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I have a reputation for discussing comic strips, mainly because before comic books, they were the only real comics in town, and two proto-superheroes that predate Superman that are important are Mandrake the Magician (Dr. Strange Precursor) and the Phantom (Batman precursor), both created by writer Lee Falk.
With Mandrake’s creation in 1934, Falk had mesmerized readers with the character’s mysticism and dimension-traveling abilities, effectively creating an exciting precursor to the caped crusaders of the later 1930s comic books, including his own Phantom.
Making his debut in 1936, the Phantom was another of Falk’s ground-breaking creations that would set the bar for subsequent comic book heroes. Drawing inspiration from the 1926 Douglas Fairbanks film, The Black Pirate, Falk imbued the Phantom with a similar backstory of avenging a father’s death and using a unique ring as part of the hero’s identity. The Phantom, like Mandrake, was not just a visually compelling character, but also a vehicle for Falk’s exceptional storytelling talent.
From the start, Falk envisaged the Phantom in shades of black, white, and gray, originally to be named “The Gray Ghost.” The name, Phantom was used in pulps as far back as 1914 “The Grey Seal” who fought a villain Phantom. The Gray Ghost was Batman’s child hero in the 1990s animated series.
This coloring decision that was later overturned without his consent by a King Feature colorist, who chose to make the character’s costume purple. Despite this unexpected alteration, the Phantom became an iconic figure, with Falk’s gripping narratives and memorable one-liners adding depth to the visually striking character.
- Dialogue: Many of the 1930s comic strip creators were artists, but it was Lee Falk who created the Phantom as its writer. The first run’s art by Ray Moore is beautiful, but it is Lee Falk’s dialogue that really shines from panel to panel (1939).
2) Dashing Romance: Furthermore, Falk’s Phantom was unafraid to engage with the opposite sex, a trait that brought an added dimension of relatability and humor to the strip. His interactions with his girlfriend Diana Palmer, and the unexpected situations that arose, provided some of the strip’s most comedic moments.
1941 Phantom daily written by Lee Falk and art by Ray Moore. Ray Moore was a brilliant penciler, and had a special way of depicting beautiful women.
1936 Phantom by Lee Falk. The Phantom already established himself as very forward with the opposite sex. Something interesting here is that he fully intends to marry Diana Palmer from the beginning.
Funny situational dialogue by Lee Falk in a 1942 Phantom Daily where his adventure wingman questions the point of him being in the scene as the hero and his girlfriend embrace.
This old hermit of the desert gives the Phantom some advice about women in a Phantom daily, 1939. Here is why he says it’s pointless to miss that girl who got away… by Lee Falk and Ray Moore.
Regardless of the situation in the strip, the Phantom maintained his charm through thick and thin.
3) Beautiful damsel in distress: As cheeky as he was with his female interactions Lee Falk’s writing in his Phantom strip, its artistry, particularly in the early days, was largely the work of Ray Moore, whose pencils brought depth and detail to Falk’s narratives. Moore’s talent for depicting beautiful women and creating dramatic wordless panels, often featuring the hero’s girlfriend in peril, added another layer to the strip’s appeal.
4) Symbolism and suspense: One of the standout themes in Falk’s portrayal of the Phantom was the hero’s mastery of symbolism and superstition to instill fear in his enemies. This use of “smoke and mirrors,” which would later become a hallmark of Batman, was first expertly deployed by Falk in his Phantom strips. Falk’s Phantom was also a master of disguise, a feature that added a layer of intrigue and unpredictability to the character.
Here is a fun daily from 1937 illustrating that the Smoke and Mirrors a nonpowered hero uses to scare a superstitious person is playing “good politics.”
5) Comedy: In the Phantom, Falk also explored the concept of the hero as a literary and comedic genius, using humor to diffuse tension and surprise readers. Falk and Moore’s collaboration on the Phantom strip produced numerous memorable moments. From the hero crawling through his lover’s window for a midnight kiss and stumbling upon her mother instead, to the unexpected advice given to the Phantom about women by a desert hermit, the strip was filled with clever, funny, and often poignant moments that set it apart from its contemporaries.
His use of witty one-liners like this one from 1939, often as the Phantom faced down various villains, was reminiscent of 1980s action movies, adding another level of entertainment to the strip.
Lee Falk’s Phantom was comedic and literary genius. Here is a sequence of panels from his dailies in 1939 showcasing the hilarious action and tension between him and his girlfriend’s kidnapper, a brawny antagonist who ended up enjoying the struggle.
Yet, for all the humor, action, and romance, the Phantom was also a figure of mystery and intrigue. The hero’s use of disguises, such as his clever impersonation of a judge, showcased his adaptability and cunning, while also providing visual puns that delighted readers.
In crafting the Phantom, Lee Falk demonstrated his ability to blend humor, action, and suspense in a way that captivated readers and set new standards for the comic book industry. His creations, from Mandrake the Magician to the Phantom, have left an indelible mark on the genre, paving the way for future superheroes and influencing countless creators. Through his innovative storytelling and memorable characters, Falk has ensured his place in comic book history as one of its most influential figures.
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