Friday, July 24, 2020


I didn’t realize it when, at the tender age of five or so, I first discovered the Phantom in the pages of one of our local Cleveland, Ohio newspapers, that The Ghost Who Walks was destined to become one of my favorite heroes. In retrospect, this is remarkable.

My father Louis was the Atlas who carried the family bakery on his shoulders. He woke early to get the bread started, then delivered bread to families and stores, then returned to the bakery before he came home to eat dinner, help us kids with homework and projects, and maybe do some odd jobs around the house. He didn’t have a lot of time to read newspapers, so he would only buy one a couple times a week. Mostly on his one day off.

Naturally, I would read the comics pages. Even though I only read the Phantom once a week or so, I liked the strip a lot. I couldn’t figure out what was happening in the strip, but I would make up my own stories to fill the gaps. My writer’s mind developed at a very early age.

When I was older, I bought the Phantom comic books. When I was even older, I followed the strip wherever I could find it. Newspapers. Magazines. The novels that adapted classic episodes from the strip. In addition, for several years now, I’ve been buying Phantom comic books from Australia. We’ll talk more about those fantastic comics from down under a bit latter.

Through my library, I was able to read The Phantom: The Complete Newspaper Dailies Volumes One (1936-1937) and Two (1937-1939). Both of these hardcover editions are out of print and priced way out of my range in the secondary market. I wish I’d bought them when they were first published, but anything resembling disposable income was in short supply back then. Alas, the third volume isn’t available from the Cleveland area Usenet system, so I must skip ahead to the fourth volume.

SIDEBAR: I would love to get all of these Phantom newspaper strip collections, but funds for such things are tighter than ever. If anyone out there wants to hire me to write stuff and pay me off in these volumes, that’s something we could do. If interested, you can email me with the details.

I love these early Phantom stories. I get a kick seeing how Phantom creator Lee Falk took an abrupt turn from his original plan and, in doing so, introduced a whole new world of jungles and pirates and more to his character. There’s almost a comedic element to all the stuff that keeps the Phantom and his beloved Diana apart, even though the machinations sometimes make me want to scream. These tales are action-packed adventures with delicious side dishes of comedy, mystery and romance.

Of course, there is always going to be the elephant in the strip. In the 1930s, you’ll find racial stereotypes in the Phantom. They might be somewhat milder than in other entertainments of the era, but they are there. The way I handle them is to remind myself and my readers that they were products of their time, not appropriate then or now, but part of the history. These stereotypes are not to be celebrated, simply acknowledged and understood. However, let’s not forget that Falk made a sincere and somewhat successful effort to undo those stereotypes as the strip continued into more modern and enlightened times.

I’ve been buying Frew Publications’ The Phantom comic since around issue #1100. Published more than monthly, the title has now passed #1850. I haven’t read all the issues I bought, but I’m managing to keep current on the most recent ones.

The standard issue of The Phantom runs 36 pages counting covers and almost all the interior pages are devoted to story. Some of these feature tales originally published in Sweden and other countries. Some reprint daily and Sunday newspaper strips from the earliest days to modern times. Most are in black-and-white, but the series has published color issues. Very occasionally, a brand-new story by Australian creators will appear.

The Phantom #1857 features “The Forgotten Tribe” by Mikael Sol, the current editor of Sweden’s Fantomen whose position now encompasses editorial control of all Team Fantomen stories. Janusz Ordon is the artist. His work is similar to the great work that came out of the Philippines in the 1970s and beyond.

I enjoyed this tale of a proud tribe oppressed by white devils and who think the Phantom is one of those demons. Sol plays with some of the standard jungle tropes, but does so with a sensibility that fits in comfortable with our occasionally more progressive society. The story was first published in Sweden in 2018.

This issue also includes the latest chapter of a seemingly endless story called “Heart of Darkness” that has been running in the title for years. To be honest, I have long since lost track of the plot. My current plan is to wait until the story is finished, assuming it ends in my lifetime, and then read all the chapters back to back.

One of the really cool things about Frew’s Phantom is the specials that are part of the ongoing numbering. The Phantom #1858 was also their 2020 Annual featuring over 200 pages of newspaper adventures set on the Isle of Eden. That’s the island paradise, surrounded by a reef and a river filled with hungry piranhas, where the Phantom has raised animals who don’t eat one another. Lions and tigers co-exist with apes, deer and giraffes. Among the interesting citizens are a stegosaurus, a prehistoric creature with his wife and family, a tormented-by-man giant gorilla who has found peace on the island and doll-size aliens awaiting rescue from their fellows. Only the Phantom, his family and a handful of few fortunate humans have been allowed on Eden.

There are nine stories dating from 1960 to 1996. Lee Falk wrote all of them. The artists: Wilson McCoy, Sy Barry, George Olesen, Keith Williams and Fred Fredericks. It’s a great collection that delves into a wondrous element of the Phantom lore.

The issue came with two premiums. The first is a gorgeous poster of the Animals of Eden that identifies them by name. The second is a Kid Phantom booklet. I’ll be kind about the latter and simply say it’s not to my liking. There were a few issues of “The Adventures of the Phantom as a Young Boy,” but the series didn’t catch on with the readers any better than it did with me.

One more for today. The Phantom #1859 is also “Collectors Replica Series No. 22.” Every issue of this series reprints three original Frew issues. In this case, it’s issues #136, #135 and #134. Yes, I know that’s in backwards order, but that’s how they appear in this comic book. Thank the previous owner of Frew; that’s how they began this replica series and that’s how it (ridiculously in my opinion) continues to this date. To read this 100-page issue and the other replica specials like it, I start at the back of the issue with the earliest numbered issue. Then I move to the middle and then to the most recent issue.

Each replica issue (and, indeed, every issue of the Phantom) has an inside front cover editorial describing the issue’s contents and, usually, offering some historical context to the material. I enjoy these “meetings” with publisher Dudley Hogarth, whose love for the Ghost Who Walks is evident in his writing and the care with which he produces these comic books.

Frew’s earliest editors and publishers reprinted the Phantom comic strips in a fairly rigid formula. They cut and pasted and trimmed the original source material to fit that formula. That worked out okay sometimes but not always.

The reprinted issue #134 had two stories. One is a Sunday story relating “The Childhood of the Phantom” that shows how the legend continued to evolve over the years. The second is another Sunday adventure in which our hero is pursued by the powerful “Queen Pera the Perfect.” The originals were published in 1944/1945.

Issue #135 also had two stories, both reprinted from 1945 Sundays. “The Strange Fisherman” is a repugnant potentate who “fishes” for women from an elephant and sells his “catch” in slave markets. He is portrayed in a somewhat comical and thus utterly inappropriate manner. Not every Phantom story is a gem.

The second story is “The Dragon God of the Wambesi.” Set after the Second World War, the tale has a pair of German soldiers teaming up with an evil witch doctor to convince the area tribes to surrender to and follow a powerful vengeful god. I’m not sure if it was too severely abridged to work, but it’s disappointing. A prose version of the story, republished in a special anthology I’ll discuss next time around, is better and more detailed, but suffers from our hero surviving more through luck than anything else.

Issue #136 reprinted “Lago The Lake God” from a 1945 daily story. It’s another white man tricking tribesman into obeying a powerful god. Falk’s treatment of the jungle people improved over the years, but he wasn’t there in 1945.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this week of bloggy things. I’m taking two to four days off from blogging to put the finishing touches on my Vast Accumulation of Stuff garage sales, but I’ll be back with a bunch of cool stuff after that. Look for new installments of "Phantom Friday" every few weeks or so.

Be safe, be sane, be wonderful to one another. 

© 2020 Tony Isabella

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