Paul Wheelahan said he did well at school, but his father got him a job as an apprentice meat inspector in the meat works at Aberdeen, a country town 273 km north of Sydney – it was a job he hated. One day a friend in Aberdeen told him about an imaginative comic he’d seen in the Sunday Sun (a Sydney paper then owned by Associated Newspapers Ltd).
So the 16 year old Paul Wheelahan checked it out.
It was a Flash Gordon-style comic strip called Silver Starr in the Flameworld, by Stanley Pitt (which ran in the Sunday Sun until 1948). Mr Wheelahan said newspaper dynasties were built on comics back then, and the Sunday Sun had lost the publishing rights to Flash Gordon and wanted a similar replacement. So in 1946 Associated News Ltd had approached Stanley Pitt to create a similar adventure series.
Stan Pitt was a huge admirer of Alex Raymond, creator of Flash Gordon, whom Mr Wheelahan said was “the greatest comic artist of all time”.
Mr Wheelahan said Pitt had a milk run when Associated Newspapers Ltd called him to do the adventure series, so he put up with the “slings and arrows” he received for aping the Flash Gordon style.
Mr Wheelahan said he had started drawing by this time, too: at first stick figure comics, but he was evolving out of that by then. When he saw the new comic in the Sunday Sun he was inspired.
“I got a copy. I was an apprentice meat inspector; by that night I had decided to become a comics artist,” he said.
He decided to head to Sydney to see Stanley Pitt, and left home at 16. He found accommodation in Sydney and fronted up at the Sunday Sun.
He said Stan Pitt happened to be in the office that day, and he made him feel very welcome.
Pitt (born in 1925) was five years older than Wheelahan. They went off to get some coffee and talked for a couple of hours. “He was very obliging; I was thrilled,” Mr Wheelahan said. Mr Wheelahan said that after the meeting he would have gone back to Aberdeen, thinking that at least he’d met Stanley Pitt. But as Stan Pitt was walking away, he stopped and turned around. He told Paul Wheelahan that he and some others met in his studio every Sunday afternoon if Paul wanted to come and look at the drawings. So he went along, met some of Pitt’s family, and he and Pitt became best friends for the rest of Pitt’s life.
He said he and Stanley Pitt were different in many respects.
Stan Pitt “held a lot of fierce ideas”. He was “right of Ghengis Khan”, Paul was left-wing; Stan didn’t like Catholics, Paul was Catholic. He said they never talked about these topics, and that art and good times were what they had in common.
Stan Pitt hired Paul Wheelahan to ink his comics: Yarmak, and Captain Power which he was drawing for Young’s Merchandise, run by Charles Young.
When Pitt finished with Young’s he went to Cleveland Publishing to do covers for their westerns.
Then Paul Wheelahan went to meet Charles Young. He said Charles Young was an old-style country gentleman: educated, articulate and he liked a drink.
Mr Wheelahan had read a Life article on Davy Crockett, who was booming in America in the 1950s. Because Davy Crockett was real, no-one could hold the copyright on the character, so Mr Wheelahan did some drawings and showed them to Young. Then Mr Wheelahan joined Young’s, in 1955, drawing and writing the Davy Crockett, Frontier Scout, comic which boomed for two years.
Then Charles Young asked Mr Wheelahan if he had any other commercially viable ideas.
Paul Wheelahan said he knocked up a Panther drawing in a day and a half. The Panther resembled The Phantom, but was based on Tarzan by Burne Hogarth, and Mr Wheelahan wrote and drew 73 monthly issues. Following The Panther he did 10 issues of The Raven.
The Raven was a character who lived in a ruined castle in England, and had an evil brother Sebastian.
Paul Wheelahan ended up writing and drawing 120 comic books over 12 or 13 years for Young’s Merchandise.
Then in 1960 he created his character Rex Strong for Magazine Management.
He said he still sometimes received mysterious phone calls inviting him to comics conventions to talk about The Panther, and he liked to get the feedback on his work – even though one fan once told him she thought he was dead.
Eventually the run of the comics finished, due to the flood of imports of American comics, and Stan Pitt suggested the next phase of Paul Wheelahan’s career.
Stanley Pitt had been drawing and painting covers for Cleveland westerns for several years. Mr Wheelahan said Pitt drew thousands of covers for Cleveland Publishing.
Les Atkins, son of Cleveland founder Jack Atkins, said Stanley Pitt worked for Cleveland for more than 40 years, and only stopped drawing when he had a stroke and could no longer draw.
Stanley Pitt told Paul Wheelahan to come to Cleveland and be a writer. “Stan got me started in art and he got me started in writing,” Mr Wheelahan said.
“So apart from being my best mate he did a hell of a lot for me. When the comics folded he said, ‘Well, now it’s time you got on with your real vocation’. I said ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘Writing, of course’. I said, ‘I’m not a writer’. He said, ‘You’ve written 130 books or something, you’re a writer’. So, he always said I was a writer, so I went in and that’s it; they signed me up for ever.”
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-copyright Simon Sandall.