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In Darkest Africa, in a secret valley guarded by sinister blowgun-wielding pygmies, dwells the Phantom. Immortal, implacable, foe to all evildoers, pirates especially: criminals everywhere speak in hushed whispers of the Ghost Who Walks, the Man Who Cannot Die.
Except that, well, he can. And has, repeatedly. The current Phantom is the 21st of the line, continuing a tradition begun four centuries ago when his forefather washed up on a lonely African beach, the sole survivor of a pirate attack, and was nursed back to health by the sinister pygmies (who are actually quite nice once you get to know them). He is just a normal man (well, Badass Normal), with no supernatural powers (save his 'skull ring', which forever leaves its imprint on anyone he, well, punches) - but, as Batman also realised some years later, criminals are a superstitious lot, and they're much easier to beat if they're already afraid of you before you even arrive...
Begun in the dawn of comics' bright and breezy Golden Age, and written by a single author for over sixty years, The Phantom is a bit of a living fossil. Representations of women and minorities have become more sophisticated, but it never really saw the appeal of becoming darker and more 'realistic'. And we love it for that.
Three specific things we love about The Phantom:
- His Secret Identity. He doesn't have one. Each man who takes up the mantle forswears all former attachments and becomes all-Phantom, all the time, from that day forth. When he needs to walk the streets as an ordinary man, he doesn't take his superhero suit off: he puts an "ordinary man" disguise on over it. The disguise has a name, "Mr. Walker", but is otherwise a cipher; if anyone asks him about himself he changes the subject. How he negotiates airline booking desks and customs checkpoints has never been revealed.
- His canine companion, Devil. Faithful, courageous, and intelligent, in the tradition of Rin-Tin-Tin (and pre-dating Lassie), Devil scores over them in one important respect: he is actually a wolf, thus enabling a Running Gag where some official informs the Phantom (or, more usually, "Mr. Walker") that he can't bring his dog in here, and the Phantom breezes past, saying "Oh, that's all right, Devil isn't a dog..."
- The ongoing soap opera of the Phantom's relationship with Diana Palmer, whom he met, rescued, and fell in love with on his first published adventure. Unlike most superhero romances, where the hero can spend years hesitating over whether a relationship is a good idea at all, or how much he should tell her, by the end of the first story arc the Phantom had already revealed his superhero identity and offered to show Diana around his secret lair, but the course of true love does not run smooth: she thinks she's been paralysed so she calls off the relationship, he thinks she's chosen the Romantic False Lead over him so he goes back to the jungle to brood, her mother disapproves, the latest Distressed Damsel wants him for herself, lather rinse repeat, he's afraid to propose in case she says no, he's afraid to propose in case she says yes and then finds out that the Phantom's wife traditionally stays in the Skull Cave doing housewifey stuff... After forty years of this, they finally got married in 1977; the series weathered the change much better than many series do.
The Phantom has a big following in Scandinavia, where he has his own comic book (Fantomen in Sweden, Fantomet in Denmark and Norway, Mustanaamio in Finland), publishing new original adventures by other hands. Members of the Fantomen talent pool have also kept the newspaper strip going since Lee Falk's death in 1999. Australia is The Phantom's other fan stronghold, with Australian sales of The Phantom (a locally-produced comic book that reprints both newspaper strip storylines and translations of Fantomen stories) reportedly being ten times those of the top-selling Marvel and DC titles.
The Scandinavia-made adventures in the 1970s had frequent anti-colonialist plot-lines, in which the Phantom took on the regime of for instance a badly caricatured Rhodesia (the "Republic of Rhodia," which has since become a more conventional People's Republic of Tyranny) and where real-life characters, such as bishop Abel Muzorewa, appeared in equally thin disguises. That reflected the widespread anti-apartheid sentiments in those countries.
The Phantom also enjoyed a brief stint of immense popularity in India during the 80's and 90's, and was regularly published (including collected newspaper clips) by the now-obsolete Indrajal Comics, and later, by Diamond Comics of Mumbai. Indrajal's volumes from this period, including Phantom, are now rare collector's items. Although news of the 1996 Phantom movie initially boosted sales through the roof, after the actual release itself fans were not pleased. The film seems to have been the turning point leading to the character's decline in the region, and Phantom soon went zooming down to hit rock bottom in terms of obscurity. Indrajal's bankruptcy during that period didn't help.
