Phantom comics reissue keeps early masked hero alive
Some welcome recognition now for one of the earliest comic-book superheroes, as discussed in this short B.B.C. interview from a few weeks ago.
As explained Lee Falk's The Phantom, along with Walter B. Gibson's The Shadow, was among the first of the masked crime fighters to appear in comics and newspaper strips of the 1930s. Predating Batman and Superman by several years, The Phantom in particular set the superhero standard in a number of areas. He was the first to wear a coloured, skin-tight costume and the first to be illustrated with a mask showing only white eyes, for example. Similar to the Batman character, introduced 3 years later, The Phantom also had no special powers and relied purely on fear and physical strength. Their back stories also shared some similarities, with the loss of parents being the common motivating factor.
The 1930s was in fact the decade to which the concept of the superhero as we know him today owes its genesis. In the dark days of the Great Depression - and particularly in America where gang crime was prevalent - the idea of empowered, costumed champions of honesty and bravery easily captured the public's imagination, aided in no small part by the incredible popularity of newspapers, radio and the cinema. On the outbreak of the Second World War these characters' stories were frequently and unsurprisingly written with an obvious propagandist bent as the likes of Batman, Superman and The Phantom fought Nazis and Japanese villains rather than criminal gangs, if anything further cementing their place in popular culture.
While Batman and Superman have endured in the public consciousness for the last 70 years, the fortunes of trailblazers like The Phantom and The Shadow have waxed and waned in that time. Although The Phantom comic strip has the remarkable distinction of having been in print continuously since 1936 (with Lee Falk himself still wielding the pencil right up until his death in 1999), the character's transition to other media has been less successful (for a start - and I can scarcely believe this myself - it was never serialised on the radio as The Shadow was!). Here we take a look at some of the better-known screen adaptations of The Phantom:
The Phantom first appeared on the big screen a mere seven years after his creation in one of Columbia Pictures' popular 15-part serials. It proved quite a success and very nearly spawned a sequel in 1955 before copyright issues scuppered any further possibility of another serial.
Perhaps the best-known recent adaptation of The Phantom is the 1996 feature film starring Billy Zane in the lead role. One of a triumvirate of pulp hero-based films released in the early- to mid-Nineties, along with Rocketeer (1991) and Alec Baldwin's turn as The Shadow in 1994 (all of which grace my DVD collection!), The Phantom - like the others before it - did not perform satisfactorily at the box office and for a while marked the end of major studios' interest in these early pulp characters. It did, however, help Billy Zane land his role in the following year's blockbuster, Titanic. And if you liked him in that, ladies, let me remind you than he worked out especially for his role as The Phantom (one that he went on record later as ranking among his favourites) and for much of the film wears the aforementioned skin-tight suit(!). Even disregarding that fact I highly recommend it as a bit of fun, period escapism.
Like me some of you may also remember from the early 1990s the popular cartoon Phantom 2040, which successfully updated The Phantom character to the 21st century. In 2008 a 3-hour, two-part live action television series called The Phantom was shown on the Syfy Channel, again bringing the character into the modern era. Around the same time a new film was announced and is rumoured to still be on track. The Phantom: Legacy will once again feature a present-day iteration of the character with various updates, so it will not hold as much interest for the likes of you and me as the period-set 1996 version, but it promises to follow the same template as the recent Batman films which will probably translate into critical and commercial success.
So although The Phantom may not be quite as well-known as Batman or Superman the fact that the comic strip featuring his adventures continues to be published after nearly 80 years, with a number of adaptations to show for it as well, proves that this enduring character still has plenty of pull. What with that and the news last year that new stories featuring the Rocketeer and The Shadow have been penned, perhaps a renaissance for these other early pulp heroes is simply a matter of time.