Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Phantom #50

The Phantom #50, June 1972, Charlton Press

Every era of literature, from classical mythology to modern graphic fiction, has a pantheon of characters that embody its dominant genre. For Greek mythology, Achilles and Odysseus come to mind. Victorian detective fiction, which was more expansive than modern literary scholars remember, Sherlock Holmes. Early superhero comics, the Phantom. Superman may have set the standard and raised the bar through his omnipresence in print and broadcast media, but the Phantom was always holding down the fort back on the newsstands. He’s a staple.

Admittedly, I don’t know much about the Phantom, and the fiftieth issue of his fifth volume of comics by Charlton doesn’t help much. Featuring four extremely abrupt short stories, the Phantom’s adventures are surprisingly diverse considering his setting, the reclusive tribal jungles of his people, the Bengali. In this issue, the Phantom rescues a crashed spacecraft from a warring tribe, reforms a fugitive while suffering from a venomous snakebite, and escapes from a Romanesque citadel of despots. Other than resourcefulness and strength of will, the Phantom doesn’t exhibit any extraordinary abilities, save perhaps to preserve the fashionable integrity of full body purple tights. I shudder to think of how his costume would be interpreted in today’s pop culture.

This issue presents two other interesting tidbits: a graphic exposition of nature’s most powerful “jungle killers,” with man of course on the top of the list, and a dry page of pure text offering a lesson in Mandarin Chinese. I don’t know what the point of these pieces is, but as I read them, I felt like a vindicated boy scout devouring this comic with a flashlight under his comforter. I don’t know why. These pure, preachy, pointless pieces struck me as very mid-70s Americana, with a pinch of Highlights magazine.

So who is the Phantom, this man oft dubbed "the ghost who walks?" I think he’s the specter of superhero comics long gone. Creditless adventure fluff, continuity free, stagnant in its revolutionism. I was entertained as long as the story lasted, with no lasting impression. Like a ghost, reading the Phantom, I thought I saw something, but when I took a closer look, it was nothing. Just a whisper from the past. Classic mythology that nobody worships anymore.

Many of the comics I’ve sampled have been from the ‘70s when, by their wear and tear, I thought they were older. I need to go to the library and find something from the past before its time . . .

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