The Legacy of Phillip Wearne
BY DANIEL BEST
Phillip Wearne is largely forgotten these days in Australian comic book circles.
He produced a total of four comic books and it’s the circumstances around those books that are fascinating. Although Wearne should rightly be remembered as being a pioneer in the comic book field, a man who was savvy enough to co-publish and retain the rights to his work at the age of 17, he is generally dismissed as being both a plagiarist and a hack.
Away from comic books his life was even more colourful; he was accused of theft, forced into bankruptcy, contested a divorce that saw the presiding magistrate seek advice from the Federal Attorney General to have the law changed and launched a one-man crusade against Scientology, one of the first such crusades in Australia. He was intelligent, egotistical and subversive, the former kept him one step ahead of people, and the latter two traits saw him classed as a crackpot by ASIO. He crossed paths with politicians, millionaires, criminals, spies, the mental health industry and publishing…and along the way he rarely looked back.
The oldest son of Horace and Gladys Wearne, Phillip Bennett Wearne was born on September 19, 1925. 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. The school itself 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.
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 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 often 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 impressive artwork to go with it, even more impressive when you realise that he was only seventeen years old at the time. Wearne’s artistic shortcuts were highly effective. Not wanting to create new characters, he based the cast on famous film starts such as Edward G Robinson, Gary Cooper, Raymond Massey and others. Once finished Wearne approached a customs importer that he’d been working part time for named Henry ‘Harry’ Hoffmann.
Henry Edward Hoffmann, who was at times called Harry to distinguish himself from his father, also named Henry, was born at 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.
Hoffmann returned to Adelaide and settled down to a quiet life as a customs import agent, which was interrupted in 1932 when his eldest son Reginald, passed away from illness, in the Women’s and Children’s Hospital aged 15. Tragedy again struck the Hoffmanns when another son, Lyall, fell out of the back of a truck that he was playing, 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.
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 believed that such a publishing venture was more likely to succeed than to fail. 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 was 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 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 moved 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 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.
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 Grey, 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, his entry was deferred until he turned 18, 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 Doug Maxted later remember, “According to Hoffman, Phil was throwing his weight around and holding up production.” The result was a win for Maxted though, who moved up the pecking order and quickly emerged as Hoffmann’s number one artist. Maxted was faster than Wearne, was more agreeable and happier to work with and he had another major advantage, he wasn’t going to war. Wearne was called up in mid-December, 1943. He could no longer avoid it, he was going to serve.
The R.A.A.F were about to discover what Hoffmann had already found out, Wearne wasn’t all that he presented himself as being. Describing himself as a ‘cartoon book publisher’, Wearne completed his ground training without distinction. He had proven to the R.A.A.F 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.
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 pilots came out of Point Cook, including noted Australian aces Nicky Barr and Bill Newton, but Wearne wasn’t one of them.
Wearne failed Elementary Flying School miserably. He trained in a de Havilland 82 and logged 10 hours flying, as a co-pilot. He 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. He wasn’t technical enough, he couldn’t judge height, he was throttle shy and jerked the rudder. Even worse, it was discovered that Wearne became airsick when flying, a death sentence for a potential pilot.
Wearne was promptly shuffled off to Bradford Park, NSW, in order to be trained as a clerk or a recorder. He began a correspondence with Hoffmann over the ownership of The Space Legionnaires, which was first registered as a co-ownership, between Hoffmann and Wearne on November 5, 1943. 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. On September 30, 1944, Hoffmann had contacted the Registrar of Copyrights and relinquished any and all connection with Wearne’s work, and contacted Wearne handing over the copyright in full. On October 30, 1945, Wearne swore a Statutory Declaration and claimed full ownership of the works in question in January, 1945.
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.
Wearne’s comic book, T.N. Sheehy wrote, would earn him the sum of £30019. 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.
When Wearne was finally released, in October, 1945. Initially returning to Adelaide, he was forced to leave after an embarrassing incident20 which saw him move to Sydney in December, 1949. It was here that Wearne met 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. Disowned by his abusive father, Ezra’s mother, Ada, fought in 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 his Legion of Space newspaper strip appear in Ryan’s copious notes.
Newspaper strip aside, Wearne had something that would have interested Norton – two completed comic books which he could have for very little outlay. Wearne was able 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 Williamsons 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.
Although Wearne no longer worked in the comic book industry, he had, in his short period, managed to do what others before and since have long thought impossible – he fought the publisher and regained the copyrights and complete control over his work.
At the time this was an unprecedented move and one that should have signalled to others in the industry that, no matter what kind of a contract a person might have signed to get their work published, with enough persistence and tenacity, one could, eventually, regain their work.
