Review: 'The Phantom: The Complete Series: The Gold Key Years Volume Two'

The Phantom: The Complete Series: The Gold Key Years Volume Two

Dark Horse

$49.99, color, 256 pgs.

Writer: Bill Harris (where known)

Artists: Bill Lignante, Sparky Moore, Joe Certa

Covers: George Wilson

Collecting The Phantom #9-17 (Nov 64-Jul 66)

I'm afraid I can't be objective about this collection in the slightest: This book collects the Phantom comics I read around age 8 that made me a fan for life of The Ghost Who Walks.

I just freaking loved these comics as a boy. They were like nothing else on the stands -- or, rather, they were close enough to the superhero comics I loved to spark the same interest, but had a little extra "voom" that made them even better.

For one thing, I loved the concept, of a guy who unashamedly trades off a legend that he actively promotes. The Phantom would be dead in his first issue if it weren't for the mystique that terrifies the natives into helping him, the crooks into surrendering and the outside world into being very, very impressed. It's a mystique that the reader not only feels, but gets to share, since we're in the know. By sharing the secret, you feel special, as if you're on Team Phantom -- especially if you're 8!

And it's mostly plausible. The tricks The Phantom uses are things that I could have arranged myself, if I had thought of them. There author Bill Harris shows his chops, by rooting The Phantom in reality -- or, at least, a plausible, consistent, coherent comic-book reality. I drank most of this in without a second thought.

Then there's the art. The Gold Key covers were the best on the stands, thanks to painter George Wilson, and that worthy really hit his stride on this particular stretch of books. The editors selected one of the best for the cover of the book itself, of The Phantom clocking a pirate while a flare explodes in the background, but there are plenty more: The Phantom with arms pinned, while an executioner swing an axe at his unprotected neck; The Phantom tumbling down a snow-covered mountain after a jeweled crown while a criminal escapes laughing; The Phantom leaping from an exploding riverboat into the gaping mouths of crocodiles -- and clearly being nonplussed by this turn of events. Each of these covers were not only gorgeous, but they were almost always self-explanatory -- and exciting, provoking a lot of kids into forking over 12 cents to see what happened next.


The interior art is less splashy, but has always lurked in the back of my head as "how to do comics right." Bill Lignante's Phantom was very human-looking -- powerful, yes, but not an exaggerated physique; rugged, with a distinctive broken nose; normal, in that he had body hair (seen on the back of his exposed hands, but also elsewhere when circumstances removed his uniform). That latter was virtually unknown in the mid-1960s, when superheroes had no secondary sexual characteristics whatsoever! And while Lignante wasn't splashy, his storytelling was superb, with terrific staging and clean lines.

Now, as an adult, I can see some of the flaws in my childhood favorite, and I won't shy from mentioning them. For one, The Phantom's India (or Africa, or possibly a blend of the two), seemed to have no governments, being entirely composed of spear-wielding tribes. That wasn't the reality of India (or Africa) in the 1960s any more than it is now -- it seemed an American child's concept of India (or Africa), born of Lex Barker Tarzan movies. Law enforcement seemed entirely the work of the "Jungle Patrol," which was vaguely British but seemed to belong to no nation, and in retrospective really seemed to have no authority whatsoever -- especially since no one knew who their commander was. (The Phantom was the commander of course, who left secret messages to the Patrol in best 8-year-old, secret-club fashion -- and it would take morons not to know it was The Phantom doing that, since he always got involved.) When The Phantom went abroad, he didn't remove his uniform, he simply covered it with a trenchoat, hat and sunglasses -- which didn't really cover it very well at all, and it's difficult to believe no one ever said, "Hey, pal, what's with the purple thing on your head?" Also -- and this bothered me as a boy as well -- The Phantom's companion Devil is always referred to as a wolf by everyone, but is drawn like a German shepherd.

There are a couple more things an adult has to gloss over to enjoy these stories, but at this point I'm just nitpicking. Honestly, these are good, solid comics -- perhaps a little dated, but if you squint just right you can see the joy at the heart of them.

