Tag Archives: Comics

The Phantom: The Ghost Who Still Walks

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Enter the Phantom

Leon “Lee” Falk was born on April 28, 1911 in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. While at college, he developed the idea for a comic strip featuring a caped stage magician, which developed into Mandrake. He sold the rights of the strip to King Features Syndicate, NY. Mandrake – The Magician premiered on June 11, 1934, when Falk was just 23 years of age.

Soon after, Falk developed another idea for a masked crime fighter, named The Phantom, which debuted on February 17, 1936. He drew the strip himself for two weeks, after which the artwork was left to Raymond “Ray” Moore and the strip was again syndicated to KFS. On the other hand, Mandrake was drawn by artist Phil Davis. During the Great Depression in the US, such adventurous comic strips became popular for their morale-boosting appeal among common folk reading the daily newspapers. Falk had created a winner.

The Mythos

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The unique features of the Phantom as an anonymous, masked crime fighter developed over an extended period of time. The Phantom’s debut story was The Singh Brotherhood, an epic of a story, which featured many conflicting features of the character, as Lee tried to pick up the best from fiction around the world and give a unique twist to his creation. Geographically, the Phantom lived in Bengal, India, fought Chinese pirates who wore turbans and had the title of “Singh”, rode about with tigers and elephants, stayed with pygmies but had European descent. Now, this strange but exotic amalgamation brought inherent contradictions to the character, which Falk ironed out gradually – by moving the Phantom out of India to Africa, thereby retaining the pygmies and jungle, and making the Singh Pirates fade into oblivion; the beloved tigers he explained as being due to a shipwreck near the African coast; since the ship had been carrying animals from India, these entered the African forest and multiplied there. Quite ingenious!!

The Ghost Who Walks

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The origin of the Phantom is described as being due to a pirate attack on a merchant ship off the coast of Africa. A young boy who saw his father being murdered by pirates, took the oath of fighting against piracy and furthermore, his sons, and their sons would follow him. This oath continued for 20 generations, over a period of 450 years; the present Phantom being the 21st of his line. The Phantom, after accepting the mantle from his dying father would never show his face again, except to his wife and children. Whether in his cowl and costume, or out of it, crime fighting would be the primary aim of his existence. He would also intervene in social problems, filial problems and other problems, including financial (and even health) problems which humans face from time to time. He would be fair, upright and moralistic always. He would never touch alcoholic drinks and in general be the epitome of proprietary. In the present context, he would not be a “Dark Knight”. His goals and his lifestyle were pre-defined for him, as decided by his forefathers, 400 years ago. There was no question of deviations or re-boots. The Phantom – the Ghost Who Walks would be there, if you called out to him for help.

The present Phantom continues to live in the Skull Cave of his forefathers, inside the Deep Woods, protected by the Bandar, or pygmy poison people. He is married to his childhood sweetheart, Diana, who works for the UN. He has twins, Kit and Heloise; it is a matter of conjecture who will succeed him as the 22nd Phantom. Devil, the fearsome mountain wolf, is his faithful companion, and Hero, the stallion, is his favorite steed. The Phantom is the ex-officio, secret Commander of the Jungle Patrol, a para-military organization, which guards the Bengalla jungles. He is on friendly terms with Dr Luaga, the President of Bengalla. In addition to his home in the Deep Woods, he has several other hide-outs, equally exotic; these include Keela Wee, a beach with golden sand and a Jade Hut. Eden is an island resort, where all animals live peacefully, subsisting on fish and vegetables. The Phantom has a hideout in South America, atop a mesa, called Eyrie. He also has a hideout in Romania, in the form of a abandoned castle. He maintains a menagerie of animals with him, most of whom are house-trained and rather cute. These include Joomba (an elephant), Kateena (a lioness), Baldy (an old gorilla), Hzz and Hrz (prehistoric cave monsters, who eat only mushrooms!!), Solomon and Nefertiti (dolphins), Bobo (a chimpanzee), Fraka (a falcon) and Stegy (a stegosaurus).

The Phantom likes to move out to the cities from time to time like an ordinary man as Kit Walker (for the Ghost Who Walks), wearing a fedora, sunglasses and trench coat, accompanied by Devil. He is a menacing figure for evil doers; he is a favorite of children, beautiful women and royalty. In short, he is a human being, without any superpowers – yet his persona ensures that no other masked superhero can even come close to his charisma.

