By Jim Shepherd
The Singh Brotherhood stands alone as the most important story in the history of the Phantom. It was the first story written by Lee Falk and thus, the first attempt by artist Ray Moore to portray Falk’s now world-famous character.
Consider the problems which faced both Falk and Moore, Lee had the basic plot firmly implanted in his fertile mind but as you will discover, was to alter direction about the Phantom and one character (Jimmy Wells) who looms large early. When Lee began his first Phantom adventure he actually intended Wells, portrayed as a handsome playboy, to be the Phantom – an apparent lay-about who fought crime at night in mask and costume. Lee linked Wells and Diana Palmer early in the piece, but after the story had run for several months as a syndicated newspaper strip, went off the idea and Wells in good old-fashioned Hollywood tradition, ended up on the cutting room floor, never to be heard of again.
As Falk once put it (Comics Revue, USA, May 1988), “I never came out and actually revealed that the playboy was really the Phantom and in the midst of the (first) story I suddenly got the other idea. I moved the Phantom into the jungle and decided to keep him there. Gradually the whole concept of the Phantom developed, the generations behind him, the Skull Cave, his wolf Devil and horse Hero and the Bandar Pygmies”.
And how did Falk and Moore work up the Phantom costume? Basically by trial and error. Moore was assisting artist Phil Davis on Falk’s first comic strip creation (Mandrake) before the Phantom arrived on the scene in 1936 and because Davis, a slow working, artistic near-genius, could not possibly have penciled both Mandrake and the Phantom, Falk decided Moore, who was aggressive and productive, would be well suited to his new creation.
Falk, a very skilled penciler in his own right, sketched out the prototype Phantom, created his costume and equipment and handed them to Moore for extra treatment. Take a good look at the Phantom early on in the story and see if you can spot one oddity. For a brief time, the Phantom wore stylish, but cumbersome gauntlets! Over the years, the four American artists (Ray Moore, Wilson McCoy, Bill Lignante (briefly) and Sy Barry) all differed in their treatment of the Phantom’s physique, but from the very beginning, Moore got it right. Which, oddly, was somewhat against the odds. Falk again, “Ray Moore was just the opposite of Phil Davis (a brilliant perfectionist – Ed). He was a very Bohemian artist who really hated what he was doing. He never enjoyed working on the Phantom because he really wanted to be a painter. Ray worked very large (penciled in quite huge frames – Ed) and he was always behind schedule. He’d stay up several hours and knock it out. Then he’s ship it out and collapse”.
Moore had some weaknesses as an artist, notably his inability to draw automobiles and motorcycles in realistic fashion, but unlike any other Phantom artist he excelled in drawing attractive females and had the knack of always making Diana appear especially beautiful and standout in any crowd scene.
Lee Falk has the highest respect for all four artists who have produced the Phantom strip in the United States, but has special regard for Moore who not only paved the way, but captured exactly everything Falk had in mind about the Phantom, his majesty, mystery and strength of character, the romance with Diana, the jungle setting.
The Singh Brotherhood first appeared in American newspapers on February 17, 1936 and ran through to November 7, 1936.
The old Australian Woman’s Mirror weekly magazine ran the story from September 1, 1936 to September 13, 1937, but edited the saga to fit its small page format (the first two strips were deleted) and injected an ‘Australian’ theme by having an artist alter some of the text to turn Diana in an ‘adventurous Australian girl’. New York Harbor became ‘Sydney Harbor’ and even the Phantom mouthed the word ‘Sydney’ in several panels.
Of historical interest is that the Woman’s Mirror pages were later reprinted and bound by the publishers into what became the first Phantom comic book in the world. That special issue is now a much sought-after collector’s item and one Frew would dearly love to have in its archives! The Woman’s Mirror comic book of course came out with the missing panels and altered text but it was a major comic book publishing break-through, and an instant sell-out.
The Singh Brotherhood was also published in New Zealand but was not seen again in Australia until 1949, and then only in part. Frew Publications Pty. Limited, which had commenced operations the previous year, re-issued the Phantom classic in February 1949 as it’s sixth comic book, but for inexplicable reasons ran only about one third of the entire yarn and even that was edited to fit the old 32 pp landscape format. The selected one third was roughly the center part of the entire story, and to make things even more complex, the story was renamed, The Phantom’s Revenge.
The story was reprinted in Frew edition No. 97 and because that second appearance coincided with the huge Frew ‘Round the World’ trip competition a whole three pages were deleted. Worse, the Australian Censorship Board demanded several panel deletion and general ‘tidying up’ of some scenes in which Diana and Sala showed too much leg or cleavage, or both! It was laughable, but things were ultra puritanical in Australia in the mid-1950’s.
Frew’s later reprints all appeared in the heavily edited and censored version.
For the benefit of Phantom fans, The Singh Brotherhood contains a few in-built mysteries:
- Watch for the scene when the Phantom is tied to a post (or pipe) in Achmed’s mansion, about to be tortured by the evil Wing Loo. When police begin to break in and the villains flee, one frame shows the Phantom standing with his hands tied behind his back, but with no post (or pipe) in sight (Lee Falk, we hasten to add, just loves hearing about such oversights)!
- This is the only Phantom story in which the Phantom’s headquarters is given as ‘LUNTOR’. In later adventures, the location changes on several occasions.
- The ‘ SUNDA TROUGH’, meant to be the major part of the Phantom legend (The Oath of the Skull) is also mentioned, but somehow fades out of the story without further explanation.
- For the first time, the history of the Phantom is told, Englishman Sir Christopher Standish became the first Phantom by swearing an oath on the skull of his father’s murderer, but questions remain unanswered, was his father a Knight of the Realm? Who was his mother?
Even allowing for the length of the story, The Singh Brotherhood contains a dazzling mix of scenes, action and violence in the famous Lee Falk tradition. The locations switch from New York to the Java Sea and the final showdown at Mt. Trepnich. There are kidnappings, tortures and assassins and action underwater, in the air, on land and aboard ships.
Lee Falk eased his way into the follow-up story at the end of The Singh Brotherhood. Wait for the remark made by Sala when she thinks she is dying and tells the puzzled Phantom, “I never was a Singh, I was here to spy on them, I am a wing of The Sky Band”. So begins another Phantom adventure.
The Sky Band (also known in America as The Sky Maidens), was the second USA Phantom newspaper strip published in part first in Australia by Frew as Death to the Sky Band (No. 8, April 1949).
A near final word. When Lee Falk was plotting and planning this first Phantom story, he seriously thought about another name for The Ghost Who Walks. In the May 1988 issue of the American publication, Comics Revue, Lee is quoted as saying that it took time some time to warm to the name, ‘The Phantom’, “I tried to think up a more original title. There was already ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, the Phantom of this and the Phantom of that. For a while I considered call him ‘The Grey Ghost’ but I let it ride because I really couldn’t come up with a title I liked better than ‘The Phantom’.
“I think ‘The Phantom’ was inspired by Robin Hood and the Arthurian legends and also by the gods and heroes of antiquity, the heroic figures from the Greek, Roman and Nordic myths. I’ve used all their stories from time to time. I was also intrigued by the jungle tales of Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I think that’s one of the reasons ‘The Phantom’ remains so popular today. People in India or Europe or South America all have their own myths and heroes and can identify with ‘The Phantom’ because it’s so similar to those myths”.