Hermes brings multiple eras of 'The Phantom' back to print

By Andrew A. Smith

Scripps Howard News Service

My introduction to Lee Falk’s “The Phantom” was in comic books, not the syndicated comic strip. Thanks to Hermes Press, you can experience both at the same time.

 

“The Phantom” is the great grand-daddy of costumed heroes, first appearing as a newspaper comic strip in 1936 in the now-traditional skintight costume, and a mask where white shows where the eyes ought to be. (Superman didn’t appear in his circus suit for two more years, and Batman, with his pupil-less eyes, debuted in 1939.) For the record, The Phantom’s creator intended for the character’s outfit to be gray – Falk even considered calling him “The Grey Ghost” – but a printer’s error resulted in the familiar, albeit impractical, purple suit.

 

The color was one of the things that mesmerized me as a kid, when I stumbled across Gold Key’s The Phantom, which ran from 1962 to 1966. I wondered: “Why purple?” And also: “Where is he?” Sometimes The Phantom’s jungle adventures seemed to be in India, sometimes Africa. (For the record, the strip was set in India in the 1930s, but The Phantom’s fictional country of Bengali gradually shifted to Africa by the 1960s, and has been there ever since.)

 

But what’s coolest about The Phantom is the mythology that Falk spun around “The Ghost Who Walks.” The Phantom is actually a family, with the purple long-johns and mission to fight “piracy, greed, cruelty and injustice” passed on from father to son. Given that there has always been a Phantom going back to 1536, even after witnesses have seen a Phantom get killed, a legend has sprung up that he is immortal – “The Man Who Cannot Die.” The current Phantom, the 21st, lives in a cool Skull Cave in “the Deep Woods,” has a loyal army of pygmies with poison arrows, anonymously commands the Jungle Patrol (a law-enforcement outfit) and has never revealed his face to anyone outside his immediate circle. He’s probably the wealthiest man on the planet,  has a wolf and a huge white horse for partners, terrorizes bad guys and is married (as of 1977) with two kids. That’s a very cool gig.

 

Hermes Press began reprinting the original comic strip in a hardback collection in 2009, and to my delight I discovered that those old strips were vastly entertaining. They’re sort of a cross between a screwball comedy and movie serials – hardly a surprise given their 1930s origins -- whose tone is that of gleeful, barely controlled chaos, a feeling the Indiana Jones movies captured so well. (That also seems to have been the tone attempted in the 1996 Phantom movie with Billy Zane, which I quite enjoyed, even if the critics didn’t.) “The Phantom: The Complete Newspaper Dailies” is approaching volume four, with collections of the color Sunday strips (which began in 1939) beginning soon.

 

But as I said, it wasn’t those strips that made me a phan. It was, instead, the 1960s Phantom comic book published by Gold Key. Hermes is also reprinting those, with the first volume already out ($49.99). It will be followed not only by additional Gold Key volumes, but also collections from the publishers who followed Gold Key, King Comics (1966-69) and Charlton (1969-77).

 

I recently read a review castigating the Gold Key adventures as boring. And maybe they are a little sedate, especially if you’ve read the comic strips on which they’re based. But they were fascinating to me in the 1960s, and some of the magic remains.

 

First were the arresting covers, painted by Gold Key veteran George Wilson – no other comic book at the time had anything like them. The inside art was by journeyman Bill Lignante, who wasn’t flashy but got my attention anyway. For one thing, his Phantom had a very distinctive face, one that eventually would sport a hawk-like nose that had obviously been broken more than once. For another, The Phantom had body hair (as evidenced by the back of his hands). Those were realistic touches other comics wouldn’t dare use for years to come.

 

If it’s newer stories you want, the current “Phantom” comic strip features the 22nd Phantom being trained by his dad, the one who’s been around since the ‘60s. Dynamite Entertainment publishes various comic books starring the 22nd Phantom as an adult, and those are often released as trade paperbacks.

 

They’re good, but I’m still partial to the older stories. And thanks to Hermes Press, those ghosts still walk!

 

Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com.

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Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on January 13, 2012 at 6:42pm

...I believe there have been DISTINCT variation in the color , and shade , of the Phantom's cpstume even within US publications !

( Check - I assume that it's still active . - www.deepwoods.org for MUCH more detail .

  I have seen a version of the first Gold Key cover that is ( I believe ) used above with a red-costumed Phantom...and , somehow , I rcall seeing versions - Perhaps from the King Comics years ? - of the costume that at least shaded to a more green tone , if not actually color .

  Even a few years ago , following it on the Web , the daily and Sunday strips , which maintain seperate continuitys ( Is the Phantom the last " adventure " continuity strip - Arguably first-ever continuity strip Gasoline Alley is in a different catergory , so to speak . - to do this ??? ) , and had different artists at that time , had rather different shadings to the Phantom's costume's color at that time , I didtinctly remember this .

  Is that THE LAST PHANTOM American funnybook still being published ?

