By Alberto Gallo
Information was scarce; photographs were rare, interviews even more so. Until recently, very little was known about him. He was said to be reserved and not very inclined to appear, but the fact that he had a career that lasted the space of a decade or so, had played a fundamental role in making his biography thinner. Surrounded by that aura of mystery, it seemed as if it had never existed. It was necessary to sift the ground by digging deeply, to bring to light some artifact capable of telling its story. Thus, everything that is known today about Ray Moorethis is mainly due to patient searches in newspapers and local archives, the stories of his wife Claire and some anecdotes told by Lee Falk. An unusual fact, considering his role in the history of comics: before him and Falk, in fact, heroes in masks and tights did not exist.
Raymond Stephen Moore was born on February 27, 1905 in Montgomery City (Missouri), although incorrect information circulates about his origins due to the unstable life of the family and the statements of his wife, according to which the husband was born in Oklahoma. Ray’s parents, David Yearly Moore and Martha Stephens, had married in 1898 and lived with David’s family in Bedford until 1903, then moved elsewhere and settled in Montgomery, the town of Martha’s parents.
In the large Moore family, Ray is the second child: Mary Adelia was born before him and David Yearly Jr would later arrive. Moving to St. Louis, Missouri (where his father works as a jeweler), after graduating from Soldan High School Ray enrolled in Washington University law school. Here he plays football as a freshman, but an argument with a teacher leads him to be expelled from the school within a year. For the boy it is the beginning of a period that is far from simple: forced to work in a road paving company to pay for his studies, when he tries to enter the Air Corps he fails the written admission test by only 1.3 points. From 1927 he attended the University Art School in St. Louis for a year and a half and later accepted a job as an advertising illustrator, but he had all the credentials to aspire to something better. His fellow friend, Phil Davis probably thinks so too, when he enlists him as an assistant for the strip of Mandrake, the series he gave life to together with Lee Falk in 1934. Although it is an excellent apprenticeship that allows Moore to enter the comic sector from the front door, an artist now thirty years old with that noir style, made of hatches, shadows and chiaroscuro, it deserves a strip all to itself. The opportunity will not be long in coming and it will be the work on Mandrake that will get it for him.
On the threshold of 1936, in fact, Lee Falk creates a new character. He wants to write and draw it, but he knows he cannot do it alone: it is impossible to meet deadlines, considering the commitment to the magician’s scripts and work for the theater, his main passion. He needs someone to ink his pencils, and Moore looks perfect for the new strip’s pulp-adventurous vibe. Falk tells the King Features Syndicate that he will be joining him in his new project. Thus, on the 17th of February, 1936, Lee Falk and Ray Moore’s The Phantom, the first masked hero in the history of comics, made his debut in the US newspapers.
Halfway between Tarzan, Zorro and the future James Bond, the Phantom is an executioner who has been fighting crime in every corner of the world for four hundred years. Considered immortal by the indigenous peoples of the forest, the protagonist of the strip is actually the last descendant of an ancient lineage, committed to keeping the oath made in 1536 by an ancestor, the first Phantom, to dedicate his life and those of generations following the destruction of all forms of piracy. Since then, every eldest son of the family has inherited the mission, revealing his secret and his identity only to the woman destined to become the mother of her children.
For Falk and Moore’s Phantom, the woman in question is Diana Palmer, a young and wealthy explorer attacked in New York Harbor by Fats Horgan and his men. Intending to steal the 300 pounds of ambergris carried by the girl’s ship, the gang belongs to the Singh Brotherhood, an ancient pirate organization sworn enemy of the Phantom lineage. When the masked hero intervenes to save Diana, love at first sight is struck: it is the beginning of one of the greatest loves in the history of comics.
Falk and Moore collaborate on the drawing board for the first two weeks of publication (corresponding to the first twelve strips) with questionable results. Despite an atmospheric effect due to the work of the finisher, the uncertain figures highlight a roughly set design and a poor creative feeling between the two artists. Their styles don’t blend well, they don’t seem easily compatible. Having to concentrate on the scripts, Falk realizes he cannot bear the double commitment and decides to abandon the drawings to leave full powers to his colleague: it will prove to be a winning choice.
