The Phantom is a Menace

13 Oct

So I have a question that’s been percolating in my mind ever since the “Tintin is racist” fracas last year: why isn’t anyone similarly aggrieved over The Phantom? Maybe I’m just not up to date on my comic book critiques (enlighten me if you are! I’d love to read it), but it strikes me as a little odd that Tintin gets called out for basically one book in a long series, while another continuing series doesn’t get so much as a mention even though its very premise is loaded in all kinds of ways

The Phantom – for those of you who don’t know or may have forgotten – in addition to being the favorite fictional crimefighter of millions around the world, is a white man in purple spandex who lives in a skull shaped cave, guarded by African pygmies who defend themselves with poison-tipped arrows that his ancestor taught them to make after he rescued them from slavery (imposed upon them by a neighboring tribe of average sized Africans). He has a pet wolf, a white horse and a trained falcon (hey, he’s Amitabh Bachchan!) as well as a secret island named Eden that he stocks with exotic animals including a stegosaurus.

So many ironies surround the myth of The Phantom, I thought it qualified for a listicle.

Marriage – The original Kit Walker, victim of a brutal pirate attack, was left stranded with nothing but the rags on his back near what we now call The Deep Woods. He was saved by a pygmy tribe called the Bandar. So you’d expect him to have mingled with this population, maybe married there, assimilated their values, become one of the them, right? Wrong!

one early Phantom is known to have married Christopher Columbus’ granddaughter; another is known to have married Shakespeare’s niece; still another took a Mongol princess as his bride.

A Mongol princess, no less. Just not a puny Bandar. So the next time you come across somebody talking about the brown hordes colonizing the West without bothering to assimilate, remember – the Ghost Who Walks is on their side.

Family Business – “Phantoming”, to coin a verb, is a bit of a family trade. For 20 generations, the Walkers have been saving the world with the awesome power of not much more than the color purple, a face mask that blots out the pupils of his eyes, and two rings (one for friendship, another for enmity). The same helpful link above tells us we needn’t worry that any of this is in jeopardy because:

…succession is assured.
The current Phantom and Diana Palmer were wed in 1977, and today their scrappy young son, Kit, is in training to someday take the sacred “Oath of the Skull” and become the 22nd Phantom.

How nice. I bet his twin sister Heloise is very happy to hear that. You can have an accomplished mother and be treated as an equal by your cave-dwelling father and his little forest friends, but you still need a penis if you hope to don some purple spandex and drink out of an ancient skull.

Location – Originally, The Phantom lived somewhere vaguely Asian, full of dense forests where tigers roamed. This vague Asiatic place, now called Bangalla, was initially spelled Bengala. Gee, I wonder where that could be? Maybe this is why it’s carefully called Denkali in the Indian edition. Although how much of an improvement is it when you change “Bengal+a” to “Den+Kali”, especially when Bengal’s one great contribution to the Western imagination were the thugees?

In fact, one of The Phantom’s many titles, “Guardian of the Eastern Dark”, is centered around a plot that explains his connection to a mysterious and ominous land the jungle people call the Eastern Dark where (if memory serves me correctly) human sacrifices are routinely despatched by sinister priests to appease a hideous idol. If it makes any Bengalis out there feel better, I think the idol was male.

Names – Okay, so get this: The Phantom was partially inspired by The Jungle Book, the heartwarming story of a boy brought up by wolves, written by that lovely fellow Rudyard Kipling. In this geographically-challenged version of Mowgli’s story, however, generations of the Walkers have grown up in a quasi-Bengal amongst a tribe called the Bandar. Which, pronounced in an Indian accent, is what Hindi-speakers call monkeys.

A much more direct link is provided by The Phantom’s traditional nemesis – his version of KAOS. Which would be the Singh Brotherhood. The only thing he got right was the name of the current leader, a woman named Sandal Singh. I can totally see that name being bestowed upon an unfortunate little Punjabi (by way of Bengal) baby.


Considering Falk continued to write his strip right up until his death in 1999, and was very proud of his work – noting, without any irony whatsoever, that “The Phantom is a marvelous role model because he wins against evil. Evil does not triumph against the Phantom… He hates dictatorship and is in favor of democracy. He is also opposed to any violation of human rights.” – what does all of the above mean?