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...Apparently , in Falk's KFS strip even by then , the Phantom's Bangalla had been specified as a former British colony thqt was now independent , fo r being English-speaking .

  I think Falk was known to have said something like , " As I see it , the Phantom lives in a part of Africa - that becomes India five hundred miles in !!! " or so ! The older-guard creators didn't qite strive for the " realism " that we fans like !!!!!!!

  It is interesting that you refer to the Phantom " terrifying " the natives into helping him - Do you mean the " indigenous "/tribal black Africans who live in the Phantom's immediate vicinity ?

  I have read that a few of the very earliest KFS Phantom stories present the Phantom reigning as a " king " over that area..

  ...One " unspoken " aspect of the Phantom'ds world that I think could be used to explain how the Phantom crosses borders and has property in other countries ( Including Walker's Table , in the U.S.A. ) is that we can perhaps assume that the , generally-depicted , other child of each Phantom who, primogeniture-wise ,  does not succeed to the Phantom role takes on a more nornal life and marriage and helps arrange for all of this to be possible , we just don't see her/him !!!!!!!!! Of copurse , that leaves the question of how s/he explains the family background..." Yes , dear , we're Caucasin ASfricans who have lived there for centuries , but we're not plantation owners of slavers , CERTAINLY not pirates !!! Why , we hate all forms of piracy !!!..."

You raise some interesting points, Emerkeith, some of which I've thought about before.

I'd never seen that Lee Falk quote before -- I'd read that The Phantom was initially set in India, and gradually shifted to Africa over time, retaining Indian elements all the while. But the Falk quote is a much better -- and long-term -- explanation.

The Phantom DID scare many of the tribes, in the sense that they thought he was a magical being, and feared crossing him. So when The Phantom brokered a peace, the tribes involved followed the rules because they feared to cross The Phantom. There's two stories in this book where the natives cease to fear The Phantom, and war and chaos break out. Things settle down when The Phantom re-establishes that he is a magical being (and the most powerful one around). There is one tribe, the feared Bandar tribe, who know The Phantom's secret, and not only serve him willingly but work to perpetuate the myth. But the others trust and/or fear him.

As for The Phantom being a king, that isn't how he is presented here. He leaves the local tribes to select their own leaders, and only steps in if they step out of line. He acts more like an avenging god than a king -- he maintains the peace, but doesn't handle any day-to-day stuff.

As for owning property, The Phantom is incredibly wealthy, and owning property -- to maintain safehouses and HQs around the world and the like -- would make perfect sense, although that wasn't an element in the Gold Key or King Features comics. (I haven't read all the Charlton material yet, so maybe it appears there.) Anyway, your supposition that maybe Phantom siblings who didn't become Phantom themselves were set up elsewhere is a pretty good one.

I think so because I've often wondered what would happen if The Phantom's first-born had a birth defect or was a coward or wasn't capable or simply didn't want to be a Phantom. You only have to look at the history of any country's royal family to see how passing a crown from one generation to the next isn't always an easy thing, and often the children of a great king are a pretty pathetic lot. Also, are we to believe that for 21 generations the first-born of The Phantom's family has ALWAYS been a male? Since that's a 50/50 shot, it kicks suspension of disbelief in the shins.

Also, The Phantoms in the comics never seem to be in any hurry to spawn an heir, when they're in pretty dangerous jobs and could die at any time. It seems to me a big priority for any Phantom would be to launch a couple of kids at the beginning of the career just in case, but none of them do.

I understand that this is a convention of adventure stories -- heroes can't have kids, because it makes them lousy parents to run off and risk their lives all the time. But, within the conceit of the series, it's an obvious question.

