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 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
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
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
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
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.
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.