One of my foremost thought while starting Comicology, was to base it as a definite place to cover all the comic characters who have appeared in every genres all through the evolution of Comics. It was a highly ambitious thought, but it was a dream too.
So, if you have been following the posts, I tried to base them on different genres and variety of publishers, to fulfil that dream. And I was thinking that I was doing a fair job so far on that account. But, the reality was about to strike.
Recently, one of the new visitors to Comicology, asked me a Simple Question - ‘Why no articles about Phantom?’. It struck me, and made me ask myself, “why didn’t I think of mentioning about this legendary character so far at Comicology?”. The question made me travel back in time to my first Computer Class, back in school days.
We were all eager to experience our first encounter with a real Computer, but our Teacher had other ideas. “How many of you know Typewriting?”, He asked. After seeing the mum faces, he added “How do you expect to learn something which was invented a decade back, when you haven’t learnt the one invented centuries ago?”. There is no much difference between the question then and now.
In both cases, the fact which comes to fore is that we can’t talk or try to learn about something without exploring its roots. Just like when we talk about costumed superheroes and their impact on Comics on a whole, we can’t skip past the first-ever in their lineage, long before The Shadow, Superman, and the likes, the legendary Phantom.
The No-Show of Phantom on Comicology, could be attributed to many reasons, top of which is that there are no publications which are actively publishing Phantom in India, at present. But, does that really make you forget the legacy of Phantom. Oh No!. I for one, who was mesmerised by this comic character, right from my childhood, can’t think so at the least. So, let me try to make some amends with a series of exclusive posts on the Phantom, as a Tribute to the legendary creator, Lee Falk. I agree it’s ambitious project in its own rights, but let me make an attempt to do it with all its merits.
Lee Falk & Pre-Television Era: Lee Falk was the pen name of Leon Harrison Gross, who was born on 28 Apr 1911, in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. His Birth year is still a debated concept, with some claiming it as 1905. But, historians through the years have accepted 1911 as the official birth year, by looking into past records, and the one also confirmed by Lee’s eldest daughter Valerie Falk Falbo. Lee was his nickname right from his childhood, but the reason as to why he chose Falk has his surname, is also not known much, even though his brother also, took the surname later.
Right from his school days Falk is known to have a likening towards writing, as he used contribute stories, articles and poems for his school and college newspapers. His extreme command over English, even let him dream to become an English Professor, something which he never pursued later. After completing the education, he started his career as a copywriter for a local advertising agency in early 1930’s.
The 1920s and 1930s, which is often referred as the pre-television era, saw an enormous amount of newspapers released worldwide. In New York city alone, there were two dozen thriving newspapers – The New York Times, Herald-Tribune, Post, News, Sun, The American, The Journal, and so on. So, it meant that these newspapers were increasingly looking to fill their content, and comic strips had become a norm for the same.
It was such a craze that they even dedicated 36 pages to it on Sundays, which was famously termed as Comics Section. This enormous need meant that these were also lucrative times for syndication companies, who were involved with providing comic strips, cartoons, and special features. These syndicates paved way for many great comic creators to come on the horizon in 1930s, which included legends like - Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon), Al Capp (Li’l Abner), Chester Gold (Dick Tracy), and Chick Young (Blondie).
So, it was only matter of time for Lee Falk, also to jump on the horizon, considering that he had the writing talent right from his school days. Along with Phil Davis, whom he met in his Advertising agency job, he went on to create his first comic strip, in form of ‘Mandrake the Magician’ in 1934, in an early age of 24. (We will look into Falk’s first comics character Mandrake, soon on an exclusive post at Comicology)
In the same year, Falk successfully negotiated a deal with King Features Syndicate, and the comic strip featuring an unlikely hero in the form of a magician, went on to become a huge hit, prompting the syndicate to ask Falk into creating another comic series for their line-up. In reply, Falk first proposed a concept featuring King Arthur and his famous knights, but King Features was reluctant to feature a medieval age series that time.
So, Falk then decided to alter his concept and changed it into mysterious, costumed crime-fighter, whom Falk decided to name as The Phantom, despite the fact that this name was already being used in pulp fiction stories, like Phantom Detective. The reason Falk termed for the same, was that he couldn’t find any other better name for the character he envisioned.
