The Phantom Goes To War

By Jim Shepherd

The background to Lee Falk’s famous World War Two story has always fascinated serious students of the Phantom.

Sadly, Lee kept no detailed records of his preparations, but even without the availability of such data, it now seems a distinct possibility he was working on the story before Pearl Harbor and thus predicted some of what was to happen in the years 1941-1945!

If this can one day be proven, The Phantom Goes To War will be hailed as a masterpiece of comics writing.

Read on, weigh up the possibilities and make up your own mind…

Lee Falk’s epic adventure, The Phantom Goes To War (originally known in the United States at least, as The Inexorables) spanned almost an entire year as a daily newspaper story, running from 2 February 1942 to 9 January 1943.

It was not, as commonly believed, the first Phantom story containing overtones of war drama. The now almost-forgotten Sunday adventure, The Saboteurs, with links to mysterious espionage agents at loose in the United States, preceded it by roughly one year (5 January – 23 February 1941).

When The Saboteurs burst into print, it is interesting to reflect that while World War Two was raging, the United States was not yet involved in an active sense. America had expressed ‘support’ for Great Britain and its Allies (and Russia) in the European struggle against Germany and Italy, but as late as November 1941 was still attempting to achieve compromises with Japan over trade restrictions.

All that was to change when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.

The following day, the United States declared a state of war existed with Japan.

Lee Falk, who was soon enlisted in the United States Army, was, as he once told me, “swept away with patriotic fervor”.

For reasons which are too politically complex to go into here, Japan had already become a threat in South Asia and had bombed Shanghai and Canton in China in 1937 and 1938.

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Japan launched its Pacific offensive which included bombing Manila in the Philippines, capturing Hong Kong and invading Indonesia, Burma, the Netherlands East Indies and Singapore.

At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, Lee Falk must have already been at work on his The Phantom Goes To War. The daily story which preceded it, The Phantom’s Treasure, commenced on 14 July 1941 and concluded on 31 January 1942, some seven weeks after Pearl Harbor.

Lee always worked a minimum 8-10 weeks ahead at that stage of his career and it is not hard to imagine that he, like so many Americans, sensed a forthcoming full-scale Pacific war against Japan.

What we will never know now are two things of fascinating importance, how far (if at all) was Lee into The Phantom Goes To War script when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and whether he rushed The Phantom’s Treasure to a conclusion so newspapers could start running The Phantom Goes To War.

A careful study of The Phantom’s Treasure does not reveal any short cuts, but it has to be remembered that Lee was one of the true masters of the comics story form and capable of amazing turns of plot. Sadly, it apparently never occurred to journalists interviewing Lee in the post-war years, to ask these all-too-obvious questions!

However, my guess is that he was, in fact, reasonable well advanced with the plotting of The Phantom Goes To War and must have hastened The Phantom’s Treasure to a conclusion to enable the fastest possible syndication of his War classic.

Back in 1988, when Lee made his first visit to Australia, I did touch very lightly on the background to the preparation he made for the story script.

At that time, Lee (who never retained much in the way of scripting idea notes), was reasonably sure he simply decided on a World War Two theme and let the ideas flow.

The more you got to know Lee, the better you began to understand that ideas for stories formed as a whole in his mind. No matter how intricate the plot, he was capable of visualizing the entire adventure, complete with locations and action scenes and storing it in the memory bank as he commenced creating on his trusty, but battered old manual typewriter.

In later years, when we discussed the story, Lee did give out a few hints that he may have rushed The Phantom’s Treasure to an ending, and that he did, in fact, have the nucleus of the plot for Bent Beak Broder (the story which followed The Phantom Goes To War) in his mind. Back in 1988, he actually told me that Bent Beak Broder may have been scheduled to follow The Phantom’s Treasure.

In later years, he backed away from this possibility and for understandable reasons!

All that said, the history of his war epic is fascinating!

Quite incredibly, in the very first weeks The Phantom Goes To War appeared in newspapers, the strips were almost a mirror image of what was happening in the overall Pacific area war zone… on 9 February, Japanese forces landed on the island of Singapore, on 14 February, the Japanese invaded Sumatra and on the 19 February, the Japanese bombed Darwin for the first time!

On 8 March, the was very much in Australia’s backyard. The Japanese stormed ashore on the north coast of New Guinea! On 17 March, the American General Douglas MacArthur was pulled out of the Philippines and brought to Australia to take over his new role as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the South-West Pacific.

In comparatively recent times, much has been written and said of seemingly ‘racist’ overtones in The Phantom Goes To War.

Lee pulled no punches in portraying the Japanese as evil and sadistic. Artist Ray Moore, who began the artwork with assistance from Wilson McCoy, took the theme to the limit. So too, did McCoy, when Moore left to go on active service with a branch of the United States Air Force and McCoy took over the bulk of the work.

