Why Study The Phantom?

Cinema marquees the world-over have, since the 1989 release of Tim Burton’s Batman, played host to a growing number of films based on comic-book characters – most of them American in origin, but with a few international exceptions, such as the British anti-hero, Tank Girl (1995), or the recent Spielberg-Jackson adaptation of the intrpeid Belgian reporter-adventurer, Tintin.

But ‘comic-book movies’ are perhaps the most visible apsect of the superhero phenomenon, and its impact on global media culture. Images of superhero characters have been emblazoned across a dizzying array of licensed merchandise for decades, while popular culture abounds with references to superheroes and their characteristic traits, a sure sign that they have entered the lexicon of everyday life.

For the majority of people who’ve rarely, or never, read comic-books, the proliferation of superhero characters in mass media might seem a relatively recent phenonmenon. Yet as any dedicated comic-book fan will tell you, the birth of the superhero dates back to the closing years of the Great Depression, when Superman made his debut in Action Comics No.1, cover-dated July 1938.

Yet long before the ‘Last Son of Krypton’ leapt into comic books, the New York Journal-American newspaper unveiled a new comic-strip character on 17 February 1936, who – according to a growing number of comics historians – was the true foreunner of the costumed superhero genre as we know it today. And that character was The Phantom, created and written by Lee Falk, and originally illustrated by Ray Moore.

But The Phantom, it seems, has been histroically overshadowed by the truly staggering popular reception that greeted the debut of Superman, and his equally colourful cohorts (such as Batman, Captain America, et al), from the 1940s onwards. Perhaps he simply wasn’t “super” enough to stand out amongst the growing throngs of super-powered crime-fighters that  crowded American comic-books for the duration of World War II. Even as costumed superheroes reasserted their status (after a decade-long hiatus) as the dominant American comic-book genre throughout the 1960s, The Phantom remained a secondary character, despite earning his first self-titled American comic-book series in 1962.

Strangely, though, The Phantom has found greater favour with overseas audiences, both as a newspaper/magazine comic-strip serial and in comic books – and nowhere has The Phantom enjoyed greater popularity than in Australia, India and Sweden. And it is this intriguing publishing phenomenon that forms the basis for my PhD thesis/research project, titled The History of The Phantom Comic Book in Australia, India and Sweden (Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, 2011-2013/Project Number: CF11/2607-2011001525).

Interesting as this topic might seem (both to myself, as well as to fans of The Phantom), it does not necessarily answer the bigger question – why study The Phantom? Why not another comic-book character? Indeed, why study comic books at all?

Well, I believe there are several good reasons for doing so. Firstly, because the debut of The Phantom coincided with the birth of the American comic-book industry, the creation of the comic-book superhero genre, and the formative stages of the character-licensing industry. By examining the array of artistic and commercial forces that shaped the creation of The Phantom, we can perhaps gain new insights about the early ‘pre-history’ phase of the superhero franchise industry that currently dominates so much commercial entertainment today.

Secondly, the international popularity of The Phantom in Australia, India and Sweden throws up some interesting challenges to longstanding notions about American media/cultural imperialism – the idea that American media content fans out, unchallenged, from the United States, and is received and consumed without question in foreign markets. The fact that The Phantom is a relative commercial failure in his American homeland, yet has been ‘adopted’ – in often quite remarkable ways – by audiences in Australia, India and Sweden, suggests that the international reception of American media products is far from assured – and rarely, if ever, predictable.

Thirdly, many of the earliest arguments levelled against American media/cultural imperialism (dating back to the 1960s and 1970s) frequently ignored how international audiences responded to, or appropriated, American media content. Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, this academic oversight has been substantially redressed through the emergence of cultural studies (particularly as practised and popularised in the UK) as an academic discipline. Yet while cultural studies has paid considerable attention to national and international audience responses to popular music, television and cinema, practitioners in this field have historically shown comparatively less interest in popular print culture – such as magazines, paperback novels, fan publications, or comic books – and their readerships. While this trend has undergone a welcome, albeit gradual reversal, studies of comic-book reading practices, and of comic-book readers and collectors, remain relatively few (There does, however, seem to be more activity in this area concerning the reception of Japanese manga and anime, and its regional Asian equivalents, amongst Western audiences). This study of international fan communities of The Phantom will, I hope, add new insights to current academic thinking and knowledge about comic books and their audiences.

That, in short, is why I think studying The Phantom is worthwhile. And I look forward to hearing from those readers in Australia, India and Sweden who volunteer to complete my online survey, and hopefully discovering why they, too, find The Phantom a fascinating example of global comic-book culture. (Image of The Phantom courtesy of the King Features website)