Oddly enough, even though I’ve been familiar with his work since I was a toddler – or perhaps because I’ve been familiar with his work since I was a toddler – none of the above actually struck me until I tried to explain the series to a friend a couple of years ago. As I listened to the picture I was painting (as a dedicated fan, mind you!) for her, it was hard not to be horrified.

Perhaps Lee Falk truly didn’t understand what he was doing when he created The Phantom’s origin myths. Perhaps by the time he did, it was too late to go back and change it. Perhaps he realized what it all meant but thought his readers could rise above it. Or perhaps his readers, like myself, have just never thought about it or cared about it if they have. I don’t know.

What I do know are two things:

1. Nothing can shake my fondness for the series, however tarnished its image might be in retrospect. It was a part of my childhood and if it could survive that godawful Billy Zane movie, it’ll survive this examination.

2. If I ever have a child, I will never do what my father did when I was three – sit by my toddler’s bedside and read her/him a Phantom comic in lieu of a bedtime story.

Cheer up, kiddies – there’s always Flash Gordon.


Posted by on October 13, 2008 in Books, Entertainment


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

30 responses to “The Phantom is a Menace

  1. Sakshi

    October 13, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    Heh. I read it faithfully as a child too. Never thought of this racism angle 🙂

    Btw- why isnt the adopted son (wasnt there one???) going to succeed? Birthright only??

  2. pitu

    October 13, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    Hmm never read the Phantom so no idea. I own the entire Tintin collection and I must have been sleeping under a rock when said fracas happened, but I can assure you racist drawings/writing/stereotypes were so not limited to just one comic in Tintin. Literally every book in the series is littered with everything from stupid Indians = fakirs/useless rajas, stupid Africans = tribal savages with fat fat features and stupid S Americans = dense smugglers. Nevertheless, I love the series.

    Asterix on the other hand is not racist. Sure, it generalizes communities but I think from a place of fondness, if you know what I mean. Much more enlightened in comparison to Tintin.

    Also, don’t get me started on Kipling, E M Forster and the like :-p Gives me the heebie jeebies whenever I remember Azeez describing some random woman as having ‘nice juicy mangoes’ Ugh.

    My MFA submission essay was actually a post-colonial look at C S Lewis’s Narnia and the way it vilifies the East. The whole Tash god bit was extremely irritating. Broke my heart to write it, but hey, I am proudly Narnian nevertheless.

    Have you read Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’? PHENOMENAL! A must-read!

  3. apu

    October 14, 2008 at 12:46 am

    waaaaaaaah! Very soon, I am going to have to stop reading anything written by white people (ok, atleast white people before, say, 1960?)

  4. A Cynic in Wonderland

    October 14, 2008 at 1:00 am

    Every other author is racist aiyo. I remember a big fracas about enid blyton as well. Damn i grew up on it.

    I guess there is always amar chitra katha.

  5. Shrabonti

    October 14, 2008 at 2:36 am

    Phantom should be made mandatory reading for kids because of the excellent sex education it provides. I remember reading the entire series after Diana and Phantom marry and subsequently discover she is pregnant — right up to the time she pops those two kids, portrayed quite realistically (but of course without anatomical details) — with rapturous attention. Needless to say, till then one’s only brush with childbirth had been scenes in 80s films that showed women sweating and writhing and screaming in bed. This made the whole process seem a whole lot more enjoyable, sweet and rather romantic.

  6. Prasanth

    October 14, 2008 at 7:55 am

    Even Tarzan was pretty bad as far as i remember. And Flash Gordon retch! puke! faint!!!

    @Cynic in Wonderland–Amar Chitra Katha has been under a lot of academic scrutiny for its very skewed portrayal of Indian history, its over emphasis on the Hindu India, its objectification of women etcetc..its a political landmine!!

  7. M

    October 14, 2008 at 9:56 am

    Heh, I grew up on Phantom comics and my brother and I still use catchphrases 🙂 That said, the series’ racism hit us sometime in our teens, and for a while we were put off the whole set, but now, I can re-read it with detatched amusement…I tried them out on my kids but they found the premise too “stupid”.