So perhaps an answer -- related to your supposition, but never depicted -- is that maybe "The Phantom" isn't necessarily always a direct bloodline or necessarily dictated by primogeniture. Maybe if The Phantom dies without an heir, the Bandar simply find someone who can do the job and draft them. Or if the first-born is incompetent or female, The Phantom sets him or her up for life somewhere else, and selects a younger child to train (or if none of the children are worthy, someone else entirely). That would relieve the saga of the troubling problem of asking us to believe that somehow each Phantom ALWAYS has a competent, willing first-born male to take on the job, plus it widens the pool for the future. That is to say, if The Phantom is dissatisfied with all of his own children when selecting a successor, he would have various relatives around the world whose families might produce a potential Phantom.

I'm talking through my hat -- or my purple cowl -- since I've never seen any of this even hinted at in any Phantom stories. Even the ones with a female Phantom usually explain her as a twin or younger sister of the male Phantom of the time, a girl who just fills in occasionally when the male is out of town or injured.

But nothing I've read has indicated that it isn't true, or if it has -- well, it could be a lie. Maybe The Phantom has to explain the female Phantom as his younger sister or subordinate twin, as perhaps he lives in a very macho area where a female Phantom wouldn't be accepted. Where the truth COULD be that she is an older sister, or even his wife, but he can't admit to it. After all, the Myth needs to be maintained, since that's crucial to his effectiveness.

This is one of those series that if they did a book of just the covers I would buy it instantly. The only CGC comic I ever bought was a Phantom comic (it was dirt cheap) I used to have it displayed on my mantel.

Captain Comics said:

Even the ones with a female Phantom usually explain her as a twin or younger sister of the male Phantom of the time, a girl who just fills in occasionally when the male is out of town or injured.

Moonstone did a story a couple of years ago with a female Phantom and that was the wife of whichever Phantom is was at the time (I forget which one, maybe even Kit. I don't remember, and I don't own it anymore to check). It was one of my favorite issues they did.

I have a bunch of Moonstone issues -- I'll check to see if I have it. Or can get it.

I did find the name at least: Julie Walker: The Phantom. If you do find it you can tell me how far off I was.

I looked, and I have Moonstone's The Phantom #1-18, the first six issues of The Phantom: Generations and one issue (#6, mysteriously) of The Phantom: The Ghost Who Walks. Next time I buy some back issues, you bet I'll look for Julie Walker.

This is one series (or three, as Hermes Press would have it) that I have purposefully allowed myself to fall behind reading, because their respective Gold Key and King and Charlton collections were released out of order. I have, recently, begun a Phantom reading project, however, beginning with the first collection of Sunday newspaper strips.

I can confirm that, at least originally, the Phantoms ancestor was shipwrecked in the Bay of Bengal. Other geographic references put the Skull Cave 100 or so miles inland from Calcutta, in India or maybe Bangladesh. I know from reading the daily strips, though, that the geography and flora and fauna are far from consistent. That quote about Africa becoming a part of India 500 miles in is probably not too far from the mark.

In the 1980s, the Phantom and his wife had fraternal twins: a boy and a girl. I don’t know how the story played out, but I do know it wasn’t popular with the fans. Much akin to Brenda Starr taking the mystery out of her “mystery man” by marrying Basil St. John, so too did domestic scenes of the Phantom changing diapers detract from his allure. Me, I liked it. I wouldn’t mind see what someone like John Byrne would do with the concept in a comic book.

...I believe the first Phantom-Earth KFSs had him in " Dutch East India " - as Indonesia was called then .

...Except for issues #11-13 (and super-shorties in #1 and 10) , all the stories in the Gold Key issues were remakes of specific stories in the Lee Falk/KFS strip , the Australian Deep Woods site backs me up on this , I'll give more detail/info if you'd lik

An early story had the Phantom appearing with smoke and razzmatazz out of a hole in the ground to scare the natives and they did think him a god.  Although Falk had all the daft colonialist notions of his time, I credit him with learning quickly and adapting slightly ahead of the curve as times changed.  Even though that was a very early story, Falk told people soon after it that he regretted taking that approach with the character and changed the status quo so that the Phantom was just a mysterious, tough guy, an undying 'ghost who walks'. 