While the Ghost Who Walks makes his first appearance (from behind) in the strip of February 21, 1936, the first strip in which Moore’s signature appears is dated March 2, 1936, formalizing the moment in which the designer begins to walk alone.
In reality, although it has been talked about for a long time, the authorship of the designs of the first two weeks remains an open question. Some consider Moore to be the sole designer of the strips, while others acknowledge Falk for their partial realization. Despite Ms. Claire’s claims that Falk never worked on the drawings, there are some clues that Moore actually started working on Phantom alongside someone else. In the strips of the first two weeks, for example, the masked hero shows up with a leaner build and wears gloves, and then suddenly changes physique and remains bare-handed in the following sequences.
Also, all the figures of the first twelve strips are generally less defined, while the direction is more static than Moore’s cinematographic one. These differences, combined with the absence of the artist’s signature, seem to confirm the intervention of another hand in the setting of the cartoons, reinforcing the hypothesis that Falk participated in their work.
With total control of the job, Moore can finally unleash his full potential. Perhaps it is precisely for the desire to demonstrate what it is worth that “The Singh Brotherhood” (the first adventure of the Phantom, ended November 7, 1936) will remain his best work.
In his early stories, Ray ‘winks’ at Alex Raymond (the designer that all King Features Syndicate artists are bound to be inspired by), but he does it in a very personal way. Characterized by a typically impressionist style, his drawing comes to life thanks to quick brush strokes that create the scene almost splashing it, as if it were a moment to be captured before it dissolves before the eyes of the reader. An approach that signals a lack of interest in details, but capable of infusing the work with great dynamism and a dark atmosphere, generated by hatches and chiaroscuro skillfully mixed with the screens. Moore doesn’t care about backgrounds; he prefers to liquidate them with a few strokes of ink to focus his attention on the characters: left alone at the brushes, Ray immediately demonstrates a remarkable mastery in the design of the protagonist, with a lean but at the same time athletic and vigorous physique, completely wrapped in tight tights. It’s aura of mystery is complemented by a black mask that surrounds two empty slits, from which not the slightest trace of the eyes is visible. Moore cannot yet imagine having just invented an epochal graphic solution: from that moment, in fact, the idea of the “white eyes” will be taken up by all the designers to hide the gaze of their masked heroes.
The main specialty of the St. Louis designer, however, remains the female figures, endowed with an elegant erotic charge that convinces Falk to push the accelerator on the pink quotas, to the point of specifically creating entire criminal gangs composed of women only: the first example already arrives in the second adventure, the legendary “The Sky Band”, published between November 9, 1936 and April 10, 1937. While many designers systematically repeat the same female figures without ever changing reference models, Moore masterfully juggles with different types of women, giving each different traits and personalities. This feature is evident from the first story, if, for example, Diana has the appearance and sophisticated style of a Hollywood diva, the wicked Sala appears in all respects as a sexy dark lady with a fetish look. This attention to bold clothing, which contributes to imparting a strong touch of glamour to the designer’s women, is especially noticeable in the second part of “The Singh Brotherhood“, where the costumes of Diana, Sala and the slaves at the court of the evil Kabai Singh leave little to the imagination. Within a few strips, however, something strange happens: during the final sequence of the story, in the middle of the action, Sala changes look from one panel to another, wearing a dark tunic that he will keep in the next adventure.
A drastic, sudden change in the race, so suspicious as to suggest that Moore forced to dress the girl in a chastened manner after being caught in the crosshairs of censorship or some moralistic protest. Even without leading to equally driven outfits, the designer’s erotic streak will remain intact for the rest of his production, skillfully backed up by Falk’s scripts, wearing a dark tunic that he will keep in the next adventure too.
In short, in the first adventures of Phantom, Moore recreates the atmosphere of the Thirties with personality, to the point that it seems to witness a film serial of the time shot with poor sets, homemade special effects, actors called to interpret different roles and a played direction continuously on medium and close ranges. An artisanal work able to give suggestions regardless of the settings of the stories, ranging from the mysterious jungle to city views, passing through excursions on snow-capped peaks, high-altitude flights and trips to the open sea.
Ray defines the Phantom “the guy in the long underwear” and calls Diana “Pudding ‘Puss”, tells of working in shorts and often completing three or four days of work in one night simply by sitting down and drawing, without using templates or other aids. Soon, however, something will make him turn around, making him take a path that will lead him to a gradual transformation of work.
