint comics. Comics were also under fire from censors at the time, in Queensland in 1954, the newly established Literature Board of Review banned numerous comic books that they felt were undesirable, resulting in publishers filing suit in court.  From action to horror to romance, comic books were not seen as a viable career. Many of the publishers soon discovered that importing material was cheaper than paying local talent and that was it.  The Australian comic book industry was dealt a blow that, even today, it has never fully recovered from.

Artists, such as Monty Wedd, Stanley Pitt, John Dixon, Phil Belbin and Keith Chatto had long and illustrious careers due to the high quality of their artwork, their eagerness to work, their ability to adapt to the changing times and their ability to hit deadlines.  Others, such as Moira Bertram, Hart Amos, Jeff Wilkinson, Peter Chapman, Albert DeVine, Kathleen O’Brien, Arthur Mather, Larry Horak and many more, had mixed successes, through no fault of their own.

Some continued with art, either in comic books, advertising or in newspapers with strip art and spot illustrations, others simply left the industry completely never to return. Some moved into new industries and eventually drifted back when the scene became healthier. Some, like Arthur Hudson, were firmly rooted in advertising and dabbled in comic strip art; Maurice Bramley was another who moved from commercial illustrations to draw more comic book covers than arguably any other Australian. Paul Wheelahan, a protégé of Stan Pitt and the creator of the long running comic book The Panther (72 issues), left the field in 1963 to become one of Australia’s most prolific writers of western pulp novels. Wilkinson and Maxted eventually returned to England and worked there for IPC.  There was work if people wanted to fight for it, but Wearne wasn’t for fighting.

Wearne never returned to comic books. Ezra Norton saw more value in publishing books that collected strips he was already publishing in his newspaper.  Boofhead and Bluey and Curley went side-by-side with reprints of American and British titles as Buzz Sawyer, Garth, Candy and Tim Tyler’s Luck.  To his credit Norton did preserve with original books such as Tim O’Hara (Carl Lyon, who would eventually replace Stan Cross on the highly successful Wally & The Major newspaper strip), Dan Eagle (Moira Bertram) and Virgil Reilly’s Silver Flash titles. Wearne’s storytelling and artistic abilities were as good as any of the second tier artists working at the time.  The difference between the creators mentioned and Wearne is that they were less trouble for Norton to deal with. Wearne wanted to be rich with little effort.  He quickly realised that he’d not become wealthy from comic books as page rates and pay for artists had dropped from what it once was and the work had become harder.

While in Sydney Wearne began to study Business Management at Sydney University before flying back to Adelaide and continuing taxi driving.  In December, 1950, Wearne decided to move to Melbourne and re-join the R.A.A.F. It was a good plan, but as he was leaving, he managed to burn bridges with the Adelaide taxi driving industry.  He had another reason to want to leave Adelaide, one that would see him locked up.

The News, 13th December, 1950.
 Wearne arrested.
Wearne gave his notice and headed out to Parafield Airport to board his Melbourne bound plane on the evening of the 12th of December, 1950. He had almost reached the tarmac when he was arrested by the police and lead away to the city watch house.  Facing court the next morning, Wearne was charged with embezzlement – he had kept the proceeds of jobs that he had done during his employment at Leonard Johnson’s taxi company.  The amount, £27 (worth over $1,000 in today’s money), was discovered missing on the 11th of December after Wearne had handed in his daily takings on his last day of duty.  Once the shortfall was discovered, Wearne was given the benefit of the doubt and asked to repay the money by 6pm that night.  Instead he went home, finished packing and headed to the airport the next day.  To place this crime in context, the average weekly wage at the time was just over £8.

Knowing he was leaving the state, Leonard Johnson called in the authorities and had him detained.  Wearne pleaded not guilty, quietly repaid the money and the charges were dropped.  Wearne was now free to head to Melbourne and re-join the R.A.A.F.  But there was more than one stumbling block in the way.  The R.A.A.F didn’t want him anymore than the taxi industry did and although he had applied in Adelaide for a posting in Melbourne, Wearne settled in Sydney.