    (An aside, my kids seem to dislike many of the series I loved as a kid – Enid Blyton (too boring), EBD (too girly), William (can’t understand the language) etc. They do love Jennings though, which is a small consolation)


  8. Amey

    October 14, 2008 at 11:13 am

    And that’s why I never attempt to describe my heroes to anybody 😉

    And wouldn’t it make a funny wedding picture to see the ghost who walks with a pygmy bride… I guess given the way comic strips are going currently, Kit may as well wed an African American or an Indian.

    BTW, Diana Palmer-Walker is an UN official, and pretty much “modern woman” (at least in current series).

    @Saakshi: The adopted son is the prince (and now ruler) of some mountain state, so I guess he might find it hard to get the time to put on “purple latex costume”.

  9. Amey

    October 14, 2008 at 11:14 am

    And that’s why I never attempt to describe my heroes to anybody 😉

    And wouldn’t it make a funny wedding picture to see the ghost who walks with a pygmy bride… I guess given the way comic strips are going currently, Kit (22nd Phantom, not 21st, he is already married to Diana) may as well wed an African American or an Indian.

    BTW, Diana Palmer-Walker is an UN official, and pretty much “modern woman” (at least in current series).

    @Saakshi: The adopted son is the prince (and now ruler) of some mountain state, so I guess he might find it hard to get the time to put on “purple latex costume”.

  10. naren

    October 15, 2008 at 1:20 am

    My big grouse against the phantom is his tendency to go into shady bars and ask for milk. When the indignant bartender rightly decides that this guy needs his ass whipped, pulls out a large fist with the skull ring on its middle finger and beats up that honest guy, leaving an indelible skull mark on his chin. Very unfair to the bartending profession.

  11. desiGirl

    October 15, 2008 at 4:47 am

    I LIKE phantom. *sulk* No like Flash Gordon! booo!

  12. pitu

    October 15, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    “is his tendency to go into shady bars and ask for milk.”

    Phantom = Saawariya? o.O

  13. Amrita

    October 15, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    Sakshi – I’d guess that was the angle but they gave him a nice little kingdom of his own so that’s alright. I wouldn’t be surprised if Heloise and he made a match of it some day because, you know, that’s how these things happen.

    Pitu – it was Tintin in the Congo, the very first one in the series, which was about ten times more racist than any of the other books although I hear you about the racial themes running through the entire series. I have a write up on it somewhere here on the site. For some reason, I feel the same about Asterix as you do. Humor will take us past anything!

    Apu and Cynic – let’s all watch TV instead 😀

    Shrabonti – OMG, I remember being totally obsessed with that storyline! The treehouse and so on. We didn’t have Google back then or I would have gone completely crazy!

    Prasanth – If you want to know just how bad Tarzan can get, though, you have to watch the Bollywood version which starred Kimi Katkar. It’s kind of soft porny, but hilariously bad. I didn’t know people were dissing ACKs! I need to find some so I can brush up on them and see what’s so objectionable.

    M – kids these days are so progressive yaar! I’m constantly shocked when I’m told the ages of my nephews and nieces because they all seem like they’re 15 at least, the way they think. Yes, i’m THAT kind of auntie 😀

    Amey – Now you tell me! :mrgreen: I know, that’s what makes me even more mad about Heloise – she has Diana for a mom and she’s still second class goods? And according to that ever helpful website, the Phantom is now apparently some kind of shadowy UN goon. LOL!

    Naren – that, sir, is the single best comment on this subject, ever! Kudos! 😀

    DG – awww, but you can battle Ming in Flash Gordon! No?

  14. Amey

    October 15, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    Oh, I refuse to theorize about Heloise’ future based on the insufficent data we have till date. We just know that she won’t be donning the two rings (I have seen her and Kit wear purple costume and ride white ponies, so had to change that). But we don’t have any info as to what she can grow up to be.

    Makes you wonder if in 21 generations, there never was a sister. (And that should leave me open to one more remark about “missing female relatives” in Phantom comics. Why do I do it to myself?)

    And UN had goons? Since when? :O Are we talking about the same UN here?

