It was a quieter, gentler time. I lived in a somnolent neighbourhood of Delhi called Bengali Market (after its largest establishment, Bhimsen's Bengal Sweets). My father drove home at noon on weekdays for a lunchtime siesta. And my friends and I belonged to a cargo cult.
Those were the days of import substitution. The products of phoren that washed up on our shores were worshiped as much for their packaging as their contents, and we sniffed the suitcases of foreign-returned relatives like shipwrecked enologists. The material culture of middle-class Indians was built on a modest range of overseas products that had been marooned and indigenised as the government's import restrictions took hold. A car was an Amby—the Ambassador, a 1950s Morris Oxford replicated by Hindustan Motors; a television was a black-and-white Telerad of East German design; a camera was an Agfa Isoly; a chocolate was a Cadbury's Dairy Milk. As for fizzy drinks, well, Coke was it (though even that would be banned in 1977, to be replaced by the state-sponsored Double Seven).
And a comic book was a Phantom.
Of course we hoarded, borrowed, or rented Superman, Batman, even Aquaman, when we could. But the Phantom was a more dependable hero, always there when you needed one—and cheap, at one and a half rupees. There were none of the cruel advertisements for unobtainable goods—Schwinn Bikes and Hostess Twinkies, Incredible Sea Monkeys and Amazing Inflatable Raquel Welch Dolls. The Phantom had matte covers and reassuringly crappy production values. He was a castaway on our side of the pond, a Third World kind of guy.
We were dimly aware, I suppose, that under the dark suit and mask there lurked a white man. And there was that mysterious Anglo credit—“Lee Falk”—atop each comic. But the author's signature was inconspicuous. We did not know him. What we did know was the Phantom's circumstance: darkest Africa, with its big game, its witch doctors and naked black tribes. We had seen these images in Hindi films: Helen the Anglo-Indian vamp dancing provocatively around a captive savage (blackfaced, chained, and caged) in the famous cabaret sequence from Intequam. At school, we learned to sing “Black Sambo.” And in the sweet shops of Old Delhi you could buy habshi halwa, “nigger toffee”—a dark confection of caramelised milk. All this was cargo, too, though we didn't know it then.
A final memory drifts in: the parents are away, so I can read a Phantom with my dinner. Our servant, Narain Singh, hovers by the table. He is a compact man, a Garhwali from the hills of the North. I've grown up on his tales of forests and man-eating leopards; of the time he was possessed by spirits and cured by a tantric; of how he ran away to the city and taught himself to read by deciphering billboards. Now he wants to know why I'm reading picture books, so I tell him about my hero in the jungles of Bangalla. I tell him that when I grow up I'm going to be like Phantom.
I was a child on the cusp of self-consciousness, and I knew immediately that I would always remember Narain's indulgent grin with a flush of embarrassment.
—E. M. Forster
The sign says, “Be young, have fun, drink Pepsi.” But I'm thirty-five and I don't own a purple suit. I'm none-too-gainfully employed as a journalist, while Narain Singh enjoys his alcoholic retirement. And India has been liberated, or at least economically liberalized. Bengali Market is now a sea of neon where Bhimsen competes with Baskin-Robbins. We have our MTV. We have Baywatch and its deflatable dolls. In short, the currents of cultural and commercial transmission have been charted.
Surfing the Internet one night, I am rewarded with this jetsam: “Phantom has many Web sites—New Jungle Saying.” Old jungle sayings were a hokey leitmotif of the comic: “Phantom rough with roughnecks—Old Jungle Saying” or “Phantom quick like lightning—Old Jungle Saying.” The site has a list of them, and more Phantom links than I can count. So I go back in time to a site called The Deep Woods, which presents a plotted history on purple wallpaper. And I'm in for a surprise. The Phantom began life in 1936 as an urban American playboy named Jimmy Wells who stalked criminals by night in a mask and costume—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 to 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 (1938), Batman (1939), and other costumed crusaders stepped into his briefs as international policemen of Truth, Justice, and the American Way. But the Ghost Who Walks had chosen the well-trodden path of an older empire.
