Comics scholars generally agree that Superman was the first true superhero of the comic books, clearing marking the entrance of a new kind of hero into the marketplace. Though Superman wears an iconic costume, he was not the first heroic character to do so. That honor goes to the Phantom, a mystery-man hero type who clearly ushered in the superhero genre. Written by Lee Falk (who earlier had success with the newspaper strip Mandrake the Magician) and drawn by Ray Moore, the Phantom first appeared in King Features Syndicate on February 17, 1936.
Readers first see the Phantom rising out of the sea to rescue beautiful Diana Palmer from peril, thus putting in motion events that will be repeated endlessly over the coming decades. With his purple bodysuit (though readers had to wait for a Sunday strip added in May 1939 to actually see the costume in color), striped trunks, hood, blank-eyed mask, and black leather gun belt bearing a
death's head skull, the Phantom's costume defined his persona as a masked avenger. Preceding Superman by two years, it is here that the superhero blueprint was first fully established: a physically impressive, costumed character, complete with secret identity (Kit Walker), imperilled girlfriend, and secret hideout (the Skull Cave). In addition, the Phantom came equipped with his superweapons and super-gadgets, including two revolvers, homing pigeons he dispersed to send and receive messages, and a
skull ring worn on his left hand, the imprint of which clearly meant that a person was struck by the hero.
The Phantom's origin lays hundreds of years in the past—the sixteenth century, in fact—when pirates raid a merchant ship, killing the crew and captain and leaving only his young son alive. Washed up on a beach in an unspecified jungle setting, the child is befriended by a local tribe and swears an oath to
devote my life to the destruction of piracy, cruelty, and greed, and my sons will follow me! Early versions of the origin name the child's father as Sir Christopher Standish, a British nobleman, but later versions name him as Kit Walker, and his descendants appear to think of themselves as American. The child thrives under the tutelage of the tribe and creates the Phantom costume, inspired by a native idol, to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies. Each generation of Walkers is trained to take over the mantle of the Phantom and, since all wear the same costume, local legend has it that he is in fact the same man 400 years later, hence the nickname,
the Ghost Who Walks.
Over the years, the Phantom accumulated a wide cast of characters, including Guran, leader of the tribe; trusted friend Bandar; foster son Rex; trusted wolf Devil; and horse Hero. After dating love interest Palmer for decades, he married her in 1977 and she later gave birth to twins, Eloise and Kit, the latter destined to become the twenty-second Phantom. The supporting cast and constantly changing storyline have kept the strip fresh. The Phantom's adventures have taken him around the globe, and many episodes (particularly in the comic books) have related tales of earlier Phantoms, even including a nineteenth-century lady Phantom.
Newspaper strip artist Phil Davis fell ill in 1942 and his assistant, Wilson McCoy, gradually took over the strip, working completely solo from 1947 to 1961. His successor, comic-book veteran Seymour
Sy Barry, then produced the feature for an extraordinary thirty-two years, before his assistant, George Oleson, finally took up the reins in 1994. If the work of Davis and McCoy now appears quaint, Barry's has consistently been attractive and polished, and it is his Phantom that invariably appears on merchandise to this day.
With any successful comic strip there is an inevitable flood of tie-ins and merchandise, and the Phantom has been no exception, appearing in or on everything from novels (twelve pulp-style paperbacks from Avon published in the early 1970s and co-authored by Falk), watches, and games to mugs, dolls, and rings. In 1943, he was brought to the silver screen by Columbia Pictures in a fifteen-chapter serial starring Tom Tyler (previously seen portraying Captain Marvel). A promised follow-up fell into licensing difficulties and was hastily rejigged into The Adventures of Captain Africa, starring John Hart. More successful was a 1996 Paramount movie (simply titled The Phantom), directed by Simon Wincer and starring Billy Zane and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Longtime fans praised the film for capturing the spirit of the strip.
If the Phantom's celluloid outings have been rare, his comic-book life has been long and fruitful, starting in 1938 when the David McKay Company began reprinting his newspaper strip in Ace Comics, King Comics, and Feature Books. McKay printed Phantom strips throughout the 1940s, and then Harvey Comics took over the reins in the 1950s. In the 1960s, editor/writer Bill Harris and courtroom artist Bill Lignante produced new Phantom comic books for the first time, for Gold Key from 1962 to 1966 and for King Features (the syndicating company, thereby getting into the comics business for themselves) from 1966 to 1967. Charlton took over the franchise for the next eight years, initially producing a very handsome-looking Phantom comic by the future Aquaman team of Steve Skeates and Jim Aparo. Charlton's run met with mixed opinions, not least from King Features, but it ended on a high in 1977 after a beautiful sequence of issues from artist Don Newton.
There was then a decade in the wilderness for the Phantom before DC Comics tried its hand at a title or two in 1988, and since then various companies (including Marvel, Wolf, Moonstone, Manuscript Press, and Tony Raiola) have kept the Ghost Who Walks in the public eye. Two of Marvel's short-lived attempts were based on slightly eccentric Saturday morning cartoons: the 1986 Defenders of the Earth, which co-starred King's other main heroic properties, Mandrake the Magician, Flash Gordon, and Prince Valiant; and the 1994 futuristic Phantom 2040, starring the twenty-fourth Phantom.
The Phantom is far from being a solely American phenomenon. The character has achieved enormous success across the world and has been enjoyed in more than sixty countries. Foreign Phantom comics first appeared in Italy in 1938, in fact preceding their American equivalent, but it is in Scandinavia and Australia that he has been most successful. The jungle hero has been a national institution in Sweden since World War II, and Stockholm even has its own Phantom theme park. While the 1970s and 1980s saw a decline in U.S. comic books featuring the masked avenger, Sweden's Semic Press was producing two new stories a month for the Scandinavian market, mostly drawn by Spanish artists. These Semic strips have tended to explore the Phantom's earlier incarnations, including the fifth Phantom (who fought Blackbeard), the thirteenth Phantom (who fought in the 1812 war) and the sixteenth Phantom (who was apparently a cowboy!).
If the Phantom is popular in Scandinavia, then he is a genuine obsession in Australia, dominating the comic-book scene there just as Superman, Spiderman, and the X-Men have in the United States. Since 1948, the Frew Company has been publishing a combination of newspaper strips and European reprints in a variety of formats, every couple of weeks. As of 2004, Frew has produced more than 1,300 editions of its Phantom comic and it is still going strong. If the American comic book is no longer a significant presence on U.S. newsstands, the newspaper strip itself is still in fine health, appearing in more 500 papers across the country. The Phantom would seem to be one of those very few heroes whose popularity transcends all boundaries, and he should be stalking the world's landscapes for years to come.