The Phantom – A “Swedish” Hero?

I’m writing this blog post in Malmö, Sweden, having spent the previous week in Karlstad and Stockholm, as part of my two-week research trip to Sweden, which, as many Phantom “phans” know, is home to ‘Team Fantomen’, the Swedish editorial team that steered the Fantomen comic to considerable commercial and critical success throughout the 1970s and 1980s. I mention this only because of an incident which occurred while I was conducting research at Sweden’s national library, Kungliga biblioteket. I was amassing a pile of photocopied magazine articles and book chapters, atop of which rested one copy which displayed a full-page portrait of the Phantom. A man approached me, wondering if he could briefly interrupt me to use the photocopier, when he noticed the Phantom – I briefly explained my research project and the purpose of my visit to Stockholm, and he responded by saying “oh yes, Fantomen, the milk-drinker (*) – a very moral character, in that exotic jungle setting, a very interesting hero.”

I mention this anecdote for a number of reasons. Firstly, the fact that a complete stranger in Stockholm would freely discuss The Phantom/Fantomen with me suggested that, perhaps for older generations at least, The Phantom still resonates with them. Secondly, because this chance meeting occurred after I’d commenced interviews with a number of current and former members of Team Fantomen, wherein we discussed the idea of The Phantom being refashioned as a distinctly Swedish hero. One of my interviewees suggested that The Phantom embodied the Swedish notion of “lagom” which, in English, roughly translates as “just enough”, or “just the right amount”. This was because, even though he resembled a costumed superhero, the Phantom wasn’t too fantastic to be unbelievable – unlike, say, Superman (known as Stålmannen in Sweden), whose invulnerability and super-powers made him too implausible to be widely embraced by Swedish audiences. The Phantom, while undeniably stronger than most ordinary men, nonetheless remained a mortal man, who could be seriously wounded or killed. As far as superheroes go, the Phantom was just “super” enough to remain popular with Swedish readers. Another reason offered for The Phantom/Fantomen‘s popularity was that the series jungle setting in the Deep Woods resonated with many Swedes, who, according to one of my interviewees, retained close links with their families’ roots in the Swedish countryside, where many developed an abiding love for Sweden’s natural wilderness.

Such comments highlight the intriguing ways in which different cultures can project aspects of their own national identity, or widely held national beliefs, onto the products of a foreign culture – in this case, an American-originated comic-strip hero, one whose very character and fictional world has been refashioned in ways that allow it to resonate with an international audience far-removed (historically, economically, demographically) from its country of origin.

All of which got me wondering – is the Phantom not so much an American hero, but more of a ‘classical’ heroic archetype, one whose deeds and values can be found in the equivalent myths and legends of other cultures? Lee Falk always maintained that he was inspired by Arthurian and Nordic legend whilst creating The Phantom way back in 1935-36. This might go some way towards explaining why King Features Syndicate was so successful in selling the series throughout Europe in the mid-to-late 1930s, and why the character remained so popular in western Europe for many decades after World War II.

My research findings are not sufficiently developed to make any definitive pronouncements about this aspect of The Phantom‘s international appeal, but it does chime in with my own long-held hunches (or “educated guesses”, if we’re feeling generous enough to call them that) – that the Phantom’s popularity is, in some part, due to the fact that he remains a decidely non-super superhero. Coupled with the series’ core concept of dynastic regeneration (wherein the eldest son assumes the mantle of the Phantom upon his father’s death), the Phantom achieves a degree of immortality that firmly places the character in the mythic realm. And, like the errant knights of old, the Phantom rides into battle astride a horse – his white stallion, “Hero”.

While the idea of The Phantom comic-strip embodying competing notions of national identity across three different cultures examined in this project (i.e. Australia, India & Sweden) is a compelling one, it also leads to further, more complex questions. How does The Phantom remain relevant in societies where those long-held ideals of heroism and national identity are called into question, as those societies undergo cultural change? Is the Phantom a sufficiently robust heroic archetype, capable of absorbing and reflecting these changing definitions of national or cultural identity? Or does he represent an increasingly outmoded form of heroism, one that no longer “speaks” to the mainstream culture(s) of Australia, India and Sweden?

I cannot be entirely sure if, at the end of this research project, I will be able to answer any of these questions definitively, but I think these are  vital questions nonetheless, ones that merit further study and discussion.

So, what do you think? Is the Phantom a universal hero, one whose appeal is capable of transcending different cultures? Feel free to post your comments here on this blog, or – better yet – share your thoughts in my online readers’ survey.

(* Note: For those unfamiliar with The Phantom comic-strip, a glass of milk is the Ghost Who Walk’s drink of choice whenever he enters a criminal underworld bar, dressed in his civilian guise of Mr. Walker – a request that usually invites wholesale derision from the assembled crooks, before degenerating into an all-out brawl, from which the Phantom inevitably emerges victorious) [Image courtesy of Phantom Wiki]


Which Phantom Do You Remember?

