Wednesday, July 12, 2017
NEAR-MYTHS: THE PHANTOM (1936-37)
Thanks to the 2010 Hermes Press collection of the first PHANTOM dailies, I've finally had the chance to read the first adventures of the "Ghost Who Walks."
The volume reprints three hefty sequences by writer/creator Lee Falk and artist Ray Moore: "The Singh Brotherhood," "The Sky Band," and "The Diamond Hunters." "Brotherhood" is interesting in that the original version of the Phantom was set up to be a big-city, modern-day crimefighter, possibly along the lines of 1914's "The Gray Seal." Then at some point Falk decided to change his hero's origin, possibly because his main villains, the Singhs, were based in Asia. The Phantom then became a mystery-man who was reputed to have lived for hundreds of years, haunting the evil like an unkillable ghost. The truth, as was revealed to the hero's romantic interest Diana Palmer, was that there was a whole family line of Phantoms, who had opposed evil since their ancestor had escaped death at the hands of Singh pirates in the 1500s.
The Phantom origin strikes me as a melding of at least two major popular narratives. One is that of ROBINSON CRUSOE. I don't think it's a coincidence that Christopher Standish, the first Phantom, gains the help of the so-called "pygmy people" because he washes up on Bangalla-- originally an island-- and becomes an object of veneration because the natives have never seen a white man. The idea of white men becoming gods to darker peoples was common throughout popular fiction, and also appears, albeit less crucially, in Rider Haggard's 1885 KING SOLOMON'S MINES. Haggard may have also influenced Falk in terms of the Phantom's "undying" schtick. One of the villains in the Haggard book is the witch-finder Gagool, who claims to belong to an unbroken line of identically named witch-finders-- although she also bedevils the white explorers by suggesting that maybe she herself is the only Gagool, kept immortal through evil arts. About a year later, Haggard recapitulated the same idea unambiguously in 1886's SHE.
The idea of the "white savior" won't be welcome to most readers today, so the most one can say is that Falk doesn't make either the Phantom's pygmy allies or his Oriental villains egregiously stupid or evil. The Singhs are evil because they kill people, not because they're Asians (say) lusting after white women. Later versions of THE PHANTOM made the pygmies less backward, but in the original strips, they are unquestionably prisoners of their superstitions. In fact, in one sequence the Phantom escapes an underwater Singh base and makes it to Bangalla's shores. However, he's struck with "the bends" and falls unconscious. The pygmy witch-doctor-- later named Guran, who will forever be recognizable for his trademark thatched hat-- thinks that the only thing capable of felling the immortal Phantom is a demon. So Guran tries to burn the demon out. Providentially the Phantom wakes up before he can be subjected to what he calls "rather unscientific medical care."
The opening "Singh" sequence makes clear that the hero's romantic interest is no pushover in her own right--
And the second sequence, "Sky Band," pits the Phantom against a all-female gang of airborne pirates. One of the members, Sala, is first seen in the Singh sequence, working for the Brotherhood, but Falk decided to keep her around as a member of the Sky Band.
There's not a lot of explanation as to why these lady pilots have formed a sorority of the skies, but this arc comes closest to the level of mythopoesis, with the Sky Band acting as a modern-day Amazon tribe. And just as many pop-culture heroes find themselves venturing into Amazon territory so that they can conquer female hearts, both Sala and the group's leader, the Baroness, fall in love with the masked crimefighter. Epic fail for the "Bechdel test!"
To be sure, the Phantom remains loyal to his true love, and doesn't seduce any of these women a la James Bond. Further, since these were G-rated strips, there's not even a strong implication that the gals take advantage of the hero when they hold him captive. The story ends-- as shown above-- when Phantom successfully bluffs the Baroness into thinking he's shrugged off her gunfire, when in fact he's severely wounded. Pretty ballsy even in 2017, much less 1936!
"The Diamond Hunters" is the least interesting story. It resembles dozens of jungle-stories in which the white hero administrates jungle-law for all of the natives, not only adjudicating over their quarrels but also keeping out the incursions of white fortune-hunters. In order to gain access to forbidden diamond mines, two such adventurers bring about a war between two native tribes. The most interesting things about this sequence are that (1) as shown above, the Phantom doesn't report to white colonial authorities, and is actually scornful of their efficacy, and (2) though one of the troublemakers dies accidentally, the Phantom personally draws down on the second guy and kills him. I always thought the movie Tarzan was often a little too easy on the white interlopers, letting them get killed off by quicksand or the local fauna.
In conclusion, the original PHANTOM stories, while they have great mythic potential, don't quite succeed in that arena. But, political incorrectness or not, they are for the most part bracing, well-paced adventure tales.