Originating in 1936 from creator Lee Falk, The Phantom became – and remains – one of the most popular adventure comic strips in the world. However, the character did not enjoy the same popularity in comic books, at least in America.
In the US, the character’s appearance in comic books has been relatively few and far between. While both Marvel and DC, as well as some smaller publishers, have had a decent go at a The Phantom series, it has consistently been outside of America where the character has enjoyed the most success.
In fact, when the very first time The Phantom was printed in comic book format (that is a magazine-style publication of 20 pages or more focusing on the one character) had been something of a debate, until recently. Initially, it was thought that the honour went to the Italian comic Collana Albi Grandi Avventure #1, published in May 1937. However, some eagle-eyed fans noticed that a Brazilian comic, also from 1937, had a publication date a month earlier. The story did not end there though, as it was revealed that a comic from the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia predated the Brazilian comic. Titled Fantom, it was confirmed to have been published sometime before April 14th, 1937. Thus the origin of The Phantom comic books took place far away from his home country.
The Phantom first appeared in a comic book in the US in 1938 in issue #11 of Ace Comics. This is considered an important issue by comic historians as it introduced the idea of costumed adventure heroes to US comic books, leading directly into the Golden Age of comics. It came out several months before Action Comics #1
After this, the character saw publication in comic books from various publishers off-and-on until 1977 when the title would not return to US comic books for roughly another ten years. Internationally though, things were very different.
In 1948 Australian publisher Frew Publications secured the rights to reprint Falk’s newspaper strips in comic book format. Initially publishing comic books featuring other titles such as Popeye and The Shadow (an original Australian creation, not the Walter B. Gibson character), The Phantom proved far and away to be Frew’s most popular title and by 1958 was their sole title which continues to this day. As of writing, Frew has released close to 2000 individual The Phantom publications. Today, the current owners of Frew continue to take The Phantom in new directions, such as with their all-ages title Kid Phantom.
As one might expect with such a long period of publication, The Phantom has become part of the popular culture of Australia. Much like Batman or Spider-Man today in America (and much of the world) it is hard to find anyone in Australia of teenage years or older who does not know who The Phantom is, even if they have never read a The Phantom comic.
Such is the popularity of the character in Australia that the Australian government has used him in promotional and education material. Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications company, has featured him on their products and Australian comedians and TV-personalities, such as Paul Hogan of Crocodile Dundee fame, have credited The Phantom as inspirations and even featured him on their programs, usually by dressing up as the hero.
A similar situation can be seen in Nordic countries, especially Sweden. Introduced in 1940 in the weekly magazine Vecko-Revyn via newspaper strip reprints, these were collected into special annuals beginning in 1944, becoming Sweden’s first The Phantom comic book.
In 1950 a fortnightly Fantomen comic book began publication, initially reprinting The Phantom newspaper strips. Such was the popularity of the character that in 1963 original stories started to be produced for Fantomen. These stories were created by a series of writers and artists – dubbed “Team Fantomen” – using a similar method to that of Marvel and DC. By the end of 2017, Team Fantomen had created just shy of 960 original The Phantom stories.
The Phantom also had his own theme park in Sweden at Parken Zoo, Eskilstuna. Complete with Skull Cave and The Phantom himself, the park offered a fun jungle setting for children to explore. Sadly, this was closed in 2010. However, Fantomen remains one of the most popular publications in the country.
Another country in which The Phantom is extremely popular in India. Appearing first in Indrajal Comics in 1964, The Phantom had a relatively constant presence up until 2014. It is not only The Phantom whose publications disappeared, however, as much of the printed media in India has suffered from rising production costs and increasing competition from other entertainment avenues, particularly online.
However, while The Phantom has not had an official publication in India since 2014 the popularity of the character has lead to something of an underground bootleg trading community of The Phantom comics. Fanned by the rarity of original publications, nostalgia and the desire of the “urban poor” to have access to comics, illegally produced reprints (mainly taking the form of photocopies) are passed around among fans.
The advent of digital comics and PDF scans, again illegal, have also become popular in India as it allows readers to access stories that would otherwise cost a considerable amount quickly. It also provides access to new The Phantom stories from international creators such as those from Australia, America, and Sweden which Indian readers otherwise would not be able to enjoy. To give an idea of the magnitude of this underground movement, it is estimated that 25% of India’s book trade consists of pirated publications. Comic books do not fall under the heading of “books/ literary works” in India, so the numbers don’t transfer exactly, but when you consider the comics market of India is currently all but dried up, and The Phantom is no longer published there at all, you can imagine just how big this movement is.
Papua New Guinea
A perfect example of how The Phantom made an impact on culture is Papua New Guinea. Around the 1940’s images of The Phantom began to appear on the traditional war shields of the Wahgi people of the Central Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Traditionally, the shields would be crafted from large tree trunks and depicted the images of a guardian spirit, an ancestor, or some fearsome being, believing that by depicting them on their shields they would be imbued with their essence.
During World War II when Allied soldiers traveled to Papua to fight the Japanese, some of the care packages they received while there (which contained mostly food, but sometimes other items) sometimes included comic books. The soldiers began to share these comics with the native people, and they were a huge hit with the tribesmen.
While the comics featured a selection of heroes, it was The Phantom to which the tribespeople reacted to most. Experts on the culture of the Wahgi people say that the reason for The Phantom connecting with the tribe so much is because he imbued many essential aspects of their culture. The current Phantom in the comics is the twenty-first in a long line who devoted their lives to fighting crime. The Wahgi people have deep respect for and worship their ancestors, so the idea of a lineage of warriors resonated with them. The fact that the Phantom lives in a jungle setting very similar to Papua also resonated with the Wahgi, as did the Phantom’s use of a skull or “Deaths Head” as his symbol, as skulls and skeletons featured prominently in the Wahgi’s ceremonial body paint. Importantly, within the lore of the comics, the Phantom earned himself the moniker of “The Man Who Cannot Die” over the centuries. Obviously, as warriors, this is an aspect of the character the Wahgi wished to imbue.
The World of The Phantom Connected
The Phantom’s worldwide travels have not only touched the cultures he has encountered, but those cultures have also impacted the Phantom. Originally, The Phantom creator Lee Falk envisioned his character’s costume being grey; indeed, he originally planned to call the character “The Grey Ghost.”
When the strip debuted, it was printed in black and white. While a grey costume could have been included by use of halftone, it was felt it would make the strip look too “muddy,” thus the suit was left uncoloured. When the strip was reprinted in colour internationally, the publishers had no reference as to what colour the suit should be. So…they made it up. This resulted in a red suit in Italy, a blue suit in Sweden, a yellow-brown in New Zealand, among others. It was not until May 1939 – three years after the strip’s debut – that The Phantom was printed in colour in America. It is not known why the colour purple was picked for the Phantom’s costume – Lee Falk has said he was never consulted – but the colour stuck and it is now considered the official costume colour of the hero. However, most countries still use their own colour preference.
While The Phantom may not have been the success in America as it was in many other countries, it would be hard to find another comic book that has impacted so many and so varied cultures as The Phantom. Marvel and DC heroes may be the most visible heroes today, but it is this originator, this proto-superhero, that has left a long-lasting impact on those who have come across him, more than 80 years after his debut.