By mid 2000s, though you could still find further issues from Moonstone, the current publisher, those were rare, too expensive due to very low sales, and new releases were few and far in between.
The Phantom has been adapted for film twice. A 1943 Film Serial starred Tom Tyler as the Phantom and Ace the Wonder Dog as Devil. Better known (if not better regarded) is the 1996 film starring Billy Zane as the Phantom, Kristy Swanson as Diana Palmer and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Sala.
This series includes examples of:
- Action Girl:
- Actually, That's My Assistant: In "The Veiled Lady", a biologist mounts an expedition to the eponymous mountain. In an early scene, biologist and assistant meet with Colonel Weeks of the Jungle Patrol to arrange permits, and Weeks initially assumes that the man is the biologist and the woman is the assistant.
- Amazon Brigade: Sala's Sky Band
- Animated Adaptation: Three, actually. The first was The Man Who Hated Laughter, a 1972 special featuring pretty much all King Features' characters. In 1986, there was Defenders of the Earth, basically Superfriends with King Features' action/adventure heroes. Phantom 2040, produced in 1994-95 and set in 2040, starred a later Phantom.
- Arbitrarily-Large Bank Account: Between the dowries of the princesses the various Phantoms have married, chestsful of gold and jewelery given as gifts, and that they live mostly off the land, the Walkers are very well off.
- Arch Enemy: The Phantom is traditionally opposed by the current leader of the Singh Brotherhood; the 21st Phantom first battles Dogai Singh, and later, his daughter Sandal Singh. Other notable enemies include the mercenary Gold Hand and the evil President Lubanga.
- Badass Creed: One of the classics - The Oath of the Skull - as follows: "I swear to devote my life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice, in all their forms, and my sons and their sons shall follow me"
- Blackmail Is Such an Ugly Word: In the 1947 story arc "Romance":
Cruise ship captain: Is this -- piracy?
Pirate: That's a nasty word, Captain.
- Blasting It Out of Their Hands: Played straight pretty much every time, except in the '90s when the Scandinavian version went for a period of Darker and Edgier (if a comparatively mild one).
- Bluffing the Advance Scout
- Bond Villain Stupidity: Endemic since the time of the first Phantom. Of course, 20 generations of Legacy Character doesn't happen without the occasional someone averting this trope.
- Breaking Bad News Gently: In "Fathers and Sons":
Styx: I have news for you -- it may be a shock. Mebbe you'd better sit down and listen.
Mike: I can hear anything standin' up! What is it?
[Styx gives him the news. He sits down suddenly.]
- Bulungi: Bangalla.
- Cannot Spit It Out: A major reason why it took the Phantom and Diana so long to get married -- they loved each other, and both knew it, but when it came to actually popping the question, the Phantom's otherwise undauntable nerve failed him. The 1947 story arc "Romance", for instance, begins with a sequence in which the Phantom works himself up to pop the question several times, only to chicken out and change the subject each time, to Diana's mounting irritation. (Then he hits on the idea of buying a ring and letting it do the talking -- and that leads, by a series of steps each straightforward in itself, to the Phantom trapped on an abandoned ship that's about to be blown up, and Diana swearing never to speak to him again.)
- Cave Behind the Falls
- Clue From Ed: Every single time "Mr. Walker" is mentioned, Ed reminds us that the name is derived from "The Ghost Who Walks".
- Combat Pragmatist: Being raised in a jungle where Everything Is Trying to Kill You can do that to a guy.
- Comic Book Time, despite the built-in opportunity to go the Legacy Character route
- Conviction by Counterfactual Clue: In the '80s and '90s, in the Swedish edition, on rare occasions.
- Costume Copycat: In the early newspaper comics, at least two different stories in which a convict on the run finds and steals the Phantom's clothes while the Phantom's having a swim. Fantomen has done both the "criminal wears a replica of the Phantom's outfit to divert suspicion" and the "hero in distant land, inspired by tales of the Phantom, wears a replica of the Phantom's outfit" plots at various times.
- Costumed Nonsuper Hero: An excellent example of the central concept, though slightly less than typical for not having a proper Alter Ego.
