Putting a full grown man in a skin-hugging bodysuit, hood and mask is bound to raise a few hints of offbeat sexuality. I have no idea if Phantom creator Lee Falk knew precisely what he was doing when he introduced the form-fitting costume to pop adventure in 1936. Some of us will never forgive him. But it is clear that the sheer eroticism of The Phantom strip was clear from the start. And “sheer” is the operative word. As I pointed out in an earlier post, the mysterious avenger was not the only one to trot about the globe in skivvies. Artist Roy Moore missed few opportunities to drape in gauze (barely) Phantom gal pal Diana and a steady line of sadistic dominatrix villainesses.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but for all of his pre-super-hero human talents, The Phantom got bound and whipped by women at a shocking rate. Sado-masochism and titillating cheesecake were hardly new to mass media in the 1930s, of course. The Phantom probably drew more from pulp magazine adventure tropes than any other strip of the time. Its eccentric masculinity and leggy, dominant women, not to mention a risible colonialism, were conventions of the print pulps. But no other daily comic strip I have seen kept an erotic sub-text so close to the surface.
The Phantom is a special case. Sex is baked into the premise and origin story. This is an extravagant revenge fantasy, reaching back 400 years, in which a nobleman swears to avenge the murder of his father at sea by the hands of “Singh pirates.” He dedicates the son of every future generation of his family to fighting piracy of every kind. And so the “the ghost that walks” takes on the mythos of immortality. Of course, the subtext of the origin story is that each generation of Phantom needs a willing wife.
The animating appeal in pulp adventure really is the male ego itself Just about all aspects of the narrative aim at buttressing an heroic male fantasy that apparently needs all the stroking it can get. But as with all pulp heroism, it starts with a two-fisted, iron-willed, he-man dripping a masculine prowess that is not only turned up to 11 but immediately apparent to any woman in the general vicinity.
The number of pulp magazine column inches spent gushing over the raw and daunting power of our hero’s fists, determination, sex appeal, endurance, brains, speed, stare, will, etc. is astonishing. Well-tuned to male adolescents (and the arrested adolescent in the rest of us) the testosterone opera of pulp adventure always seems to belie the fragility of the male ego. No amount of flattery ever seems enough.
Of course the sultry villainess falling for the sexually irresistible hero was a common trope of mid-century male adventure, and it certainly was familiar to comic strip readers. The theme was central to many of Milt Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, and Will Eisner’s The Spirit, whose heroes had tortured relationships with a range of recurring femmes fatale. But in Caniff’s much more masterful hands, these plot twists often became opportunities for some remarkable psychologizing. Eisner used the convention as sites for clever banter, inuendo and the Spirit’s comic cummupance at the hands of famously jealous girlfriend Ellen Dolan.
In Lee Falk’s hammier hands, however, the fawning villainess and cheesecake tropes descend into high camp. Which is great for me, because if it isn’t clear by now, I am not a fan either of Lee Falk or the costumed hero. Falk’s storylines in both Mandrake and The Phantom lack inventiveness and genuine suspense. Ray Moore’s artwork in the Phantom dailies can be involving, albeit a good imitation of the Alex Raymond style that the syndicate was imposing on all of its adventures in the 1930s. I find The Phantom best sipped by the panel rather than eaten by the storyline, mainly because it heightens the campy excess that is the strip’s best feature.
When The Phantom launched a weekly Sunday storyline in 1939, Falk revisited the Sky Band of female pirates he introduced in the dailies earlier. Led by Scala and assisted by Margo, the Band has all of the sexual elements we need: The Phantom repeatedly captured, bound, beaten and saved from certain death by besotted women pirates; villainesses falling and then competing for our hero; female deception, seduction, conniving, etc.
In the world of male pulp adventure, a hero needs to be as steel-willed as they are, if only to combat the wild incongruities of the female stereotype. The pulp villainess is at once slave to her emotion and archly plotting and manipulative.
But let the images speak for themselves. Or try to. I am not sure if Moore was using assistants for the Sunday work, but the style here is wildly uneven, usually wooden and with none of the Raymondesque brushwork and framing we see in the dailies. What we do get is a cornucopia of pubescent fantasy. The legs are long and plentiful, and somehow they manage to walk on sandy shores in stilettos. And the fetishes just keep coming: hair-dragging, cat-fighting, even spanking.
Rightfully, Falk’s Phantom is seen as an historically important transitional figure. His costumed figure and allusions to supernatural abilities bridges the male prowess of Doc Savage, The Shadow and The Spider in pulp adventure to the genuine superhero genre that Superman was soon to engrave on popular culture. But he also brought into the daily newspaper from the adult pulps a surprisingly consistent sexual subtext, if not outright fetishism. For all of the Falk and Moore’s many weaknesses, we can thank them for sexing up the comics page.