As a young boy, I would have to accompany my mother to relatives’ or friends’ houses. Usually, I would go willingly but sometimes a bribe such as a roll of Poppins would help sway my mind. It’s not that I did not want to accompany her, its just that if the house that we were visiting had no children of my age to play with, I would be bored out of my mind. But every now and then, there would be a pleasant surprise. The lady of the house would say “here is something to keep you busy” and casually give me a few comics to read. Any would do, but if I was lucky, there would be a collected, bound edition of Phantom or Mandrake. I would then be in comics heaven and depending on the number of comics, would then be reluctant to leave. My mother would then have to coerce me to head back home. If I was lucky, I could borrow some of the unread comics to read happily at home.
Phantom aka “The Ghost who Walks” was a constant companion in my childhood. Besides being serialized in the “Illustrated Weekly of India”, the Phantom series was published by Indrajal comics. I usually rented them out at the local library but there was a steady stream of dog-eared copies of Phantoms circulating around. These slim volumes were worth their weight in gold! My best Phantom reading was however in Bombay. My uncle used to buy the comics regularly and so on my annual trips to Bombay, there would be a stash of Phantom comics to devour with no pressure of homework or exams at the back of my mind.
Lee Falk, the creator of Phantom, originally intended to create the Phantom as a wealthy playboy who would don a costume at night to fight criminals. By a stroke of genius, he instead created a character in a long line of heroes who fight for justice. When serialized, every now and then, the strip would start with the iconic phrase “For those who came in late”, where a quick introduction would reveal that the current Phantom’s (Kit Walker) ancestor’s ship was attacked by the Singh pirates in the 16th century and as a sole survivor, swore on the skull of his father (who had been the captain of the ship and was killed by a pirate) to avenge his death and fight crime. Falk, who was influenced by Kipling’s “Jungle Book” as well as the Thuggees of India, had Phantom’s base located in Bengal in India (hence the name Bengali which later became Bengalla). However, over time, the location morphed to a region in coastal Africa. There are Indian influences though as in the Singh brotherhood of pirates or the various Rajahs that show up in the books. The original illustrator was Ray Moore and the comics were syndicated by King Features. The first comic was published in 1936. Incidentally, Indrajal comics transformed Bengali into Denkali.
There are a lot of things to like about Phantom for a young boy. He lives in a cave that is in the shape of a skull. The cave is hidden behind a waterfall and has several chambers such as the chamber of chronicles, the burial chamber, the treasure chamber etc. He rides a white stallion called Hero and his pet is a wolf called Devil. He has two rings, one signifies good luck and the other leaves the imprint of a skull and causes evil-doers to quake in their boots. He is ninja-like in the sense he can appear and disappear seemingly at will. He drinks milk, even in bars where there are tough guys around. Usually, one of the tough guys will smirk and poke fun at him and that is when his jaw meets the awesome force that is the phantom’s fist. He swims through shark-infested waters, wrestles crocodiles, pilots planes and commandeers ships. He can easily win the jungle Olympics and the modern Olympics if he chooses to.
And when he shoots, he shoots not to kill but disarm. Phantom always shoots the guns out of the hands of criminals. I was so used to reading about this mode of fighting, that for years, I wondered why policemen would have to kill criminals when they could easily disarm them by shooting the guns of their hands. Ah, but I was being naive. They were not Phantom. He finds himself in the midst of amazing adventures but always comes out on top. A friend of the just and foe of the evil, he will leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of justice. He is muscular and handsome and several women try to seduce or coerce him to marry them but he has his eyes only for Diana Palmer. She is no slouch herself. A member of the UN, an Olympic diving champion and a black belt in karate.
As each Phantom dies, his mantle passes to his son. This secret is only known to the pygmy Bandar people, the rest of the world thinks that Phantom is immortal. He seems to die, only to surface again, hence the “Ghost who Walks” moniker. The beauty of this plotline allows for Phantom to be juxtaposed in any historical situation. In fact, the first Phantom – Christopher Standish’s father was Christopher Columbus’s cabin boy. One of the Phantoms fought Blackbeard. One married Shakespeare’s niece. The 21st Phantom whose adventures I followed has fought Nazis, deposed malevolent dictators and rescued an astronaut who after returning from a moon landing is captured by pirates after he splashes down. I was flabbergasted when in a fairly recent conversation, my cousin in Bombay who had read these comics probably 30 plus years ago, remembered the name of the astronaut (Connelly) as well as the names and plots of several comics.
There are a core set of characters in the Phantom comics. There is, of course, the Phantom himself (known as Kit Walker to close friends). Guran, chief of the pygmy Bandar people. A medicine man, he is also phantom’s best friend and saves his life on occasion. Rex, who in many of the comics is 12 years old and in keeping with his name is actually the heir to the throne of Baronkhan but has been given up for adoption. Rex’s close friend is Tom-Tom. Miss Tagama, Rex and Tom-Tom’s teacher. Diana Palmer, who weds Phantom, her mother Lily and uncle Dave. Dr. Alex, chief of the Dangalla (another corruption of Bangalla, or a different place?) hospitals and Col. Worubu of the Jungle Patrol. There is Trader Joe and last but not the least, old man Moz, the jungle storyteller. Several comics are based on stories of earlier Phantoms that old man Moz narrates to Rex and TomTom. At Phantom and Diana’s wedding, Lee Falk’s other famous characters – Mandrake and Lothar also make an appearance. This was a big deal for us then!
He who sees the Phantom’s face dies a horrible death.
And if you’ve never read a Phantom, don’t worry, there is after the old jungle saying – “You never find the Phantom, he finds you.”!