Jul 7, 2016

The Phantom and Son

When I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s, all of the good comic strips appeared in the Times-Democrat, across the river in Davenport, Iowa.   Our Rock Island Argus featured a few lousy bargain-basement knockoffs -- Freckles instead of Archie, Winthrop instead of Peanuts -- and a lot of weird, incomprehensible dinosaur comics that were last popular when Mom and Dad were kids -- Prince Valiant, Out Our Way, Alley Oop.  
The weirdest, most incomprehensible of the lot was The Phantom, a muscular Tarzan who roams the jungle in a purple jumpsuit. wearing a ring, and has a wife and kids at home.

I found this ridiculous.

1. Hetero domesticity kills adventure.  That's why superheros are typically not interested.  Edgar Rice Burroughs had Tarzan marry Jane Porter because he didn't plan on any further adventures for the Lord of the Jungle; as a long-running series began, he had to think of more and more reasons to get Jane out of the picture.

2. A purple jumpsuit.  Lords of the Jungle always wear loincloths!  The only reason to put them in the jungle, where it's hot and humid,  is so you can draw hard muscles for your readers to ogle.

3.  Did I mention the effeminate ring?  Was the Phantom a drag queen?

The Phantom was created by Lee Falk in 1936, two years before Superman. and continues to run today.  At its peak it appeared in over 500 newspapers worldwide.

Today's Phantom is Kit Walker, is the 21st in a line that extends back to Christopher Walker, a British soldier who was shipwrecked in the jungles of Bengal, India, in 1536.  He became a masked vigilante, complete with jumpsuit and ring, and when he was ready to retire, bequeathed them to his son, the new Phantom, and so on, and so on.  The superstitious natives thought he was the same person, an immortal god, and dubbed him "The Ghost Who Walks."

The Phantom lives with his wife (Helen), kids (Kit and Heloise), and various sidekicks in a skull-shaped cave, where he sits on a skull-shaped throne.  He fights poachers, pirates, insurgents, smugglers, evil witch doctors, cannibals, and various baddies in what is no longer Bengal, but Bengalla Island, off the coast of sub-Saharan Africa.

He also appeared in comic book form, under various imprints: Ace, Harvey, Charleton, and finally Gold Key, where his title ran for 72 issues.

I occasionally leafed through them at Schneider's Drug Store, but quickly go bored.  No same-sex rescues, no beefcake.  Geez, at least show us a bicep now and then!

He appeared in a serial in 1943, when the studios were running out of properties, starring Western star Tom Tyler (left), but otherwise his screen appearances have been few.

A big screen version in 1996 starring Billy Zane (top photo) had the superhero fighting big business in modern-day America.  tanked, along with the sci-fi cartoon, Phantom 2040, with Scott Valentine.    Not like...um, well Tarzan, for instance.

I'm holding out for the modern strips, written by Tony DePaul and drawn by Paul Ryan and Terry Beatty.  They often send in the Phantom's kids to do the adventuring.

Lee Falk imagined him as a cherubic preteen, but the modern Kit is drawn as a muscular blond teenager who has no qualms about appearing in a loincloth.

 And none of the comics I've checked show him expressing heterosexual interest (the girl he's wrestling with is his sister).

Maybe we'll finally get some gay subtexts.

See also: Alley Oop; Prince Valiant.

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