Until the third story of the Phantom “War in the Jungle” (12 April – 18 September 1937), Moore’s style does not register any particular changes, except for some adjustments to the hero’s costume (such as the appearance of the unhappy striped slip).
Starting from the fourth story “Little Toma” (September 20, 1937 – February 5, 1938), we notice something different, Ray begins to lighten the figure of the protagonist, drawing it with a cleaner face and progressively reducing the heavy shading that until at that time it featured the body of the Phantom. It is a gradual change, almost imperceptible, which little by little will also involve the other figures and backgrounds, leading to the disappearance of that chiaroscuro that has become a strong point of his style. In the fifth story, “Prisoner of the Himalayas” (7 February – 18 June 1938), the artist seems to retrace his steps (churning out one of his most successful works), in the following episodes the wind of change begins to blow more strong.
It’s not clear what the reason for this choice is, probably the tiredness and the pressing rhythms hit the author in the hips, making him let his guard down and convincing him to simplify the work to speed up the times.
On June 30, 1939, Ray married Claire Lydia Moehlenbrock, by his side all his life, while his passion for flying allowed him to obtain a private and working instrument flight license for travel within the country. He purchased a ‘Monocoupe’ the following year he begins to operate between Lambert and St. Louis Field, who knows that his interests in the aeronautical field will not contribute to removing him from the work on the Phantom, perhaps no longer as rewarding as in the first two years of publication.
However, the containment of processing times remains the main path for those who want to investigate the stylistic transformation of drawings. On May 28, 1939, the serialization of the Sunday stories begins, further increasing the workload. To meet the deadlines, Moore gets help in the creation of the backgrounds by some non-accredited assistants, among these are Lester Harry “Tex” Willman, Hugh Hackaday and the talented Robert Wilson McCoy. The names of Moore, Willman and McCoy are closely linked. Willman, in fact, had been a fellow student of Moore at Washington University and had worked in the same studios as McCoy since 1933. Born in 1902, the latter had been a student of the same university as his two colleagues, but had not crossed paths for a handful of years. His meeting with Moore took place a little later, when they both had studios at 2313 Washington Avenue, St. Louis.
In the first Sunday story “The League of Lost Men” (concluded October 15, 1939), Moore still shows off the dark style of the beginning, already from the second adventure “The Precious Cargo of Colonel Winn” (October 22, 1939 – March 10, 1940), the style takes a turn and more essential, almost completely lightened by the hatches and with the chiaroscuro rendered only through solid blacks. Both in the daily strips and in the Sunday pages, moreover, little by little the direction becomes more static, while the figure of the Phantom loses much of its dynamism and sometimes changes proportions from panel to panel. This detail is especially noticeable in the face and head, where the skull often takes on different shapes (becoming oval, round or elongated, depending on the vignette) and many close-ups leave something to be desired.
It is a further sign of Moore’s tiredness, now devoid of the brilliance and initial stimuli, the artist leaves more and more space for the interventions of the assistants (in particular McCoy), to the point of questioning the real authorship of several cartoons. This is especially true for the daily strips, given that the first stories of the Sunday strips offer a much higher graphic quality. Evidently Moore devotes himself to it with more attention, working on it personally and leaving the assistants only the backgrounds or little else, perhaps stimulated by the different format or simply favored by less pressing processing times. The little sympathy of the designer towards the deadline is an established fact.
It will be Lee Falk, in an interview released a few decades later, where he confirms that Moore was not very fond of working on the Phantom due to the tight production pace.
Conventionally, the beginning of the new graphic phase is made to coincide with the ninth daily story “The Slave Traders” (January 30 – May 6, 1939), but the radical change comes at the same time as the start of the Sunday story. Starting from the eleventh daily story “The Golden Circle” (September 4, 1939 – January 20, 1940), the body of the Phantom is drawn with a single continuous line, almost as if it were a silhouette, the details of the musculature are reduced to a minimum, the dense hatching disappears completely and the use of screens becomes less massive.
