- The History of Comic Books  

Lee Falk's Phantom (Ed Rhoades) (copyright 1997)

In 1936, Lee Falk, the young writer of a two year old comic strip, Mandrake the Magician, launched a second strip, The Phantom, which featured the first costumed hero portrayed in the medium. Falk's dream was to break into theatre and he saw comics as a way to support himself while he pursued that endeavor. He intended to write the syndicated strips for a year or two then move on, but never could have guessed what would transpire. Eventually, he owned six playhouses, became a published playright, directed and produced many stage productions including Othello with Paul Robeson...but the comics continued. His amazing record as a writer is unsurpassed. For sixty of the hundred years comics have been in existence, he has written two strips nonstop, and still does today, a record no other can claim.

The tale of the Phantom was a blend of mystical elements and realism. Drawing on the influences of classic literature, mythology, history, current events, and theatre, Falk provided something for everyone.

The origin story began with Christopher Standish, who once served as Christopher Columbus' cabin boy, now acting as captain of a commerce vessel attacked by pirates. His young son, Kit, the sole survivor of the ordeal, sees his father slain by the pirate leader. Washing up on a distant African shore, Kit is befriended by the Bandar, a tribe of friendly pygmies. There he dwells in a cave which resembles a human skull. After discovering the body of the pirate who murdered his father, Kit swears an oath on the skull of the killer. His promise to fight piracy and injustice is carried out by his descendants for 400 years making him seem immortal to all but the pygmies.

Adopting a costume based upon the image of an idol of the Wasaka giants, he becomes a menacing and feared figure on seas and continents and his legend grows. He travels with a wolf and often on horseback and leaves the indelible mark of the skull as a calling card.

The Phantom in the strip is the 21st or modern day Phantom. In addition to having a base in the skull cave in the deep woods, he is married with a family living in a treehouse on the edge of the jungle. The Phantom's wedding to Diana Palmer after a forty year courtship came at the same time as Lee Falk's to Elizabeth Moxley. (Her name along with Falk's children's names appear in Phantom adventures.) However, marriage doesn't stop the Phantom from his international adventures, but now the family often plays into the stories. Even the element of romance isn't gone because of the built in device of telling stories of the lives of the Phantom's ancestors.

The Phantom's adventures have intertwined with history. One Phantom as a youth acted in Shakespear's troupe, another met Mark Twain. Often, Falk uses the medium to introduce readers to classic literature. One story, "The Jungle Games," retold the Greek classic, "Lysistrata," another, "Queen Samaris," paid homage to H. Rider Haggard's "She," "The Rattle" reflected Swift's "Gulliver's Travels." Falk, a novelist, and world traveler, draws upon a wealth of knowledge and experience to weave the tales, which unfold like scenes in a play.

The well developed storyline is both complex and compound and has had a continuity missing in other long running adventures. The Phantom is an archtype such as defined in Joseph Campbell's description of the classic who undergoes a transformation and ultimate sacrifice for the good of others. This is pretty heady stuff for a comic strip, but its substance and graphics have kept the readers interest for six decades.

For the first two weeks, Lee Falk drew the strip himself, but found the task of producing scripts for Mandrake and the Phantom while working on theatre projects time consuming enough. Enlisting the help of Ray Moore, assistant artist for Mandrake's Phil Davis, he hit upon a formula that propelled the character into an immediate popularity.

During the wartime, the artisistic duties were assumed by commercial artist, Wilson McCoy who eventually took over drawing the strip and continued until his death in 1961. (McCoy once journeyed to Africa and visited the actual "poison pygmy" tribe that the Bandar was based on.) After McCoy, the Sunday strips were drawn by famed courtroom artist, Bill Lignante for 8 months. (Lignante served as the artist for ABC in such trials as Rodney King, Charles Manson and Sirhan B. Sirhan.)