The Phantom in India

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India was first introduced to The Phantom in the 1940s in The Illustrated Weekly of India which carried Phantom Sunday newspaper strips. The first regular series of Phantom comic books in India were published by Bennet & Coleman as Indrajal Comics from March 1964 to April 1990. A total of 803 issues were published, after which the publishing rights were picked up by Diamond Comics and Rani Comics. In June 2000, Egmont Publications in collaboration with Indian Express (later Egmont Imagination), launched a new series of Phantom comics, reprinting few (pretty mediocre) stories created by the Scandinavian publisher, Egmont. Today, The Phantom is published in several languages in a vast number of Indian newspapers and magazines.

Although the Phantom debuted in the US, it remained confined as a comic strip; it could never achieve the success of a comic book hero, although Phantom comic books were brought out from time to time by publishers such as Gold Key, Charlton, DC, Moonstone, and more recently Dynamite. In contrast, the Phantom enjoyed immense popularity in India, through The Illustrated Weekly and Indrajal Comic reprints. One of the reasons could be that readers in India were exposed to original Lee Falk stories, amply illustrated by Wilson McCoy and later, the legendary Seymour “Sy” Barry. On the other hand, the US comic books mentioned above had their own authors and artists, and despite their best efforts, they just could not match the charismatic output of Falk and Barry. In India, the Phantom still enjoys a phenomenal cult following, and entire generations, irrespective of age or sex still go wildly enthusiastic over the charms of the GWW, as evident in a discussion in FB recently.

The Phantom in Other Countries

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The Phantom also proved to be very popular in the most unlikely of geographical locations, and got translated names according to the country of publication. For Italy, it was L’ Umo Mascherato, for Brazil, it was Fantasma, for Sweden, it was Fantomen, for Denmark, it was Fantomet, for Spain it was El Hombre Enmascarado, and for France it was Le Fantome. In Finland, he was called Mustanaamio and in Turkey, he was Kizil Maske. The Israeli Phantom was simply known as Phantomas, the Yugoslavian avater was called Fantom, and the Indian Phantom was known as Betaal.

Movies and TV Serials

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Compared to the likes of DC and Marvel characters who have starred in very successful and extremely expensive Hollywood productions, the Phantom, again, has been quite unfortunate in this aspect. He first appeared in a movie serial, The Phantom, in 1943, with Tom Tyler in the lead role. The 240-minute serial in fifteen parts, remained faithful to the character, despite its limited budget. A 1996 Hollywood film, The Phantom, Slam Evil from Paramount Pictures starred Billy Zane in the title role. It was a box office disaster.

Two animated series, Defenders of the Earth (1986) and Phantom 2040 (1994) were also produced for TV; these were hits, but primarily meant for young children. In 2009, SyFy Channel released a 4-hour, mini-series in two parts, called The Phantom, starring Ryan Carnes in the title role. It took too many liberties with the character and mythos, and was heavily criticized by Phantom fans (=Phans). Other Hollywood projects on the Phantom have been announced from time to time, but none have materialized till date.

The Present

With Sy Barry’s retirement in 1994 and Falk’s death in 1999, the character of the Phantom took a nose-dive, with artists and writers of different hues trying their hands in re-creating the Phantom. Commercial interests dictated that the strip should continue, as it still does, but the charisma slowly faded. While Scandinavian countries with well-established machinery for creating new Phantom stories, continued their output for a dedicated readership, Frew in Australia, continued picking up several of these stories and translate them into English for an enthusiastic Australian Phan base. However, current writers and artists for KFS, USA seem to be unable to match Falk even remotely in continuing the strip, which seems to be slowly becoming trivialized and diluted. The menace and the mystery has diminished; often the Phantom appears to have an identity crisis; sometimes he is made to act like a buffoon and act against the very tenets that made him so lovable in the hands of his original creators.

No doubt the Ghost Who Walks still walks on, but he doesn’t seem to be going too far these days.

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Growing Up With Heroes

After crossing the confusing age of twenty and being considered as half-irresponsible by elders (the glass is half-empty for me), if a person continues to have an undying love and never-ending knowledge about comic book characters then people call him or her a nerd. I’m a nerd. Geek. Fan. I know the name of the street where Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed and I know the name of Clark Kent’s first love interest (not Louis Lane). I remember the oath of Green Lantern corps by heart and I agree how Gwen Stacy’s death has changed the entire world of comics. And as obvious as it is, I never bought or read almost any of these books. Never been in my reach or knowledge and most of all, never affordable.

