If you want to know where your superheroes come from, this is where you start.
Lee Falk’s The Phantom ran in newspapers beginning in 1936, predating Superman by two years. While The Phantom didn’t have any powers aside from that of a normal human at peak intellectual and physical condition, his origins are steeped in the mystical history of the African country over which he presides, Bengalla. Of course, the idea of a rich, white guy ruling an African country populated by stereotypical, superstitious tribes of African people is a fairly racist notion, but also completely indicative of the attitudes of 1936.
The Phantom is everything you’d expect from newspaper comics of this era, and is perhaps the apotheosis of them: dashing playboys, exotic adventures, beautiful women in revealing outfits, pistols, romance, and a sense of grandiose language and storytelling that’s so genuinely exuberant that you can’t help but be swept along for the ride. Some of this spirit is recaptured in properties like Indiana Jones and The Rocketeer, but this is the purest essence of it. It’s a kind of narrative that’s been lost over time, as writers shifted their focus toward humor or grittiness instead of embracing the infectious purity of dramatic adventure. Today’s readers might view this as a little hokey, so it almost becomes necessary to place yourself in the position of the kid reading these in the papers as they were published, before we presumably lost the ability to transport ourselves with the fabled “power of imagination.”
The artwork is just as smart, and it provides countless examples of excellent visual layouts and delineating positive and negative spaces for dramatic effect. Many reproductions of older comics tend to artificially age strips to make them more quaint or nostalgic, or fail to present them clearly, but Hermes Press has obtained pristine examples for this black-and-white series of reproductions. Whether they’ve been cleaned up extensively or simply presented smartly, it’s perfect and undistracting. With two strips per page in a horizontally oriented book, it’s all presented intelligently.
While it’s obviously meant as a book for collectors, it’s suitable for most audiences. The most intense profanity exists somewhere in the “poppycock” range, and the slinky dresses of the female characters are pretty tame, even by Disney Channel standards. True to the genre of early crime-fighting and adventure comics, there are plenty of guns and stabbings throughout the pages, but none are explicitly gory, and in many cases, The Phantom opts to incapacitate his foes rather than outright kill them. Occasionally, there are potentially offensive drawings of tribesmen, but they’re never malicious and can easily be used as an opportunity to educate younger readers about shifting cultural perspectives in America. Beyond these things, I wouldn’t hesitate to share this book with anyone, though it might not hold the attention of a younger crowd.
The Phantom is the prototypical example of the nonpowered superhero, fighting through his mortal limits using his brain and brawn in equal measure, and as a comic fan who finds it vital to know what your roots reach into, The Phantom is essential reading.
Reviewed by Collin David on January 8, 2013
The Phantom: The Complete Newspaper Dailies Vol. One: 1936-1937