- The one "superpower" he does have (as revealed by a blood test when he is held captive) is that his blood contains antibodies for every disease known to man, thus enabling him to live a long and healthy natural life.
- Covers Always Lie: An odd variation occurs with the Australian covers -- they generally do show events that actually occur in the story (since, to keep design costs down, most of them are direct copies of actual panels), but they're apparently coloured by somebody who hasn't read the story. Sometimes this doesn't matter. Sometimes it does; examples range from a Fiery Redhead being depicted with black hair to several instances of African characters being given yellow hair and pink skin, as well as one instance where a criminal aviator's leather flying helmet was coloured purple, resulting in a cover that appeared to show the Phantom shooting an innocent bystander.
- Crossover: Among the tribal leaders invited to attend the Phantom's wedding is Lothar, the Scary Black Man sidekick of Lee Falk's other famous character, Mandrake the Magician. (Mandrake himself also attends.)
- Darkest Africa
- Death Glare: The viewer can't tell due to the mask, but he's apparently very good at this along with a really scary voice. There's even an ancient jungle proverb about how the Phantom's glare/voice turns blood to ice.
- Death Is Dramatic: The number of phantoms who have died without having the time to dramatically pass on their rings to their son while on their deathbed (usually back in the Skull Cave, no matter where in the world they've been mortally wounded), can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
- The Dog Was the Mastermind: A borderline example, perhaps, but in the very first news strip adventure ("The Singh Brotherhood"), when we first meet Sala, she appears only as the pirate king Kabai Singh's useless mistress. She's gradually established as smarter and more manipulative, and in the end she's the one to tell Kabai he's outlived his usefulness and kill him. Turns out she was really a double agent for the Sky Pirates under deep cover who sabotaged Kabai so the Phantom could destroy his organization, because it competed with hers...
- Drink Order: The Phantom's drink of choice is milk. Even when he's undercover in the seediest bar in town. Nobody ever mocks him for it... more than once.
- Elaborate Underground Base: Various villains, beginning with the Singh Brotherhood in the very first story arc.
- Expressive Mask
- The Faceless: The Phantom's unmasked face is never shown. There is a legend that "He who sees the face of The Phantom... dies a slow and horrible death", and although his close friends and family are shown to be immune, apparently readers aren't.
- And there's always an african mook around to warn the villain not to remove the mask and scare the other mooks into leaving the room. Naturally, the villain is never scared of ancient African superstitions. At least one was actually intimidated by the hero's unflinching stare through the mask as he dared for him to remove it, though.
- This goes so far that The Phantom has actually been arrested by the police, tried in a court of law and put in a psychiatric institution once... And at no point during the process did anyone remove his mask.
- The Fagin: The Phantom once encountered such a man leading crew of pickpockets in Africa in the "Black Fagin" storyline.
- Fan Fiction: This picture is worth at least a thousand words.
- Fantastic Nature Reserve: The island of Eden, populated by many peacefully coexisting animals; the carnivores eat fish and have never tasted blood. As well as a single genuine unicorn, a dinosaur and a semi-sentient prehistoric man-creature.
- Forgotten First Meeting: The hero and his love interest meet for the first time in the first story arc, until Lee Falk wrote the story of "The Childhood of the Phantom" and included a scene where they met briefly years before when they were both children.
- Generation Xerox: 21 generations and counting.
- Geographic Flexibility: The Phantom's home is somewhere in the jungles of Darkest Africa, near the fictional nation of Bangalla. Although various details over the years have narrowed the possibilities down, the precise location and layout of the region deliberately remain vague. (And this is without going into the fact that until the 1960s, Bangalla was called Bengali and was in India, and in the very earliest Phantom stories his home and the pygmy tribe were situated on an Indonesian island.)
- Gone Swimming, Clothes Stolen: At least twice, both times to set up a Costume Copycat plot.
- Gosh Dang It to Heck: At one point in the 1974 story arc "The Normal Life", a character is castigated for his foul language; the strongest word he is actually seen to use is "creep".