The change in style is accompanied by a profound transformation of the main characters and backgrounds: the hero’s physique becomes more and more muscular, while Diana’s Hollywood appearance gives way to a more bourgeois interpretation and the backdrops are defined by a plus sign precise and regular. Some of these characteristics (further extreme) will be found in McCoy’s drawings when the assistant inherits the role of titular artist of the strip, fueling the hypothesis that it is his hand that pushes Moore towards the stylistic change. Paradoxically, in short, it is not so much the assistant who conforms to the style of the owner designer as the owner of the studio who is influenced by the collaborator.
With the entry into the war of the United States, Ray Moore is called up. Joining the army, he began training as a military instructor at Kelly Field in late 1942 and soon obtained the rank of lieutenant at South Plains Army Air Field. Curiously, the artist must leave the Phantom in McCoy’s hands to enlist in the Air Force just as he is drawing the story entitled “Phantom Goes to War“, still the character’s longest adventure, published between 2 February 1942 and 9 January 1943, the story tells of the Phantom’s involvement in the Second World War and arises after having discarded a previous idea of Moore on the same theme.
The war also calls Lee Falk in uniform, forced to hand over the stories of Phantom and Mandrake to Alfred Bester, a science fiction writer who had already tried his hand at comics writing Superman and Green Lantern. Speaking at the typewriter as a ghost writer, Bester fits so well into the role that we don’t notice differences between his work and that of Falk, so much so that even today it is not possible to establish which stories he actually wrote. Falk is probably replaced by Bester in two different periods, first between spring 1942 and September 1943 and then from March 1944 to July 1945, when the creator of the Phantom serves in the army. Although there is no certainty, it is widely believed that Bester is responsible for the creation of Mr. Walker, the secret identity with which the Phantom disguises himself when he leaves the jungle to travel to the city. If so, the writer would certainly have signed the daily strips of “Bent Beak Broder” (11 January – 22 May 1943), where the name ‘Mr. Walker’ is first used, as well as a part of “Phantom Goes to War”.
Just like Bester, McCoy works on the strips without being credited. Initially, to replace Moore, he is paid $75 a week, a figure that irritates him when he discovers the most substantial compensation collected by Ray, but still enough to improve the economic situation of his family. Although McCoy’s contribution in Moore’s pages makes it difficult to establish the exact moment in which the handover takes place, a careful analysis of the style allows us to identify with some certainty the hand behind the cartoons.
Comparing the drawing of the main characters, great differences are noted especially in the figure of Diana, in Moore’s version, the Phantom’s partner has longer and darker hair than her colleague’s, who designs her with a different face and hair style. McCoy’s Diana features are sweeter, eyes larger and nose more pronounced. On the strength of his activity as a pin-up illustrator, Wilson also tends to draw delicate and mischievous female figures, often caught in graceful poses, light years away from Moore’s sensual and provocative women.
The differences between the two artists are not only noticeable in the characters, but also in the design of the landscapes. In McCoy, for example, the jungle resembles a dense forest, making a very different impression from Moore’s wild forest. In general, Moore’s designs feature dark, shadowy inking, while McCoy’s ink is light, characterized by a stylized, soft and round sign. If the first part of “Phantom Goes to War” appears mainly drawn by the unmistakable hand of Moore, in some subsequent strips the two styles seem to merge, alternating or dividing the production of the cartoons and confirming a four-handed process. Gradually, however, McCoy’s interventions become more and more consistent, until the complete realization of the work is reached.
Based on what the analysis of the drawings suggests, the handover between the two artists probably occurs in the strips published between August and September 1942, a period compatible with that of Moore’s call to arms. Wilson will only keep the studio warm as he awaits his return from the war, but while Moore’s experience on the Phantom is not over yet, things are bound to take a completely different turn.
Upon returning from the conflict, Moore finds a changing Phantom. McCoy’s naive drawings, in fact, pushed Falk on new narrative routes to propose plots more akin to the designer’s style, action stories with a realistic cut are gradually giving way to more imaginative adventures, often set in enchanted realms and contexts almost fairytale. If the first Phantom was designed primarily for a mature audience, the new one seems to appeal to an increasingly younger target.
To celebrate Moore’s return to paintbrushes, Falk plans to re-use his skill in drawing women by writing “The Mermaids of Melo Straits” (November 12, 1945 – February 16, 1946), a story for daily strips in which a whole female robbery of ship passengers disguised as sirens. Ray thus resumes the captain’s armband and the faithful McCoy returns to wear the wingman uniform, but the happy hand of the best days is only a memory.
