August 03, 2020
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White Skin, Black Mask

Did Phantom — the man who cannot die -- live in India? Will he survive his creator Lee Falk's death?

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White Skin, Black Mask

FOR those who came in late...Lee Falk, creator of The Phantom a.k.a. Kit Walker, the Ghost Who Walks...the man who cannot die—well, he died last month.

Some 35 years ago, Bennett & Coleman began to publish the Indrajal Phantom comic books that dominated the misspent afternoons of my childhood. It was a quieter, gentler time. Mrs G had not yet become She Who Must Be Obeyed, a car was still an Amby, TV was Chitrahaar at a neighbour's house, and Coke was it. And my friends and I were a cargo cult. The products of phoren that washed up on these shores were marooned here without their global marketing strategies or moulded plastic packaging. So we hoarded, borrowed and rented Superman, Batman, and even Aquaman when we could. But The Phantom had come in on an earlier tide. He was a castaway on our side of the pond. The production values had a familiar local crappiness. Phantoms had matte covers and no ads for Amazing Incredible Sea Monkeys or the Inflatable Raquel Welch Doll.

But the currents of international commercial and cultural transmission have since been charted. Surfing the Internet last week I was rewarded with this jetsam: the original Phantom recap from 1936:

For those who came in late: Four hundred years ago, a man was washed up on a remote Bengal shore. He'd seen his father killed and his ship scuttled by Singh pirates. He swore an oath on the skull of his father's murderer "to devote my life to the destruction of all forms of Piracy, Greed and Cruelty." He was the first Phantom, and the eldest male of each succeeding generation of his family carried on... As the unbroken line continued through the cen -turies the Orient believed it was always the same man!

Bengal Shore! Singh Pirates! I could hardly believe my Oriental eyes! And there was more. In 1944 Phantom even fought the Imperial Japanese Army when they "invaded his jungle lair in Bengali". But the Phantom of my boyhood lived in the Denkali Woods in the Republic of Bangalla (cap: Mawitaan) which as everyone knows is in Africa. Now it can be told: his imaginary domain was really Darkest India .

In fact, the Phantom began life in 1936 as an urban American playboy who stalked criminals by night—a precursor of Bruce Wayne. But then something happened. As Lee Falk tells it: "In the middle of the first story I suddenly got the other idea. I moved the Phantom into the jungle and decided to keep him there."

The "other idea" probably cost the Phantom his place as an icon of the American century. Before long, Superman, Batman and other costumed crusaders would step into his chaddis as the international policemen of Truth, Justice and the American Way. But the Ghost Who Walks had chosen the old road, perhaps it was because Falk was a literature student with a thing for Kipling. At any rate it wasn't a deadend, the Empire still lived, and the Phantom soon found a regular slot as an émigré crimefighter in the colonies. He acquired a following in Australia, New Zealand and of course in India where The Illustrated Weekly began to publish the strip as early as the 1940s. He had moved to the Jungle and he stayed there.

But the Jungle had been stirring, the natives, as always, were restless. And back at Phantom Inc's corporate HQ, otherwise known as King Features Syndicate, the editors had made certain changes over the years to accommodate the sensibilities of their Indian readers: Bengal had become first Bengali...oops, and then Denkali/Bangalla. The villain Rama (slayer of Phantom's father) had become Ramalu. The Pirate Singh Brotherhood, the Singa Pirates. Until only one diminutive trace of our hero's original landfall remained—the Phantom's pygmy friends, whose tribal name 'Bandar' Falk had lifted from The Jungle Book. They're still the Bandar log. After all there are no pygmies in India.

Let's face it, the Phantom would have died a long time ago if Indian boys hadn't inherited their colonial khaki knickers. But they did. And reading The Phan -tom was our initiation to the colonial fantasies that had shaped our forefathers. As the unbroken line continued through the centuries the Orient believed it... Falk's genius was to encapsulate so much of the colonial canon in his terse frames. The Phantom starts out as Robinson Crusoe but he's also Kim and Mowgli. He's Leo, the immortal he of She. He's Tarzan of the Bandar and the Embodiment of Kipling's If. Falk himself once said that the Phantom was Tarzan with a college degree.

Finally—though it may take a college degree to see this—The Phantom was also Mr Kurtz of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I just reread it in the wake of Falk's death, and the parallels with the Phantom are, just... spooky. Kit Walker has his skull cave, Kurtz has a hut surrounded with skulls. Kit has his oath "to destroy Piracy, Greed and Cruelty", Kurtz has his own: "Exterminate the brutes!" They are, of course, mirror images, one just and balanced, the other insanely cruel, but both reflections of the feral white man among the savages with a mission civilisatrix.

One of these days some Comp. Lit type, born right here and educated in America, is going to write a dissertation on all this. I can see it now. Phantoms, Pygmies and Others. Or White Skin, Black Mask. Or if s/he's really with it, Purple Prose: the Jungle Chronotope from the Heart of Darkness to Denkali. As for the Ghost Who Walks, he'll have to find a ghost who writes. Because Mistah Falk — he dead.

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