Once, when I questioned Lee about the warts-and-all depiction of the Japanese soldiers, he replied that he had no regrets, that Japanese hostilities before, during and after Pear Harbor ‘appalled’ him and he was quite willing to sacrifice the Phantom strip (and presumably, Mandrake the Magician) if need be, because he believed it was the responsibility of every able-bodied American to enlist in the armed forces.

Lee served with distinction (as did Ray Moore) and that he was able to continue both strips while in the American Army remains slightly miraculous, especially because for long periods of time, he had no personal contact with Wilson McCoy or Phil Davis, who drew Mandrake the Magician in those years.

Testimony to the skills of Wilson McCoy in the manner in which he duplicated Ray Moore’s style when Moore left The Phantom Goes To War assignment! Today, it is next to impossible to pinpoint the exact place where McCoy took over from Moore. However, if you have a real affinity with the style of both artists, it is apparent that towards the end of the story, McCoy’s personal lighting and inking techniques become more obvious even though he was faithfully retaining Ray Moore’s distinctive style.

Frew’s resident historian Barry Stubbersfield has extracted some points of the story which will be of interest to those enthusiasts who like to maintain data files on Lee Falk stories:

  1. Uncle Dave has become a Major in Army Intelligence.
  2. Diana is encouraged by Uncle Dave to join the draft.
  3. Timo, who is seen early in the story, is the son of Guran.
  4. Timo’s fate is vague. Was he shot and killed by the Japanese?
  5. Lieutenant Byron, last seen in The Golden Circle adventure, is now Captain Byron.
  6. The Japanese officer Lieutenant Kuraki, introduced on 19 March, has a mysterious name change on 10 April to Kurachi.
  7. On 31 October, the Phantom captures General Kormura who on 28 November, undergoes a name change to Komura.

Only the latter two (changes of name) are of importance and can probably be explained by the fact that both Lee Falk and Wilson McCoy were working under extreme pressure and unable to make personal contact.

Remembering the story began in American newspapers more then 70 years ago, it is difficult to locate many enthusiasts who clearly remember what impact it had on the American public. Those who can recall its appearance however, are adamant it was followed avidly and formed a vital part of American propaganda in the war years.

After World War Two, when the comic book industry boomed, Frew’s publishing history of The Phantom Goes To War story is best described as being ultra-confusing!

Frew first presented it in comic book form over four issued in 1950-51. However, and this is a big however, the classic story was edited to an alarming degree, with 59 panels deleted. As the Korean War was then raging, the Frew editors decided to hack the story around to substitute North Koreans (‘Reds’) for the Japanese!

Quite apart from ignoring the fact that Lee Falk had set the story in the 1940s Pacific War zone with the Japanese fighting the Allies, the editors also ignored the fact that aircraft and weaponry in the 1950s Korean War conflict were very different to the World War Two years!

Essentially, the storylines was unchanged with the Phantom leading his native fighters against the heavily-armed invaders, but all balloons and continuity boxed were re-lettered to substitute ‘Reds’ for ‘Japanese’.

The story (complete with ‘Reds’) also appeared in the old Giant Size Phantom comic book series spread over four editions in the late 1950s. None of the 59 discarded panels were replaced and that time around, the already edited story was subject to censorship to remove ‘unnecessary violence’ (a more detailed explanation of the now laughable censorship by the Australian Censorship Board was given in Frew 1041).

It wasn’t until 1988 that the story was represented in close to its original form in Frew 910A. A later reprint, Frew 1041, marked the first occasion when The Phantom Goes To War finally appeared in its unedited entirety in a Frew edition.

The Phantom Goes To War is arguably Lee Falk’s greatest story. The below newspaper front pages which appeared during the war years in the pacific.

The inclusion of these graphics is not in any way intended to stir up emotions. The reproduced front pages are part of world history and simply help paint a broader picture of what was happening in the Pacific area during World War Two.

The War ended in 1945 following American atom bomb attacks on the Japanese mainland and Japan surrendered at 9.00am on 15 August.

On 2 September, General Douglas MacArthur accepted the surrender on board the American aircraft carrier, ‘USS Missouri’ in Tokyo Bay. General Blamey signed for Australia and Air Vice-Marshal Leonard Isitt for New Zealand.

The Phantom Goes To War – The Italian Connection

How many followers of the Phantom know that a version of The Phantom Goes To War was once written and illustrated by an Italian publisher and later re-published in English in Great Britain?

Here are some excerpts from the English edition, published by the Manchester company, World Distributors, circa 1965.

Note that the war action is between the Japanese and the British and the native refers to the Phantom as ‘Shadow’, a very odd translation from the Phantom’s Italian name which is ‘L’Uomo Mascherato’.

The story is titled, ‘The Retreat of Major Flower’, is almost certainly an invention and nothing to do with the original Italian comic book title. The original Italian story can best be described as being very loosely based on the Lee Falk’s 1942-43 masterpiece.

The Phantom Goes To War – 2nd February 1942 – 9th January 1943