Readers of this blog will no doubt be aware that Paul Ryan, who had illustrated the daily episodes of “The Phantom” newspaper comic strip since 2005, died unexpectedly at his home on March 7. 2016. His untimely death was reported by several comics and entertainment websites, such as Newsarama and Bleeding Cool News, and King Features Syndicate published an obituary on its website. While Ryan was arguably best-known to American comic-book readers for his work on The Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics (US), he was better known outside America for his work on “The Phantom” newspaper strip. However, Ryan’s first involvement with the character occurred several years before he took over as artist on the daily newspaper strip for King Features Syndicate. He drew his first Phantom story, titled “The Invisible Phantom” (written by Ben Raab), which was published in the Swedish Fantomen comic magazine, back in November 2001. He succeeded George Olesen and Keith Williams as resident illustrator for the daily episodes of “The Phantom” comic strip in 2005, and subsequently illustrated the Sunday/weekend episode of “The Phantom” comic strip from 2007 to 2012 (For a complete listing of Ryan’s daily & Sunday episodes of “The Phantom”, click here). Ryan, through working in collaboration with author Tony De Paul (who has written “The Phantom” comic strip since 1999), has helped reinvigorate The Phantom comic strip, thanks to his bold and forceful artwork, complemented by De Paul’s complex and compelling stories. As of this writing, there has been no indication as to when Ryan’s last completed episodes of “The Phantom” comic strip will see print, or who will succeed him on this long-running series.
In 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.
However, 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).
However, due to financial pressures, InterArt closed down in 1970 and its publications were acquired by Semic Press, publisher of Fantomen. Kilroy 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).
Towards the end of December 2012, I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by Marcus Morey-Halldin, of Svergies Radio (Swedish Radio) about my PhD research project on The Phantom. Marcus was producing an on-air segment about why The Phantom (or Fantomen, as he’s known in Sweden) has become such a Swedish institution – but also looking at what the future holds for Fantomen, given the changing tastes and composition of Sweden’s comic-book audience, as well as the relevance of heroes like Fantomen in modern Swedish society. Ulf Granberg, the recently-retired editor of Fantomen magazine, was also interviewed for this segment. Naturally, most of the segment is conducted in Swedish, but for English-speaking listeners, you can hear my comments interspersed throughout the segment, which can downloaded here.
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]