Friday, March 14, 2008

THE PHANTOM versus ROUGHNECKS
(Moonstone/King Features)
Where:
The Phantom #1 When: December 2003
Why: Ben Raab How: Pat Quinn

The Story So Far...
Four centuries ago the sole survivor of a pirate raid washes ashore on a remote Bengali beach. Having discovered the corpse of his father's murderer, he swears a blood oath on the man's skull to devote his life to the destruction of piracy, injustice, and cruelty.

With the help of the Bandar pygmy posion tribe, Christopher Walker transforms himself into jungle legend; The Phantom, ghost who walks who never dies! For generations the myth of the undying Phantom is perpetuated by the many sons of each Walker. Their travels carry the myth across the globe, always in staunch opposition to villainy in it's many forms, be it in the cities, or Bengali jungles.

All too often crime finds it's way to the Phantom's jungle, such as the incursion of murderers who would capitalize on the lack of materialism in tribal cultures. One of the jungle's most prominant tribes, the Llongo, find themselves enslaved as miners for the precious jewels hidden beneath their land. When a Llongo boy escapes into the jungle, the killers take hot pursuit, but the Llongo are a protected tribe, and the Phantom is rough on roughnecks!

Tale of the Tape...
ARTWORK: John CassadayARTWORK: Pat QuinnStrength: Phantom 3 (Athlete)
Intelligence: Phantom 4 (Tactician)
Speed: Phantom 4 (Olympian)
Stamina: Phantom 5 (Marathon)
Agility: Phantom 4 (Gymnast)
Fighting Ability: Phantom 4 (Trained Fighter)
Energy Power: Phantom 2 (Projectile Weapons)


- Over four hundred years ago, Christopher Walker Jr was a shipmate on his father's final voyage when they were attacked by Singh Brotherhood pirates. Chris would be the sole survivor of the wreck, washed ashore as if by destiny onto the remote beaches of the Bengali coast. There he discovers the body of his father's killer, and swears an oath on his skull to pledge his bloodline to the battle against piracy, cruelty and injustice. With the help of the Bandar tribe, a characteristically shrouded and feared group, Walker becomes The Phantom!

The Walkers would successfully carry the tradition of the Phantom through the centuries, leading up to the most recent twenty-first iteration of the character. As with his fathers, Christopher "Kit" Walker is given his predecessor's name, born in the Skull Cave, and raised in the jungles to fullfil his role as Phantom.

Jungle life breeds an exceptionally strong man at the very peak of human physical conditioning, to the point of achieving feats akin to the super-human! The Phantom is a skilled hand-to-hand fighter also trained as a crackshot with modern pistols, which he uses to non-lethal ends. The Phantom is also versed in methods of warfare, survival techniques, tracking, and assorted other skills.
His cunning and guile has maintained the legend of the ghost who walks, who can never die. A legend made possible by the aid of friends like the Bandar; Devil, the Phantom's pet wolf; and Hero, the white stallion upon which he travels through the jungle.

- Ali Gutaale is a terrorist introduced in the Moonstone Comics licensed comics, hailing from the fictional nation of Tarakimo. Tarakimo was previously established in the 1977 story, The Tyrant of Tarakimo, which featured a selfish dictator called General Tara. The character menaced the Phantom and Diana Palmer in a follow-up tale, but is presumably unrelated to Ali Gutaale. The effort to draw upon Phantom history is by the new[ish] publisher is appreciated, if inconsequential.

The Math: The Phantom Ranking: The Phantom (#53)

What Went Down...
A shadowy figure looms in the jungle canopy as a jeep careens through the scrub, in hot pursuit of a boy who knows too much. Closing in on the child, slave traders armed with rifles line their target up, but before the gunman can shoot, something yanks him from the vehicle with a vine!

Before the three other men can figure out what's taken their fellow, a purple garbed jungle man descends from above! The Phantom throws his legs out, knocking a pistol from one of the slaver's hands, while stunning the other!

An elbow renders one of the men ineffective, while the other proves more troublesome. The slaver wrestles the Phantom out of the moving jeep, leaving the distracted driver to head straight for a tree in an explosive collision!

On the side of the road, the Phantom continues to grapple with the burly slave trader. The criminal locks in a sleeper hold, but he underestimates the Phantom's offensive capabilities, especially where such vile criminals would be concerned...

Phantom snaps his attacker's arm at the joint, before whipping him into the air with an overhand snapmare! The jungle protector offers a lecture on his legend while roughing this roughneck up, informing him that the jungles are protected.

A swift kick finishes the slaver off with a spray of blood from his mouth, leaving him grounded for a bout of interrogation. The Phantom kneels over his opponent to find out more about the team's motivations for child-killing, but finds the beaten criminal less than cooperative. Kaole, the escaped boy, steps up to tell the ghost who walks all that has troubled the Llongo tribe... But as he does -- the slaver reaches for a gun!