Phantom & His Early Secret Identity: The Original Idea of Falk, was to portray the character of The Phantom, as an secret identity to a Rich playboy by the name of Jimmy Wells. This is how the character eventually made its debut in “The Singh Brotherhood”, the first-ever Phantom Daily Strip on Feb 17, 1936.
He leaves enough clues for the readers to diffuse the link between the mysterious Phantom and neat-cloth Wells. But Falk took utmost care as to not reveal this openly in any of the strips.
Falk continued to draw Phantom for a couple of weeks from his debut, but then recruited artist Raymond Moore, who was then an assistant to Phil Davis in Mandrake strips, to don the Phantom artist role. But you could still see the style of Falk, as he continued to do the layout for the strip for several weeks, before handing over the complete artistic duties to Moore, deciding to concentrate his fledgling writing career, which had touched further medium like Theatres, and Novels.
Mid-way through the first Phantom comic strip adventure, The Singh Brotherhood, Falk decided that he would like to position Phantom away from a city background. Little did he know that at the time of this thinking, his original concept of running the daily strips for a couple of years, was about to be turned into a legendary character in the comics business.
The fact that he didn’t reveal Jim Wells, as the man behind Phantom’s mask, helped him to concentrate on rewriting the origin, which saw Phantom being moved the African jungles. The character of Jimmy Wells was about to be forgotten for ever.
Phantom’s Origin Reboots: Falk introduced a scene in the Sing Brotherhood mid-way, to support the Origin reboot, where the evil maniac Prince Achmed, who during a previous meeting with Phantom showed no fear, now is shown fearing the moment Phantom mouths the words “Oath of the Skull” and “Ghost who Walks”.
Next, he went down justifying the presence of Phantom in the city, by calling it as a temporary stay, through the scenes, where the Chief of Police showcases the letters he claims to have been sent by Phantom, with a couple of years gap in between.
Now that he had rebooted the origin, he then explained in the following day’s strips, where Dr. James Dodd, explains his childhood stories having encountered Phantom 70 years back, only to be later ascertained him to have a legacy as old as 400 years. The seeds for a fascinating story was laid in fruition with these scenes of the first Phantom adventure.
> Devil - the Mountain wolf, which often accompanies Phantom in many of his missions as a trusted ally,
> The mysterious Skull Cave inside the deep jungle, the Home of Phantom, and
As the Singh Pirates story reaches its Climax, the readers get a glimpse of Phantom’s legacy, as 21st Phantom is shown explaining his origin, for the first time, to Diana Palmer, his lady-love.
Phantom & his Legacy: The legacy dates back to 1525, in London. It was just 27 years since Vasco Da Gama had discovered the Water route to the India, and there were still many uncharted sea territories, tempting explorers and adventures.
A young noble, Sir Christopher Standish (which was later changed to Christopher Walker, the name which has remained ever-after, and said to have been born in 1516), charters on a ship down the Old Thames, in search of far more lands. He is accompanied by his old father, Christopher Sr.. In later stories, the origin was rewritten, which said that the Christopher Jr. was the ship-boy (to make him look younger), and Christopher Standish/Walker. was the Captain of the ship.
After many months of hard-ship and adventures their ships gets attacked by Oriental Chinese pirates (which was later changed to Singh Brotherhood) somewhere in the Bay of Bengal. Christopher sees his old father slain before his eyes, but their misery is put to rest, as a typhoon strikes and destroys both the ships. Christopher the sole survivor of the ships, then manages to sail with a make-shift raft travelling weeks and weeks to reach a remote shore. Which is what later known to readers, as Bengala.
He is then saved by the Bandars, a secret tribe of Pygmies, who had never seen a white man before. Christopher later discovers the body of a pirate being washed ashore, wearing his fathers attire. He then takes an Oath on the Skull of the pirate that he and his descendants will fight the Singh in particular, and Crime in general. Pygmies had an Prophecy, which stated that a White from the seas will free them of slavery, and believed that it was Christopher himself. The one which Christopher did accomplish, in the process teaching Pygmies the art of Poisonous Arrows, and the entire tribe and the men from the jungle, began referring him as ‘The Phantom’.
The present Phantom is the 21st of that lineage, which was being passed on from generation to generation, to the eldest male of the family. Most of these change-over’s always happens when the current Phantom is mortally wounded, and he is shown breathing his last inside the Skull Cave, with the next Phantom at his side.
