By Jim Shepherd
Well before Lee Falk’s original Phantom story, The Singh Brotherhood finished its long run in daily newspapers, it was obvious The Ghost Who Walks was a hit.
Lee had two options available before he commenced a second story, create a new adventure far removed from The Singh Brotherhood characters or continue the these. All of us are lucky he decided on the later because The Sky Band developed into a classic example of comics story telling. The beginnings of the romance between the Phantom and Diana is continued, complete with all the misunderstandings which lasted until they finally married, the unfathomable Sala character is given another opportunity to establish herself and Captain Melville Horton is again showcased.
Interestingly, Lee Falk’s third story, The Diamond Hunters was essentially a continuation of The Sky Band. We again meet Diana and Captain Horton and both rehash the misunderstandings between Diana and the Phantom. So too, in private thoughts and later directly to Diana does the Phantom! If you accept that The Singh Brotherhood, The Sky Band and The Diamond Hunters are basically three long chapters of one story, then Little Tommy (or Little Toma as it is also known) is the second completely detached story in the Phantom chronology. Little Tommy ran as a daily from 20th September 1937 to 5th February 1938.
Devil is given another important role and for the first time we see the Phantom’s skull throne, and are briefly reintroduced to the Skull Cave, first depicted in The Singh Brotherhood. Sala was to make a comeback in the 1941-42 story The Return of the Sky Band but like Captain Horton, was destined to fade into obscurity.
The Sky Band was a fascinating concept because all-female gangs were virtually non-existent in comics and popular fiction at the time! That Lee Falk was determined to break new ground in comics from the outset was doubtlessly one reason for the decision to follow this unusual line but another was doubtless the fact that he recognized artist Ray Moore’s unique gift for drawing beautiful women.
Following the overwhelming public response to The Singh Brotherhood and The Sky Band, there were many comics artists who tried to copy Moore’s style. Few really succeeded. Keen-eyed enthusiasts will note subtle changes in Moore’s treatment of the Phantom in The Sky Band compared with his first efforts in The Singh Brotherhood. The stripes on his trunks are slightly more clearly defined, his mask is a trifle thicker and the cowl is not quite as on the forehead. Look closely and you will see the beginning of the Phantom trademark, the slightly bumpy (broken?) nose!
Serious Phantom historians will note the many ingredients of the early formats which gradually faded out of existence. In The Sky Band, Guran was a ‘witch doctor’, the Bandar tribe members still looked to the Phantom as something of a god figure (note the scene when a tribesman actually prostrates himself in front of The Ghost Who Walks!) and a reference by Diana to… ‘the natives of the Orient think the Phantoms immortal’. That statement clearly places the Phantom’s base in the East (India perhaps?) and not, as was later broadly suggested, in Africa.
The Sky Band is a classic Lee Falk treatment from beginning to end and like all of Lee’s Phantom stories in the 1936-43 period especially is destined to be hailed as long as comics are produced, as a definitive example of adventure writing and illustration at its best.
Lee’s creation is now well over 80 years old. In another 80 years from now his writing will still be applauded as superior examples of a unique medium.