 

I would say more like a quasi-supernatural one-man police-force than an 'avenging god', although that's there too to some extent.  Unfortunately, some of the dodgy colonialist aspects of the Phantom are just too intrinsic to the character to do away with, so we do have a white guy lording it over the natives.  So much of it is handled so well, however, that I give the Phantom a pass for much of it.  Its heart is in the right place most of the time.

 

Something to consider in the whole Asia/Africa thing is the wonderful Phantom goes to War storyline from 1942 or so.  It's the Japanese that the Phantom marshalls the jungle tribes against, showing pretty concusively that his protectorate was in SE Asia somewhere.

 

I've said elsewhere that Papua New Guinnea might be the best place to locate early Phantom adventures, as the tribes there look very like the tribes-people in the early comics, and parts of it are still very remote.  They have very black-African features and 'afro-style' hair and certainly don't look 'Indian' as we commonly think of modern people from India.  Although perhaps in the jungles of SE Asia there are also indigenous peoples who look very 'black-African'.  I visited a village in a remote jungle part of Malaysia where the people all looked like they'd stepped out of a Spike Lee film

 

To my mind, (tigers and lions appearing in the same frame notwithstanding), Falk changed the location to Africa over time, probably in the 50s or 60s.  It'd be interesting to note when exactly the spelling of the country changed from the Asian sounding Bengali, to the African-sounding Bengalla

 

I suspect that Africa became a popular setting during the 60s.  As its countries acheived independance one-by-one and as it became a glamourous place that people became interested in, I think Africa rose in popular esteem.  I'd take John Wayne making a safari movie, and Elvis decorating one of the rooms in his house as the 'Jungle Room', to be little signs that the glamourisation of Africa was a hallmark of the times.  (Also movements like 'Black Power' in the US, and events like Ali's 'Rumble in the Jungle')

.

In my lifetime that dissipated, as the newly independent countries lost their way and Africa became synonymous with 'failed states' and apartheid, but perhaps anyone reading who lived through the 60s-70s can back me up about Africa's rising place in pop culture at the time, as I'm sayng this was a factor in Falk relocating the series there?

I'm glad to hear that the Gold Key comics are based on Falk's originals.  Falk was a master storyteller when he was on -form.

 

There's also the 'cononicity' of the stories.  Isn't it better to have the guy who created the character writing his adventures over the decades?  Even though he changes continents and ages very slowly, it's still incontrivertably the same character from his first appearance to Falk's last scripted story in the 90s, with the character's career mapped out as one arc up to that point.

 

Even then the King Features Syndicate strips quickly became written by a single writer-artist team that continues to this day, although Paul Ryan now only does the Sunday strips.

 

I've never seen the Gold Key comics, but to be honest, I pity anyone reading the Phantom stories without Ray Moore's fine pulp artistry, and especially without Sy Barry's incredibly sophisticated, detailed art.  Even Wilson McCoy's art, sometimes derided as crude and simplistic, has a charm and clarity that I love.

 

And Falk's strips are full of little touches that I'm not sure those adapting his strips into comicbooks would be able to transfer.  There's much warmth, humour and humanity when Falk writes the Phantom in his cave with his family and the Pygmy tribespeople that he lets down his guard with.  Falk constantly shows us that the natives in his strips, even the villians, are people too.  We see them bickering with each other over little things and making little mistakes as they go about their business.  Falk also frequently subverts our notions of what tribespeople are like, sometimes revealing that some of them are very well-educated and sophisticated.

 

(I'm currently in the middle of this year's Phantom Annual, mainly full of Sy Barry's work, so my admiration for the Falk-Barry strips is pumped up again.)

Woah, be careful there, Figs...

I'm not certain that I would link the rise of the Black Panthers to a rise in popularity of Africa.

 

Whoah yourself!  ;-)  I said 'Black Power' not 'Black Panthers'.

 

Part of Black Power was just African Americans reclaiming their pride in their African heritage and learning more about it and celebrating it.  A lot of that spilled over to liberal white people (like Falk and Kirby and Lee) who also took an interest in Africa, partly because it had become one focal point (of many) of the progressive agenda of the times.

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