Moore returned from the war with a serious rib problem, a condition that causes him major problems at the drawing board. The quality of the work is so inferior to its standards that some people suspect that the strips are the work of another artist. Indeed, if on the one hand the long period of inactivity may have rusted Moore, on the other hand it is difficult to accept such poor and approximate drawings by an author who had conquered the public with blows of dynamism, mystery and seduction. During the next adventure “Princess Valerie”, February 18 – July 13, 1946, the disturbances force Moore to abandon his job and hand over the baton to McCoy again.
This time, however, the handover becomes definitive, unable to keep up with the pace of daily production; Ray officially leaves the daily strips to the assistant and limits himself to drawing the Sunday strips. The experience turns out to be extremely complicated, with McCoy forced several times to run (anonymously) to the rescue to complete the work abandoned by his colleague, who has returned to express himself on good levels but often blocked in the pits by an increasingly suffering physical condition. The situation continues in ups and downs for about two years, until health problems force Moore to raise the white flag and say goodbye to the Phantom forever. His last appearance takes place in the Sunday story “The Haunted Castle” (12 September 1948 – 13 February 1949), of which he only draws the initial panel. Once again the mission will be completed by the inexhaustible McCoy, destined to take over as titular artist also on the Sunday pages.
Ray Moore ends his career as a draftsman at just 43, perhaps closing the door behind him with some regrets. Not so much because his experience in the world of comics was short, but for not having given everything he could. In the space of a decade he has drawn memorable pages passed in the history of comics, but the pressing rhythms of work, the call to war and health problems have severely limited his work, often forcing him to change of style and make-up solutions. Probably, in other circumstances, his imprint in the history of comics could have been even deeper.
Now retired, in 1949 Moore buys a house on a remote West County hill, where he retires to live with his wife. The couple will have no children and in their free time will often play golf, one of the few activities that Ray will love to pursue after an initial interest in painting.
On January 13, 1984, the artist died of a heart attack at Saint Joseph Hospital, in the area of Kirkwood (a suburb of St. Louis), without ever having been forgotten by readers. To honor his memory, the former Barrett Station Road home studio (in Des Peres, St. Louis County, Missouri) was donated in 1994 by his wife to the Missouri Department of Conservation along with 13 acres of adjacent property of the artist, converted into a park and renamed Phantom Forest.
Paradoxically, Moore’s life becomes better known after his disappearance, when some enthusiasts begin to investigate to better understand who was the first artist of the Ghost Who Walks. In 2011, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Phantom, niece Gina Moore Reiners makes public numerous unpublished photographs of Uncle Ray from childhood to adulthood, while previously Mrs. Claire (who died in 2005) had shown herself to be generous with information.
For example, she said that her husband, before accepting the role of artist for the Phantom, had consulted with some artist friends about the graphic definition of the masked hero. The meetings had continued for some time: they met a couple of times a week to discuss the conceptual development of the character and sometimes Falk joined them as well. To draw Diana, moreover, Ray often asked his wife to model him, while the idea of having the wolf Devil accompany the Phantom probably stemmed from the artist’s passion for drawing wolves and his love for dogs. After all, as he himself had told in an interview, the first character of his creation was a wolf “with eyes like beacons”, drawn at the age of 5.
Moore, in short, was not only the first artist of the Ghost Who Walks, but he had an active role in the birth of the character, of which he is deservedly considered co-creator. Lee Falk did not like Ray’s messy approach to work or his lack of ability to meet deadlines, he also didn’t like his way of designing vehicles, yet he always considered him the best Phantom artist especially for his extraordinary ability at drawing female figures, recognizing how no other artist has ever equaled Moore’s ability to infuse scenes with a profound halo of mystery. Perhaps it is thanks to this evocative force that, despite the fact that several high-level names have succeeded each other over the years, even a large group of fans continue to consider Ray the best interpreter of the Phantom.
One suspects, however, that Moore was the most representative signature of the first masked hero not only for creative merits. Thinking about it, after all, only such a mysterious artist could have given life in the best possible way to a character as mysterious as he is.