The Phantom: Why Has America Ignored This Proto-Superhero?

Joe Douglas
Jan 20 · 7 min read
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Cover of Frew Publication’s first ever issue of The Phantom. 1948

Three years before Batman donned his cape and cowl, and two before Superman crashed into a field in Smallville, there was another hero who would leave an indelible mark on the history of pop culture.

He wore a skin tight costume and a black mask. He left his symbol upon those he vanquished; a permanent skull-shaped brand so that all would know these were evil men. He may not have been a superhero as we know them today, but he taught those who were to come a thing or two.

Debuting as a newspaper strip on February 17th, 1936, American writer Lee Falk’s The Phantom is widely considered to be the template upon which the heroes of DC and Marvel were based. A “proto-superhero” of sorts, The Phantom character introduced for the first time many of the stapes of the superhero genre.

Many comic strips previous to The Phantom were either humorous (Blondie), crime stories (Dick Tracy) or funny-animals tales (Krazy Kat). The Phantom was the first costume wearing adventure hero, and also the first to done the now standard “white-eye” mask. The strip introduced the idea of a secret identity (The Phantom in reality being Kit Walker), a secret hideout (the hidden Skull Cave) and a “calling card” symbol he would leave at the scene of his escapades as well as on the jaws of those be defeated; the infamous Skull Mark. It is also worth noting that The Phantom was the first “generational” hero in that, within the strip’s lore, the title of The Phantom was passed down from father to son, in an unbroken line reaching back some 400 years. This idea, too, has been taken up by other superhero stories.

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The Phantom leaves his mark.

Since the strip’s debut The Phantom has never been out of print somewhere in the world. Interestingly, though, the countries where The Phantom has consistently been most popular have not been America. In Australia, Frew Publication’s The Phantom series has been going uninterrupted since 1948 and the character is a household name in the country. Even Australians not interested in comics would have at least heard of The Phantom. In Sweden and other Scandinavian countries the character has seen constant publication since the 1950’s, with original stories being produced for the Scandinavian The Phantom comics since 1963. In India the character has seen popularity since 1964, and in Brazil since 1953.

While The Phantom has not been completely absent from US comic book stores, it is surprising how little content there is on the character in the US, particularly given that it is not only the birth country of The Phantom strip itself, but also of the modern comic book industry.

The question, of course, is why?

Before The Phantom, Lee Falk had created another successful comic strip, Mandrake the Magician, which he had sold to King Features Syndicate. Mandrake proved so successful for King that they requested Falk produce another strip. Not wanting to do the same thing as he had done with Mandrake, Falk went for a more real-world, physical hero. The result was The Phantom.

The Phantom, like Mandrake before it, gained popularity through its running in various newspapers across the US. Readers returned day after day to find out what happened in the story next. Such was the popularity of The Phantom, Falk was asked to write a second The Phantom strip to appear in Sunday editions of various newspapers.

Because The Phantom was a newspaper strip, many of its first comic book appearances were simply reprints of these. While books collecting comic strips were common enough, it still meant that any comic book featuring The Phantom contained stories that readers possibly already experienced in their weekly or Sunday paper. It was not until 1962, almost 30 years after the characters’ debut, that original The Phantom stories written specifically for comic books appeared with the release of Gold Key’s The Phantom #1.

By this time, many characters who had been specifically created for comics, such as those from Marvel and DC, where well established. Also, The Phantom was still appearing in newspaper strips at the time of Gold Key’s issues, so it’s possible that readers did not feel the need to buy two lots (or three lots, if you count the weekly paper, Sunday paper and Gold Key’s output) of The Phantom stories.

It was not until 1987 that the US saw any further original The Phantom stories in comic books, and these were based upon the animated TV show Defenders of the Earth, which brought together several King Features owned characters into an Avengers-like team. However, DC Comics did release an original The Phantom comic book series the following year.

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The Skull Cave, The Phantom’s secret headquarters

Still, it seemed that its origins as a newspaper strip had put The Phantom on the backfoot when it came to comic books. By the 1970’s comic strips were slowly being squeezed out of newspapers. With no immediate comic book to fall back on, and only a few here and there otherwise, it is possible that The Phantom simply fell out of the popular consciousness with American readers.

Another reason has been suggested; The Phantom just “isn’t American enough.” In his article on the subject, Anu Kumar suggests that the initial ambiguity of The Phantom’s home country may have alienated US readers who were used to seeing their heroes as distinctly American, fighting crime in American cities, or cities clearly based upon those found in America. Originally, Falk said that The Phantom’s home country of Bengalla was somewhere near India, but then in the 1960’s moved the location to Africa where it has since stayed.

Similarly, the villains The Phantom fights and the locations he travels to are very often not America. Indeed, The Phantom has to be the most well travelled hero in history! While America and Americans do of course feature in The Phantom, they aren’t the prevailing culture. In fact, the majority of characters are from cultures that may have once been described as “exotic;” Africa, India and Asia. The main villains of The Phantom strip, the Singh Brotherhood, are an ancient band of Asian pirates. The character of The Phantom, too, is not particularly “American”. Apart from believing in the right to justice for everyone, there is no aspect of his character that is distinctly American, or distinct to any other nation or culture for that matter. If anything, The Phantom embodies the values of any person who believes all people are equal, regardless of their culture, creed or skin colour. He represents morally what the people of every country should be; he is not a message stick by which one specific culture spreads its own idea of what “values” are.

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Lee Falk, creator of The Phantom (left), with Fred Fredericks, artist of Mandrake the Magician (right)

This lack of Americanism may be too much for a country that is constantly told how “great” it is. Interestingly, this lack of cementing The Phantom into any one culture was by design. When asked about The Phantom’s world-wide popularity, Lee Falk answered

The Phantom’s world-wide popularity is that The Phantom touches on the mythology of all cultures. That was not accidental. I tried to make him that way.

While it may not have worked for American readers, this ambiguity is one of the reasons The Phantom so resonates with his legion of fans around the world. Russel Marks says in his article on The Phantom in Australia;

Thoroughly secular and rational, perhaps too much so for Americans whose Presidents are compelled to invoke a Christian god, the Phantom is as immune to believers’ babble as we like to think we are. And yet there’s a sacredness he nurtures, a relationship to the land which is as real as it is unremarked.

Perhaps it is this “relationship to the land” that attracts people of other nations.

So why doesn’t America embrace The Phantom? Perhaps it’s because he’s from a time too long past. A time when things were more simple, when the distinction between good and evil was black and white and heroes did not question their own actions, but rather believed in the simple act of righting wrongs.

Or, perhaps, to the people of a country which claims to embrace the tired, poor and those yearning to breathe free, The Phantom is just to dissimilar to themselves.

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Joe Douglas

Written by

Collector. Writer. Artist. Geek. I write mostly about the hobby of collecting. Check out my full portfolio at JMDWorks.org.

The Shadow

We publish inspiring stories about different topics for a productive and entertaining life

Joe Douglas

Written by

Collector. Writer. Artist. Geek. I write mostly about the hobby of collecting. Check out my full portfolio at JMDWorks.org.

The Shadow

We publish inspiring stories about different topics for a productive and entertaining life

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