Falk traces the Phantom's origins to his own “great interest as a kid in hero stories, the myths and legends—Greek, Roman, Scandinavian, the Songs of Roland, El Cid in Spain, King Arthur.” And yet Falk himself was a college boy, a literature major at the University of Illinois who admired Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Although he would live to be the world's oldest active comic strip author, he had lifelong ambitions as a playwright; in the 1970s, he even tried his hand at Phantom novels. It's tempting to see a tragic flaw here. Perhaps a literary hubris diverted him from the big idea that would have tapped right into the American collective unconscious: the local hero with a double life. (On the other hand, Jerry Siegel sold the rights to Superman for a mere $300.)
Falk found his fortune in the outlying colonies. After modest success as a newspaper strip in America, Phantom was soon syndicated in Australia (1939) and New Zealand (1949). He made appearances in Italy (L'Uomo Mascherato, 1936), Spain (El Hombre Enmascarado, 1941), and Sweden (Fantomet, 1951), although he was never much of a success in England. In the 1940s the Illustrated Weekly, another Bennett and Coleman publication, began to publish the strip in India.
I must confess I felt a pang of resentment at the discovery that I had shared the Phantom with all these foreign kids. Until, that is, I found myself gaping at the monitor with a wild surmise. It was a Phantom recap from 1939.
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 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 centuries the Orient believed that 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.”
Now it can be told: the Phantom came of age in the jungles of Darkest India.
Geographers in Afric-Maps
With Savage-Pictures fill their Gaps.
The jungle was stirring; the natives, as always, were restless. By the time the Illustrated Weekly began to print Phantom, the end of the Empire was at hand; the sun was setting in the East. And back at Phantom HQ, otherwise known as King Features Syndicate (a division of the Hearst Corporation), the editors made a number of changes to accommodate the sensibilities of their burgeoning Indian readership. Bengal had become first Bengali, and then Bangalla. To avoid any confusion with Hinduism's favourite hero, the Phantom's enemy Rama became Ramalu. The Pirate Singh Brotherhood, whose name was—however inadvertently—guaranteed to offend both the Rajput and Sikh communities, became the Singa Pirates. Until, finally, only one diminutive trace of our hero's original landfall remained: the Phantom's pygmy friends, the Bandar, whose tribal name Falk had lifted from the Jungle Book. They were still the Bandar log, the monkey people. After all, there are no pygmies in India.
But even as the Phantom was obliged to quit India, he had a long history in Africa. One of the earliest Phantom comics, “The Plant God of the Massau,” had the Ghost Who Walks tangling with African witch doctors who tricked a credulous tribe into feeding a fake man-eating plant. Falk's conflation of India and Africa was fitting: until Vasco da Gama caught the monsoon current to Cochin in 1498, Europe had never been able to distinguish Africa from India Tertia. Even Marco Polo located Abyssinia in “Middle India.” More important, perhaps, Falk was being true to the literary conventions of Western fiction in avoiding geographical specificity. As Edward Said notes in Culture and Imperialism, “The prototypical modern realistic novel is Robinson Crusoe, and certainly not accidentally is it about a European who creates a fiefdom for himself on a distant, non-European island.” In the grand tradition of the Occidental imagination, Falk treated “the Dark Continent” as the ultimate blank space on which to inscribe the Phantom legend. As for history, he was following H. R. Trevor Roper, who as late as 1963 could assert that “there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness.”
Carefully preserved in a catacomb within the Phantom's Skull Cave in Denkali—wherever that is—are several ancient leather-bound volumes. These are the Chronicles, set down by each of the twenty-one Phantoms in turn. Several extracts have been published as Phantom comics, and in one of them—” Phantom and the Discovery of New World“—we learn that the first Phantom's father, Kit Walker, was Columbus's cabin boy on the voyage to the so-called Indies. In fact, he preceded the conquistadors to the American mainland, which he explored with his native guide, Caribo. Between Kit's American landfall and Falk's farewell to the Bengal shore, it's clear that the Phantom's space-time is coterminous with European colonialism. It's no accident that Falk's imaginary geography recapitulates the disorientations of colonial discovery and loss.