As this change-over happens in secrecy, the world outside sees and fears Phantom, as the single person who has wandered the world for all 400+ years, thus bringing him the famous nick-name “The Ghost Who Walks”. This centuries of fantasized living, earns Phantom a lot of Old saying or prophecies, one of which terms that anyone who sees the face of Phantom without mask, will suffer a terrible death. Something, which helps the Phantom to maintain his secrecy in in numerous battles.
Phantom further reveals that they are bound by oath to not share the secrets of the Phantom, in order to make the people believe and uphold Phantom’s myth. The rule is exempted only to two people who will ever be close to Phantom: is supposed to be wife, and the son who is to carry the tradition. By this he indirectly proposes to Diana for a marriage, which Diana quickly accepts. No wonder that Phantom reveals that none of the Phantom were ever rejected. Doesn’t it sound great, only if this was true with all of us in reality :).
The Singh Brotherhood, the first-ever Phantom comic strip, ran until November 07, 1936, a total of 38 weeks, thus easily making it one of the longest comic strip adventures of Phantom, ever. By the end of the first adventure Falk had taken the legacy of Phantom to a great level among comic fans.
The Making of Phantom: So, what caused Falk to change his original concept of New York playboy playing double life in secret as the Phantom? Falk remained evasive about the real reasons for the story changes, but it must surely have been inner instincts and his love of mythology, the epic (like Shakesphere’s), poetry and real life adventure’s.
He also confesses that he bought in some of the ideas of the Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan, which talks about a white-man of English origin living among the African natives, and learning their customs and mastery, by being one among them. But Falk had denied that he used the later Tarzan comic strips, to base his character, as he termed them as not the best adaptation to the legendary Tarzan novels. A fact I acknowledge to till date, after having witnessed many comics series, not being impressed of it so far.
The Phantom had to has its roots placed somewhere else, which is more exotic and mysterious then the straight look cosmopolitan New York. It took Falk more than 3 months into his daily strip to base his real origin change of Phantom. The result was what we described in Phantom’s Origins Reboots, earlier.
But that was not all, Falk was still not convinced with the origin stories, even after a couple of years into the Phantom Daily strip, as he went about changing them one by one slowly. As per his early stories, The first Phantom was English, as was the 21st Phantom, obviously. He also says that he was educated in Oxford, further claiming his English origins. There were references to Bay of Bengal in many places, meaning that the remote land he referred to was most likely India.
He changed his English Origin to American, possibly to make him look close the American readers, which could have been a demand from King Syndicates. The Home base of the Phantom was also changed to Africa. Which is understood, as he earlier referred the place as Bengal (which was later changed further as Bengali), and was politically Incorrect. The reason, Bengal was actually state in India, and certainly does not have any African tribes living in there :).
But then again Africa, was also not having all the animal species Falk had described on his Phantom comic strips, which was quickly pointed out by many fans. Falk decided to introduce a story in his daily strip, where he shown a ship carrying wide assortment of animals bound for an overseas zoo, being wrecked on the Bengali coast. Falk’s mastery in writing on show, in there, heavily adopting from the Noah’s Ark legend.
Even though, Falk envisioned 21st Phantom, and his predecessors as armed with guns and weapons, he never wanted to show them as a means to shoot for a kill, even the enemies. Phantom generally uses his weapons, to disarm his enemies, or shock them during duals. Thus, a legend was born, unlike any of the costumed superheroes who were created during his time or later.
The legend also meant that unlike other caped crusaders of his time, Phantom was not linked to one generation, thus giving the writers the freedom to base their stories with either the current 21st Phantom in the modern era, or choose to feature stories on the earlier Phantoms, who are often shown walking or being part of the historical events in the past.
The earliest success to the series also owes much to the art of Ray Moore, who had a classic touch of drawing the Phantom strips, which to date remains the best example for defining the Phantom to all the later artists, till date. Phantom comic strip, grew from strength to strength, even managing to appear in few collected comic book formats, albeit a few. But, the series success eventually managed to land it on the first colored strip on Sunday newspapers starting from May 1939.
What relations did Batman have with Phantom? What was the impact of Phantom Sunday Strips over the legacy of Phantom? Did Ray Moore continue to handle the artistic work for Phantom all the years single-handed?
Answers to them will be continued in our next review post of Phantom soon on Comicology: Lee Falk’s Phantom–2: The Colored Years, and the Competition.