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.

Views: 834

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on January 16, 2012 at 8:40am

Cap, I like your idea of a Phantom updated for the 21st century, but the success would lie in the execution. I was going to point out the dismal failure of the Terry & the Pirates update as an example, but George beat me to it!

Comment by PapaLouANowNow on January 18, 2012 at 8:18pm

Pat Boyette drew for the Charlton Phantom,as well,I wanna see that-Maybe that's one reason they're not purely chronology-being?

Comment by Captain Comics on January 18, 2012 at 9:00pm

You're probably right, Papa. I like the Lignante stuff, but he doesn't have the fan cachet that artists on some of the later stories do.

Comment by Figserello on January 19, 2012 at 12:20am

Great thread.  I loved your thoughts on a 21st Century Phantom. 

 

But for the sake of our thought experiment, The Phantom could be black, so let's say he is.

 

I love the simplicity of this solution to the Gordian Knot.  It has a wide applicability too.

 

The Lone Ranger for the 21st Century should be a Native American, and the Green Hornet should be Asian.  :-)

 

Anyway, although I'd usually be the first to fulminate about the downsides of showing a white guy bossing the natives in the third world around, I cut the Phantom a lot of slack.  Mainly because he is the Phantom, and I think he's cool!  But not just for that reason.

 

Lee Falk strove admirably to keep up with the political correctness of his times, as certain ideas of decency and good taste developed over the 20th Century.  I'd say he just about kept ahead of the pack, even.  There is one early adventure which shows the Phantom using smoke and mirrors and special effects to make himself appear as a scary god to the natives, but Falk dropped that approach pretty quickly in favour of showing him working pretty much as equals with successive 'circles' of native tribes radiating out from the Phantom's base.  The closest tribe to him - a feared Pygmy tribe - shares all his secrets.  The next closest tribes are his close allies and the rest of the tribes respect him for maintaining the 'Phantom Peace', but they do buy into the idea that he lives forever.

 

Falk often tried to subvert received ideas about the jungle tribespeople.  There is a funny sequence in an early story showing two thugs terrorising a village of one of the Phantom's allied tribes while the Phantom is away.  The tribespeople pretend they have less English than they really have to confound them.  One scene shows the thugs threatening one seemingly uncomprehending grass-skirted native.  The same native tries to prevent them from noticing that he has a library of encyclopaedias and a PhD from Oxford University on his wall!

 

I think Falk was sensitive to the downsides of depicting a 'white god' like this, even though, at the end of the day, as George says, the Phantom is one of these imperialist colonialist texts.

 

The Phantom's Peace probably does sound like the bogus Pax Romana or Pax Brittania beloved of conservative historians, but as it is fictional, we can accept it for what it is.  The Phantom line has brought peace and stability to the jungle and doesn't ask for a whole lot from the natives in return, unlike the British and Roman Empires, which taxed and conscripted everyone to the hilt under the pretence of their 'peace'.

 

My C21st Phantom might be a littel different to yours.  You mention the problems developers pose to the notion of the Phantom living in secret and you pose the kind of enemies he'd fight, but I feel that the developers themselves would be the true foes that a modern Phantom would logically have to battle a lot of the time.  Developers, Miners, land-grabbers of all stripes backed up by the government.  They are the forces that really threaten the jungle paradise that the Phantom has sworn to protect, as their treatment of modern indigenous peoples shows.

 

The Phantom concluded the longest running single adventure in a newspaper strip last year.  In it the Phantom thought that a terrorist called the Cobra had killed his wife.  Although the Cobra was a great foe for the Phantom and the whole terrorism thing gave it a contemporary feel, the terrorists were woefully simplistically drawn.  They were just a bunch of people who liked causing mayhem, but they didn't seem to have any motive.

 

As with the developers, the white liberal Phantom doesn't want to look too closely at the root causes of misery and threats to the common good in this world.

 

My ideal Phant

Comment by Figserello on January 19, 2012 at 12:24am

(Oops.  First time I've run out of space!)

 

My ideal Phantom would battle those kinds of problems as that would reflect the modern world in a more open-eyed way.  However, I don't see that strip being published in the Murdoch newspapers, or in any of the other mainstream papers either!

Comment by Captain Comics on January 19, 2012 at 12:36am

I actually did consider the developers to be one of the 21st Century Phantom's foes -- the modern equivalent of the poachers he used to fight, only backed up buy huge, monied coporations; semi-barbarous nation-states; or heavily armed tribes in the process of extinguishing other tribes. These are not only larger than one guy in a jumpsuit can fight, but having a fixed location -- a Skull Cave in the "Deep Woods" -- would no longer be protection, but make targets of him and his loyal pygmies. 

That's why I figured The Phantom really would have to be a modern ghost -- one with no fixed location, possibly no fixed identity. How could you find a guy who doesn't exist in any database? And one with MORE money than Exxon, so that he can fight them at their own level. And to keep his pygmies for paying for their loyalty with their lives, they, too, would have to disappear -- into the local populations, where they would secretly feed info to Phantom, Inc., in which they'd have a stake.

Comment by Figserello on January 19, 2012 at 12:53am

The pygmies would be easy to spot.  :-P

 

But no.  I do love the thought you've put into your modern Phantom.  Too bad comics have lost their teeth.  Maybe 2000AD could licence the Phantom, and employ you to write him?

Comment by Figserello on January 19, 2012 at 12:57am

Cool Beans, George.  Too bad I don't really have 7 1/2 hours to watch it.  My mother-in-law remembers going to see that serial as a kid with her brother at the Saturday picture show! 

 

(Aussie love for the Phantom, again!)

Comment by Figserello on January 19, 2012 at 1:24am

The Aussies love the Phantom.  Maybe because they too are descendants of white people trying to be the lords and masters of a hostile foreign land?  :-)

 

"regarded as one of the best serials." you say?  Perhaps I'll make time.

 

I tried watching the 1948(?) serial of Batman and Robin, but it was demented.  And so cheap.

 

Anyone interested in the Australian reprints of the Phantom should check out this thread, that's all I'm saying...

Comment by PapaLouANowNow on January 19, 2012 at 2:32pm

Toobad Gary Coleman ain't with us no more,eh? He coulda made a comeback!

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