Monday, August 25, 2008

The Jungle Olympics (Frew/King Features)
Where: Phantom #686 When: 1980
Why: Lee Falk How: Sy Barry

Strength: Phantom 3 (Athlete)
Intelligence: Phantom 4 (Tactician)
Speed: Phantom 4 (Athlete)
Stamina: Phantom 5 (Marathon)
Agility: Phantom 3 (Acrobat)
Fighting: Phantom 4 (Trained)
Energy: Phantom 2 (Projectile)

Math: The Phantom
Ranking: The Phantom (#37)

It's still August here on the Infinite Wars while we work through the backlog of updates, but right now the world is embraced in the excitement of the Beijing 2008 Paralympics! I like to think that counts for something as we exit our big month of sporting exploits and international awareness!

It would be unfair to summarily dismiss the world awareness of the big two comics publishers, but in preparing for an Olympic month, it was always my intention to bring another dose of the Phantom to the Infinite Wars; and how better to do that than a story that celebrates the Phantom's own Olympics?

My true motive, of course, was to find yet another opportunity to take a look at one of the oldest heroes in comics that fits the superhero mold.
It's a credit that somehow eludes the ghost who walks, whose print debut came in February 1936 - two years before Siegel and Shuster defined the archetype with Superman, in 1938.

Presumably this disconnect comes partly from the Phantom's connection to the adventure and crime stories of the pulp era. This era of mystery men and adventurers seemingly gave way to the definition of superheroes in 1939 with the progress of a post-Superman genre, and the the introduction of the Batman -- a character who owed inspiration to a host of predecessors, prominently including Lee Falk's Phantom, among others.

Falk attributed much of his inspiration to mythology and history, but it seems fair to assume that the tropes of globe trotting adventurers, popular in the pulps, led to the initial success of the Phantom as a newspaper strip.
Here we begin to uncover much of what has made the Phantom unique in the landscape of superhero comics where adventures typically centre around the United States, if not the specific printing hub of major companies, New York City.

The Phantom did enjoy his own regular travels to New York where he spent forty-two years courting his eventual wife, Diana Palmer. That said, like today's greatest contemporary comic writers; Falk was able to incorporate popular elements of the medium in a more organic tangent than lesser comparisons, using them as familiar elements to expand the core mythology of the character.

It's undeniable that Falk proved to be an amazingly progressive writer in general, but the timeline that gave the Phantom a few years before Superman, also distanced him from the immediacy of the Second World War. While the Phantom famously entered the fray in The Phantom Goes to War, the character managed to escape the jingoistic American nationalism that gripped superhero comics, and perhaps steered them toward their unwavering settlement in American locales.

The Phantom, of course, finds his home in the fictional African nation of Bangalla, where he resides in the secretive deep woods. Populating the surrounding jungles are a multitude of native tribes with their own customs and traditions, but common to them all, respect of the fabled keeper of jungle peace - Phantom!

One of the many traditions is that of the jungle olympics!
The event, every four years, brings together the many tribes to pit their warriors against one and other in extreme sporting events all for the prize of the Phantom trophy and the jewels it contains; paid by each tribe on admission.
Deadly slants on traditional Olympic stalwarts make the competition a novel spectator sport, featuring events like the flaming pole vault and the broad jump over poison vipers!

During the excitement of the deadly steeplechase -- thieves from outside the villages spy the unguarded bounty of the Phantom trophy. Their greed does not go unnoticed by the adopted son of the Phantom, Rex, who observes them from the vantage point atop his elephant, Joomba!

To avoid the complications of a witness the pair of thieves take the boy hostage, unaware of the wrath they will incur. Joomba lumbers through the jungle behind them vigilantly following Rex and leaving a clear trail for the ghost who walks!

When the thieves threaten to shoot the trailing elephant, Rex calls him off, leaving the beast to encounter the Phantom as he blazes through the jungle on his stallion, Hero. Unable to traverse the harrowing trails quick enough to catch the escaping thieves, the Phantom mounts Joomba to cut them off with a shortcut through the dense jungle.

