Phantom and the Full Moon(stone)

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For those who came in late: The Phantom, created by Lee Falk and syndicated as a newspaper strip has found worldwide appeal. The central character of the story, Kit Walker’ is a man from a long line of heroes dedicated to fighting injustice, crime and most importantly, piracy. Known as the The Ghost Who Walks because of his continued presence throughout the ages, Phantom is a character available to be used in almost any situation, current or historical. He has fought mafia in Italy, 18th century pirates and modern day terrorists.

Two recent collections from Moonstone reveal some of this diversity. The first “Death in the Deep Woods” collects the first four issues of Moonstone’s ongoing Phantom series written by Ben Raab. The second, “The Graham Nolan Sundays: Volume Two” collects together five of the Sunday newspaper long-running stories. While Raab’s stories resemble other comic book hero stories, the Nolan illustrated Sundays have an old-fashioned sensibility that is quite different to most comic books on the shelves today.

While Phantom comics are staple fare in many parts of the world, Scandinavia and Australia especially, North American fans have not had a steady supply of Phantom – other than newspaper stories – for a long time. The first of Raab’s stories might then be a serious disappointment to some readers. Entitled “Stones of Blood” and comprising the first two issues of “Death in the Deep Woods” this story starts well enough but quickly disappears into shambles. It quickly becomes apparent that Phantom works well only when insulated from the real world. Rabb takes a story about diamond mining and exploitation of the native population and tries to mesh it with a story about international terrorism and UN sanctions against rogue nations. The politics of the story become so confused that the central character actually becomes just another ridiculous element rather than a lynch-pin.

In a miraculous turnaround, the second story in Raab’s collection, “Curse of the Phantom” is a far better story and seems much more aware of the limitations and advantages of the Phantom character. Featuring a seven foot tall devil God, this story has Phantom using his detective skills to discover that he’s not the only jungle legend continuing through the ages. Unlike Raab’s confused first story, this tale utilizes the Phantom mythos really well, mixing jungle mysticism and action scenes into an exciting combination.

Over in the Graham Nolan collection, we see a very different take on the Phantom as a character and indeed the comic panel as a story telling device. The Sunday week-by-week format seen in newspapers necessitates a much more stripped back style. The writer and artist have between four and six panels only to get their point across and keep the story moving. It is actually quite amazing to look at how fast the story progresses given the minute amount of space available.

The stories that Nolan illustrates are the height of anachronism with noble savages, snowy blond African princes and boys-own-adventure plots. This is best illustrated by the story titled ‘The Lion’s Head Tamarine” by Claes Reimerthi. This story, like many Phantom stories, is about a ruthless political schemer who wants to seize power from the rightful ruler of the land. The story features intrigue, amnesia, jungle mysticism and the Phantom’s own brand of justice. The patronizing and borderline racist characterizations are a concern but the stories are enjoyable when taken as disposable entertainment.

Graham Nolan illustrates each story with such a degree of skill and simplicity that each panel works overtime in the very compact structure. His characters are quite expressive and he manages to find new and interesting ways for the Phantom to punch the lights of bad guys out! In an early story, the Phantom has a knife fight with a crocodile which is worth the price of admission alone! A later story has Nolan illustrating a positively skin-crawling snake attack.

The Phantom is a character with long standing traditions that can nevertheless be used in so many different ways. His transition to US style comics courtesy of Ben Raab and Moonstone has been hit and miss. The “Death in the Deep Woods” collection is equally measured between hit and miss. The Phantom’s long established role as a newspaper hero is where he is most appropriate as the stories obvious racial and political inconsistencies are far less noticeable and objectionable in simpler stories.

Nevertheless, Moonstone have covered their bases and proven that they are a worthy publisher of Phantom adventures.

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