By Jim Shepherd
The Phantom has had surprisingly few adventures in the wild west and cowboy-style stories since Lee Falk’s famous character burst upon the comics scene in1936.
Many of Lee’s stories centered around the New Mexico area where one of the Phantom’s secret hideouts is located, but only a handful, notably the 1994 daily adventure, The Phantom Cowboy, have had it all… ten gallon hats, gun slingers, sleazy saloons… the lot.
The Phantom Cowboy (6 June – 17 December 1994, Frew number 1092) was unique for many reasons.
It was the last daily story credited to artist Sy Barry, before penciller George Olsen and inker Keith Williams took over the strip and a school of thought exists that Sy did not actually complete the art for Phantom Cowboy. Some researchers think the last panel he drew was dated 10 September.
The story contained some comparatively minor, but puzzling errors. For example, the 16th Phantom is described as having visited the United States firstly in 1843 and in rapid order the year changes to 1853 and then 1863. Another slip refers to the 14th Phantom marrying the sister of the pirate Jean Lafitte, whereas, in the 1979-80 story, The Vault of Missing Men, it is the 13th Phantom who marries Lafitte’s sister.
There is also an error (more likely by the letterer) in which the 16th Phantom suddenly describes himself as the ’21st’ Phantom and other slips concerning the 12th Phantom and Phantom Head Peak.
Those errors aside, the story is fascinating, sweeping, as it does, through such exotic locations as the Misty Mountains, Bangalla, Mawitaan, Phantom Head Plain, the Blue Dragon Bar, New York, the Mississippi River, Galveston and St. Louis, which happened to be Lee Falk’s birthplace in the lover mid-west of the United States.
One interesting sidelight of the Phantom Cowboy story concerns the Phantom arriving in the United States waring his famous mask. When a friendly bartender in New York tells the Phantom that if he goes to Texas wearing a mask, he will be immediately regarded as a ‘bandit’. The Phantom replaces his street clothes for a standard cowboy outfit (complete with gun belt), and then goes into a store and has a pair of sun glasses made to cover his mask.
Remembering the year, 1843, this may have been the first time a forefather of the 21st Phantom ever wore the now trademark dark sun glasses.
But as pointed out earlier, mystery piles upon mystery as the story unfolds. When the Phantom knocks out a cheating card player, he uses his left fist, and leaves the skull mark! Later in the story, the design of the Phantom’s sun glasses undergo a slight change (for that matter, so too, does the mask, from the point where Olesen and Williams took over the penciling and inking from the then retired Sy Barry)!
Because of the slight errors and contradictions, The Phantom Cowboy can claim an important place in Lee Falk’s Chronology and in years to come will doubtless be re-discovered by historians and researchers new to the cause!
The re-discovery will center around the confusing errors, not that the story was almost a pure cowboy story (minus the Indians)!
Far more important, of course, is the role in which Lee Falk cast The Ghost Who Walks.
In The Treasure of the Aztecs, the Phantom is placed in the United States/Mexican wild west, but at no stage does he play the part of a cowboy to the extent he did in The Phantom Cowboy.
I have always found this situation interesting.
Lee Falk, after all, grew up in St. Louis and lived and worked there for many years before moving to New York. When the United States was still a developing country, St. Louise was something of a gateway to the west and thus must have been steeped in ‘cowboy’ history.
When Lee created firstly Mandrake the Magician (in 1934) and two years later, the Phantom, western movies and movie and radio serials were enormously popular and there were plenty of comic strips built around the cowboy and Indian plot.
It is interesting to reflect that Lee never seriously even considered scripting some of his earlier Phantom adventures to place his most famous character in such highly popular settings.
He did, after all, often write Mandrake the Magician stories with plots woven around mid-west farms and occasionally featuring cowboy-types.
It could have been, of course, that Lee was never a serious fan of cowboy and Indian stories and believed the Phantom should remain a mysterious, shadowy figure regularly bobbing up in exotic locations like the Far East, Africa, England, Himalayan regions and the desert areas around Egypt.
I only wish I had taken the opportunity to discuss this in depth with Lee Falk before he died!
Even the Scandinavian Phantom stories barely touches upon western themes when the Semic (now Egmont) company began publishing Phantom adventures in 1950.
Interestingly, when you consider that writers such as Norman Worker and Scott Goodall and many of their regular artists had experienced in production western stories!