Like many Australians, my first comic was a Phantom comic. My father enjoyed the Phantom when he was a lad; when he saw his nine year old son was interested in comics, he picked up the latest issue from the newsagent. 22 Years later, and I’m still hooked on the Ghost Who Walks. I’ve read other comics and followed other characters as well, but The Phantom is the only one I’ve stuck with. Sure, Frew still prints their comics on low quality paper with terrible covers and yes, they do reprint a lot of material I already have in my collection. But none of that matters; with The Phantom, you get something no other comic offers.
Who is The Phantom? The Original Superhero.
The Phantom, for those who came in late, is a masked man, clad in purple tights. Working from the Skull Cave in the deepest jungles of Bengali, he fights a never ending battle against piracy, cruelty and injustice. His is the sign of the skull, with which he permanently marks villains foolish enough to challenge him. It is a rarely acknowledged fact that Lee Falk’s unique creation was the first character in comics to exhibit many of the qualities considered essential to the superhero. He was the first to wear the distinctive superhero mask (with pupils absent), and the first to wear the tights and trunks which are instantly recognised as part of the superhero uniform. Combined with this, he is a mysterious crime fighter, who has truly become a symbol; the Phantom is larger than any one man, as the mantle has been passed down from father to son for over 400 years. The Phantom’s enemies, and many of his allies, believe him to be the same man, an immortal ghost fighting an eternal war against those who prey on the weak.
It is perhaps because the Phantom made his debut in newspaper strips, rather than comic books, that he is rarely recognised as a predecessor of Superman and Batman. Many different publishers throughout the world would reprint the newspaper strips in comic book form but with only a few exceptions (including Frew in Australia) the Phantom failed to gain a foothold in this market. It’s interesting to note that Falk’s creation still stands out as unique among the plethora of superheroes that followed him; the Phantom’s wild jungle homeland, coupled with his unique historical legacy has resulted in a wide variety of adventures for the Ghost Who Walks.
The Phantom – Consistent Adventures and Characterisation
It’s also interesting that since the first Phantom strip was published in 1936, very little has changed in the basic make-up of his adventures. Of course, there has been some change; Falk understood the need to develop his character (for example the current Phantom, the 21st, has married his beloved Diana and they’ve had children as the strip progressed), but not nearly to the extent that the comic book heroes have changed over the years. The Phantom began as an unashamed adventure strip, combining all the best elements of the pulp tradition; mystery, suspense and violence, and continues to do so today. Unlike the majority of comic book characters the Phantom has not moved into a much more intellectual and thoughtful mode of story telling; he is not borderline psychotic like the modern incarnations of Batman, and never portrayed as a potential threat to the liberty of humankind as Superman has been.
Falk established a wonderful tone for his character early in his career, and this tone has been maintained throughout the Phantom’s many adventures. Put simply, a Phantom story is a well told exciting adventure, falling clearly into the category of light escapist entertainment, as all superheroes did originally.
Interestingly, Falk started out with far more sophisticated stories for the Phantom than the respective creators of Batman and Superman did for their characters. A good example of this is the World War II stories for the different characters; while Superman and Batman were spruiking war bonds and punching Hitler in cheesy panels, Falk had the Phantom locked in a grim battle with Japanese soldiers invading his jungle homeland of Bengali. Because the Phantom appeared in daily newspapers, his adventures had to appeal to the adults that read them. During his first few decades the Phantom had a much firmer grounding in reality than his comic book counterparts, and his adventures were typically a little more detailed and verbose than those of Batman and Superman.
This situation was reversed in the 1970s and 80s when comic books became more sophisticated. The Phantom, however, remained within the same parameters set out for him by his immensely talented creator. The Phantom strip continues to run today, testament to the ongoing popularity of simple but well told adventure stories.
When I consider the large and varied number of changes Superman and Batman have been through, I’m grateful that Falk maintained a level of consistency with the Phantom. When viewed as a whole, the events of Batman’s life take on a somewhat ridiculous nature; he’s had a sidekick killed and later miraculously come back to life, had his back broken then healed, found a son he never knew he had, been killed by an alien warlord, thrown back to the stone age and fought his way back to the present. And this is only Bruce Wayne. Since the late 1990s there’s been a trend of putting different characters behind the cowl. Dick Grayson has had two stints as Batman, Jean-Paul ‘Azrael’ Valley filled in for a while and in a recent development Bruce Wayne’s father, Thomas Wayne, has also been Batman. Who’s next? Aunt Harriet?
This all sounds a lot more telenovella than Dark Knight. The Phantom’s rocky courtship of Diana, constantly hampered by his crime fighting activities, and their eventual marriage, makes for a much more convincing (and relatable) character history.
The Phantom, Alan Moore and Frank Miller- In Context of Complex Comics
The reasons for Batman’s soap opera like existence can be traced back to changes which took place in comic books in the 1980s, changes to which the newspaper based Phantom was immune. The 1980s saw the release of two of the most stunningly brilliant superhero stories ever written; Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. With their distinctly mature approach, both of these works subverted the superhero genre, while at the same time applauding its best qualities. The stories told in superhero comics had been gradually maturing during the late 1970s, but they were nursery rhymes compared to these two new projects.
The success of Moore and Miller opened the doors for other creators to attempt similar things, and the readers loved it. Older readers who had stuck with the comics since childhood were rewarded with intelligent stories aimed squarely at them.
This new style of story telling resulted in some outstanding comics and the big companies were keen to capitalise on this new success. My favourite is Mark Verheiden’s The American, published by Dark Horse during the 1980s. This underrated series combines a healthy dose of cynicism with the superhero concept, but levels it out with humour.
But during the early 1990s things started to unravel. Somewhere along the line, some creators mistook complexity for sophistication and sensationalism for powerful story telling. The stories told in the regular monthly comic books became convoluted and heavily reliant on previous continuity, to the point that any new readers quickly became lost and disgruntled. Furthermore, massive ‘events’, such as 1992’s The Death of Superman became commonplace. The first few deaths were momentous occasions, resulting in huge sales figures, but they quickly lost their relevance as none of the characters stayed dead. Any dramatic effect that can be gained from a character’s death is left meaningless if they can come back to life.
Of course, while all this was going on, the Phantom was still simply fighting evil, as he had done since 1936. DC, Marvel and Dynamite Entertainment have attempted Phantom series of their own at different times, with differing levels of success. These are all very interesting in how they approach the character, and really deserve an article of their own. Either way, The Ghost Who Walks remains stubbornly in the realm of the simple, but well told adventure story.
And I’m glad he does. As much as I enjoy tales like Watchmen, it’s comforting to know that not all comics aspire to that level of detail and sophistication. Sometimes I just want to read about a masked man fighting the good fight, striking fear into the hearts of evil men, before he slugs them out.