By Jim Shepherd
Romance and the Vesta Pirates is one of Lee Falk’s most unusual stories and one which causes more than a few ripples when it ran as a daily newspaper strip in American newspapers from the 31st of March 1947 through till the 29th of November 1947.
Lee and artist Wilson McCoy had just finished a couple of hard-boiled adventure yarns (Queen Asta of Trondelay and Mister Hog) and Lee was in the mood for a change of pace. Hence, Romance and the Vesta Pirates, a clever and well-paced story which kept newspaper readers in a daily state of excitement as the Phantom’s romance with Diana Palmer kept running into trouble and at one stage Diana was on the verge of marrying another man.
The plot may have been old, but Lee kept coming up with twists which not only made the story exciting, but stressed the Phantom’s sense of moral duty and his vow to fight crime and help those in need.
In Romance and the Vesta Pirates, there are actually two men vying for Diana’s hand, Fredy and later in the story, Matt. Early in the story, the Phantom displays a very human trait, intense jealousy. Sadly for Fredy, he happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and Wilson McCoy’s artwork depicting the Phantom’s jealous rage is brilliant.
Equally, the balanced side of the Phantom’s makeup is perfectly captured by both Falk and McCoy when he meets with Matt.
In between trying to patch up his misunderstanding with Diana, the Phantom is kept busy. When you think about it, he probably encounters more problems in this story than a half-dozen others… an early conflict with Mrs. Palmer, an all-in brawl at a party, the search to find a mysterious girl who could help him explain a problem to Diana, a fight on board the S.S. Vesta, being knocked out, thrown in the sea and almost dragged into the ship’s propeller, later being left on board the deserted S.S. Vesta with a burning fuse towards a pile of explosives and finally, with Falk cleverly reversing the plot, almost disappearing back into the jungle with Diana, by then aware that everything had been a huge misunderstanding, desperately trying yo make contact.
It makes for an explosive story and one with many different touches. That the Phantom, is after all, flesh and blood, is wonderfully depicted. That he has some weaknesses when it comes to showing his true feelings (at this stage of his life in any case) has never been more evident. That he is just and fair (check out his conversation with Matt) again has rarely been more clearly portrayed.
Romance and the Vesta Pirates was first published by Frew as edition number 4 in December 1948, and was re-titled The Phantom Versus the Jewel Pirates. It was re-printed in number 70A in 1954 as a double feature edition with Jinx of The Phantom Trophy and again in editions number 177 and 285.
All these editions were edited for space reasons and for some reason, the story was removed from the re-print list after its appearance as number 285 (April, 1965).
If you are lucky enough to own any or all of the old Frew editions of this story, you will ne able to see that Frew’s editors had obviously decided to delete all the tacky romance bits and concentrate purely on the Phantom’s battle aboard the S.S. Vesta.
That was probably a wise decision at the time, but now it’s 1989 and as promised, we are continuing to follow the policy of presenting every possible old story in its unedited and, if applicable, uncensored form.
And on the point of censorship, Romance and the Vesta Pirates is one story the Australian Government censors decided did not require pruning. When the story was published in New Zealand, however, there were some cuts and in one quite odd frame, the Phantom is shown lapsing into an unconscious state with a… ‘Uh…’ for no apparent reason. In this frame, the New Zealand censors ordered the bludgeon (or blackjack) of an S.S. Vesta crewman removed!
Now, a point about the name of the story.
When it first appeared in American newspapers, the story was clearly sub-titled, simply ‘Romance’, check out the first frame. But because the run-in with the Vesta pirates becomes such an important part of the episode, Australian historians, Barry Stubbersfield, Carl Braga and Garry Veage all agree the full title should be Romance and the Vesta Pirates. Even Lee Falk agrees and with such unanimity, who could possibly disagree?
One other interesting point. It is clear from this story that way back in 1947, Lee Falk was leading up to THE marriage. It sure took some time!
Some more historical trivia… Romance and the Vesta Pirates apparently never appeared in a magazine (The Australian Woman’s Mirror, for example) or a newspaper in this country, although, as previously mentioned, it did appear in comic book form in New Zealand… the story’s appearance in Frew’s first 48 page unnumbered issue (referred to earlier as number 70A) marked the first Frew ‘wraparound’ cover and the first story ever re-printed by Frew.
Before some eagle-eyed readers put pen to paper to let us know that the New Zealand comic book edition of the story carried two extra frames at the finish of the story. King Features Syndicate in New York officially declares the story ending on the 29th of November, 1947 and as you will see, the final frame in this edition is so identified.
‘Romance’ is most definitely not the best art produced by Wilson McCoy and it is not difficult to imagine that he was working under intense pressure to meet deadlines. But the story carries any artwork deficiencies and after all, what you’re about to read is really something from the archives, and a story which typified the American approach to syndicated newspaper strips of the time.