Saturday, December 7, 1996



Dig out those old comics and brush off your Phantom ring - the 'Ghost Who Walks' is back! The famous masked superhero is about to hit the big screen in a new Hollywood blockbuster - complete with purple tights, twin pistols and plenty of 'old jungle sayings'.

In the fifties in New Zealand, the Phantom was everywhere. You could follow his adventures in the newspaper, and in Feature Productions' Phantom comic book, published in Petone, which became our longest-running and most popular comic. From 1949 until its demise in 1965, 556 issues were eagerly snapped up by thousands of young boys and girls, some of whom are still fans today.

Of course, in these days of collectibles and price guides, you pay a hefty premium to relive those early daydreams of jungle adventure: up to $1250 for no.1, according to the Australian Phantom Price Guide. "Sometimes," admits one of the very few collectors known to possess a complete run of the New Zealand comic, "I wish I'd never started."

The Phantom's career began as a newspaper strip in 1936 (two years before Superman debuted), the creation of a young American pulp-writer named Lee Falk. Sixty years on, the 'Ghost Who Walks' has starred in countless strips, comic books, novels, radio serials, movies (including an earlier series in the 1930's) and animated cartoons. Well, maybe not 'countless' - you can be sure a Phantom fan somewhere has counted 'em all.

Because Phantom fans are devoted fans, and nowhere are they more devoted than in Australia. Frew Publications in Sydney has been publishing their Phantom comic book continuously since 1948. At a fortnightly schedule (plus special editions), that means they're already into the 1100's - a world record. It's an energetic mix of recent and classic newspaper strips and comic book-format adventures written and drawn in Sweden, another stronghold of Phantom fandom. These Scandinavian stories occasionally need redrawing, due to the artists' tendancy to draw the Phantom's wife in the nude. But even censored, the Phantom outsells every other comic book in Australia, averaging 40,000 per issue - over a million comics a year.

Frew publisher Jim Shepherd believes this popularity stems "from mass exposure - in newspapers and our comic book - and the fact that so many key media people have a love affair with the Phantom. Each year, newspaper and magazine articles alone amount to an average total of 35 full pages. The Phantom's name bobs up regularly in sport with racehorses such as The Phantom, The Phantom Chance, Phantom's Hero and so on." Shepherd estimates there are at least 15,000 serious Phantom fans in Australia alone, and a smaller, but equally dedicated number in New Zealand. Frew plan both a book and a magazine about the Phantom cult for 1997.

Outside of Austalasia and Scandinavia, however, the Phantom has never enjoyed the mass appeal of a Superman or Batman. But what his following lacks in numbers, it more than makes up for with its obsessiveness. A quick surf on the Internet, for example, will give you dozens of snippets like these: a list of 'old jungle sayings' such as "Phantom's cold fury chills even tiger's blood" (apparently Barry Stubbersfield has compiled a list of some 188 such sayings dating back to 1946); the fact that creator Lee Falk named his own daughter after the Phantom's wife Diana; and even the shattering revelation that the Phantom's costume is only purple thanks to a confused printer back in the early days ("they didn't get the color specifications," Falk explained, "and he ended up in purple running around a green jungle. I was thinking of some kind of camouflage!").

Yup, Phantom fandom can get downright scholarly. In fact, the story encourages it, with its detailed chronology going back to the early 1500's, when the very first Phantom was washed up on a remote Bangalla beach, the sole survivor of a pirate raid. Upon finding the body of the pirate who'd killed his father, he swore the first oath of the skull: that he and his descendents would fight pirates and evildoers. And they've been doing just that ever since, dressed in the trademark purple tights and skull ring (which, when applied at punching speed to some miscreant's chin, leaves the famous 'mark of the Phantom').

Although the current Phantom (number twenty-one in this imaginary genealogy) is the same one who starred in that first strip back in 1936, flashbacks to the adventures of his forefathers have always been a regular feature. Like the 15th Phantom (said to have married an Italian opera singer) or the 3rd (who was educated in Elizabethan England as a boy, played Juliet in the original production of Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theatre and married Shakespeare's niece Rosamunda).

It's this rich background detail, firmly based in real history, that lies at the heart of the Phantom's appeal, according to one Auckland fan in his late forties. A successful businessman and fan since childhood, he's a member of the Friends of the Phantom, a very select US-based club - the elite of Phantom fandom. "The Phantom's family history holds much more interest for me than all the fighting and defeating evil in the modern era," he explains. "Our age group was always interested in historical adventure and the whole idea of European Africa, with its mysterious jungle and cannibals and so on. We weren't so interested in the fantastic or ridiculous - like the incredible superpowers and space stuff kids are in to now. All the elements in the Phantom are exciting but also believable. The jungle, the Skull Cave [the Phantom's HQ], the Golden Beach of Keela-Wee, the Treasure Room, where he keeps the asp that killed Cleopatra and the Horn of Roland - artifacts from all through history.... They're all things every kid would love to find in real life; and not just kids, either. A lot of the people who were kids when the comic was first around have continued to read it right through."

And we're not just talking about comics fans either - people who pick up an issue of the X-Men or the Justice League in between trips to the Skull Cave. On the contrary, Phantom fandom and comics fandom generally treat each other with indifference or even contempt.

"When you meet a Phantom fan," one Australian cartoonist advised his readers, "don't make eye contact. Just keep walking." It seems that to many comics connoisseurs, The Phantom strip just isn't any good. Neither the writing nor drawing are particularly skillful and it holds no great historical importance for the medium. The fact is, most comics fans just can't see what all the fuss is about.

None of which matters to the fan, of course. "The people who collect the Phantom wouldn't be interested in most other comics," our Friend of the Phantom says. "I mean - they're garbage!"


(Nb: this is the pre-subedited draft of the article)


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Copyright 2000 Dylan Horrocks