Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


The Phantom: The Ghost Who Walks

2003 - available in soft cover

Written by Ben Raab, Ron Goulart. Illustrated by Fernando Blanco, Mike Collins. Inks by Fernando Blanco, Art Nichols.
Colours: Ken Wolak, Dawn Groszewski, Paul Mounts. Letters: Terri Boyle, Chuck Maly. Editor: Garett Anderson, Joe Gentile.

Reprinting: The graphic novels "The Singh Web", "The Treasure of Bangalla", "The Ghost Killer" - plus covers; author commentaries; overview of the Phantom's history by Ed Rhoades; sketchbook reproductions.

Published by Moonstone Books

Cover price: $16.95 USA

Created in 1936 as a newspaper comic strip, the Phantom -- nicknamed The Ghost Who Walks -- is considered the first costumed superhero. Mixing elements of Tarzan with conventional crimebusters, the Phantom lives in the jungles of Bangalla, but is equally at home pursuing evil doers to the big city. The character has had an erratic history in comics, with everyone from King Features to DC Comics having a go at him.  He has also appeared in other mediums: paperback novels in the 1970s, and a decently budgeted motion picture starring Billy Zane in 1996. It was the -- surprisingly faithful -- motion picture that was my first true exposure to the character, and though the film was uneven, it was also a lot of fun and is well worth searching for at your local video store.

Despite all this, the Phantom remains an obscure character -- the movie bombed, the on-going newspaper strip is carried only by a few papers. Ironically, today this American creation seems to be more popular overseas, particularly in Scandinavian countries, and Australia.

Recently though, a fledgingly company, Moonstone Books, is hoping to resurrect the Phantom in the comic books, initially with a series of graphic novels, three of which have been collected in this TPB collection.

These stories aren't meant to radically re-imagine the concept. Rather these simply present the Phantom in a different format, but keep the tone of the newspaper strip and the movie -- light, even frothy adventure-suspense tales, with lots of running about and the Phantom given to light-hearted banter. It's meant to be old fashioned adventure.

And the creators mostly succeed, which is both a plus and a minus.

The three stories here are fast and unpretentious, and though there is some murder and mayhem, it's generally "clean" fun, lacking a nasty, or "gritty" edge that too many modern storytellers use as a substitute for true sophistication. The villains are generally real world sort of foes -- art thieves, gun runners. However, one story, "The Singh Web", is evocative of the mysticism of the 1996 movie in that it involves a struggle for a mystical artifact (in fact, much of the plot seems reminiscent of the film!).

There's a lot of old fashioned "pulp" flavour to the stories, with a couple of tales beginning with expeditions into the jungle, or one involving the tried-and-true sinister sanitorium. For those not as keen on mainstream super heroes, with their garish villains, fantasy/sci-fi plots, and convoluted continuities, these stories are more down to earth, and you don't really need any prior knowledge about the Phantom. Though it's worth noting that the symbols on the Phantom's rings are meant to be a skull and a stylized cross respectively -- rather than a swastika which the latter, quite unfortunately, sort of resembles!

The downside to all this can be that the stories are very light. There's little characterization, or deep emotion, or thoughtful asides, and the dialogue remains fairly workmanlike. The writers take their "all in good fun" attitude seriously. Probably the best is the final story, "The Ghost Killer", in which a little more emphasis is put on the Phantom's relationship with his wife, Diana, giving more heart to the proceedings.

It's also kind of, well, unspectacular. In a comic book, the stories should be limited only by what a writer can imagine and an artist can draw.  The stories here seem budget-conscious, like episodes of a TV series, or at best, like TV movies. The action tends to be fistfights, and shoot-outs, in non-descript jungle settings, or urban milieus. I'm not saying each story needed a fight on a dirigible, or a chase through a quicksand infested swamp, but something might've been nice.

Given that some of the (very few) other Phantom stories I've read included a quest for a lost expedition, climaxing in a fight with a giant spider, or the Phantom out of his milieu on board a passenger ship hijacked by modern day pirates, or stories that took advantage of the multi-generational aspect of the character to present adventures set in the past, the stories here seem a tad...prosaic. Although there is a token nod to the fact that the Phantom mantle is passed from father to son, as "The Singh Web" is set in the 1930s, while the other stories appear more modern.

Even when a story concept started out interesting, by the time it made it to the page, it seems to have been watered down. Scripter Ben Raab, in a commentary, says that the premise for the "Ghost Killer" was to pit the Phantom against a world class assassin determined to prove the fallacy of the jungle saying that the Phantom cannot die. But in the story itself, the assassin isn't particularly smart, or powerful. Her great plan is to simply ambush the Phantom with a bunch of armed mercenaries! In the end, she seems a minor foe at best.

The art is a little disappointing, particularly when contrasted with the dramatic, painted cover of this collection by Doug Klauba. Fernando Blanco draws two stories, and his style seems to improve a bit between them, from the "Singh Web" where it's kind of cartoony and angular, to "The Ghost Killer", where he's toned it down a bit, and the work is stronger. There's also more of a cheesecake-y approach in that latter story, with the lady assassin depicted in tight shirts or dressing in a bikini for very little reason. Obviously that's a plus.  On the down side, Blanco is one of those modern artists who can't resist drawing in blood and spit even for what should be a gag pratfall as a bad guy runs into a tree! So much for a kinder, gentler storytelling sensibility.

Mike Collins draws the Ron Goulart-scripted "The Treasure of Bangalla", and although there's less of the cartoony exaggeration of Blanco, the work is a bit stiff and dry. I'm not really sure what the overall history of the Phantom's art chores has been, but one of the few Phantom comics I have is a 1970s Charlton issue by the late, great Don Newton, and it set a standard in my mind that Blanco and Collins fail to meet.

Comic book writer Raab scripts two of the tales, Ron Goulart just one. Goulart, a novelist and comic strip writer (the 1970s Star Hawks strip), gained some wider recognition a few years ago "helping" William Shatner to write his popular -- and very pulp-flavoured -- TekWar novels. (You can often recognize recurring Goulart-ian touches in his works, such as spelling news as Newz, which also occurred in TekWar.)

In the end, The Phantom: The Ghost Who Walks is still an enjoyable, pulpy read. Maybe not a classic, but ingratiating in its very unpretentiousness.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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