The dailies and later Sundays were drawn by the legendary Phantom artist, Sy Barry, who built a team of talented assistants that included famed biblical artist, Andre LeBlanc, Batman and Mary Worth illustrator, Joe Giella, the late Don Heck, Italian standout, Bob Forgione, and current penciller, George Olesen. Today the Sundays are inked by longtime Mandrake artist, Fred Fredericks, and the dailies by Keith Williams. The longstanding international success of the strip was due to Falk's solid storylines and the talent of these men.

From its inception, The Phantom has been a global phenomenon. The first Phantom comic book was printed in Italy. There the character became so popular that when the strip was banned by Benito Mussolini, a Phantom doppleganger called the "Masked Lawman" appeared to take its place. When this failed to satisfy the Italian hunger for the strip, Frederico Fellini, himself, wrote unlicensed Phantom adventures which were carefully copied in t he style of Falk and Moore. When relations were normalized with the US, Italy continued to publish thousands of Phantom comics.

In Sweden, the Semic Press creates a new Phantom story at a rate of one every two weeks. These stories have been circulated all over Europe. Near Stockholm, there is a Phantom theme amusement park where thousands greeted Lee Falk with autograph requests.

In New Zealand, the activities of Parliament were suspended in 1977 when the Phantom got married, to stage a mock debate about whether Diana, the Phantom's wife, should live in the skull cave or continue her work in the UN. In Australia, the Phantom is the number one comic and has been printed continuously since the 40's.

Other Phantom comics have emerged from England, France, Germany, India, Thailand, Russia, Spain, Brazil, Turkey, and Greece.

In the US, intially the comics were adapted reprints from the newspaper strips which appeared in Ace, King, Harvey Comic Hits, Harvey Hits and in illustrated text form in Big and Better Little Books.

New versions were printed in by Western in Gold Key and King, and a series of new stories were crafted for Charlton, D.C. and recently the Marvel comics.

Normally, extensive merchandise related to a character occurs only from heavy promotion in multi media, but in the case of the Phantom, status as an international phenonemon with a cult following for more than 60 years has resulted in many collectibles such as art, posters, comics, jewelry, games, models, action figures, mugs, clothing, pins, lamps, lunchboxes, calendars, sheets, craft kits, books, and costumes.

The Phantom's crossover into other media had been limited, but it seems to be changing. In 1943, Tom Tyler portrayed the character in a Columbia serial and a followup was planned, but due to a licensing problem, it mutated into "Captain Africa." In 1966, a half hour TV pilot was created but never aired. There was a Phantom/Mandrake record, a rumored radio show, two long running cartoon series (Defenders of the Earth and the current Phantom 2040) and cameos in cartoons such as "The Man Who Hated Laughter" and "Yellow Submarine," but mainstream exposure elluded the character until now.

An A&E Biography of the Phantom aired on May 31, 1996 shortly followed by an HBO special about the making of the Phantom movie to precede the June 7 release of the Paramount film.

The film is based on Falk's earliest story, "The Singh Pirates." Scripted by Jeffrey Boam, directed by Simon Wincer, produced by Alan Ladd Jr. With a built in audience of 60 million daily readers, it may be the sleeper of the summer.

Set in the 1930's it stars Billy Zane, who pumped iron for a year to fill the costume impressively without the need for padding. Falk feels that Zane is the "..classic Phantom that the world has loved for sixty years."

His supporting cast includes Christine Swanson, as Diana, Catherine Zeta Jones as Sala, Patrick McGoohan as his father, and Treat Williams as the villain, Drax.

The movie began shooting on October 4 in NY, moving to LA and Thailand, and finished in Queensland, Australia and is set to opened June 7. The following June, the video became commercially available and it is now showing on HBO.

The author, Ed Rhoades, an artist and writer and longtime Phantom fan and researcher, is editor and publisher of Friends of the Phantom, a newsletter for the only American fan club.

He also has a "Friends of the Phantom" Webpage. You can find a link to it in the links section.

He can be seen on the A&E Phantom Biography.
He can be contacted at:

Ed Rhoades (editor & publisher)
465 E. Main St.
Catawissa, PA 17820