The Progressive Ghost

Review of the 2020 book, ‘The Phantom Comics and The New Left’ by Robert Aman.

The following review is by Kiko Saez De Adana.

After the Second World War, in the year 1946, the book While you were gone was published in the USA, intended for soldiers who returned home after the conflict. The aim was to give a panoramic view of what the country had been like during the war years in order to facilitate these soldiers to rejoin society. In the book, with the title “The Comics”, a chapter is dedicated to the press comic in which Milton Caniff takes a tour, at different levels, of an industry of great importance at that time, especially due to the large number of readers and for the impact their stories had on American society of their time.

One of the many interesting things that Caniff tells in that chapter is that the author defines himself and his fellow professionals as progressives, with the exception of Harold Gray for the clear anti-New Deal apology and in favor of the fiercest capitalism he would carry out. for many years in her Little Orphan Annie series . Knowing Caniff’s later career in his Steve Canyon series and his subsequent reputation, it is curious that this author is the one who makes that claim. Even seen from the eyes of today, it is sometimes difficult to defend this idea when one sees the treatment of certain oriental characters at the beginning of a series such as Terry and the pirates .

I do not want to enter this review into the controversy of whether a retroactive social or cultural view should be taken to judge the works of the past, because obviously, if done (which I do not share), the analysis should be more complex than what The aim of this text is to attend to the social circumstances of the time and study the works as a whole to see, for example, in the case of Caniff, that he has the courage to put his characters, of American nationality, in favor of the Chinese resistance (also led by a woman of that nationality) before the Japanese invasion long before his country broke its neutrality after the invasion of Pearl Harbor, without this supposing that the author does not fall many times in a vision, in the best case,paternalistic of some of the characters of Asian origin in his series.

A dichotomy similar to the one I propose in the previous paragraphs regarding Caniff’s work must have been found by the Swedish publishers in the edition in that country of another fundamental work of the press comic: The Phantom. Let’s put it in context: this character, known in Spain for many years as The Masked Man, very quickly enjoyed enormous popularity internationally, especially in countries as disparate at many levels as Australia, Italy or Sweden. In these three countries, in addition to the publication of the series in some newspapers, The Phantom enjoyed its own collections of comic books that still continue to be published in both Australia and Sweden (under the name Fantomen), being in both countries among the longest-running comic collections that are still being published. In both cases, moreover, the rate of publication of the series is very high (biweekly in Sweden and 32 issues per year in Australia).

Obviously, the success of the character and the pace of publication of his series soon made that the material produced in the United States was not enough to supply the need for the contents of these foreign comic series, so, sporadically, different countries began to produce their own stories. There was a fairly extensive production in Italy and somewhat more punctual in Australia or Sweden (and in other countries such as Germany, Norway, Turkey, Brazil or Yugoslavia). In the case of Sweden, this production began in 1963 and found its turning point in 1972 when the so-called Team Fantomen was created, which will be a group of writers and cartoonists (including Spaniards such as Jaime Vallvé, in the beginning, or Joan Boix ,

When facing the production of new stories of the character, the authors could not run away from the social conditions of that moment. Obviously, although you do not want to apply a retroactive look to classic stories, the creation of new stories should have been a sign of their times and more so in a character in the press, a medium that has always been characterized by its relationship with the historical events of its time, a relationship derived from its production conditions (fundamentally, its daily frequency and its publication in newspapers together with the news of its time). Therefore, when creating new stories of the character, the authors of Team Fantomen were faced with a dichotomy, already mentioned above: on the one hand,The Grapes of Wrath ; but, on the other hand, his relationship with the different indigenous tribes with which he lives is clearly marked by a predominant colonialist vision of the time in which Falk wrote his stories. Even his relationship with female characters marked by the passivity of Diana Palmer and the loving submission of the different villains that appeared in the series was far from what in the seventies and later was considered as progressive.

The solution adopted by the authors of Team Fantomen to this situation is what is narrated in the book by Robert Aman. The Phantom Comics and The New Left. A Socialist Superhero , published in the Palgrave Studies in Comics and Graphic Novels book seriesdirected by Roger Sabin. This book examines how these authors took the measure that can probably be considered more appropriate, as adjusted to the character of the character. They extracted what we could define, in Benjamin’s terms, as the “aura” of the character and adapted it to his times. And his time in Sweden was the triumph of the ideology that was known as The New Left, which, among its maxims, included that of international solidarity. An ideology in which international relations and concern about issues such as apartheid or racism at the international level were of special interest along with others such as gender equality and the women’s liberation movement.

Robert Aman’s book reviews how the character’s stories are transformed from the reflection of colonialism inevitably present in Falk’s stories to the full assumption of the premises of the new Swedish left, in such a way that the stories in the that subjects related to racism and inequality of all kinds are covered are a constant in the creations of Team Fantomen. One of the most curious phenomena is the use made by these creators of the status of “immortal” of the Ghost Who Walks to tell stories of previous incarnations of the character in previous historical moments that are used to denounce those conditions of inequality that have been occurring at certain moments in history.

However, one should not fall into the error of considering this book as the treatment of a local phenomenon limited to the Scandinavian area. What Aman shows us is the versatility of the great archetypes of serial comics to become a representation of the different historical and social moments that occur during their publication. A phenomenon that has already been studied by other authors in the United States, but which in this book is much more fascinating because of its ability to transcend borders and adapt to another reality that, in principle, may seem so far from its origin as are the Scandinavian countries. And it is even more exciting if we think that this transnational transformation has the capacity to continue crossing borders,

It is, therefore, a book that, in addition to being wonderfully written – making its reading very enjoyable – uses a local example to analyze a global phenomenon: the relationship of the great characters in the press comic with their reality historical and social. Therefore, Aman’s work is of great interest to all comics scholars interested in these subjects, regardless of their knowledge of the character or his editorial career, which is not at all necessary for the full enjoyment of this book.

Read the original review HERE