At that time many former service personnel were signing back up as jobs weren’t as bountiful as before the war.  To this end the armed services could afford to be picky and when Wearne’s application arrived his former commander was contacted for his comments.  “Teleprinter operator,” the report read. “Failed at EFTS as pilot. Although educational standard ok, past service reports do not impress as being suitable type.”  Not knowing this, Wearne went through the process of re-enrolling, pumping himself up as a business leader, a supervisor and generally a man in charge of lesser beings.

Wearne was given a time and date to attend a formal interview as part of the process, but didn’t make it, due to illness. The only difference it made to Wearne’s application was to give the R.A.A.F an easy way out. They informed Wearne that the quota was now full and they’d let him know if a vacancy arose in the future.

The RAAF formally rejects Wearne, January 1951
Now firmly entrenched in Sydney, Wearne formed a company called Realty Factors with himself as director.  Realty Factors purpose was to buy and sell land and buildings and to arrange loans and packages for interested parties.  In order to raise the necessary funds, Wearne brought in investors, one unknown in the form of William Duffy and others whose names Wearne did his best to keep out of the limelight.  Wearne had decided that, in order to get rich quick, cutting investment deals with shady individuals and criminals was a good option, as long as they remained silent partners and didn’t get upset.  One man who connected himself with Wearne was already known to a lot of people, especially the authorities, Abe Saffron.

Abraham ‘Abe’ Saffron, also known as Mr Sin, was already linked to organised crime in 1952 when Wearne joined forces with him.  Saffron, who always described himself as a property developer and nightclub owner, was a loan shark who wasn’t above using violence as a way to collect outstanding debts. He also had links to high political circles, and this would have appealed to Wearne, along with the promises of earning easy money as a front man.  In 1975 Saffron reached his zenith, so to speak, when he became embroiled with the disappearance and presumed murder of an anti-development campaigner, and newspaper publisher, Juanita Nelson, who was leading a public campaign against him.  Although suspected, there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Saffron and Nelson’s body was never found.

1953. Wearne finds himself mentioned in newspapers connected with notorious criminal Abe Saffron
That was in the future, but in 1953 the mention of Saffron’s name in any property deal was enough to have any licensing court asking serious questions.  Saffron’s own company, Macleay Enterprises, was in the process of being wound up due to court orders and Saffron himself was busily fronting court charged with giving false evidence to a Royal Commission.  Wearne was hauled before the Goulburn Licensing Court where his connections with Saffron were exposed.  While admitting that Saffron had been a member of the firm, Wearne stated that he was long gone and wouldn’t be admitted back in.  It was of no use, his name was linked to one of Sydney’s most notorious criminals. Saffron wasn’t the only underworld figure that Wearne worked with during this time.  He worked as a legitimate front man for several well-known criminals, using his skill as a baby-faced, articulate cleanskin to get his way, but Saffron was the first to be publicly linked with him, thus meaning his use as a front was now at an end.  His own front man, Leslie Davis, withdrew from Realty Factors and went it alone, finally being granted the hotel license that had been sought by Saffron.  Once free from the Realty-Saffron tangle, Wearne not only refused to talk about this period of his life, but would actively deny it had ever happened.

Once Jack Williamson's The Legion Of Space
appeared as a paperback novel
in Australia, Wearne
was exposed.
As was his wont in life, Wearne deflected attention by fleeing.  This time he flew back to Adelaide for his brother’s wedding.  Neil Wearne, who would later become an author in his own right, married his fiancée, Jeanne Simpson, at Scots Church in August, 1954. From there he went to back to Sydney and began to divide his time between there and Melbourne.

TOMORROW: Wearne Gets Married, Wearne Gets Divorced, Wearne Makes Money and Picks Fights He Cannot Win


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