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 firstname.lastname@example.org.