'When the Phantom moves, lightning stands still.' - Old Jungle Saying.

ARTWORK: John CassadayThe Hammer...
By way of a jungle knock-out, your winner, The Phantom!
Now, having already noted a decline in hits over the past month, the irony of featuring a character noted for his decline in the American mainstream is not lost on me. If you're looking for someone to blame, you can thank The Fortress Keeper for stirring up my interests, and Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction for their Phantom-esque generational succession grafted to the pulp-inspired, Iron Fist.

We are, of course, running late again, which means we've missed out on the blog-wide Friday night rush of Bahlactus' Friday Night Fights. Though not affiliated with the Infinite Wars Friday Fight Night [which ironically continues to run late], we whole heartedly endorse the widespread phenomenon that is this cosmic meme! Bahlactus brings the fight, providing a whole range of links to sites, as well as prize-fight opportunities! Once you've finished cruising the Infinite Wars, head over and start drawing up a battle plan!...

So; they say it takes a 'big man' to admit he's wrong, but I'm going to completely debunk that. Phantom #1 was the first Moonstone issue I'd read, and I have to admit, upon revisiting it, it might not have been quite the disservice to the character I had remembered. Well, okay, I haven't vilified it that much, but the positives held within might have been overlooked.

The Phantom's overall obscurity, especially in the American market, has generally left me fairly sceptical about US publisher's ability to properly understand and service the legacy of the character.
Like the very worst kind of fanboy, I undeniably walk into these situations waiting to pounce on any out-of-place phrasing, or misinterpreted characterization. The disappointing truth is that this is often a justified expectation, and sadly, despite the influence of well known "Phantom Phan" and credited consultant; Dr. Bryan Shedden; the Moonstone effort falls into this trap.

Before we devolve into cynicism, I have to give Moonstone their due.
As someone who's grown up reading the Phantom's adventures on black and white pulp stock, it's a bit of a thrill to see the ghost who walks fighting in full colour, boasting high production values. The quality is uncomfortably evident in the price, but in relation to the rest of the American market, is justified and thoroughly complimentary to the art style and colouring within.

The only other time I've read the twenty-first Phantom in colour was in Swedish issues of Fantomen, where the Phantom is given a blue hue. The novelty of colour helps to round out the experience of a very American production, grafting a more contemporary art style than even modern Phantom masters, like Sy Barry.
The smooth colours and confident blacks of the inking (by Ken Wolak and Dawn Groszewski) wouldn't at all be out of place in an issue of Detective Comics, complimenting a style that is respectful of anatomy, but unmistakably cartooned.

Long time readers will expect a harsher critique of the writing, which I consider to be my are of expertise, and suffice to say, that's where the criticisms come from.
One shouldn't understimate penciller's penchant for wandering and elaborating on a script, but the fundamentals of violence in this comic, which deviate considerably from the Phantom's established moral code, are evident at a script level. Responsibility for splash of blood is uncertain, but moments like the broken arm featured in our review, and later scenes showing throwing daggers, remove this story from what is familiar to longtime Phantom fans.

I'm all for change. I imagine I actually differ from most Phantom fans, noting my disappointment that, aside from an ill-fated stint by Marvel, there's never been any canonical push to introduce the Phantom's son as the twenty-second generation of the character. This is especially bothersome because, in the absence of progress, the Phantom's history has now begun to suffer similar bowing and contortion to stagnant American icons from DC and Marvel; something inherently avoidable by Lee Falk's original design, that of a mantle handed down through the ages.

It's this fine line between identity and progress that makes the Phantom such a tricky character for the uninitiated to manage. Clearly Moonstone desire to push the character into a contemporary setting, but in doing so, paint a confusing picture of the character's traditional penchant for light hearted exchange, with entirely uncharacteristic bursts of violence and darkness.

As the modern statesman of powerless 1930's mystery men; Batman is often the character by which the Phantom is measured. Batman has evolved considerably, arriving at the modern definition of the character in the 1970's, which fleshed out the dark overtones of the early Finger/Kane adventures. The 80's contributions of Frank Miller helped solidify the gim and gritty qualities of the character, largely inventing new characteristics for a character who, like many 1930s superheroes, was not at all a fleshed out entity.

This marks the crucial divergence between enduring American mystery men, and their jungle dwelling counterpart. Lee Falk's legacy is almost the world's biggest private joke, excluding an American audience that has overlooked him for other talents like Will Eisner, Bob Kane, and Stan Lee. Falk (1911-1999), still incredibly popular in Sweden and Australia, remains an amazingly progressive writer.

Superficial qualities like the presence of strong African characters, fiercely independent females, and a union-suited hero, all pre-Superman, make Falk's creation obviously special. Going just a little deeper beneath the surface reveals so much more of Falk's genius, including such a plethora of mythology around the character, I haven't been able to even begin to discuss it all between this, and a previous entry [Phantom #972].