- Guile Hero
- Highly-Visible Ninja: The Phantom's stealthy jungle-ninja suit is purple. (Lee Falk intended it to be gray, and the early black-and-white dailies occasionally have dialogue saying so. When the color Sunday strip started up, it became purple, either due to a meddling executive who felt that the hero of a color strip should be more colorful or to a printing error. Falk eventually gave in and wrote in a Hand Wave that it was purple because the Phantom's look was intended to evoke a particular idol worshipped by the jungle tribes.) Meanwhile, various international publications have depicted him in a range of colors, from a dark blue in Sweden to a short-lived Italian comic that showed his costume as a mixture of bright red, green, and orange.
- Historical In-Joke: Several. With a history spanning back to the 17th century and a lot of stories to choose from, the Phantom has had his finger in lots of background events throughout history. Among others, he was involved in the French Revolution, helping the Dauphin escape the guillotine; he befriended Nostradamus, who was the one who gave him the Skull Ring; and he helped the British defeat the Spanish Armada by time travelling and helping to vanquish Mordred from Camelot.
- Hot Amazon: Princess Vhatta in "The Fourth Son".
- How Unscientific: The Phantom occasionally (as in, maybe once every few decades) had encounters with visiting aliens. Otherwise, it's strictly a more-or-less realistic and down-to-earth action-adventure series.
- I Owe You My Life: People saving the Phantom occasionally get the good mark printed on them (or sometimes in the form of necklaces or other jewelry) in return. Later Phantoms tend to return favours to people who have the mark -- or their descendants -- in kind.
- I Want Grandkids: Not that it's mentioned often, the current Phantom is married with two kids, but every Phantom is expected to father an heir to continue their legacy. The biggest difference that Phantom has from most examples of this is that the pressure is coming from beyond the grave not just his father, but his grandfather, and great-grandfather, and so on.
- I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Several times, from both the Phantom and Diana on various occasions, as part of the ongoing relationship plot.
- If You Ever Do Anything to Hurt Her...: At least once, in the 1947 story arc "Romance", Diana's entanglement with a Romantic False Lead went so far that she ended up doing a Runaway Bride to get out of it; the Phantom had stood aside, since it seemed to be what she wanted, but he did give the groom-to-be the "You're marrying the finest girl in the world, and if you do anything to hurt her..." speech.
- Jungle Drums: Frequently appear as a method of sending long-distance messages in the African jungle.
- Legacy Character: Although the main continuity has focused on the same person from beginning to present day, many episodes are about the lives and adventures of previous Phantoms, and the legacy is strong.
- Legacy Immortality
- Loves My Alter Ego: Averted; the Phantom tells Diana who he really is in the very first story.
- Mighty Whitey
- Monster Modesty: The Croccos wear loincloths (and are either a Single Gender Species or an aversion of Non-Mammal Mammaries), but since they live in the ocean . . . where do they get the cloth?
- Multilayer Facade: The secret leader of the jungle patrol is The Phantom itself - the masked superhero identity, rather than its mundane counterpart "Mr Walker".
- Non-Human Sidekick
- Not So Harmless: Current recurring villain Chatu/"The Python" was recently experimenting on bats in order to start an Ebola epidemic. The only person he managed to infect was himself, and he needed the Phantom to rescue him from painful death. A few months after this embarassing failure, Chatu orchestrates a terrorist attack (from his prison cell) and had his men abduct Diana, leaving the Phantom thinking she'd died in the attack.
- Offhand Backhand: The Phantom delivers one to a hoodlum sneaking up behind him in "Whirlpool Channel".
- Pirate: Seeing that they're arch enemies of pirates, The Phantom might qualify as a ninja.
- One "Elseworld" story published in Fantomen actually has The Phantom as a ninja - in it, the first Phantom wasn't stranded in Darkest Africa, but on the coast of Japan.
- Pirate Girl / Sky Pirate: Sala
- President Evil: The Scandinavian comics have twice had Bangalla taken over by evil presidents:
- In the 90s, Bangalla got taken over by tyrant cum voodoo sorcerer Kigali Lubanga. Unlike previous coup-happy generals and assorted single-issue conquerors, Lubanga was a Villain with Good Publicity who won a reasonably fair election against his good-guy opponent. The Phantom then spent the next couple of years in opposition to the government, authorities and public opinion, before the people realized their country was gradually being turned into the People's Republic of Tyranny and rebelled, reinstating the old president.
