Fantomen, Amok & Kilroy: Imitators or Originators?

#1Kilroy - Serie Magasinet No 12 - Serie-Magasinets Forlag 1949009In his book, Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre, Peter Coogan examines a range of Victorian-era “penny dreadfuls”, newspaper comic strips and pulp-fiction magazines,  to see if such past figures as Spring-Heeled Jack or Hugo Hercules could lay claim to being the first “true” superhero prior the debut of Superman in Action Comics in 1938. Turning his attention to “The Ghost Who Walks”, Coogan says that “the Phantom offers the greatest challenge since Spring-Heeled Jack to Superman’s title as the initiating figure of the superhero genre” (pg.181). After examining different facets of the Phantom’s persona, strengths, costume/uniform and physical environment, Coogan argues that the Phantom just falls short of being legitimately recognised as America’s first superhero, and is better thought of as a “costumed mystery man”, comparable to pulp magazine heroes like The Shadow or The Spider. Coogan concludes his analysis by saying that:

“The popular culture principle of imitation and repetition can also be used to argue against the Phantom being seen as the genesis point of the superhero genre. The Phantom does not appear to have been very influential on the creation of other superheroes … no outpouring of similar characters  – costumed mystery men – either in comic books or strips, followed his appearance, even after his [The Phantom’s] comic book debut in Ace Comics #11 (February 1938)” (pg.184).

While Coogan is right in claiming that the Phantom did not instigate a noticeable cycle of imitators in comic strips or comic books in the United States, the same cannot be said of the Phantom’s publishing history in western Europe and Scandinavia. Indeed, it could be argued that the Phantom’s influence on the “costumed jungle hero” genre in European comics after the war was as great as Superman’s impact on the American superhero genre.

The syndication of The Phantom comic strip to Sweden, and throughout Western Europe generally, during the 1940s demonstrates how the popularity of American comics abroad galvanised international comic-book publishing in different, and often unexpected ways. The Phantom was originally published in Sweden by the women’s magazine, Vecko-Revyn (Weekly Review), where it premiered as Fantomen on 26 May 1940. The series proved sufficiently popular for its publisher, Åhlén & Åkerlund (a subsidiary of the Bonnier media group) to issue the first Swedish Fantomen “julalbum” (Christmas album) in 1944.

Between 1946-1948, the Italian publisher Mario Nebrini released a new series of his Albi Grandi Avventure comics featuring The Phantom, who was known to Italian audiences as L’Uomo Mascherato (“The Masked Man”). [Nebrini had published an earlier series of Phantom comic books during 1936-1941]. According to Gianni Bono, the popularity of The Phantom inspired a slew of “masked crime-fighters” from  Italian cartoonists after the war; some of which were conceived as blatant imitations of American superheroes, while others were “nostalgic remembrances”  of The Phantom from the pre-war era. Chief among them was Amok – Il Gigante Mascherato (Amok – The Masked Giant). The series was written by Cesare Solini, illustrated by Antonio Canale, and published by the Milanese firm, Agostino della Casa, during 1947-1948. (See: Gianni Bono, ‘Amok’, The World Encyclopedia of Comics [2nd ed.], Chelsea House Publishers, 1999, pg.91).

According to the character’s profile on Comic Vine, Kilroy was raised in the Burmese jungles; when his fiancee was kidnapped by a criminal gang known as Scorpio, he donned a mask and costume, which bore the symbol of Mascherona the dragon on his chest, and pursed the gang. Kilroy was was accompanied on his adventures by his loyal panther, Kyo, along with the intrepid journalist, Bill Davidson (who looked suspiciously like Clark Kent). A quick glance at Kilroy’s costume in the accompanying illustrations reveals just how closely he was modelled on the Phantom.

Amok was selected as a potential rival to Fantomen by the Swedish publisher, T. Armas Morby (1909-1980), whose new magazine, Seriemagasinet (est.1948), quickly became one of Sweden’s best-selling comics. Amok was curiously renamed “Kilroy”, possibly after the popular American GI slang expression, “Kilroy was here”, and became the headline feature for Seriemagasinet throughout 1949-1950. It therefore preceded the debut of the new fortnightly Fantomen comic magazine (published by Bonnier/Serieforlaget) in 1950.

#2Kilroy - Serie Magasinet No 12 - Serie-Magasinets Forlag 1949010However, once all the available Italian episodes of Amok had been translated and reprinted in Seriemagasinet, the Swedish publisher (Press & Publicity AB/Centerforlaget) commissioned new episodes of Kilroy, illustrated by Rolf Gohs and Francisco Cueto, which commenced appearing in 1952. Although Kilroy was published as a deliberate rival to Fantomen, the company’s decision to produce Swedish-drawn stories predates a similar policy adopted by Semic Press, when it commenced publishing Swedish-drawn episodes of Fantomen in 1963. (In a further coincidence, Rolf Gohs would become a leading cover artist for the Fantomen comic magazine during the 1950s and 1960s). This development is especially significant in the Swedish context, where, according to Fredrik Stromberg’s book, Swedish Comics History, ‘the realistic adventure genre [comic strip] has never been really big in Sweden’ (pg.43).

But Kilroy’s Swedish career did not end here, even after Seriemagasinet had been acquired  by Semic Press in 1969. That same year, Rolf Gohs, in partnership with editors Per-Anders Jonsson and Janne Brydner, formed a new publishing company, InterArt. Aside from publishing Gohs’ own adventure series, Mystika 2:an, InterArt also released a new series of the Kilroy comic, which featured new episodes set in Indonesia, which – whether by chance or design – also happened to be the original locale for Lee Falk’s first Phantom comic-strip adventure, “The Singh Brotherhood” (1936).

Kilroy - Kilroy No 1- Inter Art 1970008However, due to financial pressures, InterArt closed down in 1970 and its publications were acquired by Semic Press, publisher of FantomenKilroy continued to appear under the Semic Press imprint 1970s, most notably in Djungelserien med Kilroy – the key difference here was that these new episodes were credited to Bardon Art, a British agency run by Barry Coker which represented Spanish artists abroad, and whose clients included major UK and European comics publishers. Subsequently, a selection of Amok/Kilroy episodes dating from the 1940s-1950s were reprinted by Semic Press in Tumac (1978-1980), an adventure series featuring a South American Indian. The copyright notice, however, indicated that these “original” episodes of Amok/Kilroy were now owned and/or supplied by Studio Berreci.

Just as Superman ignited the costumed superhero “craze” that swept American comic books in the late 1930s and early 1940s, so too did the Phantom instigate the “hybrid” comic-book genre of the “costumed jungle hero” in Italy and Sweden. In doing so, the Phantom inadvertently helped drive the post-war expansion of the European comic-book industry, allowing foreign publishers, writers and illustrators to create a distinctively European interpretation of this popular American art form (Images from the author’s collection).

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