Today’s, and next week’s if all goes well, What’s Going On segments are about the same strip. That’s because it solves the problem of Sunday and weekday readerships being different in decisive form. The weekday and the Sunday strips carry on different stories. Neither sequence has to wait for the other. Surely these can be fit into some order so as to preserve the all-important continuity of The Phantom‘s universe. I admit I’ve never tried.
The Phantom (Weekdays).
I snarked about the importance of continuity to The Phantom. It’s reflexive. The comic strip, started in February of 1936 by Lee Falk, has a continuity. An important one, even.
The Phantom, The Ghost Who Walks, is the 21st of that line, descendant of a chain of superheroes defending the African nation of Bangalla from, in the 16th century, pirates. In the 21st century, it’s … pirates and terrorists. Sometimes stranger stuff. The comic strip shared a universe with Mandrake the Magician and some of Mandrake’s weirdness would leak over. Some of the Mandrake characters have made appearances in The Phantom since that comic ended.
The rough premise of The Phantom may seem overly familiar. Costumed superhero who lives in a secret cave watches for menaces to his homeland. When he finds them he’ll punch them hard enough to leave a mark for decades. (A specially-constructed ring helps with this.) He hasn’t got any superpowers per se. But he deploys intelligence and great physical shape and training plus stunning private wealth to get as close as practical. If it sounds like every costumed superhero comic ever, then remember it got started a couple years before Batman did. I figure to talk about The Phantom‘s universe more next week.
The comic strip, weekday and Sunday threads, are written by Tony DePaul and have been since 1999. The weekday comics have been drawn by Mike Manley since May of 2016. Manley also draws Judge Parker. The Sunday strips have been drawn by Terry Beatty, the artist and now writer for Rex Morgan, M.D..
So here’s the current Phantom weekday storyline. Its essentials were laid out in a week of strips starting the 7th of November and hosted by “Lee Falk”. That’s one of the charming conventions of the comic: a representation of the strip’s originator gives the dramatis personae and necessary backstory for the adventure ahead. If the story’s run long he might pop in again to recap for new or simply lost readers. Or to advance the story to a new point. It’s common enough for cartoonists to be characters in their own strips, but it’s almost always humor strips. Story strips usually leave narration as done by some anonymous source. “Lee Falk” doesn’t really say anything that couldn’t be done by unattached narrative box. But it adds a neat personal touch to the starts of stories that he does.
So the first element is Orson Burley, big, bearded tycoon in the enormous-wealth industry. He’s heard this legend of The Phantom and figures it’d be a good subject for a postage stamp. I have to say I’m on Burley’s side on this. It seems odd that the Republic of Bangalla wouldn’t have already used a semi-mythic protector-legend as subject for a stamp. Local mythical figures on stamps seems like elementary nation-building. Issuing cultural stamps are the first thing you do after gaining independence from the British. Well, the first thing after renaming the street Government House is on to the native word for “Freedom”. But President Lamanda Luaga is cold to the idea, and warns The Phantom of Burley’s investigation. I understand a secretive superhero trying to keep his secrets. But the legend’s been going for four centuries now; this can’t be the first serious scholarly investigation of the thing. Well, so it goes.
Burley’s insisted on learning as much as possible about The Phantom and going ahead with his postage stamp. This despite the warnings of the President and of his limo driver. And Burley’s startled that anyone could see The Phantom as a legend dangerous to investigate. I confess I’d be, too.
Second piece is Akini Ogutu, “CEO of a multinational giant headquartered in Mawitaan”. While Bangalla’s a basically functional democracy it still has problems, even in its capital city. She got targeted and kidnapped, for ransom, by one of those gangs you hear about that hold executives for ransom. The Phantom’s not-at-all-worrisome private army, the Jungle Patrol, finds the hideout. The Phantom goes in alone and rescues her in a daring, exciting raid that full of the sort of superheroics you’d expect. Also that make you wonder, well, why does he have his Jungle Patrol if they aren’t at least doing support on this sort of thing?
(OK, it’s because The Phantom tries to keep his Phantom life and his Jungle Patrol life separate. The Jungle Patrol doesn’t even actually know their leader is The Phantom. They know him only as The Unknown Commander, who issues orders over the phone, and that’s not a potential danger pit at all, is it? But that does shift the question to why not have his army move against the criminal gang, which would seem safer all around?)
Anyway, it must all have been brilliant because he rescued Ogutu. Burley can’t believe Ogutu’s claim that she was rescued by The Phantom, and figures to go on with his research and stamp production. And this week The Phantom has gone to Burley, presumably to explain why not being on a stamp is such a freaking big deal for him. Maybe the 16th Phantom was betrayed by someone selling a fake Penny Red or something.
I mean, the best I can figure is The Phantom figures he’s most effective if he’s surrounded in clouds of mystery and legend. And getting a commemorative postage stamp is the start of a process that leaves him as exotic and remote as Santa Claus. But part of The Phantom’s schtick is that he’s surrounded by a lot of legends and I don’t get how a postage stamp depiction is going to make that greater or lesser. And it isn’t like he hasn’t got, and encouraged, a lot of “old jungle sayings” about his legacy. Is he worried they’ll paint him from an unflattering angle? It seems like a misplaced reaction and I hope something in the coming weeks clarifies matters.
Next week I’ll try to explain the Sunday storyline.