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)

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6 thoughts on “Why Study The Phantom?

  1. I look forward to seeing what you produce from this.
    Have been a huge fan of the Phantom for many years – so much that my eldest child found a skull ring in a comic store recently and wanted to buy it for me!

    Sadly it was a little too much for him!
    All the best.

    • Hi Nick

      Thanks for your comment – yes, like yourself, I’m looking forward to reading & analysing the survey responses as they arrive over the coming weeks and months.

      As far as Phantom skull rings go, I remember buying a set of the Skull Ring/Good Mark Ring at a supermarket shortly after The Phantom movie (starring Billy Zane) was released in Australia. But I’ve never inquired too deeply how much those old Phantom skull rings from the 1950s and 1960s would cost these days (especially the ones that came with the rubber skull & inkpad, so you could leave a genuine ‘skull mark’ on someone else’s face!) – I don’t think my bank balance could withstand the shock!

      – Kevin Patrick

    • Hi Brendon

      Thanks for your comment, and pleased that you completed the survey. The responses I’ve received to date, from ‘phans’ in Australia, India and Sweden, have been fascinating, and I hope to share some of my initial/general findings (based on survey responses) in various academic fora (e.g. journal articles, conference papers, etc) in the coming months. And I’ll keep everyone posted about these developments, as they occur, on this blog, too.

      – Kevin Patrick

  2. As a comic collector, and proud possessor of a long run of Phantom comics, I find the longevity of the Phantom comic book in Australia a fascinating cultural study. It is the very last of the Australian black and white pulp comic books that were so prolific in my childhood, before television and the lifting of import restrictions on comic books printed in America killed off the industry. Somehow the Phantom has remained profitable for Frew Publications and the product is still essentially the same as it was on its debut in 1948 – the adaptations for a modern demographic have been subtle and clearly successful.

    I look forward keenly to reading the thesis when it is finished!

    • Dear Ray – Thanks for sharing your own chldhood memories of reading The Phantom, and of the “pre-TV” era of Australian comics. It’s a fascinating period in Australian popular culture and print media history, but one that has been persistenly overlooked by many academic researchers. I grew reading comics in the 1970s and 1980s, so I have a different (post-TV) experience of comics, which were by then no longer the popular, mass-market entertainment they once were. But as I grew older, the earlier (1940s-1960s) era of Australian comics grew more & more fascinating for me. And, of course, like yourself, I grew up reading Frew Publications’ Australian edition of The Phantom – which, as you say, is the last surviving link we have to the “Golden Age” of wartime and post-war Australian comics. Which is partly why I chose The Phantom/Fantomen as the subject of my thesis – it is a remarkable publishing phenomenon, both in Australia and elsewhere (especially Sweden and India), yet it remains consistently ignored in most academic and “popular” histories of comic books. If I’m fortunate enough to see my thesis published as a book, I’d like to think I’ve gone some way towards rectifying that oversight! – Kevin Patrick

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