MINI-SERIES The Masked Bookwyrm

#1 - coverLee Falk's The Phantom: The Ghost Who Walks

1995, 3-issues (48 pgs. deluxe format), Marvel Comics

Writer: Dave DeVries. Art: Glenn Lumsden.

Back in 1994-1995 Marvel Comics must've made a deal with the newspaper comic strip syndicate, King Features, as it released a number of mini-series featuring iconic comic strip adventure heroes using a "Marvel Selects" logo. Some of the characters with limited, or at least erratic, history in comic book form. High-end mini-series published on heavy paper, with rich colours, and larger page counts than the average monthly comic, including Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant, Mandrake, and this revival of The Phantom, that seminal mix of jungle adventure and comic book super hero (the Phantom credited as the first character to wear a quintessentially "super hero" costume).

And the reins to The Phantom were handed over to Dave DeVries and Glenn Lumsden who have collaborated off and on in comics, both in their native Australia, and in American comics. And though The Phantom is an American creation, over the years his popularity has actually been greater in other countries, such as Australia. So it's perhaps reasonable to assume DeVries and Lumsden might well have a long standing knowledge of the character some American creators might not.

Their take on the property was to remain true enough to its essence, while maybe trying to make the story seem a bit weightier, a bit more sophisticated by trying to draw upon real world-style African politics. And, as is common today, making it a bit grittier and more violent (though the Phantom himself is true to the old spirit of a guy who doesn't kill if it can be avoided). Since the character is supposed to be a multi-generational hero (The Phantom stories have been set in different time periods) they've set it in, more or less, modern times, presumably featuring their own iteration of the character (modifying his costume slightly, such as by giving him metal bracelets that act as shields).

Unfortunately, this mini-series is one of those examples of something where it has enough talent and ambition behind it that it's all the more disappointing that it doesn't work (especially as Marvel's Flash Gordon and Prince Valiant mini-series were quite enjoyable).

On the plus side is Lumsden's art, which is detailed and realist and robust. It reminds me a lot of British artist Brian Bolland -- and Bolland is a fan favourite. Like Bolland I could quibble and say it's a bit stiff here and there in the action scenes. But it's top drawer stuff -- easily one of the best illustrated (American) Phantom comics I've seen. It's also topped off by rich, vibrant colours -- particularly appreciated in a story where some of it occurs in verdant tropical jungles. The hues courtesy of writer DeVries who doubles as the colourist and, of course, the crisp paper.

While DeVries' story clearly wants to have brains and gravitas. The plot involves political turmoil and sectarian strife in The Phantom's African country of Bengala, involving regional rivalries, an exiled warlord, and an American mining company which offers jobs on one hand and ecological destruction on the other. In a way it reminds me of when Don McGregor was tagged to initiate a Black Panther series in Jungle Action back in the 1970s and he deliberately tried to work in aspects of real life issues and African conflicts into the erstwhile super hero fantasy.

Unfortunately, it's in the telling of the tale things breakdown. For one thing, a lot of that stuff is confusingly presented and articulated in the story. The first part of the first issue involves a lot of talking heads, a lot of abstract discussions about this region and that, presidential vetoes and who wants what on the mining company's board of directors to the point where you're not sure if you're reading an adventure story or an illustrated edition of The Financial Times. At the end of some issues are text pages detailing the political situation and (fictional) historical background for the events. It clearly shows DeVries had really put some thought into it -- on the other hand, shouldn't that stuff have been better integrated and teased through the story itself? I know some comics have impressed readers with such addendums (like The Watchmen) but such text pieces should add to our enjoyment of the story -- not be crucial to our basic understanding of it! Frankly, you almost wonder if once the finished pages started coming in, the editor said he couldn't understand what was going on, so they decided to just publish the story "Bible" (ie: background info used by writers when working on a series) at the back.

And the actual story itself is pretty thin -- particularly for what comes in at almost 150 pages! For all DeVries has put so much thought and imagination into coming up with the background for the story, he seems to have put precious little of that imagination into the story itself. For all that it clearly wants to touch on real issues (involving politics, colonization, and corporate imperialism) the story itself is rather simple, and simply handled. It never successfully "deals" with the issues it tries to raise, nor does the plot itself really offer much in the way of twists or turns or surprises. Even in terms of characterization it's a bit thin -- The Phantom himself doesn't really appear as a person, with dialogue (as opposed to an enigmatic figure) until the third and final issue.

The story telling itself can be a bit confused, particularly with scenes intercutting what I assume are flashbacks (to when the current Phantom assumed the mantel from his dead father). Other times it can feel like DeVries fails to articulate things as well as he intended. In the climax one of the villains is publicly outted as an exiled General -- but we, the reader, knew who he was all along, and there was no point previously in the story that implied his identity was supposed to be a secret to anyone (he mainly appeared in small settings surrounded by his allies).

Because this is based on a long-running property, there's always the question of how much is it aimed at new readers, unfamiliar with him, and how much is it playing to the fan base. Because even as it goes to the trouble of detailing some of the history of the Phantom, and showing how one Phantom takes up the role after the death of another, in other ways I suspect a novice reader might still find some things unclear (like that this very multi-generational gimmick is why the Phantom, who otherwise has no super powers, is perceived as an immortal "Ghost Who Walks"). Heck, I'm not sure it's ever explicitly articulated that the Christopher Walker seen in a couple of scenes is, in fact, The Phantom.

Ultimately, despite being an 150 page lavishly mounted Phantom epic, and despite striking and attractive art, and a plot that wants to seem "smart," the story here suffers from a thin plot, some confused and poorly articulated themes, and -- if only by virtue of deliberately trying to make the Phantom seem mysterious and iconic -- a failure to actually make The Phantom himself that engaging a personality.