Comment by Captain Comics on January 13, 2012 at 7:18pm

The Phantom is different colors in  some countries, Emerkeith, which I didn't get into in this article (since it's irrelevant). In the past I've done whole columns on it, though, so I've done the research. For example, The Phantom wears a dark blue costume in Scandinavian countries, and a red one in Mediterranean countries. I've seen Spanish reprints with him in red, and I'd bet that extends to some Spanish-speaking countries in South America. I'm not sure what color he is in Australia, but there's at least one cover where he's lime-green, and I'm told he wears a brownish color in New Zealand.

Comment by Luke Blanchard on January 13, 2012 at 7:25pm

Purple on the covers here. The stories are always B&W.

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on January 14, 2012 at 12:49pm

Posted to the main board December 12, 2011:

The first volume of “The Complete Gold Key collection” (to be followed by complete King and Charlton Collections) shipped last week. I cannot remember whether my first exposure to the character was issue #22 of the King series or the Captain Action doll, but Phantom #22 was released in 1967, so I would have been no older than three years old in either case. The mantle of “The Ghost Who Walks” has been passed down from father to son for 400 years, but what admittedly little Phantom continuity (in comic strips or comic books) I’ve read over the years hasn’t dealt with the transition from father to son, although I do remember a sequence from the ‘80s (I think) in which Kit Walker and Diana Palmer were the parents of fraternal twins, a boy and a girl. I remember fans of the day complaining that the Phantom is an action/adventure hero and shouldn’t be shown changing diapers.

With the dual series from Hermes Press, it’s not too difficult to imagine that the comic strips are the adventures of the father and the comic books are the adventures of the son. The first volume presents the first eight issues, most of which feature two stories each (except #1 and #8, so you get 14 stories total). Issues #5-7 present a three-part “Boyhood of the Phantom” story, and the full-length story in issue #8 picks up from there, telling the story of the transition from one Phantom to the next. The timeline they establish doesn’t quite work, but if you ignore one (of two) lines of dialogue, everything slips into place.

I originally acquired my first issue Phantom in a three-pack with Mandrake and Flash Gordon. I (fairly recently) re-acquired those specific issues of Mandrake and Flash Gordon, but I have yet to find The Phantom. I can hardly wait until this series of reprints gets up to #22!

Comment by Captain Comics on January 14, 2012 at 5:11pm

Your story is much like mine, Jeff -- My first issue was #9 or #10 of the Gold Key run, so everything in the first volume was new to me. IIRC, the issues I had are a little more exciting than these, and Lignante really refines his "look" for the main character, all of which made me really love the book. When the franchise switched to King, my local pharmacy no longer carried it -- it didn't carry any King books -- so I assumed it was canceled. I'm delighted to fill in those gaps now. (I suspect the King books are of lesser quality than the Gold Key run, as that was the case with most books that went that route, like Flash Gordon, but what the heck. Also, at some point in the Charlton run a young Jim Aparo took over the art chores, and I have a few of those and am looking forward to seeing the rest.)

Also, if I recall correctly, there are back-up stories in later issues about previous Phantoms. There's one that makes the cover, I think, or maybe it's a flashback, of an earlier Phantom sliding/falling down a snow bank trying to grab a jeweled crown. I don't really remember the story, so I may be wrong. But I really loved those Gold Key Phantoms as a kid, and am looking forward to future volumes, even those containing stories I already have.

Also, I think I mentioned in the story that all Phantom stories until recently were of the 21st Phantom, but the current Dynamite books have updated to the 22nd Phantom, while the Phantom 2040 books featured the 26th. Like you, I pretend that the transition from 21st to 22nd happened some time ago, as it's unlikely Kit Walker could have been the Ghost Who Walks for 50-60 years. Where and when that happened, we can simply imagine.

Complicating that are the stories establishing that Diana Palmer had fraternal twins, a girl and a boy. When we see the twins, that story absolutely has to be the 21st Phantom. I don't have any of the Dynamite issues, so I don't know if the twins continue, but I hope they do. In fact, I've often wondered why all the Phantoms we've seen had exactly one offspring, a boy, who took over at age 21 or so. That seems pretty chancy to me! If I were The Phantom, I'd have lots of kids, and train them all -- not only to have spares, but having more than one Phantom in different locations at the same time would simply add to the legend. Getting back to the twins, I think a matched set of Phantoms -- one girl, one boy -- would make for some cool stories.

One thing I really like about the 1930s comic strips -- not just the Phantom, but all the adventure strips -- is that they're set in a world where there were still huge, unexplored areas. Falk could write about "Deep Woods" in 1930s India, while I don't think that's really possible any more. Ditto with the likes of Captain Easy and Tarzan, who are forever finding lost civilizations and hidden cities, which is no longer plausible.

In fact, as a thought experiment, I've wondered how The Phantom would operate today, and it couldn't possibly be like his ancestors. For one thing, the "Deep Woods" -- even after being re-located to Africa -- would be shrinking daily and in constant danger from developers. And he wouldn't be fighting poachers and diamond smugglers, but armies of drug-crazed children with AK-47s engaged in ethnic cleansing. His "Ghost Who Walks" act would be nearly impossible to continue, given the high tech available to his foes, and his equipment -- horse, wolf, .45s -- would be hopelessly antiquated.

