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.