Review by Win Wiacek
The Phantom is one of the longest continually running adventure serials in publishing history, but while numerous companies have collected strips, it’s never been in any systematic or chronological order and never with any sustained success. At least the former issue began to be rectified with this initial curated collection from Hermes Press, whose lovely large hardback edition is printed in landscape format, displaying two days of strip per page in black and white. Ancillary features and articles are in dazzling colour where required.
Lee Falk created the Ghost Who Walks, who debuted on February 17th 1936 in an extended sequence pitting him against a global confederation of pirates. Although technically not the first costumed champion in comics, the Phantom became the prototype paladin with a skin-tight body-stocking, and the first to have a mask with opaque eye-slits. Falk wrote and drew the daily strip for the first two weeks before handing over illustration to artist Ray Moore. A spectacular and hugely influential Sunday feature began in May 1939.
Ron Goulart’s eruditely enticing introduction tells all you need to know about the character’s creation before the vintage magic begins with ‘Chapter 1: The Singh Brotherhood’. American adventurer Diane Palmer returns to the USA by sea, carrying a most valuable secret, making her the target of mobsters, society ne’er-do-wells and exotic cultists. Thankfully, she has an enigmatic guardian angel who calls himself “the Phantom”. Kidnapped and held hostage at the bottom of the sea, she is saved by the mystery man who falls in love and eventually shares his incredible history with her.
In the 17th century a British sailor survived a pirate attack, and washing up on the shoreline of an un-named African country he swore on the skull of his murdered father to dedicate his life and that of his descendants to destroying all pirates and criminals. The Phantom fights crime and injustice from a base deep in the jungles of Bengali, and throughout Africa is known as “The Ghost Who Walks”. Down the decades, one hero after another has fought and died in an unbroken family line, and the latest wearer of the mask, indistinguishable from the first, continues the battle.
‘Chapter 2: The Sky Band’ has a potential rival for Diana’s affections materialise in the rather stuffy form of career soldier Captain Meville Horton. More shocks follow with the Phantom’s arrest: implicated in the crimes of sky pirates. Escaping from police custody with the aid of his devoted pygmy witch doctor Guran and faithful Bandar tribe allies, he’s soon hot on the trail of the real mastermind.
‘Chapter 3: The Diamond Hunters’ reveals how the best laid plans can go awry. In Llongo territory, white prospectors Smiley and Hill unearth rich diamond fields but cannot convince or induce local tribes to grant them mineral rights to the gems they consider worthless. Like most locals, they are content to live comfortably under the “Phantom’s Peace”, although this convenience is now far from respectful. It takes all the miners’ guile – including kidnapping a neighbouring chief’s daughter and framing the Llongo; gunrunning and claiming the Ghost Who Walks has died – to set the natives at each other’s throats. At least they are the catalyst for Diana and The Ghost finally addressing their romantic issues.
Stuffed with chases, assorted fights, torture, blood and thunder antics, daredevil stunts and many a misapprehension – police and government authorities clearly having a hard time believing a pistol-packing masked man with a pet wolf might not be a bad egg – this is pure gripping excitement that still packs a punch and quite a few sly laughs.