Great Moments: The Phantom’s Origin (1936)

Hot on the heels of his first comic strip success, Mandrake the Magician, author, Lee Falk crafted a second and arguably more important bridge between dime novel and pulp heroism and the “super” heroes soon to dominate the American pop culture scene. Falk recalled later he had originally conceived of The Phantom having an alter ego as a millionaire playboy, echoing pulp heroes The Shadow and The Spider. Within the first months of the strip’s premiere in 1936, however, he changed course. “I became intrigued with the whole mythical notion about 400 years and 20 generations of Phantoms in the jungle. The more I got into that, I keep adding to the background.

Here The Phantom relays in thumbnail form to his perennial love interest Diana Palmer, the origin of The Phantom legend. It is a 400 year-old revenge fantasy, in which generations of Phantoms avenge the treachery of Singh pirates. The first-born son of each generation of Phantom must dedicate himself to fighting “all forms of piracy.”

Among jungle natives, of course, The Phantom is known as “The Ghost Who Walks.” Like much of pulp adventure fiction of the day, The Phantom was colonialist fantasy writ large, complete with ignorant or naive native cultures championed by this white (in purple wrapping) savior.

While The Phantom had no super powers, he was the first hero to don the skintight costume that would soon become standard for comic book super heroes with the arrival of Superman several year’s later. The strip was drawn by Ray Moore, following an Alex Raymond style that King Features encouraged across its adventure line of strips.

Like the spicy pulps of the era, The Phantom always had an erotic and sadomasochistic undercurrent that provided more titillation for young and old male readers than usual. Falk and Moore seemed devoted to depicting women in various states of undress and with gossamer thin gowns that were as skintight and revealing as The Phantom’s own outfit.

In fact the series begins with Diana Palmer in short shorts, low-slung tank top and boxing gloves pummeling her male opponent. This set the subtext for the series. For a 400-year-old Ghost, The Phantom finds himself bound and tortured more than you would think possible. And the female love interests and villains alternate between being damsels in need of saving or dominatrixes asking for a slap-down. The second major adventure cycle in the series is about a band of female pirates, the Sky Band, which quickly becomes a figurative S&M orgy of women alternately endangering The Phantom and falling in love with him.

The series has been enduring, however, thriving in comic strip form for these many decades and in comic books as well. Falk continued to author the strip until his death in 1999.

Top 2019 Books: #1 All Hail The Screwballs

From Gene Ahern’s”The Squirrel Cage” 1936

#1 Screwball: The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny, by Paul Tumey. IDW/LOAC, $59.99

In my mind, this is the most important contribution to comic strip history published this year. Tumey’s excellent research validates and revives a dominant style of comics of the first four decades of the medium’s history that may seem shallow, silly or just unfunny to modern sensibilities. The imaginative verve is timeless, however. This book fills a real void in our historical sense of comic strips and leads to important questions about how the medium related to the times.

Nonsense, slapstick, harmless anarchy formed a kind of lightly transgressive response to modern times in both early comics and film. But even if we don’t quite get the humor anymore, the antic visual energy of overlooked figures like Walter R. Bradford, Eugene Zimmerman and Clare Dwiggins is irresistible. Tumey takes a biographical approach to the screwball style, highlighting fifteen artists. But along the way he also references scores of others to create a rich overview of a lost style of popular art. 

Top 2019 Books: #5 Skeezix’s Teen Angst

#5 Walt and Skeezix 1933-1934, Frank King, Drawn and Quarterly. $49.99

The sheer everyday-ness of Frank King’s Walt and his adopted son Skeezix is a marvel. For decades Gasoline Alley honored small town life and unremarkable middle-class Americans by making their small dramas, conflicts and schemes important to us. King respected his characters and the reality of their lives so much he did what few other comic strip artists have ever done; he let them age, pass on and birth new generations to replace them. In this volume the Great Depression hits but not that you can tell. The more important development is Skeezix coming into his teens with all the attendant drama. Along with the Andy Hardy films and later Archie comics, we are witnessing here the invention of the teenager as a new cultural type. Drawn & Quarterly, with Chris Ware leading the design of this series, makes each volume even more visually rich and loaded with contextual history. Jeet Heer, the most historically knowledganle comic strip critic we have, provides great background here in the 30s, cultural change and King’s response. If you aren’t collecting the full series, this is a great pivotal volume to get for its glimpse into the maturing characters.

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Top 2019 Books: #7 Mickey Mouse As Adventure Hero

7. Mickey Mouse: The Greatest Adventures, by Floyd Gottfredson, Fantagraphics, $49.99.

Fantagraphics’ complete reprinting of the Floyd Gottfredson Mickey Mouse dailies has been among the most literate and richly contextualized comics history projects in recent years. This one volume color rendering of some of Mickey’s best adventures between 1930 and 1951 is a shorter, more affordable sample. Here is Mickey evolving from scrappy, spunky adventure hero of the 30s to bland suburban everyman of the 50s. Lest we forget, Mickey’s 1930 comic strip launch places him at the advance guard of adventure strips, along with Orphan Annie and Wash Tubbs and Popeye that would bring us 30s powerhouses – Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Flash Gordon et. al. Gottfredson’s penchant for putting movement, gestures, expression and urgency into every panel is matched by his and collaborators’ mastery of story pacing and suspense. While I would quibble with some of the choices (really, no Phantom Blot?), this is a great sampling across eras for those who aren’t up for buying the enture run. 

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