By Jim Shepherd
Considering Lee Falk created the Phantom in an era of adult appeal newspaper adventure strips, it is surprising to reflect that Lee stretched the boundaries in his early years to reach younger readers.
The Phantom made his debut in 1936, but after only three daily stories, Lee took the plunge towards the end of 1937 and came up with a story called Little Toma which last appeared in Frew number 931A.
When the Phantom discovered that Toma is in fact, a young white boy named Tommy who has been left with a native tribe and disguised to look like a native, he sets out to establish why Tommy has been placed in such a situation. Together with Tommy, he sails to England and after a series of adventures, finally unravels the mystery.
The story was enormously popular and was probably the first Phantom adventure to attract young readers to the strip. It was a ground-breaking strategy by Lee, because all established adventure strips of the time were aimed directly at adults.
Lee Falk went further on 1946, when he created Princess Valerie which was almost a tearjerker adventure aimed more at appealing to young girls than grownups!
The story, which starred his own real-life daughter of the same name (artist Ray Moore and Wilson McCoy actually based their depiction of the young girl from photographs of Valerie) was an international winner (Frew printing in number 1085).
His adventure strip rivals must have wondered what Lee was up to in 1952, when his daily strip Bobo the Toy Dog appeared. Bobo was the toy owned by a youngster named Jerry and while there were two diamond thieves, not to mention a wild lion involved, the story was again aimed as much at young readers as adults. Last Frew printing was in edition number 1009.
In 1958, Lee tried a different tack with the story The Crybaby, which starred a 12-year-old boy named Cecil who was so unsure of himself he became a target for school bullies.
Through an involved chain of circumstances, the Phantom introduced Cecil to life in the jungle and armed with more self confidence and fitness, the youngster finally returns home and pays back the school bully with interest.
It was a great story and one which must have had tremendous appeal to youngsters of the same age (see Frew number 1063).
There were more stories with youngster appeal to come. In 1969, Lee created the classic Rex the Missing Heir.
That was about a six months old baby being left on the doorstop of a jungle missionary. The baby is rescued by the Phantom after the missionary and his wife die and so begins a marvelous story about the little boy growing up, yet another trip to England and the Phantom finally establishing the boy’s true identity.
Rex continues in the Phantom chronology in Prince Rex (Frew number 1125).
So popular did Rex become, that in 1996-97, Lee wrote another daily adventure entitled Prince Rex – Kidnapped. Rex is now 12 years old and ruler of the mountain kingdom Baronkhan.
The story title explains the main theme of the adventure, but there is one other vital ingredient. We meet Princess Alicia, another 12-year-ol who is ruler of another mountain kingdom called Shardana.
Lee obviously has plans to develop the close friendship of the two youngsters with a later romance all too obvious.
Sadly, Lee died on the 13th of March, 1999 after completing his last story and commencing, but not finishing the next adventure and the Rex-Alicia connection is yet to be fully developed. Prince Rex – Kidnapped was last printed in Frew number 1167.
Lee was less adventurous with the injection of young appeal themes in his Sunday stories, but created two highly memorable stories.
In 1961 he wrote Fluffy, the story of a lion befriended by a youngster named Conley (the name of Lee’s own son) who ages from seven to nine years in the story and who was making his third appearance in a Phantom adventure.
Fluffy and Conley become jungle legends in their own right… ‘beware all people – ghost lion – boy demon’… and when the Phantom helps them out of serious trouble, Fluffy teaches the other jungle cats to catch fish, a trick learned from Conley (Frew number 815).
Then in 1975, Lee created the heart-warming Sunday story Little Girl featuring the 10-year old Princess Bonabel. If Lee had any plans to develop her character, he quickly dispensed with the idea and brought in Princess Alicia to take her place.
There have been quite a few stories created under license overseas which also featured youngsters in leading roles and The Boy from San Diablo is yet another.