Phantom quickly catches up with the thieves and uses Joomba's bulk to crush their getaway vehicle. It's the heel of his own boot that has the pleasure of toppling Bey, before his fist swats the gunman into unconsciousness, leaving the indelible imprint of the skull mark!

While the Phantom recovers the stolen prize jewels, the second thief drags Rex into the scrub by knife point. He demands the jewels in exchange for Rex, but just as the Phantom is about to comply, Baldy threatens to end the boy's life, halted only by the growling presence of Phantom's faithful wolf - Devil!

The Phantom orders Devil to deliver Hero with the jewels upon his back, while he scales the trees above to launch a sneak attack. The greedy Baldy finds himself confronted by Devil once more before the ghost who walks descends from the canopy above, and strikes the crook down with a devestating left hook!

With the jewels recovered, the Phantom returns to the Jungle Games to present the award to the winning trime, the proud Wambesi! The jungle is united in celebration, while the unconscious crooks await a Jungle Patrol escort!

While not the most impressive of Phantom stories; Jungle Olympics, originally printed as a newsstrip in 1979, builds on the progressive tradition established by Falk in the thirties of prominent and respectfully treated African characters. It is yet another contrast that seperates the Phantom from his more dominant iconic counterparts from the major American publishers.

One wonders how much the worldly awareness of the Phantom comics has contributed to the unusual divide in fanbases. For the most part, Phantom fans seem to typically be fierce loyalists not necessarily particularly interested in other comic book heroes. The largest of the Phantom's followers are, curiously enough, not connected to the character's origins, sprawling from portions of Europe, Asia, Scandanavia and Australia. On the flipside; as previously discussed [Phantom #972], the relative status of the Phantom as forgotten son of American comics sees Lee Falk's creation often shunned by an industry and fanbase ignorant of much of the character's history, more readily celebrating characters like The Spirit, Batman, and Superman.

In the last few decades American ventures in licensing have seen the character twisted and contorted in many ways that simply have no endeared to the existing fanbase. Moonstone is perhaps the most consistent presence in the US direct market, but after recently killing off the Phantom's wife, Diana Palmer-Walker, one wonders if they haven't burnt any goodwill felt by traditionalist fans.

Dynamite Entertainment's recent acquisition of the license created a stir, but with their intent to reinvent the character and position him in New York City, one can't help but feel yet another uninitiated American publisher is taking the character into realms that betray much of what we've described as making him great. The Phantom is a character that has manged to defy the cheap and nasty trends that dragged American comics into severe recession in the late-nineties, and of the two US independent options, it might be Moonstone that remains the lesser of two evils for traditionalist fans.

For me, the hope for Dynamite's project lies in the long overdue logic for the canonical introduction of a twenty-second Phantom.

It's now been over seventy years that we've followed the exploits of the twenty-first generation of the character. With an inbuilt design to continue the character's relevance through the decades without the uncomfortable folds of a shifting timescale, it's disappointing Falk himself was not able to capitalize and give the treatment the weight it deserves. Alex Ross, while a titan for his works from DC and Marvel, might not have the clout necessary to serve such reinvention. We will, of course, continue to watch with interest, whilst diving in to the classics that have made the Phantom a true icon of something unique.

Readers of the Chronicle Chamber website - the closest thing to an online hub for English-speaking Phantom fans - will know Frew recently celebrated it's sixtieth anniversary of Phantom publications. The Australian publisher specializes on licensing reprints of Lee Falk newsstrips, as well as stories from around the world. For fans of the classics, this arguably remains the best available option.

ARTWORK: John CassadayThe Fight: 3 The Story: 4
Winner: The Phantom

"Jungle Olympics" was later reprinted by Australian publisher, FREW, in the super-sized 1997 annual, #1156. Here, the story was printed for the first time without minor edits found in the 1980 #686 version (which plays back-up to "The Star of Bangalla") of the 1979 news strip. First-time original printings have been a tradition of the FREW line-up in the nineties and double-ohs, rectifying disappointing trends from early Australian printings.

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