The difference between me and many of my time is drawn from the fact that I’ve always been more into American superheroes and comics and hardly in the borrowed plots and inspired characters of more regional origin. Though, I’ve always liked Dhruv and never thought Nagraj is any good against him. But my biased affection towards the virile, smart boy with no superpowers could be because my first superhero book was a Super Commando Dhruv. The first appearance of Dhwaniraj.

I’d read Champak and Lotpot before that, around third standard, recommended directly from my father who just wanted me to read something. He’d brought me a copy from a newspaper stall. And I remember feeling surprised when he told me that he’d also read many comics before. Things like Rajan and Iqbal (I’d no idea who they were, back then) or Chandamama. And I caught myself thinking, Can adults actually do that? Are they even allowed to read a comic? How can someone be so naive at eleven, right?

. . . So I read. I finished my Lotpot in one night and then went through it again the next day after school. I memorised the one-liners, repeated them two or three times in my head and then made my friends giggle during the evening gatherings. I started sharing the stories of Motu-Patlu with others, properly concealing the source, no doubt. (Always had that bit of a plagiariser in me.) And I learned the amazing pleasure of intentionally making someone laugh. But it was quick. The content was small and I was hungry for more.

Then, the summer vacations. I lived in Aliganj, back then. Standing next to my mother on a stationery shop. Browsing through a stack of forty-to-sixty comic books. There condition wasn’t good, but the rent was low. One rupee per day, one copy at a time. Sensing that my mother wasn’t enjoying standing there behind me, waiting for me to finish browsing, pick one, and leave, I hurried. But every reader must have faced this conundrum of actually picking only one book from a stack of fifty. So I settled with, “Laash ke Tukde” (the Corpse’s Pieces). An average pulp-fiction horror. I don’t think it was even meant for eleven-year-old anyway. But my mother never paid much attention; at least I wasn’t bothering her anymore.

That comic, I believe, (after the TV show Aahat) can be the reason of my unrelenting interest in the macabre. It actually showed bones and brain matter. I was so thrilled. I didn’t sleep well that night. There was something under my bed.

Then, it was Dhruv, the next day. My first superhero on paper. After that Ashwaghosh (about a world where everyone is a centaur). And more  horror. I read as much as I could. The vacations were over soon, as they always tend to do and the shop had run out of good stuff. I’d read enough that I could develop a taste. Horrors and heroes. And then we started with the daily dose of cartoons. Cartoon Network introduced us to an entire new world of superheroes. Literally, Hundreds of them.

I also started finding similarities between them and the ones I’ve read. Disappointment.

But the journey continued.

I learned soon that these cartoon shows were inspired from comic books of their own. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Justice League, X-Men, Dragon Ball Z. My curiosity exploded. As the time passed, I tried to grab some copies for myself but couldn’t find any in the nearby shops. Years passed and comics disappeared from the market. The journey from Chandamama to Lotpot, Chacha Chaudhary and Champak, to Super Commando Dhruv and Doga was almost over.

Later, I found a few on some of those small, battered stalls selling second-hand books, entrance exam forms and old magazines. And at one time, the ragman who made periodic rounds in every three months, passed me a tattered old copy of Lotpot. Its edges were rough and worn, the pages fading. There was no Motu-Patlu in it. But it was the real thing and I realised where the comics went.

There was also one time when I got a free Justice League comic with Maggi. It was some promotional tie-in thing. But apart from that, I never read any other American comic back then.

With the advanced technology and .cbz readers for androids, it’s become a little easy nowadays. I’ve read the Frank Miller’s masterpiece The Dark Returns on my tablet and even though the experience was different, (it’s not very easy to read e-comics) I felt somehow satisfied. I had, at last, actually read my first Batman.

Now, in the modern age of comics, we’ve more original concepts and English publishers in India. There’s Ravanayana, Devi, Rama, Aghori and many other dystopian or urban fantasy stories with Indian characters and theme. Anti-heroes and villains who represent agendas and ideologies. Moments when the heroes make bad choices in the climax. But where Captain America and Superman grew up from being flawless American icons to symbol of hope with more human aspects in personal life, Indian classics have dwindled towards oblivion. I’ve often felt bad (after growing up idolising Shaktimaan) about the ignorance our heroes face. They weren’t bad for starters. I might not be a huge fan of them, and have often found them too thin for my taste, but you always remember your first.