Then there's the relationships in the Phantom's life which also spiral outward from his closest friend and advisor, Guran; outward to the Phantom's long running love interest and eventual wife, Diana Palmer, not to mention her Aunt and Uncle which play a part in the on-going cat and mouse courting which sees the Phantom so often playing the role of confused and back-footed suitor. Later in the series, and present even in the Moonstone book, are characters like the Jungle Patrol's Colonel Worubu, and his predecessor, Colonel Weeks. Not to mention fierce Phantom supporter, and eventual Bangalla/Bengali President, Dr. Lumanda Luaga. The strength of the supporting cast rolls on and on, and continues to showcase a wide number of social issues represented in Falk's writing spanning the majority of his life, right up to his 1999 death.

Devices in-built in the Phantom's origin to sustain story include, of course, the theme of succession which allows the Phantom to remain omni-present not just into the future, but also over his four hundred year past. The Phantom Chronicles, a collection of diaries maintained by each Phantom and stored in the Skull Cave, make for opportunities to tell many stories of the past Phantoms, whose interactions allowed Falk to explore elements of history and myth to which he had an affinity for. Shakespearean undertones are evident from the origin of the skull oath, and manifest more specifically in a previous Phantom's work as an actor for the historical playwright. Qualities like this are peppered throughout a canonical library of stories retelling untold tales of Phantoms past, often intertwining morals or tidbits crucial to modern day Phantom adventures.

So, to double back to the criticisms of modern day American publishers, we can see the struggles presented by such a rich history dotted not only with gimmicks and mythology, but also elements that have helped craft a very specific tone and characterization of the Phantom. Exactly how much this allows for change is open to debate, and certainly, it seems a quotient of the Phantom Phanbase continues to be obsessively dedicated to this history. Adaptations like the futuristic Peter Chung-designed series, Phantom 2040, shows the exponential potential for growth in the character, even if it does so to canonically unfeasible extremes.

Because it's so ingrained in the culture, I think the Batman/Phantom comparison makes for a delicious example. As much as Batman has come to be characterized as a gun-loathing vigilante whose methods involve fierce brutality; the Phantom is the yin to his yang, employing pistols as a non-lethal offensive, while maintaining a hard-but-fair edict of violence that is rarely considered brutal.
This quality is perhaps the most misrepresented in the Moonstone books, and though of debatable importance, does make it hard to accept this as anything close to a definitive representation.

Lord knows I'm tainted by a lifelong dream to one day write Phantom stories, but I like to think there's a balance between fandom, and the maintenance and growth of one of comics' greatest and most beloved worldwide icons.

In my experience there seems to be a lot of division between Phantom fans and other superhero comics fanatics, but it's my hope that the long overdue inclusion of the ghost who walks can attract some of our friends from Scandanavia and down under, where the Phantom has been adopted as a national icon.
As I grow increasingly frustrated with some of my experiences with Americans in the comics industry, I do find myself increasingly attracted to this vaguely exotic compromise between the US superhero, and the freedom of foreign influence. Hopefully my love of both sides of the fence can bring us all together. Awww, group hug!

The Fight: 4 The Issue: 4

Moonstone's publishing schedule remains erratic at best, which means catching up on their on-going adventures of the Phantom is as easy as two trades! The first book contains the reviewed issue, plus the conclusion of "Blood Diamonds" as well as a complete other story, and bonus materials. You can then also pre-order the second book, collecting issues #5 through #11! By using Amazon purchase linkes provided on the Infinite Wars, you not only get the perfect low price to do draw your own conclusions, but also help sponsor future entries in the Infinite Wars! Mmm, I love the smell of commerce in the morning!

5 comments:

Kerwin said...

this is nice i really think that it is time of me to go back to my local comic store because i know i have missed alot of things.

The Fortress Keeper said...

I really need to catch up on the Lee Falk Phantom strips. Any recommendations?

Mike Haseloff said...

@kerwin: Cheers! Always nice to have a positive influence!

@the fortress keeper: Wow! There's a lot to choose from!

We've already had a glimpse at one of my personal favourites, The Masked Marvel... Some other classics that jump to mind would be: The Singh Brotherhood, The Sky Band, The Phantom Goes to War, The Jungle Patrol, The Mermaids of Melo Straits, The Marshall Sisters, The Toad Men, The Impostor, The Flirtatious Princess, The Phantom's Treasure, Fathers and Sons, The Haunted Castle... Just to name a few!

I'm sure I've overlooked some classics, but those are most of my very favourites!

Geaghs said...

Check out The Singh Brotherhood or The Phantom Goes To War. Absolutely brilliant pieces of work.

Nice article Mike. I hope to see some more on the Phantom soonish.

Mike Haseloff said...

@geaghs: Cheers!
I think now that the cat's out of the proverbial, we'll probably be seeing more Phantom throughout 2008. Couple of great stories there, definite possibilities!

Great to hear from a Phantom Phan! Hope to hear from more.

Cheers!