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

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Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on January 14, 2012 at 6:15pm

...And , I meant " possble/might-be-true/not officially admitted as past Phantoms "Egmont stories , I did once see such a story of a " gone over to the dark side " Phantom listed !

  The Egmont stories are roughly 30ish pages in standard length , and Frew , upon occasion , published them slightly edited for length , and occasionally running over onto the inside bacover .

Not enough M.F. Enterprises in their Aussie souls to have them end on the BACK , though !

Comment by Captain Comics on January 14, 2012 at 6:17pm

You know, I had a nagging memory of a "Girl Phantom," so she must have appeared in either Gold Key or Charlton books. Also, the later issues of Charlton's run were drawn by the late, great Don Newton.

Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on January 14, 2012 at 6:18pm

...Written sometimes , as well !

Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on January 14, 2012 at 6:53pm

...The present-day KFS strip has an Egmont-associated writer as credited scripter , and Paul Ryan - having done Egmont stories first - as both d/S artist . It has occasionally published strip versions of stories also published as Egmont cb stories but that appears to , mostly , anyhow , be a " for emergencies/when a fill-in is needed " practice .

  In the King era , Mandrake the Magician back-ups appeared in the Phantom's title...and so , Phantoms likewise appeared in Manny's !!!!! This was not true of Gold Key ?

  I am told the earliest Phantom strips were specifically set in what was then known as " Dutch East India " ( Indonesia ) ? Also , that Africa - wait , is it that tigers are not native to Africa or that they're not native to India ? Anyway , Falk letting one creep in !...

  Bangalla was sted , when the de-colonization of Africa started speeding along in the Sixties , to have been a British , and so English-speaking , country . A country near Bangalla in the Phantom universe that is rather The Source Of Al Bad is Rhodia , which I don't know to be a Falk invention or no , but which has appeared in contempo KFSs . I believe the country was originally presented as a white-/minority-ruled nation , similar to apartheid-era South Africa/( Obviously , given the name . ) pre-Zimbabwe " Rhodesia " . I recall a 21st-era Sunday story clearly involving a suicide bomer ( If possibly not spelled-spelled-spelled-spelled out . ) , I suppose from Rhodia ! I have read of long-ago Swedish stories published when socalism was more popular in Scananavia that attempted to adjust - fro one , showing the Phantom working with an immediatly post-Cuban Revolution Fidel Castro , and another with the Phantom helping local , I guess , natives to set up a co-operative ! An oddity of the Phantom's universe is that , along with his tendency to fight long-running conspiracies/organizations ( Sugh as the Singh Brotherhood . ) , there's:

(1) Something of a tendency for the Phantom to face Arab chiefs/traders in " burnooses " ( Is that the proper word now ? ) - Perhaps it's at least in part thatarea lies  between sub-Saharan Africa and SOMEBODY has to tend to be the bad guy !

(2) Something of a tendency for corrupt elements within the Catholic Church to show up as villians ! In my year-ish , I recall maybe four stories touching on that - Most notably , a KFS strip story had a Knights Templar-like organization seeking the treasure they'd buried in Bangalla centuries back after the Crusades ----- and an Egmont cb story ( Which Guran , and I think many other posters on his then-board , HATE-HATE-HATED !!c) , drawn by Dick Giordano ! ( Who drew 8 or so Egmonts during his later years , and oh , it's SPOILER time now for the rest of this paragraph . ) --- essentially reworked the historical " Pope Joan " legend , of a Middle Ages-ish female joing the Catholic Church as a priest and rising up to become " Pope " John " only to be beaten to death by the enraged mobs of Rome when the pregnancy she had acquired began to birth - simply inserting the Phantom into this story as the ( Told as a flashback by the 21st to the twins . ) father of said Joan-child...and the statement made that , had she not died , that Phantom would have MARRIED her ! The comment was madeon the board in response to my comment that Scandanaviatends  to be: A. Not very religious B. To the extent that it is , decidedly Protestant - Lutheran .


  I recall a Falk comment to the effect of " As far as I'm concerned , the Phantom lives somewhere that is Africa at the coast...and turns into India five hundred miles in !!! ) Those Golden Agers !!!

  Apparently , the " Defenders of the Universe " TV show decided to interpret the " Old Jungle Saying " that " The Phantom has the strengh of ten tigers ' to LITERALLY give the Phantom the ability to turn such on ! Continuity no-no !!!!!!!!!!!

  The Frew cb sometimes ran PG/PG-1

Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on January 14, 2012 at 6:57pm

...OK , I ran too long !!!!!!!!!

  Frew at times ran PG/PG-13-level female " up there " nudity , sometimes censoring ( Such as in the - um " Middle Ages-ish " story cited above . ) it...Obviously , an American publication in cb form would have to cover it up ENTIRELY , or be in/on the " Adults Only " section/shelf of the shop .

  I have fantasized about publishing a Phantom comic book , primarily drawing upon the Egmonts...40 pages , with a few pages of modern ( post-Falk ) , color , Phantom dalies as " Bonus Serial " material added...

  I guess you commented on my comment about differing colors , not much else the initial comment which I got up??

Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on January 14, 2012 at 7:01pm

...And , in my " big one above " pulleazze insert " between sub-Saharan Africa and India " ! 10  .

Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on January 14, 2012 at 7:03pm

..." 10Q " , that was . 'Kay ?????

Comment by Captain Comics on January 14, 2012 at 8:03pm

There was no Mandrake in the Gold Key issues, nor in Charlton that I recall. I've never seen a King Phantom, or any Mandrake story ever, so now you've got me really looking forward to the King collections! And let's cross fingers that Hermes gets around to the Mandrake title, with its Phantom back-ups.

Comment by Captain Comics on January 15, 2012 at 12:15am

That's true, George -- the older I get, the more I cringe at the incipient racism underpinning Tarzan and other white jungle lords. But for the sake of our thought experiment, The Phantom could be black, so let's say he is. Now -- how could he operate in modern Africa?

Incidentally, for those who are thinking about getting the Hermes books, they've made an odd publishing decision. Instead of reprinting all the books in order, they're publishing the first volume of the Gold Key books, then the first volume of the King books, then the first volume of the Charlton books. More volumes of each will follow, presumably until all 74 issues are reprinted. (Although it's possible all 11 of the King books could be contained in a single volume.) As I said, an odd publishing choice.

Comment by PapaLouANowNow on January 15, 2012 at 7:09pm

Dude,no Mandrake STORY,as in a funnybook or any Mandrake STRIP??:-0?? My!!


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