By Jim Shepherd
Lee Falk’s famous1962-63 Sunday story is finally represented in this edition (Frew Publications Phantom comic number 1286) in its entirety, with some 100 frames restored and printed from a set of copies of the original art.
Frew’s four previous printing were not only highly edited and modified, but the quality of the film left a lot to be desired. So much so, that in the final printing in Frew #900 which appeared in 1988, a great deal of the definition had faded. For those readers who own any of the previous printing, a comparison with this issue will be an education. None of the previous releases come within light years of this complete presentation.
The Astronaut and The Pirates ran in newspapers from November 4, 1962 to May 12, 1963 and was probably begun by Lee sometime in August or September of 1962, because at that time, Lee had to work well in advance to meet deadlines for the daily and Sunday Mandrake the Magician and the daily and Sunday adventures of the Phantom.
As mentioned elsewhere, this story features the fourth and final appearance of the character Conley, named after Lee’s only son, who these days works in television and movie production in Hollywood. In the story, Colonel Conley becomes the first astronaut to circle the moon.
Remembering Lee commenced the story around August or September 1962, it is interesting to reflect what was happening in space exploration at the time.
Back in April 1961, the Soviet Union stole a march on the United States when Major Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin became the first man to fly in space, orbiting the earth in a flight which lasted 108 minutes (in October 1957, the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, the first unmanned satellite to orbit the earth).
The Americans expressed their admiration, but were obviously disappointed they were not first and in May the same year, could only claim a distant second place when Alan B Shepard Jr., a Commander in the US Navy, successfully completed a 15 minutes sub-orbital flight.
The race to conquer space (and be the first nation to reach and land on the moon) began in earnest. In June 1963, Lieutenant Valentina Tereshkova of the Soviet Union became the first woman to circle the earth in a Vostok spaceship and on the same mission the Soviet Union’s Colonel Bykovsky circled earth in another space capsule.
The United States clearly enough decided not to rush anything after losing the first few rounds to the Soviet Union and it took until June 1965 before the first American, Major Ed White, walked in space after exiting the Gemini 4 spacecraft. The Soviet Union had a man walk in space on March 18 of that year!
The United States announced it would press forward with its Apollo program in a bid to land men on the moon before 1970. On both sides of the world there were setbacks and disasters as the Soviet Union and the United States locked in an all-out battle to not only reach the moon, but conquer all the hazards of space exploration.
The United States surged ahead in December 1968 when the Apollo 8 spacecraft successfully orbited the moon with crew members Frank Bormann, James A Lovell and William Anders.
The big breakthrough, of course, occurred on the 21st of July, 1969 when Neil Armstrong, Commander of the Apollo 11, became the first man to set foot on the moon, proclaiming at 12:56pm Australian Eastern Standard time, “That’s one small step for man, on giant leap for mankind”. Armstrong was shortly afterwards joined by fellow astronaut Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin. For the record, the other crew member was Michael Collins.
The race to the moon was won by the United States and while the Soviet Union continued its space program, the spoils were well and truly lost.
Check the dates again. The first orbit of the moon occurred in December 1968. In Lee Falk’s story, Colonel Conley achieved the feat alone in 1962!
In every respect, a neat piece of prediction by Lee considering it was the only previous year that man orbited the earth.