Monday, November 3, 2003

Looking To The Stars: Dead Man Walking

Pop quiz, kids. Who was the very first superhero ever?

Batman? No, but you’re close. The hero I’m thinking of is just as popular, after a slightly longer history.

Since I’m feeling generous, I’ll give you a hint - His marriage to his leading lady after decades of adventures attracted world-wide attention. In fact, it even inspired the Parliament of New Zealand to hold a mock debate about whether or not said leading lady should quit her job and devote herself toward living in the hero’s secret hideaway and raising their children as she did in several “imaginary” stories.

Superman? Closer still, but not quite early enough. Besides, who honestly thinks the post-Crisis Lois Lane would ever settle down to raise the Super-spawn?

The year was 1936. Not quite 25 years old, a young writer by the name of Lee Falk was about to unveil a new character. Despite his inexperience and lack of training as an artist (Indeed, he had always fancied himself more a writer than an artist), Falk had tremendous success writing and drawing a regular daily strip centering upon the adventurer “Mandrake The Magician” and had been given a chance to try his hand at something else.

Inspired by equal parts literature and history with just a dash of the theatric for flare, Falk spun a tale of the Walker Family.

Christopher Walker had been the cabin boy on Christopher Columbus’ voyages to the New World. Now a captain himself, he sails himself with his son Kit. Kit is the soul survivor after the vessel is attacked by pirates, shipwrecked somewhere off the coast of Africa. Taken in by the Bandar; a peaceful tribe of pygmies, Kit was nursed back to health and vowed vengeance on his father’s murder. Later, he found the body of the pirate who killed his father and made an oath on his skull that he and his descendants would fight for "the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty and injustice."

Adopting a costume based on the garments of an idol in the Bandar village and operating out of The Skull Cave, Kit Walker would sail the seas and travel throughout the jungle, fighting evil wherever he finds it. He always leaves his calling card of a skull symbol in one fashion or another. He has used engravings of a skull, though most often he “brands” his foes with a punch, the skull emblem from his twin rings grinding into their faces. He becomes known as “The Ghost That Walks!” He is… The Phantom.

Nearly 500 years later, The Phantom still lives, thanks to the strict carrying-on of the tradition along the Walker family line, from father to son. Each son is also named Kit Walker and over the years, the comic detailed the exploits of The Phantom throughout the history. The Kit Walker of today is still active, devoting himself equally to continuing the battle against evil and his family. He married Diana Palmer (now Diana Palmer-Walker), an adventurer in her own right and now an official with the U.N. They have twins; a son and daughter. Kit and Heloise have both begun training to follow in their father’s footsteps… this being an enlightened age, women are hardly unqualified to assume The Phantom’s mantle. Indeed, several of the past Phantoms were women.

Now some of you nit-pickers out there are probably saying that there is nothing unique or unusual about the idea of a masked man fighting evil and that The Phantom is not the first to do this. And you would be right, the idea of masked heroes being older than even the pulp novels which featured masked detectives like “The Shadow” and “The Masked Detective” years before Batman was gunning down thugs in Gotham. The Scarlet Pimpernel predates them all. And a certain Mr. Borroughs was doing tales about a hero who fought various evils in the jungle a scant few decades earlier. So what is it that makes The Phantom the first superhero, or indeed unique?

It is because The Phantom was a blending of several elements that had never been combined before. Like a chef who can make a banquet out of the random odds and ends, Falk created something unique out of several seemingly incompatible elements. While masked men were not unusual, most of them tended to be detectives operating in urban settings. Jungle adventurers, while not as popular in the pulps as detectives at the time, were common enough to be an established genre, though they tended to follow the model of either Alan Quartermain or Tarzan.

The Phantom has also provided several of comics’ other famous firsts. Kit Walker married Diana Palmer in 1977, years before Spider-Man or Superman would tie the knot. And while not the first adventuring couple to have children (I believe Reed and Sue Richards hold that honor), Kit and Diana would be the first to actively bring their children into their adventures, as compared to the many heroes who try and keep their family (and especially their children) out of their other lives.

Astonishingly, Lee Falk kept writing the daily Phantom strip, in addition to a number of novels and other specials for over 60 years, up until his death in 1999. He is one of the few writers who can boast being continuously published in any medium for so long; a feat all the more astonishing when you consider that Falk was also an active playwright, as well as a producer and owner of six theaters.

Today, The Phantom’s popularity is as undying as the character’s legend in the books. The Phantom is the only superhero to have an entire theme-park devoted to him (It lies near Stockholm, Sweden) and an adaptation of the very first Phantom story "The Singh Pirates” was filmed in 1996. Even today, licensed stories featuring The Phantom are published worldwide in over a dozen countries and just as many languages. The Phantom is still the most popular daily comic strip in Australia and New Zealand.

And now, later this month, “The Ghost That Walks” shall run again in a monthly periodical published by Moonstone Books. Written by Ben Raab with art by Pat Quinn (and I don’t think it’s the same one who played Magenta- sorry Rocky Horror fans), I was fortunate enough to get a sneak-peak at the first issue and all I can say is that I think Lee Falk would be proud.

Raab does a splendid job of taking the Phantom concept and upgrading it for the 21st century. He does this in the way that all good updates SHOULD be done, not by changing the trappings of the character but just the setting. After all, with a world-wide following and over sixty years of continuous publishing it is quite clear that there is nothing “broke” about the concept of The Phantom himself. Tackling a current, but rarely discussed in the American media, event, The Phantom finds himself wanting to confront the enslavement of the Bandar tribe in a diamond mind even as Diana’s duties as director of the UN Human Rights Afro-Asian Division require him to be elsewhere. It seems that both missions coincide, however, as one of the terrorist leaders Diana’s department is hunting is responsible for the enslavement…

While this could get very preachy and very dull pretty quickly, Raab keeps the action going and makes his statement without hitting us over the head. Indeed, he holds himself very strictly to the standard set by Falk himself, who once said that his only politics were ”..up with democracy and down with dictatorships, down with human rights violations and down with torture.” Al-Qa’ida are mentioned but once, among a few other real terrorist organizations and the blood diamonds of Sierra Leone that partly inspired this story are also barely mentioned to give context, not to preach.

Quinn’s art is just as wonderful It is everything you would want in a story of this nature, with the heroes larger than life, the women beautiful as any old pulp pin-up and the same theatrical quality that Falk and the legions of artists who followed after him put into every panel of the original daily comic. It is hard to put a name to Quinn’s style. The strength and size of his male characters reminds me of the late and great Gil Kane but it also has the simplicity and cleanliness of the works of Alex Toth.

Regardless of the influence, the work is enjoyable and I can’t wait to see the full-color version later this month. I highly recommend that all of you join me in picking up a copy of Phantom #1 when it hits the street. Whether or not you’ve ever enjoyed a Phantom story before, it will be like welcoming home an old friend and I predict a lot of copies running, not walking, off the shelves.

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