The crime fighter/superhero The Phantom, aka “The Ghost Who Walks, Man Who Cannot Die,” appeared first in February 1936 in The New York Journal as a comic strip. Thus predating the arrival of Superman by more than two years; two years in “comic books publishing time” is a long, long while (provided that in the 1960s the two biggest comic book publishers, MARVEL and DC, hardly let two months pass to copy the business rival‘s superhero strategies and outfits).

Conceived by comic book artists Lee Falk (the writer who also penned Mandrake the Magician) and illustrator Ray Moore, the series marketed by King Features Syndicate always stood in the shadows of Batman and Superman and only in the late 1970s the Phantom received enough attention to be represented in its own comic book at US news stands. Nevertheless, the Phantom has continuously been published for 80 years.

Unfortunately, the character never received the attention it deserved in his native country, but instead was most successful in India, Australia and Sweden (where new stories were created for the Swedish market under the name of “Fantomen” from 1950 onward).

Author Patrick concentrates on the Phantom comic book fandom in those countries in all the superhero’s media incarnations, thereby using quantitative and qualitative data from questionnaires. Considering the many surveys and studies that focus on the American market and comic book readers, this is a direction most unusual which has a rare quality.
Nonetheless, Phantom fandom and its publishing career abroad only emphasize the complexities and the influence American popular culture had and still has on other countries.

Simultaneously, Patrick takes a close – and long overdue, as he says – look at the reception of comic books in general, mostly the one present in the Western world. Even though with the rise of cultural studies in the 1970s and 1980s, when the concept of popular art forms was enlarged to include film and TV, but not comic books.

Another of Patrick’s approaches is directed toward the research and documentation of early comic book licensing in the 1930s, long before millions of dollars were made by selling superhero film merchandise in the 1980s. Since today, superheroes are not dependent on the media comic book/printed matter anymore; they “exist” (and generate money for the publishers) in computer games, big-budget movies and in any kind of merchandise.

Part of the study is concerned with the Phantom’s identity, his relation to the native people of his (fictional) country, the geographical position of his lair and his role in a colonial/post-colonial setting that was subject to many changes; depending on the respective country his adventures were published in, he became a post-colonial freedom fighter, in addition to a peace keeper that derived his powers from a history of white dominance and colonial structures in India/Indonesia/Africa.
By no means easy tasks for one individual superhero, as white dominance and the need to maintain law and order in a frontier country (all under the command of a white man) were easily accepted in 1930s USA. However, as foreign politics changed and African countries became independent later, the Phantom’s mere existence and his reason for being around in the first place were put into question by many reviewers. As he fought for justice (and against piracy) in the remote jungles of the earth, and not in the urban jungles of New York City/Gotham City.
At the same time, the “…confusing topography of the Phantom’s world actually worked to the series’ commercial advantage because it allowed international audiences to appropriate his imaginary homeland as their own….” As it seems, the Phantom resided on a continent all of his own, half Asia, half Africa. This is one of the features that made his character so successful, says Patrick, as his adventures were almost fantasy, but in part realistic, and then surrealistic when the Phantom dealt with local kingdoms that still subsisted in medieval societies.

The 1930s presented at least three jungle-themed comic-strips where one white man was responsible to maintain order (by mostly sheer physical power and largely without the help of modern technology) as the natives were seemingly unable to do so themselves: Tarzan of the Apes, Jungle Jim and the Phantom. There were some forerunners in the ““pulp hero” genre of the early 1930s (that was a continuation of the mid-19th century dime novel) where the lone hero who conceals his identity does good and fights crime; the most influential character was probably The Shadow).

Commercially, the inability and inexperience of King Features Syndicate (owned by print magnate Hearst) is largely the reason why the Phantom, father to all the modern costumed crime fighters without superpowers, never received the fame and attention he deserved, as King entirely ignored the new possibilities of the comic book and kept publishing the series as newspaper strip for decades.
The study gives a deep insight into the comic book marketing strategies and the media licensing industry right from the beginning in the early 20th century when syndicated print content – such as comic strips – was sold nationwide and internationally and became a supplement for hundreds of newspapers. This part of the book alone – almost a quarter of the volume – is unquestionably worth reading it.

In the case of the Phantom, the study also demonstrates what this distribution and marketing model does to a superhero idea when it is published without passion by the wrong people in the inaccurate media. It is also a study about the workings of the American comic book culture of the early years; and shows how other countries (India, Sweden, Australia) handled the initial comic book impulse differently and thus paved the way for a comic book success story. (In Sweden, for example, the Phantom has almost the reputation of a national hero).

Probably due to complicated reprint rights the book unfortunately offers not a single sketch, illustration, strip or even small reprint of the superhero, which is a bit sad, as also the character’s (physical) appearance throughout the years would have been of interest, no to mention the styles of the different illustrators that kept the Phantom alive for more than eight decades.
The author Kevin Patrick is an independent Australian media studies scholar and comic book historian.

Review by Dr. A. Ebert (2017)

Kevin Patrick. The Phantom Unmasked. America’s First Superhero. University Of Iowa Press, 2017, 262 p.