However Wearne’s efforts went unnoticed. In John Ryan’s landmark book, Panel By Panel, all of Wearne’s work is noted as being copyrighted to Hoffmann. Even Hoffmann’s family believed that they owned the rights to work done by Wearne, in addition to work done by Max Judd and Doug Maxted. While it might have been true that the ownership of the work was clouded after Wearne’s passing in 1970 and Hoffmann’s passing in 1972 and the subsequent disposal of both men’s correspondence and contracts, records that still exist in the National Archives of Australia show the paper trail of ownership.
However, instead of being recognised as a pioneer, Wearne faded into comic book obscurity, and his name was mentioned in derogatory terms as it became clear that his efforts amounted to nothing short of deliberate plagiarism.
In 1978 John Ryan began work on Panel By Panel. In it he first described Wearne’s book as follows. “The storyline of The Legion of Space owed nothing to the book by the same name, written by U.S. author Jack Williamson.” Ryan noted that this comment was problematic and later highlighted the claim and wrote, “Not!” next to it.
In an undated article, The Other Tales of Hoffmann, Ryan didn’t hold back. “Like Jack Williamson’s story of the same name, Legion of Space, has science fiction as its theme. (Some years later, in one of a series of Legion of Space comics published by Invincible Press, Wearne was to heavily plagiarize Williamson’s original story.).
This commentary by Ryan ignores the achievements of Wearne in the field of copyright but, to be fair to Ryan, he would have had no idea of what Wearne had accomplished, as nobody was alive who knew the full story.
The rest of Wearne’s life reads like an amazing adventure story. He attempted to re-join the RAAF only to be rejected due to him being, “…full of self-importance.” He had dealings with Abe ‘Mr Sin’ Safforn, got caught up in many property deals, ingrained himself with the Australian Labor Party and battled the Scientology Organisation to the ground in the 1960s, causing a Royal Commission into the church that saw them facing a ban. He had encounters with ASIO and the CIA and was insistent that he’d been approached by both agencies to become a spy. He made a fortune and lost it just as quickly, he married twice, at one point maintaining a wife in Sydney and a full time mistress in Melbourne. Wearne’s life after comics reads like an impossible story itself.
Even Wearne’s death in 1970 proved to be just as mysterious as his life. Rumours have long since circulated that Wearne died after a savage beating in Kings Cross, that he was assassinated by either ASIO or the Scientology organisation, both of which he battled throughout the 1960s. The truth is more mundane and pointed towards Wearne’s issues with drinking and drug taking.
On March 3, 1970, Wearne was found by his second wife, Jillaine, unresponsive in their bed. An ambulance attended but could not resuscitate him. Wearne was taken to the Prince of Wales Hospital where he died four days later, on March 7, without regaining consciousness. Wearne was laid to rest at the Roman Catholic Cemetery at Botany in Sydney’s outer suburbs on the 11th of March. He was 44 years old. The death certificate listed his occupation as ‘pensioner’.
An autopsy was carried out and, as the death was drug related, an inquest was held on the 17th of August, but the findings were inconclusive. The coroner found that Wearne had, “Died from the effects of poisoning due to Methaqualome following his admission to that hospital on 3rd March, 1970, from 21 Wood Street Randwick, but wether (sic) accidentally ingested or otherwise the evidence adduced does not enable me to say.” Nowhere in the coroners findings is a beating mentioned, only a drug overdose, which may have been accidental, or purposely administrated in an attempt at suicide.
Henry Edward Hoffmann retired from the publishing industry in 1947, citing competition and the lack of suitable paper to print on. He went back to his role as a Customs Agent and passed away in 1972. After his death, his widow, Gladys, sold the family house in Largs Bay and moved to a smaller, self-contained unit, located in nearby Cheltenham. During the move all of the paperwork associated with his publishing venture was thrown out, including original art, comic books, contracts and more.
The truth is that Wearne, for all his flaws, and there were certainly many of them, got himself caught up in a whirlpool which he couldn’t get out of. But, from the young man who, aged 17, managed to produce a comic book, through to the man he became, Wearne’s worst enemy was himself. He managed to do more in his 44 years than most people would ever manage to do, more is the pity that he didn’t stick to the comic books. It might not have been as lucrative, but it would have been safer.
Much of this work has been adapted from Best, Daniel. (2015). The strange, strange story of Phillip Wearne. [St Peters, South Australia]: Blaq Books. This book is recommended for anyone who wishes to know more about Phillip Wearne’s life, both before and after his comic book career.
Other books referenced in this article:
Shiell, Annette. & Stone, Mick. (1998). Bonzer : Australian comics 1900-1990s. Redhill South, Vic : Elgua Media
Ryan, John. (1979). Panel by panel : a history of Australian comics. Stanmore, New South Wales : Cassell Australia