Falk was only nineteen when he began to publish, hardly a man of the world. In fact he was something of a cabin boy himself—he tells how he invented a story to impress his agent's publicity department:
I wrote that I was a world traveller, that I had met with the magicians of the East and had been initiated into all their mysteries etc.—in reality I'd just been in Missouri and Illinois. . . But when I came to New York . . . I began to know foreign correspondents . . . and they soon read about Lee Falk, world traveller, in King's publicity releases. They began to tell me about that little restaurant in Venice, or that great bistro in Paris, expecting me to regale them with stories of my own favourite hangouts abroad. Naturally I had to bluff my way through these sessions, so I began to travel in order to catch up with my own autobiography!
Falk says he was ultimately able to make good on his youthful bluster: he travelled extensively in Europe, China, Japan, India, and South America. But Africa remained terra incognita.
At least the compliment was mutual—the Phantom never found a significant African readership. Yet even without the prodding of African readers, the 1970s witnessed a number of refinements in Falk's treatment of the Phantom's home. “On the Jungle's edge—great changes,” begins one story. “Ancient waterhole becomes country-club pool—mud huts become shining cities.” Decolonisation was catching up with the Deepwoods once more. Soon Bangalla was a republic (capital: Mawitaan) and the Phantom was a personal friend of its president, Dr. Lamanda Luaga. There were new clichés, of course—most notably the brutal General Bababu's perennial attempts to stage a military coup—but Falk was clearly feeling the heat of political correctness. “My only politics is up with democracy and down with dictatorships,” he said in one interview. “Down with human rights violations. Down with torture.”
Eventually, Phantom was surrounded by a circle of fleshed-out African friends who replaced the namelessly numberless tribesmen over whom he had once presided. Apart from his long-standing sidekick Guran, the Bandar chief, there was now Old Man Mozz—half Uncle Tom, half griot; the Angela Davis-esque teacher Miss Tagama; and a Colonel Worubu, who took over as head of Bangalla's “Jungle Patrol” from the waspish Colonel Weeks.
Whether Lee Falk found this new Africa liberating or constraining, he found many pretexts for adventures in different geographic locations. It turned out the Phantom had ancestral property in Europe (a ruined medieval castle) and in America (an isolated mesa), not to mention a globe-trotting girlfriend named Diana who worked for the United Nations. Falk also developed numerous stories around the faintly Asiatic despots of the Misty Mountains “beyond” Bangalla. And through the Chronicles, he was able to take the Phantom's twenty-one avatars to a mind-boggling range of historic places. My favorite is Phantom III, who played Juliet at the Globe Theatre and married Shakespeare's niece. In a 1990 comic, Phantom V even hazarded a return to his old Indian tropes to tackle the Thuggee cult.
A survey of the Chronicles also reveals a new dimension to Falk's adventurism. Yes! the Phantom has more than a touch of the tar brush. Phantom IV marries the Arab Princess Pura; the ninth takes a Mongol bride, Princess Vhatta; the eleventh, a Maharaja's daughter; and the thirteenth, the daughter of an Indian chief. So our twenty-first Phantom is not quite white as a ghost. But I can't do fractions. You tell me: is he Amerindian or Eurasian? Zambo or zombie? Quadroon or quintessence? Gook or spook?
Courtesy IMDB. © Copyright 1996 - Paramount Pictures Corporation - All rights reserved
And what, for that matter, are we, Phantom's true descendants, the ghost readers? Mimic men? “Indian in blood and colour, but not in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”? The spectre of Thomas Macaulay did cross my mind as I bought a cinema ticket and settled down to watch the latest attraction at Delhi's Anupam cineplex. It was, of course, The Phantom, starring Billy Zane in the title role, with Kristy Swanson (the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as Diana. Halfway through the film I thought I heard a shudder of recognition rustle through the audience. Billy the caveman was trying to impress Buffy. “I was born right here in the cave and educated in America,” he said. Perhaps I shuddered a bit myself. But it was more of a reflex. I remembered Narain Singh's grin.