The Phantom No.1569 (Australia, 2010)One of the most pleasant aspects of this research project has been the reaction I get from people who discover that I’m writing my thesis on The Phantom. I attended a dinner party in Melbourne (Australia) recently and half of the guests present had either direct recollections of reading The Phantom as children, or knew a relative or family friend who avidly followed the adventures of “The Ghost Who Walks”. One of my dinner companions recalled owning a coveted Phantom ‘skull ring’ (with “red ruby eyes”), while another said they’d read The Phantom well into their early 20s, before handing their collection over to their father for him to read. Still another guest remembered their brother storing his collection of treasured Phantom comics in a plastic tub under his bed.

On one level, this is always a gratifying experience for me, as it confirms my long-held hunch that there is a largely untapped collective memory among Australians about The Phantom, which hints at the character’s enduring status in Australian popular culture. On another level, such responses demonstrate just how much comic-book characters like The Phantom can serve as time-capsules of nostalgic memory. This is becoming evident in many of the responses I’ve collated in my online reader survey, with many “phans” from Australia, India and Sweden explicitly referring to The Phantom (or ‘Betaal’ and ‘Fantomen’, in the latter two instances ) as a fond part of their childhood or adolescence.

Yet even though all of my survey respondents have a shared experience of reading The Phantom, they have not necessarily been experiencing the same character – or, at least, not the same incarnation of The Phantom.  To demonstrate this point, let me share with you my own first encounter with The Phantom, which came about when my parents purchased for me a copy of The Phantom No.631 (Frew Publications, Australia) back in 1978, which reprinted the Lee Falk/Ray Moore storyline, “The Diamond Hunters”. I knew nothing of this character at the time, but I was immediately captivated by his menacing appearance, the sheer terror his very name caused among his enemies and his relentless pursuit of the evil killer, ‘Smiley’. I was also entranced by the atmospheric artwork (awash in dark black and grey tones), which made the story appear as if it were being transmitted from some distant, almost primitive, time or place – at least, it felt that way to me at the time.

Little did I know then that “The Diamond Hunters” was, in fact, the third-ever Phantom  adventure, originally published in American newspapers way back in 1937, and subsequently serialised in The Australian Woman’s Mirror throughout May-November 1938. Frew Publications (Australia) didn’t publish this story in their edition of The Phantom until 1961(No.196) – and even then, they’d only published the second half of the story, and continued to reissue this bowdlerised version until 1992, when, under the auspices of publisher Jim Shepherd, a fully restored version was printed in The Phantom No.1000. (A more recent printing was released in The Phantom No.1569 [Frew Publications, April 2010] – see accompanying image)

Yet “The Diamond Hunters” was, paradoxically, both old and new at the time when I first read The Phantom. By 1978, this particular story was already  40 years-old, yet it was entirely new to me, even though I sensed at the time that it was not truly “modern”. Nor did I realise that this was fourth instance that Frew Publications had reprinted “The Diamond Hunters”, and had in fact been reissuing this story roughly every five years or so – a publishing strategy apparently based on the belief that the magazine’s readership turned over at five-year intervals.

“The Diamond Hunters” undeniably forms the basis for my own nostalgic ties to The Phantom – yet strictly speaking, it was not a product of my 1970s childhood. It was, in the chronological sense, a by-product of my father’s childhood of the 1930s and 1940s – although I never recalled him mentioning ever having read The Phantom (He did recall reading other Australian comics of that era, such as Captain Atom and The Bosun and Choclit). Until I began this research project, I could only speculate if similarly “vintage” Phantom stories from the 1930s and 1940s resonated with an earlier generation of Australian readers, who might have first seen it unfold every week in The Australian Woman’s Mirror, or pored over it in treasured copies the first Australian series of The Phantom comic-books issued by the Woman’s Mirror throughout 1938-1940. Now, hopefully, this project’s online survey may reveal if stories like “The Diamond Hunters” were as compelling to the first generation of Australian readers who grew up reading The Phantom, in the same way that it excited my imagination back in 1978.

Yet this minor, personal recollection also demonstrates just how significant a role the external mechanics of international publishing and comic-strip syndication play in furnishing us with the mass-media entertainments that form such a large part of our childhood memory – a point that Fred Davis discusses at length in his book, Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia (Free Press, 1979). The availability of specific stories, the ways in which they are modified and repackaged for global consumption, and the editorial  practices of international publishing partners – all of these have a bearing on when and how different incarnations of The Phantom comic-book franchise were circulated over decades within Australia, India and Sweden. As a result, even though audiences in each of these countries do read and enjoy The Phantom, their experience of this individual comic-book series is markedly different – not only from each other, but also across successive generations of readers within each country.

In the end, my first impressions of The Phantom stems from personal memories of a decades-old story called “The Diamond Hunters” – so, which Phantom do you remember? (Image courtesy of Connect)