Review: The Phantom
Before Superman, before Batman, there was the ghost who walks, who once lived in a strage British India. The Phantom is the first costumed superhero.
The Phantom: The Complete Newspaper Dailies Volumes 1-3
Edited by Ron Goulart
Approx Rs 2,500 each
Long before comic conventions, in an age when the comic book had yet not been intellectualised into the graphic novel, there was the Phantom. If you belonged to a certain type of middle Indian family of the 1970s, you couldn’t miss him. He was there in the Illustrated Weekly — where he occasionally shared space with home-grown crime-fighters like Inspector Azad and Inspector Vikram. Come the weekend, and the Phantom invariably turned up in the new edition of Indrajaal comics, a sister publication of the Weekly.
Times have passed, tastes have changed. The Phantom comics of our boyhood, so commonplace you could buy second-hand ones for 50 paise a piece, are collector’s items today. Indrajaal and the Weekly are long dead. Somebody has painstakingly scanned his Phantom compendium and put it on the web. For middle-aged aficionados, it’s not the same.
A little over 10 years ago, a friend told me Phantom comic books had been republished by Egmont. I searched the bibliophilic haunts of New Delhi, but found nothing. Finally, I was directed to a dingy room behind a building opposite the offices of this newspaper. It was the distributor’s store. After cajoling and persuasion, a crotchety old man agreed to sell me the half-a-dozen or so Egmont Phantom books available. He complained there was no market for them. “We put them with the other children’s books,” he said, “but they hardly get picked up.”
Children’s books? This was sacrilege. “These comics are not for children,” I said, “They are for older people who grew up worshipping the Phantom.” The Ghost Who Walks is now a creature of the nostalgia industry.
Yet, he continues to turn up in the oddest of places, such as the airport bookshop where I recently spent almost R2,500 for a hardcover, big-sized Phantom collection. It is one of three volumes of the first Phantom comics, reissued and packaged as virtually art books by Hermes Press. Volume 2, the only one I could lay my hands on, carries the strips that ran from September 1937 to May 1939.
The stories are a revelation. The Phantom is a resident of India, a fantasy land where the British Raj, Indian princes, African-style aboriginal tribes, Western crooks and Arab slave traders co-exist. The Phantom is cited by officials in Calcutta, helps the imperial government save a Himalayan kingdom from an Australian adventurer — who has killed the old raja and imprisoned the crown prince high in the mountains — and so plays a tangential role in the Great Game.
In his fine introduction, Ed Rhoades makes two points. First, Lee Falk’s early Phantom stories “would never emerge in such a politically correct society as that of 2010”. The Phantom of the 1930s was not “adviser, assistant and friend to very civilised natives who were now presidents”. Second, Ray Moore’s “sense of design and painterly brush strokes give … an elegant minimalist look to the strip”. Indeed, the generous space newspapers allowed Falk and Moore in the 1930s made for more text, conversational repartee and expressive artwork. Going behind the mask
“This was the wonderful time,” Rhoades writes, “when the character [the Phantom] was young and evolving; his demeanour was daring and playful and the stories had so much life and adventure.” That’s how they remember him on the golden sands of Keela Vee, and in the Whispering Grove. He’s the Man Who Cannot Die … Not for our generation at least.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based writer