An Early Watchmen Spin-Off.

A couple of years ago I picked up issues 1 and 2 of a four-issue DC Comics revival (published 1988) of Lee Falk’s classic early superhero The Phantom. The 1988 series was written by Peter David and drawn by Joe Orlando and Dennis Janke. I wanted these partly because of the Joe Orlando art. In 1987,  Orlando drew an illustration for a text piece in the back of #5 of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 12-issue revisionist superhero maxi-series Watchmen, purporting to represent a page from the comic-within-the-comic, Tales of the Black Freighter. According to comments in The Comics Journal, writer Moore chose Orlando because he felt that if pirate stories were popular in the Watchmen universe, DC editor Julius Schwartz might persuade Orlando to draw a new pirate comic book. In fact, this is more or less what happened. Gibbons himself inks the Orlando-pencilled covers of The Phantom #s 1-2 (I’ve yet to track down #s 3-4) and the first cover strongly features pirates (there’s even a freighter, though admittedly it’s not black). Indeed, pirates feature heavily throughout the first issue’s story. Hence, this series could be described as a disguised Watchmen spin-off.

 Given this Watchmen connection, one might expect writer Peter David to have adopted a revisionist approach to Falk’s creation. Instead he recapitulates the basic elements of the series, at least in these two issues. Though these opening two issues are slow-going, David manages to achieve something more flippant fare often fails to do, precisely because irony can cancel out empathy. In short, I actually found myself cheering the Phantom on as he fought bullying pirates and other opponents. David managed to make me bothered about the outcome of his story’s fist-fight! Some of the credit for this must go to Orlando, whose art is subservient to the needs of the story. Characters are recognizable throughout and action is clearly shown.

Perhaps, though, I remained interested because I didn’t know much about The Phantom to begin with. Informative text-pieces in both issues, by Peter David and Anthony Tollin respectively, brought me up to speed. From these I learned that The Phantom appeared in print ahead of Superman. In fact, the Phantom was the first fictional hero to wear the skin-tight costume which has become associated with comic-book superheroes. He was also the first shown in a mask with no visible pupils. Falk said he was inspired by classical Greek statues which he supposed had been created with no pupils to generate a feeling of mystery and awe. In fact, of course, these statues originally had pupils, but they faded over time. As for the skin-tight costume, Falk claimed he was influenced by the tights worn by Robin Hood on stage and screen.

From the text-pieces I also learned that one thing which made The Phantom unusual was that he did not have a ‘secret identity’. He was just The Phantom. Furthermore, whenever a current Phantom dies, his son takes on the mantle so that everyone—including the natives of the jungle where he lived—will suppose that The Phantom is immortal. Hence The Phantom came to be known as The Ghost Who Walks. This secret was known only to his wife and children. (How the marriage service played out I don’t know.) These two odd aspects of the Phantom legend are, I expect, what made it hard work for David to make the reader interested in his hero. The Phantom has got 21 incarnations, none of them with much in the way of distinct personality, as far as I can tell from these two issues (though the text-pieces hint at some idiosyncrasies), and no out of costume identity. One answer to such a problem for a writer might be to focus on supporting characters and construct solid, well-plotted adventures, with the Phantom as a mysterious figure appearing out of the shadows. As intimated already, what David does is different. He tries to tell the story of several Phantoms in different time-periods simultaneously. He does this by using the device of quoting lengthy extracts from an archival tome which the various Phantoms fill with reports on their activities. The use of this device slows down the pace (for one thing, the hand-writing used for the extracts is not always easy to read). However, this approach succeeds in creating the sense of a centuries-long tradition, which is what makes the Phantom unique. (One might argue that the series had a brief for revision enshrined in its basic premise.)

Another odd thing about The Phantom is the fact that he is based in a jungle. This jars because while he has a great look – lilac skin-tight costume, black domino and white eyes, often carries a pistol – and a great name, neither look nor name have any relation to a jungle setting. One expects him to engage in pulpy exploits in the streets of a sleazy American city. Neither of the text-pieces refer to this peculiarity, but Gerard Jones’ book Men of Tomorrow notes that Lee Falk’s Phantom was ‘a bored New York playboy who dons a mask to fight crime (although a copyright dispute soon forced him to move to the jungles of India)’.

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