Underrated: Lee Falk And The Phantom
This is a column that focuses on something or some things from the comic book sphere of influence that may not get the credit and recognition it deserves. Whether that’s a list of comic book movies, ongoing comics, or a set of stories featuring a certain character. The columns may take the form of a bullet pointed list, or a slightly longer thinkpiece – there’s really no formula for this other than whether the things being covered are Underrated in some way. This week: Lee Falk and the Phantom.
Born April 28th 1911, Leon Harrison Gross was a writer, theater director and producer perhaps best known by the name he would use after his college graduation: Lee Falk. He took the name Lee, a childhood nickname, and Falk the middle name of his stepfather. Falk was fascinated by the mystical arts and stage magicians as a boy, and as a result created Mandrake the Magician (who not coincidentally shared a resemblance to Falk himself) who debuted in 1934.
But it was Falk’s other creation, a strip he thought would only last a few weeks, that the writer is most well known for: The Phantom, a character of a few notable “firsts.”
Looking back on the character with the benefit of history, and the internet, we are able to see his clear influence on so many of our favourite superheroes. First appearing in newspapers on February 17, 1936, the Phantom was the first character to wear the skintight costume worn by so many superheroes today. I won’t list them all.
The Phantom was also the first character to wear a mask with no visible pupils. Creator Lee Falk explained that Ancient Greek busts inspired the idea of the not showing the Phantom’s pupils when he was wearing his mask, incorrectly believing that the busts displayed no pupils (in fact they did; originally the eyes would have been painted on, and over time the paint had faded) which he felt gave them an inhuman, awe-inspiring appearance. In an interview published in Comic Book Marketplace in 2005, Falk said the Phantom’s skin-tight costume was inspired by Robin Hood, who was shown wearing tights in films and on stage.
Amazingly enough, The Phantom has been staring in new stories since his first appearance in 1936, predating the Man of Steel by a full two years (though one is decidedly more famous hand the other). However, not every Phantom story is about the same Phantom – there have been twenty one of them, and we have been given stories about a large number of the different Phantoms, making The Ghost That Walks the first “legacy hero” (a mantle that has been shared by different characters; think Batman, Wolverine, Captain America).
The first man to call himself the Phantom did so in 1536 when his father was murdered in an attack by pirates. Swearing an oath on the skull of his father’s murderer to fight evil, Christopher Walker became the first Phantom starting a legacy that would be passed from father to son for hundreds of years, earning a reputation of immortality, and nicknames such as The Ghost Who Walks, Guardian of the Eastern Dark, and The Man Who Cannot Die.
Whether the Phantom provided Bill Finger with the inspiration for the Batcave or not the fact remains that the Skull Cave, the Phantoms subterranean hideout, predates Bruce Wayne’s fancy basement by a couple of years. As with the body suit and mask, another standard of modern comics can be found first in the Phantom strips – the legacy hero. One of the first legacy heroes in comics, the character’s origin establishes him as the 21st person to become the Phantom, predating the various Robins, Flashes, Captain Americas, and Captain Marvels by more than twenty years (the second Flash, Barry Allen, first appeared in 1956).
Although he has been in continuous publication in newspaper strips from the 30’s, The Ghost Who Walks has also appeared in several comic books throughout the last few decades – the most recent of which was Dynamite Entertainment’s The Last Phantom, a fantastic 12 issue modern take on this legendary character that I highly recommend. You can find the issues collected under The Last Phantom: Ghost Walk and Jungle Rules.
In what is easily the longest run by any writer on any comic book character to date, and clearly a labour of love for The Man Who Cannot Die’s creator, Lee Falk continued to write the Phantom until his death in 1999, writing a huge number of stories starring his creation (he even dictated his final story to his wife from his death bed). Falk has never really been given the credit that he, or his creation, deserved. Together, and through the characters that have taken inspiration from them, they have influenced millions of people over nearly a century. That is why they’re Underrated.
That’s all we have for this week, folks. Come back next time when there’s something else Underrated to talk about.