    P.S. What power does Flash Gordon has? His sidekicks are genius, can fly and so on, but he is so normal…

  15. Amrita

    October 15, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    Amey – his power is in choosing his sidekicks, of course! 😀 Yeah, how come Heloise is the first Phantomni? Hmm….

  16. Aaren

    October 15, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    Hey, I have a been a reader here for a while and have linked back to your piece here in a post I wrote ( on a blog I just started. Thought I’d let you know. Am somewhat new to blogging, so am not sure what protocol is on linking back, etc.

    Thanks for the whole nostalgia trip on the Phantom. Agree about the Billy Zane movie, agree even more strongly about the random racism that doesn’t make sense in the Phantom comics, but think there’s so much more that doesn’t even add up….:-) Still think its an INCREDIBLY cool comic, comes a close second only to Mandrake the Magician….IMO, that is!

    @Saakshi – Rex, the adopted son is now the Prince of Baronkhan

    Oh, and there was indeed a female Phantom centuries ago. Was one comic around her. Sister of Phantom-to-be, who is away in the city studying when Kit senior (Phantom-in-existence) dies in accident. While brother is racing back to jungle to claim his heritage and role, sister needs to be Phantom on temporary basis in order to ensure that the legend does not die out. Which she does, by beating up the baddies, as required by the plot. Story told in flashback – the current Phantom reading from the Chronicles – based on a query from Diana when she sees a smaller Phantom costume made for a female in the Skull Cave.

    Phew, sometimes I scare myself with the random junk I remember…

    Please do take a look at that link if you have the time, and tell me what you think!!

  17. Amey

    October 15, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    I always thought it (having a single child at a time) was a convenient way for dynasties to avoid civil wars. Otherwise you have to have dungeons and iron masks handy.

  18. Aravind

    October 16, 2008 at 5:22 am

    @Sakshi: not an adopted son. Rex calles phantom ‘Uncle’ Walker

    @naren: still to come across a comic in which he beats up the honest bartender for not giving him milk. it is the other bad guys in the bar that he usually ends up beating.

  19. Prasanth

    October 16, 2008 at 5:22 am

    This Tehelka article is like the tip of the iceberg. The almost non-existent number of Muslims in the series, the complete whitewashing of areas like the North-East and the selective presentation of the lives of heroes are only some of the other issues. :).
    Search items 3 and 4 in this google list contain some of the academic evaluations of ACK. One of them is an extract from google books and the other is a PDF. Enjoy!

    Dynasties are the most direct examples of “natural” selection. The Civil wars are inevitable(if not necessary) to get the most capable person on the throne. And still see what we have got!!

    I guess most of the Phantom women were married off to the rich and powerful all over the world so that the male phantoms could have easy access to in-law resources. At least that’s what would happen in India 😛

  20. pitu

    October 16, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    ACK is so doodh ka dhula in comparison to the blatant racism and misogyny elsewhere :-p

  21. reader

    October 17, 2008 at 6:56 am

    “He has a pet wolf, a white horse and a trained falcon (hey, he’s Amitabh Bachchan!)” Hysterical!

  22. Amrita

    October 17, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    Aaren – oooh, I love the Chronicles! But I don’t remember that particular one. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it. As for linking, its supposed to show up automatically in the comments (like that DP link you see) but sometimes it doesn’t. I think maybe I should start updating posts with incoming links just in case. Thanks for letting me know though.

    Prasanth – thanks! There might be a post in it! 😀

  23. Manish Bhatt

    October 20, 2008 at 5:12 am

    The racism angle in Phantom, even other Lee Falk characters including Mandrake The Magician (What with Lothar- a black sidekick who leaves his princedom to come assist the white magician and the Asian cook Hojo) has been criticised often, along with Lee Falk’s muddled Geography such as pygmies living in Bengal (Bandar means Monkey in Hindi by the way). Still, the comics were highly imaginative and have a place in the history of this medium. Even Flash Gordon has been panned for its stereotypical depiction of an Asian villain (remember Ming?) and the earlier legendary villains like Fu-Manchu have also been criticised for the same reason. Tarzan, of course, is a living example of White Supremacist attitude, not , much different from Phantom. Well, I still like reading an occasional Phantom/Mandrake/Tarzan though.

