Before there was Superman, Batman & Spider Man… there was The Phantom!!
The first Phantom comic strip appeared in our newspapers on the 17th of February, 1936 in USA (as seen above), with the commencement of Lee Falk’s classic story, ‘The Singh Brotherhood‘. The strip was printed in black and white, with the story ending on the 7th of November 1936.
2020 heralds the 84th anniversary of this first strip going to print, with the Phantom himself not appearing in print until a few days later, on the 21st of February 1936.
In the beginning…
Soon after Mandrake began to appear in the newspapers, Lee Falk thought of an idea for another strip… The Phantom. He planned out the basic structure for the first few months of the story, and drew up the first two weeks himself. King Features Syndicate liked the concept and were quick to buy it. The Phantom daily strip commenced in American newspapers on February 17, 1936, a little before Lee Falk’s 25th birthday. While the costumed hero was by no means original in 1936, it was certainly new for one to be featured in the comic pages of newspapers. Masked adventurers such as The Phantom Detective had appeared in pulp magazines since 1933 and the idea of a masked avenger predates even Zorro.
The artistic duties for Lee Falk’s second strip were shared with Ray Moore, who was moved over from Mandrake. Lee Falk continued to work on the layouts whenever possible, but his heavy workload with scripting daily and Sunday Mandrake strips, plus the new Phantom daily strip, combined with his commitments to radio shows proved too much. The artwork on the Phantom was soon left entirely to Ray Moore. A man named Eddie Walcher did the lettering on both Mandrake and The Phantom strips for many years.
The Phantom underwent some major changes during his first adventure. Lee Falk explains “For the first few months, the Phantom was intended to be Jimmy Wells, a wealthy playboy who fought crime by night in a mask and costume. This was, of course, several years before Batman and Superman appeared on the comics scene. I never came out and actually revealed that the playboy was really the Phantom and in the midst of the first story I suddenly got the other idea. I moved the Phantom into the jungle and decided to keep him there. Gradually the whole concept of the Phantom developed; the generations behind him, the Skull Cave, his wolf Devil and horse Hero and the Bandar pygmies.” Lee Falk was a great fan of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, and paid it homage by calling the Phantom’s pygmy friends “the Bandar”, which comes from the monkey tribe who were friends with Mowgli.
It took some time before Lee Falk warmed up to the title he had selected for his new strip. “I tried to think up a more original title. There was already The Phantom of the Opera, the phantom of this and the phantom of that. For a while I considered calling him The Gray Ghost but I let it ride because I really couldn’t come up with a title I liked better than The Phantom.”
“The Phantom comes out of my great interest as a kid in hero stories, the great myths and legends – Greek, Roman, Scandinavian, the Songs of Roland, El Cid in Spain, King Arthur and others. There’s a heroic thing about him, he’s sort of a legendary character. He started out fairly simple and gradually I’ve added more and more legendary things about him till he has a whole folklore around him. The Jungle Book of Kipling’s and Tarzan of the Apes influenced me, as you can imagine. Apparently this legendary quality seems to be the most popular feature of the Phantom with readers.”
Lee Falk’s creation, the Phantom, continues to amaze and excite us, 84 years on since his incarnation as a newspaper comic strip. The Phantom’s adventures have been printed in a myriad of different countries and languages over this time frame, appearing even in different colored costumes.
Through the amazing work of artists, storytellers and publishers, the Phantom continues to strike a cord with his readers, opening our minds and imagination to the possibilities of new discoveries, all in-between the pages of our Phantom comic book.