Welcome back, Kotter. After a long weekend of weed wacking and hanging new window shades in my son’s room, there’s nothing better than Monday morning and the thought that I have to get another blog out there. And like a promised a couple of weeks ago before I went on my summer vacation to Charleston SC, here’s a read pile about one of the first ever superheroes to don a mask and strike at the heart of evil by night: The Phantom.
Yes, the original purple powerhouse was one of only a few books I read while lounging by the pool watching my son do cannonball after cannonball in some vain attempt to empty the entire pool basin through displacement. However, as one that has read Phantom daily strips in the past written by the legendary Lee Falk, I wanted to try someone’s else take on the character so I settled on a 4 issue mini series written in the late 80s by one of the truly greats of the comic industry over the past 40 years, Peter David.
David’s Hulk and X-Factor runs are things of beauty filled with engaging characterization and insanely great story lines, so I figured with a guy behind the helm with this type of pedigree there’s a good chance that it’s gotta be half way decent. Also even at only 4 issues, I thought, David didn’t need a ton of story line time to nail the incredible Spidey story, The Death of Jean DeWolff, so that’s also a potential plus delivering the goods with the Ghost who Walks.
So the question comes down to did he deliver?
Well that’s a good question and one I found myself going back and forth on throughout the entire time I was reading this book. The story is in essence a tale about a generational feud between the Phantom and a family of pirates with the last name “Chessman” that spans a couple hundred years. You see, the most interesting facet of the Phantom is that his entire backstory is based in the notion of “legacy”. He is in fact the ultimate legacy comic book character ie a mantle that is passed down from person to the person (we did a whole podcast on legacy characters if you want to learn more).
It’s like if Bruce Wayne really died and stayed dead and Dick Grayson really became Batman. And then the moment Dick died, his son or successor, let’s just say Damien Wayne immediately became Batman in his place, and then Damien dies, and his successor takes his place and becomes Batman, and so on and so on for hundreds of years. Same Batman, same costume, same code of ethics and rules about what they can and can’t do to the point that even though these are different people being Batman, the character and role of Batman doesn’t change. So in essence, the personification of Batman never dies, he is immortal, and for those that choose to do wrong by Batman, killing him is not a way to solve the problem, as he’ll always come back.
It’s very similar to the approach they take with the Black Panther in the Marvel Mythology with that mantle, costume, and code being passed down from person to person at the moment of the previous Panther’s death. As a side note, the parallel in terms of the Black Panther and the Phantom is actually a very strong one what with the generational legacy aspects and the jungle motif, so for those of you that like the Panther, reading the Phantom would probably also be up your alley, but I digress.
So there have been a ton of these Phantoms over the years, passing down tales of their adventures in diary form for later generations to read so that they may learn and benefit from the years of combined experiences, and this particular 4 issue arc actually switches between 2 different stories: one told of an 18th century Phantom fighting what we would classically consider “pirates” via one of these journal entries, and a modern day Phantom doing battle with a descendant of those original pirates who still is up to no good with illegal smuggling and such. It’s the fact that we get two related yet different stories in the series that led me to have the sort of mixed feelings I did about this read pile review.
The issue with me is that the Phantom seems very anachronistic. It was the same problem I had with the Batman vs. Mad Monk remake by Matt Wagner I reviewed a month or so ago. It’s that these particular characters or stories work better when portrayed in a historical setting, not a modern day one. As I said in that Mad Monk review, a character and story like that works in the 1930s because it plays heavily on a world still filled with superstition, of remote far off places in the world, where mysterious strange cultures untouched by modern society might still exist, and so it’s more believable to spin yarns about ancient undying avengers or lost jungle tribes or horrific creatures torn from the pages of local folklore. In a world where practically everywhere has been explored, science and technology touches our daily lives even in the most far off places, notions of the magical and mystic no longer hold very much sway, and so they seem out of time and place.
With this mini series, I personally loved the entire “flashback” story of the 18th century Phantom and his very personal war against the Chessman pirates. How he originally sought them out seeking vengeance for them killing a person that was under his protection, how he was overpowered by the pirates, taken prisoner, and then was subsequently tortured, starved, and humiliated. Yet, he never gave up in his quest of revenge, and eventually fate played a hand in his escape from his harsh captors. He then relentlessly tracks down ever single one of them and makes them pay for the wrongs they inflicted on him reestablishing the “street cred” of the Phantom of an inescapable force of justice. I feel like if the entire book had been just about this story, I would have easily considered this a “B+” to “A-” run, as it re-purposed one of the wonderful literary tropes of the classic comeuppance yarn told in so many stories over the years, like the Count of Monte Cristo, or one of my favorite Michael Caine movies, the original Get Carter.