  24. revathi

    October 21, 2008 at 5:52 am

    Amar chitra katha is more racist than any other! It insults over 90% of the indian population by drawing demons dark and gods kind of benign rose in color!

    Having said that, ACK served a great purpose of popularising hindu mythology and strangely contributed to national integration atleast among the hindus (dont know what the minorities felt about it). The tales of Jatakas, birbal and pancha tantra are popular all over the world even among non indians.

  25. Amey

    October 22, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    @Revathi: As you said, the greatest triumph of Amar Chitra Katha lies in popularising Hindu mythology (basically, acting as grandpa and grandma telling stories), and get many many kids to start reading books (kinda what HP series did recently). Also, its depictions are more true to life, and not Arnold-wannabe superheroes we are getting in Indian comics today.

    Which is why it is easy to overlook the apparent color bias in it, which is not so much different from what you get in most television serials and bollywood/hollywood movies even today.

  26. revathi

    October 23, 2008 at 5:10 am

    Looks like hollywood is getting over its color bias better and faster than bollywood; for example, GOD is black in Bruce almighty!

  27. Amrita

    October 23, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    Revathi – but isn’t that kind of inbuilt into the deva-asura thing? The run of the mill asura is dark complexioned while the run of the mill deva is… er, how do they call it? Wheat-complexioned? LMAO!

    Amey – What’s out there in Indian comic-book land these days? You ought to do a listicle on your blog. “Top Five Indian comics to read or at least glance at.”

  28. Pitu

    October 23, 2008 at 4:39 pm

    I second Amey. Hey, SRK who is not fair by any stretch of the imagination, is doing Fair and Handsome ads! It would surprise me if ACK didn’t show everyone to be pinky-beige or bluey-purple in the case of Krishna and Shiva. Even moortis in temples are in the fair/dark category. Durga = fair, Mahishasura = dark. Even weight stereotypes exist not just in ACK but also in Bollywood. All ACK women as long as they are young and supposedly pretty, have miniscule Vivien Leigh waists. All the budhiyas are podgy. Same as B’wood and Hindu temples. Which Hindu goddess moorti is ever overweight in a temple? All the gods except Ganesh have Perfect 10 physiques. So now what, even temples are super racist and biased?

    As far as the non-representation of minorities go, it sounds very melodramatic and overly PC to me. I own a huge amt of ACKs (couldn’t bring myself to throw them away) and a lot of the titles do have non-Brahmin or lower caste saints- everything from Gora Kumbhar to Eknath and Chokha Mela. And believe me no holds are barred in depicting the awful way any of these men were treated. I also have titles depicting non Hindus- an awesome Guru Gobind Singh title and several Buddha titles like the Angulimala story comes to mind. And given that ACK primarily tells ancient tales, of course the proportion of Hindu characters will be exponentially greater than Muslim or Christian characters given how late those religions reached India. (relative timeline vs Hinduism)

    As for Muslim rulers like Aurangzeb, how ELSE can he be portrayed but as a despot? Or should we become so excessively PC that because he is a Muslim ruler, his vile deeds should be whitewashed??? Fine, then portray all Britishers including Gen Dyer as ‘misunderstood’, akhir woh bhi to non-Hindu hai.

    Some of these ‘scholars’ seem very reactionary to me. I’m all for academic research but some stuff just comes across as made-up to me honestly. There is a HUGE difference between Western comics that portray Hindus/Muslims as savages and heathens and ACK which at least tries to portray other religions with some semblance of decency. Just my 2 cents :-p

  29. Hurrykay

    September 27, 2009 at 5:55 am

    Another collection of stereotypes: Mandrake, the world’s greatest magician was no less. A black prince for a sidekick, who, perhaps an afterthought, was titled ‘the world’s strongest man’…since the race doesnt have its right to succeed in the mental arena unlike Mandrake. A stout asian as his chef and housekeeper…who also happens to be the secret chief of Inter-Intel. But his primary responsibility is to make omlettes for breakfast. Lastly Narda and Karma (again racially matched with Mandrake and Lothar) who are always hanging out beside the Xanadu swimming pool in their bikinis. Made for our pre-puberty fantasies…

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