- In more recent times, the guy was ousted again after Lubanga made his comeback as the leader of an evil cult and tried (but quickly failed) to resume his old reign. The new President Evil is, instead, Sandal Singh, Dark Chick daughter of the Phantom's perennial Arch Nemesis Dogai Singh, the leader of the Singh Pirate Brotherhood.
- Rich Idiot With No Day Job: Subverted in the first story arc, which drops several blatant hints that Jimmy Wells, rich layabout and childhood friend of Diana Palmer, is really the Phantom -- only to have him disappear from the plot completely and the Phantom to reveal a very different origin. It's generally assumed that Lee Falk originally meant to play it straight, then changed his mind when a more creative idea occurred to him.
- Romantic False Lead: Most notably Lieutenant Byron
- Runaway Bride: Diana, at the end of the 1947 story arc "Romance", does a runner from a posh society wedding after realising that she's making a mistake and that the Phantom is the one for her after all.
- Ruthless Modern Pirates: Being as he is the scourge of piracy, the modern-day Phantom has encountered modern-day pirates from time to time.
- Sand in My Eyes: In "The Fourth Son", the title character (the fourth son of an earlier Phantom) starts sobbing when his elder brothers leave to attend school. When his mother reminds him that his father thinks boys shouldn't cry, he claims between sobs that he's not crying, he just has a bug in his eye.
- Shark Pool
- Shooting Superman: with a twist
- Shrouded in Myth
- Sky Pirates: Sala and the Sky Band
- Statuesque Stunner: Princess Vhatta in "The Fourth Son".
- Steven Ulysses Perhero: According to a later retcon, "Walker" is the actual surname of the first Phantom, and thus of every Phantom since. This hasn't stopped Ed telling us that it's derived from "The Ghost Who Walks".
- Superhero Packing Heat
- Superhero Sobriquets
- Technical Pacifist: The Phantom does use guns, but is apparently such a great shot that he almost never needs to shoot people - see Improbable Aiming Skills, Blasting It Out of Their Hands. He does shoot people in self-defense on occasion though, especially if they start shooting first.
- Thou Shalt Not Kill: Not directly, anyhow. The Phantom doesn't kill, but he doesn't lose much sleep over criminals who end up dead and doesn't go out of his way to save everyone he crosses paths with. There are at least two recorded instances of the Phantom fatally shooting someone, and unlike many other superheroes this has apparently never been retconned.
- Tiny Guy, Huge Girl: "The Fourth Son" tells the tale of the shortest Phantom (five foot two and a half), who winds up marrying a six-foot Hot Amazon.
- Tuckerization: The title character of the storyline "Princess Valerie" has the name and appearance of Lee Falk's eldest daughter.
- Underwear of Power: Arguably the Trope Codifier, especially in countries where he is still popular. He wears red-and-black striped underwear on purple.
- In several stories this is the only thing he wears aside from his hood/mask, boots, and gunbelt.
- Viewers Are Geniuses: Not all the time, but a lot of the stories told about past Phantoms are more enjoyable if you know your world history. The Swedish comic book would often have a condensed version of the relevant historic events in it.
- Wheel of Pain: In "The Chain"
- Whole-Episode Flashback: Numerous stories of the current Phantom's ancestors
- Worthless Yellow Rocks: Until each Kit leaves the cave they either don't know anything about or understand the concept of money. The twenty-first Phantom carried around a bag of stones his father gave him not knowing why until he heard his uncle complain about tuition costs months latter. The same story had a very young Kit playing with the gold like they were building blocks.
- Zorro Mark: The imprint left by either of his rings. With the good ring it's given consensually and nonviolently as a mark of respect. With the skull ring... It's none of those three.
- The Myth Busters examined the skull ring use and found that it would be impossible to leave indentations in people's skin with mechanical force without also shattering the victim's bones in that location and (in the case of the head) killing them. The comic has Handwaveed this by explaining that the Phantom dips his rings in a less-concentrated version of the Bandar arrow poison long before the Mythbusters examined it, though.
Adaptations and spin-offs with their own trope pages include:
- Defenders of the Earth
- Phantom 2040
- The Phantom (1996 film)
- The Last Phantom
- The Man Who Hated Laughter