However, this story is interspersed with a more modern adventure of the current Phantom as he discovers a descendant of the original Chessman pirates still lives and is still up to no good as a drug trafficker. This takes the Phantom out of the jungle and into an American city, where he and his pet wolf, Devil, continue to dish out justice as only a guy in a purple spandex body suit can. And although this story really tries to show that long before there was Batman or Daredevil, jumping from rooftop to rooftop stalking evil doers by night, that the Phantom was the OG at this shtick, for some reason, it fails.
Instead the Phantom just looks goofy and out of place, like time has passed this guy by and no amount of “pumping the tires” on him is going to change the fact that he’s a relic of the comic book past with no place in bustling metropolitan city. Even the scenes in the jungle felt out of place, as where in the modern world would a jungle like this still exist? One with tribes still living in the dirt worshiping this white dude named the Ghost that Walks, as a masked vigilante still dishes out two gunned law and order from the safety of his secret cave fort? Y’know the magical legendary “jungle” of ye olden days untouched by deforestation, poachers, or Starbucks?
C’mon, I love classic Golden age comics and their characters, so this is not my poking fun at something just because it’s “old”. I write whole blogs on what my favorite movie serials are, still listen to classic Shadow radio programs, and consider Flash Gordon as one of my top 3 favorite comic heroes, but this…I mean…the suspension of disbelief snaps at some point.
I guess that this explains why I liked The Phantom movie from 1996 (y’know the “Slam Evil” one). Despite being made in 1996, it was historically set in the 1930s about the same time Lee Falk was writing his original Phantom stories. Same thing goes for those original Falk stories like “The Singh Brotherhood” epic or “The Sky Band”, those were told about the world at that time, so this notion of an unexplored world filled with mystery and intrigue, of far off places many could only see in their imaginations instead of just turning on the TV and watching “Nature” on PBS. Maybe that’s why it was also easier to digest the 18th century pirate adventures of the book. It wasn’t the modern age, again it puts you in a state of mind to be more willing to accept the fiction of the story, even though I doubt anyone would run around in purple spandex even back then.
The sad yet sobering reason the modern day Phantom as he was depicted in this particular story failed was because we have grown up and moved past all of that. That it’s incredibly unrealistic, even in a comic book world of people with spider powers or that can run at the speed of light, to be given a character like the Phantom almost exactly as he is in the old comic strips and say “yep, that could happen”.
And unlike those other comics I mentioned with the super powers and such, those have at least the extra cushioning in terms of disbelief by portraying something fantastic to start with. Like you are willing to accept a lot more fiction when you are given a Kryptonian alien with ray beam eyes, because it sets up a certain level of fantasy from the start. In the Phantom’s world, it’s pretty much a normal place and nobody, not even the Phantom has super powers. So your suspension of disbelief is already pretty low because it’s just the world like it is outside right now, and that makes the Phantom stick out like a sore thumb.
So, long story short, I might read more Phantom in future. However here’s a word of advice for those that are thinking about writing stories about the Phantom.
1) Historically base all of their stories. Seriously, its so much easier on the reader in terms of acceptance of the fairy tale to place it in some far away place or in this case, time.
2) Get imaginative with ways to update the Phantom for modern audiences. I’m not saying that you can’t have the Phantom be a modern superhero, but you definitely can’t relying on the same concepts that have been around for decades even if that’s at the heart of his character. All Superheroes change, they grow, they evolve for their new audiences. You have to be more creative with how you respond to those changes without losing the core of the character. I just mentioned many modern day challenges facing the places in the world which would have been the Phantom’s stomping grounds. The Phantom vs. Ethic Cleansing, or the destruction of the rain forests, or human trafficking for god sake!
The world needs characters like the Phantom as symbols for good’s triumph over evil especially in places like those I’ve mentioned. They don’t need him traipsing around New York being asked whether he has a pooper scooper for his pet wolf.
Andy’s Read Pile Grade: C-