Review: The Phantom daily strips 1943-45 collection

The Phantom: The Complete Newspaper Dailies: Volume Five 1943-45

Reprinting "The Phantom" daily newspaper strips 1943-45

Writer: Lee Falk

Artist: Wilson McCoy

Hermes Press, $49.99, color, 272 pages

I am absolutely loving these collections, and this is the first that has offered me a story that I didn't love. And the whys of that are educational.

What's cool about The Phantom is that ... well, he's just really cool. He's never ruffled, he's never without a plan, he's always the strongest and most prepared man in the room -- and he never does anything directly. He just quietly goes about his business, capturing criminals, punishing pirates, and so forth, without taking any credit or stepping into the spotlight.

He never even calls himself "The Phantom"! He only refers to himself as "a friend" or something. He just does his job, lets other people decide who he is, and allows the legend to grow. He never takes credit, or lies to anyone about who he is, or even claims his own title. He's "Mr. Walker," and if you want to call him "The Phantom," that's your business.

It's very Batman-ish. Which makes sense, as both characters come from an era that gave rise to hundreds of other "creatures of the night" and "mystery men." Heck, even Green Lantern -- the original, garish, green-red-purple-yellow Green Lantern -- was described as a "weird figure" who was more ghost than man when introduced in 1940. It was de rigeur at the time for heroes to be eerie, to be mysteries, to be ghosts ... to be phantoms.

But only two characters have really survived from that era as "weird creatures of the night," and those two are Batman and The Phantom. The former has really grown into the role and become Exhibit A for the genre. The other did it another way, a way that's equally cool but entirely different.

Because The Phantom doesn't act like a creature of the night. He just uses his reputation as such, because, hey, it's useful. But what he's really doing is having fun. A lot of fun, and we get to have that fun with him.

Which is what we see in the first story in this collection, where The Phantom is in the USA to propose to his girlfriend. (That's right: No Lois Lane rigamarole here, he's going to marry the girl he loves, because The Phantom has the resources to protect everyone he loves, and he isn't worried a bit about criminal revenge. After all, he's got a tribe of killer pygmies with poison blowguns to protect his bride, so he's not really worried about bad guys, you know? Feel free to take notes, Mr. Kent.)

But five killers with life sentences escape from jail, threatening a reign of terror with nothing to lose, and The Phantom veers from his personal mission to do his job, which is to save lives and help people. He isn't worried what Diana Palmer will think, because he expects his girlfriend to understand his job and his character -- and, amazingly, she does. She reads the newspaper about how someone is capturing killers, and says "That's my guy!" and settles back on the couch to listen to the radio until her man is through with his day job to come and marry her. How refreshing!

And then commences a delightful story, one typical of the screwball comedies of the time ... only with guns and killers. The Phantom doesn't just capture the five killers: He terrorizes them. He toys with them, he scares the bejesus out of them, he whisks away their hostages, he sabotages their cars, he foils all their vulgar and violent plans ... and not only doesn't allow them to succeed at anything they try to do, he doesn't even let them see him. By the end of it -- SPOILER! -- the hardest, meanest, toughest killer of the bunch is wetting his pants so bad he surrenders to the cops. Scared spitless of a man he's never even seen.

That was so much fun. THAT is what's so cool about The Phantom. He doesn't act like Batman -- he just suggests that he could, and lets the imaginations of his foes defeat themselves.

Which is why the last story in this collection is so dissatisfying. It almost flies in the face of what works in the first story. In this story, a criminal mastermind decides to frame The Phantom for the crimes he pulls.

First: What? Nobody's supposed to know squat about The Phantom! But, OK, there's a reason for that,* so let it go. But, still, how can he know so much about The Phantom's procedures that he can mimic them? And, further, how can he trust that the cops also know those procedures well enough that they will ascribe them to The Phantom, who is -- DUH! -- The Phantom. Nobody's supposed to know about him! Why would big-city cops see a skull-ring mark and say, "Well, gosh, that's the mark of The Phantom, from India/Africa! We shouldn't look for local crooks, we should look for this legend nobody's ever seen before!"

Second, the crooks succeed at their task, until The Phantom gets involved. Great! Now, like the first story, The Phantom will outsmart these guys and make them look like fools without ever being seen! Here he goes, and ... whoops!

The Phantom charges directly in, loses the fight, is left unconscious, and gets arrested.

Wait, what? No. NO, NO, NO! The Phantom does not fight this stupidly! The Phantom does not get arrested! The Phantom does not get unmasked!

(Well, actually, he doesn't get unmasked, because NOBODY ever sees The Phantom's face but Diana, not even the reader. But it isn't explained how the cops fail to take his mask off. How does a masked guy get arrested, and not get unmasked? Man, this is SO not a Phantom story.)