As a thought experiment, I've wondered how a 21st Century Phantom might plausibly continue, and it takes me down paths that are hugely at odds with the old way of doing things. I picture a Phantom with no fixed home that can be found by satellite and razed by bulldozers, where the fortune in the Skull Cave is safe in Swiss banks and can be accessed from anywhere in the world electronically, where he utilizes holog

Comment by Captain Comics on January 14, 2012 at 5:19pm

Oops! Ran too long!

Anyway, to continue, I was picturing holograms and other high tech to continue the Ghost Who Walks myth, his loyal tribe no longer clumped together but infiltrated into other tribes feeding him info and access, and a Phantom who rarely, if ever, wears the costume -- and when he does, it would have to have go the Batman/Black Panther route, of Kevlar, combat boots, etc.)

That's as far as my thinking takes me. What do y'all think?

Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on January 14, 2012 at 6:04pm

...At the time I got off , Captain , the Dynamite " The Last Phantom " miniseries-that-apparently-became-an-ongoing was about what I guess might be the 22d Phantom , but was , IIRC , the son of the son of the 21st - or even his grandson - the idea was that he had let the Phantom tradition die , then , after criminals killed & raped  his wife  ( Of sub-Saharan African descent - Obviously , such an idea would have been literally impossible to present in an American comic in Falk's heyday , I am told that at least onepost-1960s Phantom paperback novel that Falk wrote hinted of some possible - " soul " - in the Phantom's ancestry . )  & killed their child , he became " The Lsst Phantom " .

  The last issue I got was a sort of in-between-arcs somewhat " ironic " flashback to a possible?? adventure of the old Phantom , drawn/printed in a " flashback/dots-style " manner , crossing over to to-day .

  The King Features Syndicate Phantom , the mainstream one , is stated to be the 21st Phantom and has two , roughly , " tween " children and is married to Diana Palmer . Yes , this requires SOD , obviously !

  I mentioned before some minor King-allowed Earths 1/2-style difference in what the kids do/their age and the official lineage of the previous 20 Phantoms' between the KFS strips and the...

  Scandanavian-produced Egmont comic book material , which ( Translated , obviously . - the " originals " are in Swedish . ) are the bread & butter of the Frew Australian THE PHANTOM comic book , which ( When I splurged on an air-mail subscription to it some years ago , anyway . ) comes out more frequently than bi-weekly - something like 31 issues annually !...

  IIRC , I  somewhat doubt that the American comic-book material that Moonstone and Dynamite have produced diring this century have been " officially " distributed outside North America bar Diamond-supplied comics shops and those dedicated enough to send a mail order ( FTM , according to Guran , the former - He got rather GAFIOL - That the correct spelling ? - and stopped updating the site - head of Deep Woods . ) on and to those other continents .

  FTM , according to Guran , Frew wasn't . really , supposed to see , by the conditions of their liscence agreement , their Phantom comic up my way . As for the back story of Frew and Egmont , Guran's site can tell you MUCH .

  Conversely , the Egmont ( As I'll refer to all the Scandanavian material for convenience now . ) material has never been published here . Ever .

  On occasion , some American pros have even done material for it ( Fairly infrequently , howevs - and tending to be a little " old-timer " in " our " companies' eyes nowadays . ) .

  As for the Phantom's linage re: KFS/Falk in his life , Falk , by his later years , had not filled out every Phantom , but he had many filled out ( The Peter David/Joe Orlando DC Phantom mini-series introed one past one whom Falk adopted into the canon ! ) .

  There is at least one official female Phantom offspring , the late-19/early-20th Century " Girl Phantom " , who has appeared in Falk stories and in American comic-book stories originated in both centuries of the Phantom .

  She was a tomboy-ish sister whom , at times , filled in for - Her brother?? When he had to suceed to the Throne a little too early and sometimes needed help ?? Not quite sure but a Moonstone story had her shadowing & protecting Nellie Bly's trip around the world !

  The Swedish/Frew comic book material has had both " possible future "  and " possible "/" might be true " Phantoms . After I'd left but was still keeping up with it , they published at least one "Phantom: Year One ( Or 1&1/2 , 2 , whatevs . ) multi-pater and at least another julti opening with a gravely injured Ghost Who staggering into an emergency room and apparently dying ! Uuh huh .

Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on January 14, 2012 at 6:05pm

...There's a little mixing up in the sixth and seventh paragraphs , above , with me acknowledging this I assume you can overcome any confusion caused by my mistyping???

Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on January 14, 2012 at 6:08pm

...The " Phantom: Year 1 " multi- I referred to followed a young 21st in " an early 1960s/Beach Boys/JFK-esque America " with hot-rodders and Bryllcreamed James Dean/Elvis types - honest !

Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on January 14, 2012 at 6:12pm

...The Swedish Egmont material has been in color since about the early 90s , Frew publishes them digitally stripped .

  This at least , as much as I enjoy good black & white , contributed to my letting my ( Fairly expensive up-fron , as you might imagine , though I'd say it worked out to a decent value for money , I guess . ) Frew subscription lapse ! ( Yeah , right , as if it wasn't all about the cash-money , as Eazy-E put it...)

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