As the movie progressed I realized that Phantom had relocated once more. The only black men in the story were American. The natives of Bangalla were now distinctly Oriental, and in a brief cartographic frame the Phantom's lair was shown to be somewhere off the coast of Phuket. Like Apocalypse Now, The Phantom was shot on location in the Philippines, the cinematic Indochina Tertia. Hollywood has its own persistent vision of the jungle's dark heart: “Saigon. Shit! I'm still in Saigon.”
Roger Ebert gave The Phantom three-and-a-half stars. “One of the best-looking movies in any genre I have ever seen . . . smashingly entertaining . . . It's in love with a period when there were islands not on any map.” Well, call me Ishmael if he's not muffing his Melville. The line he's thinking of describes Queequeg's home, “Kokovoko, an island far away to the West and South. It is not down in any map; true places never are.” And I think Moby-Dick was a work of fiction. The Phantom is a terrible movie; it forgets that Falk was in love with colonial fiction, not colonies.
The mimic men are alive and well, and they live to the west and north. They live in the unending flow of travel writing, filmmaking, and reporting that dishes up the Empire, revisited at leisure. The perennial recaps: recapitulating what? “Imagine yourself suddenly set down surrounded by your gear, alone on a tropical beach…”—it's Argonauts of the Western Pacific, but it might be Club Méditerranée.
Falk was a better mimic—old Jungle Saying. His genius was to encapsulate so much of the colonial canon in a comic strip. Phantom starts out as Robinson Crusoe, but he's also Kim and Mowgli. He's Leo, the immortal he of H. Rider Haggard's She. He's Tarzan of the Bandar, and the embodiment of Kipling's If. Hell, he's Bronislaw Malinowski. Falk himself once said that Phantom was “Tarzan with a college degree.”
Finally (though it may take a college degree to see this), the Phantom was also Joseph Conrad's Mr. Kurtz. 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 all the brutes!” They are, of course, mirror images: one just and balanced, the other insanely cruel, but both reflections of the feral white man with a mission civilizatrix.
Mission accomplished or not, it may be time for the Phantom to move on. Never mind cruelty and greed, he's having a tough time dealing with piracy. In my youth there was a brand of sugar cigarettes that we would clench with milktoothed insouciance. They were unauthorized “Phantom Cigarettes,” and the pack was adorned with his likeness. But Phantom had many lawyers; one fine day the face on the cigarette pack suddenly acquired a Van-dyke and shades. That was then. These days even Phantom's local publishers tout a Sanskritized alternative, Mahabali Shaka: “dweller of the Kosima Wilds, the invincible man who is adored like a god by the primitives.” Time was, Phantom, Inc., would have taken on such privateering. Today they are instead contemplating a strategic retreat from the jungle. A new series from Marvel Comics entitled Phantom 2040 follows the adventures of a twenty-first century Phantom, returned to an American “Metropia.”
In an essay recalling Conrad's book, James Clifford writes a passage that might be a valediction for Phantom:
Worn by thumbing and cut loose from its covers—which may symbolize the context of its original publication—the written text must resist decay as it travels through space and time. After sixty years—a human lifetime—the moment of disintegration has come. The author's creation faces oblivion, but a reader stitches the pages lovingly back together. Then the book is abandoned to its death somewhere on a strange continent, its nautical content run aground in the absence of context—and once more a reader to the rescue.
One of these days some Comp. Lit. type, probably a bright young castaway born right here in India and educated in America, will come to the Phantom's rescue—only to write a dissertation. I can see it now: “Phantoms, Pygmies, and Other Mythical Beasts.” Or “White Skin, Black Mask.” Or, more likely, “Purple Prose: The Jungle Chronotope from Heart of Darkness to the Phantom.”
But I have enjoyed too many Phantoms to take him seriously. I know that superheroes are inescapably ironic. And I prefer Lee Falk's whimsical self-invention as a “world traveller” to the ponderous self-fabulations of a nomadic Clifford or an “exilic” Said. In any case, Falk is already beyond reproach. On the morning of March 13, 1999, the old man gave up the ghost. I think he deserves a decent burial, not a postmodern postmortem. The Ghost Who Walks? He'll find a ghost who writes. But Mistah Falk—he dead
Kai Friese is the editor of Outlook Traveller.
Elsewhere: The Deep Woods