I won't pursue this any further, because I'm too depressed. But let me state again that the first 3/4 of the book are great Phantom stories, as are the previous four volumes. This is fun stuff!

Well, except for the last story. Skip that one.

* The Phantom is actually known to the Western world in this volume, because in the last one he heroically stopped the Japanese from taking over Bengali, which at the time was somewhere on the India/Burma border. That made the higher-ups in Allied Command aware of him (and grateful to him), and the newspapers ran a lot of hoo-hah about "The Phantom Hero of Bengali" that The Phantom always corrects as "no, it was the local black guys who did all the fighting and dying who are the heroes." In 1943! Anyway, he avoids ever being directly identified, and when word gets out that "The Hero of Bengali" is coming to America, he bails out of his plane and leaves the press guessing. It's really not Phantom-like that anyone should know about him AT ALL, but I forgive this breach of Phantom protocol because it was 1943, and the Allies were losing badly on every front, and Falk let his hero be conscripted for morale purposes. But, in general, The Phantom should be a legend in pirate dens and criminal barrooms, not the fodder of newspapers headlines.

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NOBODY ever sees The Phantom's face but Diana

Not to be nitpicky, Cap, but quite a few people have seen, or would see, the Phantom's face. Up to the point where this volume ends that includes, besides Diana:

The Sand Hermit (The Slave Traders, reprinted in Volume II of the Hermes set)
Suzie (The Governor and Suzie, reprinted in this volume).

There would be more in the years to come but I'm adding no spoilers.

And yes, that last tale makes little sense.

Have you read the Governor and Suzie Cap? That story is a cracker.  Something of a masterpiece for intense pacing and some great set pieces, as well as the Phantom's unmasking scene at the end.  It was probably the best story in an annual I sent out to some of the Legionnaires over the last year.

I've been reading classic Phantom stories for about 13 years now, and I think I've read both the stories you mention above.  Yes, I did have a problem with some of the things you mentioned in the weaker story, but it didn;'t prevent my enjoyment of it.  For some reason I cut the Phantom a lot of slack.  For one thing , the Phantom might cultivate a fearsome superhuman reputation, but he is far from infallible.  Many stories feature the baddies getting the drop on him, and tying him up etc.

And then, the backstory/set-up/story elements change practically from story to story.  It's up to the reader to enjoy the story in hand.  The most famous change is moving the action from Asia to Africa, but there are lots of smaller details that Falk changed from story to story.  He wrote a few origins of the Phantom where the details are different in each.  There's a character called the Emperor Joonkar whose name never seems to be spelled the same way twice.  So the Phantom being completely unknown outside the Jungle in one story and a famous masked man in another is par for the course.

Finally, there might also be a get-out in that I believe the Phantom was ghost-written for a time during the War, when Lee Falk worked for the War dept or in the army.  The ghost might even have been Alfred Bester.  So maybe that explains the sudden change in quality for you.  The timing looks about right.

That sounds like a reasonable theory, Figs. Wonder if there's any record of who did what in the war years ... ?

As to The Phantom unmasking, I don't remember the Sand Hermit story, but in "The Governor" he unmasked as a last wish for a character who was going to die. (Same principle as the much-beloved "The Boy Who Collected Spider-Man.") While I haven't read every Phantom story extant, my general sense is that no one who LIVES ever sees The Phantom unmasked except Diana, including, as I said, the reader -- in scenes where The Phantom is bathing or otherwise undressed, a convenient shadow always falls across his face. If on some occasion there was a mistake on that score I'd call it simply that, because Falk's clear intent was to never reveal his face.

The yearly square-bound collections have some glossary on the background to the classic stories.  Most of what I know about the process of producing the strips comes from them.  The writer/publisher, Jim Shepherd, is a long-time fan and scholar of all things Phantom and has met Falk several times and discussed the series with him at length. 

 

BTW - It also becomes part of the in-story myth, exactly as you state, that no-one from outside his innermost circle can see the Phantom's true face and LIVE! So if a baddie actually does see the Phantom's face, you can bet he's not long for this world.

 

All of the things that you state as being great about Falk's conception of the Phantom above are being maintained beautifully by the current creative team, whilst still making some allowances for the 21st Century setting.  Currently the Phantom keeps in touch with his kids via skype when globe-trotting, and they are naturally much better at it than him.

 

It really is a shame if there aren't collections of the recent newspaper strips available in America.

 

For what it's worth, the editorials of the Australian magazines note that a few of the recent tales were prolonged as a result of favourable feedback from newspapers and their readers, which is somewhat heartening and going against the current gloomy grain of how newspaper strips are faring.  Is Phantom the last adventure serial?

One line from "The Governor and Suzie" made me laugh out loud, so I made a mental note to tell my wife the next day.

Suzie: "It's amazing how little peroxide it takes to turn a man's head."

True then, true now.

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