Friday, July 10, 2009

The Ghost Who Walks!

"The Ghost Who Walks!" If that tag line doesn't capture the imagination of a six year old, I don't know what will. Just as I discovered Batman at a young age because he was conveniently beamed to the TV screen in my living room, I found the Phantom conveniently in the pages of our daily newspaper. As soon as I was able to read, I started reading the comic strips, and The Phantom was there along with Steve Canyon and Beetle Bailey. Since he wasn't as highly exposed as Batman or Superman, I wasn't hooked on him the same way, but he definitely caught my interest.

In fact, one of the frustrations I had with comic strips in general was that you only got two or three panels per day. For a kid with a short attention span, having a story unfold at such a snail's pace was maddening. Fortunately, during the early 70s, Charlton Comics was publishing The Phantom in comic book form on a regular basis. I much preferred reading the comic books over the strip, even though I liked the artwork on the strip better. At least with the comic book, I got a complete story in one issue. If there had been a live-action or cartoon show based on The Phantom as well, I probably would have been a bigger fan, but alas, it was not to be back then.

The Phantom's lack of media exposure has always remained a mystery to me. Making his debut in 1936, he is one of the most enduring super heroes in pop culture history, beating out Superman and Batman by two and three years, respectively. He was also the first hero to wear a brightly colored leotard with the briefs on the outside and to sport a mask with the eyes whited out for a spooky effect. He was, for all intents and purposes, the prototype for the modern super hero. The Phantom has never gone away, with the daily strip still running in newspapers along with appearances in various comic books around the world. Currently, Moonstone Comics publishes The Phantom in comic book and graphic novel form, and separate comics have been produced in places like Scandinavia, Australia, and India. Actually, he's more popular abroad than in the States, which has always baffled me. He is, after all, a wealthy American coming to a third world country to protect them. A rather unpopular sentiment in today's world, but somehow he is still appealing.

In a nutshell, The Phantom is Kit Walker, who carries on the family business as the 21st Phantom to roam the jungles of Bengalla. Back in the 1500s, one of Kit's ancestors, Christopher Walker, was serving on his father's ship when it was attacked by pirates of the Singh Brotherhood off the coast of Bengalla. Christopher Walker saw his father murdered before he was swept off the boat. He washed ashore and was nursed back to health by a tribe of pygmies. When he sees the body of the pirate who killed his father on the shore, he swears to fight greed, cruelty, and injustice. From that point on, a Walker has defended the jungle tribes of Bengalla in the disguise of The Phantom. Since the job is past down through the generations, The Phantom never dies and is thus known as "The Ghost Who Walks." Kit assumes the mantle of the super hero when his father dies from a knife wound. Up to that point, Kit had been raised in the States and was set to marry his college sweetheart when he is called to the jungle to serve his duty.

I never thought about it as a kid, but I think the reason why I liked The Phantom was because he was so much like Batman. He was a wealthy man without powers who is devoted to fighting crime and injustice because of a family trauma involving the death of a father. Without the benefit of gadgets, The Phantom was even more resourceful than Batman, using only a pair of .45 automatics and the help of his horse Hero and his wolf called Devil. Occasionally, he would also get an assist from the pygmy tribe who knows his true identity.

The jungle setting of The Phantom was always a bit confusing to me. In the comic strip, he was surrounded by African tribes people, but in other comics and stories that I read, there were Indian references like the Singh Brotherhood. I later discovered that the location of Bengalla was moved from India to Africa in the strip during the 1960s. The movie serial made in the 1940s showed a really muddled picture of the jungle environment with people of all nationalities made up in tribe makeup that didn't indicate any particular race or nationality. I guess the producers figured the kids wouldn't know any difference.

Another thing that confused me was why the strip continued to use Kit Walker as The Phantom over all those decades. Unlike other comic characters where they must remain the same age year after year, The Phantom had its own built in excuse for aging the character and having future generations take over. During the run of the strip, The Phantom did marry and have two children, but Kit remained roughly the same age and continued as the 21st Phantom right up to today. At some point, Lee Falk or the subsequent writers could have had Kit's son take over and aged him as well. I always thought that was a missed opportunity to bring a level of realism to the strip.

When Captain Action came out in 1966, Ideal secured the license to make costumes based on many of the King Features properties, including The Phantom. I never had a Phantom costume for my Captain Action as a kid, but I definitely snapped one up when Playing Mantis came out with their reproduction versions in the late 90s. Later on, I managed to find some original costumes on eBay, but not all of the accessories. The version pictured in this blog is a mixed assortment of vintage and reproduction pieces. One of the main differences between the old and new costumes is that, on the vintage costume, the black stripes on The Phantom's briefs were created with sewn-on strips of vinyl. Playing Mantis wisely silk-screened the stripes on for the reproduction. Also, Ideal made the mask as a two-piece arrangement with the face part separate from the cowl. Playing Mantis came up with a one-piece mask that's easier to put on. The version pictured here has the vintage leotard and mask. The holster, boots, belt, and knuckle band are all reproductions, which mirror the original accessories almost exactly.

After paying little attention to The Phantom for many years, I read a couple of the Moonstone comics and was quite impressed. I also hear that a new movie is in the works (the Billy Zane film didn't do so well). While he doesn't get the same sort of press as Batman, it looks like The Phantom will continue to live on in pop culture like the character himself lives forever in the jungles of Bengalla.


Superflash said...

The CA Phantom costume set was the last original piece of CA merchandise that lingered in my town at a Gibson's Discount store. I was always tempted, but by that point I was already mad at how stored CA accessories would melt onto each other.

I was amazed that some bidders actually PHONED me about Captain Action due to my TBG ad.

Being the rather obsessive type, that bothered me and I ended up selling all of my Captain Action stuff in college. Naturally, years later I wished I had kept it. Aquaman was the first costume set I got. I had Batman, Superman, Sgt. Fury, Capt. America and Spider-Man.

We had to order Spidey through the Sears catalog since we didn't have many toy places. I even had the rare Marx Marvel Super-Hero Express Train with the BOX that I sold in the same auction. I bought that at Wacker's (a variety store like Woolworth's). Uh, yeah, I wish I had kept that. It was kind of lame, but goes for big bucks now.

Never saw the Playing Mantis Phantom set here or I would have bought it. They always go too high on eBay for me.

Superflash said...

Oops, I see my second paragraph should have been where my 2nd one is! So much for my proofreading skills.