Tough road ahead!

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HERE’S A STRANGE COINCIDENCE I’ve been meaning to write about for a few days now: In October 2011, I received an email from overseas, from a long-time Phantom reader, a retired superintendent of police who started reading the Ghost Who Walks almost 60 years ago. He had a grievance to air: that the Phantom, in recent years, has been taking a lot of punishment when he runs up against the criminal element. The reader (I’ll keep his name confidential, because I haven’t asked his permission to use it) wasn’t talking about the daily and Sunday newspaper strips managed out of New York; his issue was with stories published around the world by King Features licensees.

Here’s part of what I wrote back:

“No one likes to see their hero powerless to prevail against the evil he needs to confront. Over the years I’ve seen many Phantom stories where he’s constantly getting whacked over the head and tied up and essentially outwitted by halfwits. We’re not doing anything like that in the daily and Sunday strips, but, in the readers’ eyes, stories generated elsewhere tend to get conflated with ours.”

I went on to describe the next three stories in the queue, and how he’d see the Phantom of old in action in all three, doing things ordinary men can’t do, always in command of the situation before him. And I closed with this: “I guarantee that you won’t see the Ghost Who Walks reduced to helplessness!”

That was the right answer, I was certain. But almost immediately I wondered if I had thought it all the way through and given the complete answer!

And then I knew I hadn’t.

More than two years pass. December 28, 2013—Saturday last—the same reader writes again! Just to say hello this time. “Today I have read your letter again and thought of contacting you,” he wrote. “Hope you are fine.”

Talk about a bolt out of the blue! He had no idea that his email would arrive just hours before publication of a story that did tell the complete answer to the issue he had raised in our first correspondence.

For your consideration, here’s my reply to him:

“Hello again, M—–,

What an incredible coincidence it is to hear from you today, of all days! I do remember your letter from 2011 and the issue you raised: how it seems wrong to see the Phantom getting the worst of a fight with evil. We agree entirely, and I still hold to what I wrote to you then. But I must say that I eventually came to see that the argument I made fails in one set of circumstances: when a Phantom is near the end.

It’s a conundrum presented by the immortality myth at the very core of the universe Lee Falk created: Sooner or later, every Phantom is destined to die, so, by definition, he’s going to run up against his limits one day and be bested by evil.

The more I thought about it, the more I knew that, eventually, I’d have to write a story like that. And the questions then would be: What would it take to bring the Phantom down? How would he behave when he realizes his chances of survival are slim to none? He’d remain the Phantom, wouldn’t he? He’d meet his doom with a mental and physical toughness that no ordinary man could muster.

Well, I did write that story. And since we don’t want our 21st Phantom enduring circumstances that may end his life, I chose the 5th Phantom to undergo the ordeal.

Here’s why it’s such a coincidence to hear from you today, my friend: that storyline begins in earnest tomorrow, when the Sunday tale goes back in time to the days of the 5th Phantom and his American wife, Juliet Adams Walker.

I’ll be eager to hear what you think of ‘Death Stalks the 5th Phantom’ when the story concludes on May 18.”

Tony DePaul, January 2, 2014, Rhode Island, USA

 


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16 thoughts on “Tough road ahead!

  1. OK, I haven’t commented here before, but The Phantom is my favorite non-comedy strip, so here are a few random thoughts on the subject:

    I’ve enjoyed the 5th Phantom tale so far, and I’m happy to see that it’s going to be running through the middle of May.

    I’ve gotta say, your story where the current Phantom was near death & his son was saying he wasn’t ready really had me spooked/interested. He has a fine family, but I really didn’t see how The Phantom could go on, at least without a sizable gap between appearances. I wonder what it will be like if/when you guys DO decide it’s time to pass the torch to the next generation?

    It also had me thinking what it would be like if a presumed-dead Phantom ever had to step in and save the day, with or without his heir’s knowledge. Have I missed a story like that?

        • Can I say I want to see our current Phantom die, no, I wouldn’t, but them I don’t want to die ether, but I know I will someday. since I am 62 years old I am sort of up in the air about the whole idea.

          I guess I wouldn’t mind seeing the torch passed before I passed myself, just don’t be in any hurry to do it OK?

          Not that there be that much would change in the stories, just with a younger and less experienced Phantom. Lets just say I have a aversion to death coming too soon.

          As far as what I have read about his son being too young for the task, what father ever thinks that, until the son is actually pressed into service.

          hold !

          I just reread the start of the story, and his son is indeed too young. I don’t want to say any more I don’t want to know… the possibilities.. no! I don’t want to dwell on it…

  2. One thing that’s always annoyed me about the Phantom is the fact that the current Phantom doesn’t age and die. If we consider that the 21st Phantom was 20 when the strip began in 1936, his career should have ended in the 1960s or ’70s at the latest, by which time he should have had at least one child old enough to take over.

    If we look at today’s Phantom, a man in his 30s or 40s obviously living in the modern world (with broadband internet in the skull cave), it’s pretty obvious that he can’t possible be the same guy who was fighting evil in the ’30s, but he is.

    We also have to consider what this does to the average lifespan of past Phantoms. In 1936 there had been 20 Phantoms since 1536. That makes the average life expectancy for a Phantom 40 (that’s a career length of 20 years and the assumption that they generally start around age 20). If we assume that the 21st is currently 40 years old in 2014, that makes the average lifespan of his predecessors closer to 48 (four extra years of career time plus four extra years each of their children waited to become the next Phantom, making the average starting age 24).

    Considering that this is an average and some Phantoms must have died relatively young, this makes some of them pretty old when they finally passed the mantle on. And that average of 48 already seems kind of high for such a dangerous calling.

    Basically the only thing you’d lose by having time pass realistically is the opportunity for crossovers with Mandrake the Magician, and while I did enjoy that recent one, I don’t think it’s really a big deal.

    • Thanks for your thoughts on this, Mathew. There’s definitely a balancing act required in advancing the technology available to the Phantom even as he appears not to advance in age. Equipping Skull Cave with internet access was disconcerting to some readers at first but it had to be done. When I was a kid, I remember the Phantom climbing telephone poles to plug in a handset and ring up Colonel Worubu. Nowadays, I wonder if younger readers would even get what he was attempting to do if he were to climb a utility pole!

      He’s not carrying a smartphone yet but that’s probably coming. I think it’s twice now that we’ve shown him using one.

      • I hadn’t really given much thought that this was the same Phantom as I was reading in the King Feature archives, for some reason I had just thought he was a new Phantom. For a man who had been fighting in WW2, introducing the internet would seem like a very odd stretch. Even given the difference of a Phantom universe time. That at a min would make him 60 years of age and more likely 85 since the smaller cell phones have been seen in use.

        My head starting to ache, make it stop!

  3. Tony DePaul Please look to Friday, January 14, 2005 which you had a hand in writing.

    If there was ever a clue that this should be the 22nd or even 23rd, or 24th Phantom with the 21st having been in WW2, this would be it!

    60 years? and you had the Phantom say it himself.

    Then Wednesday, January 12, 2005 it was in ‘The Chronicles of the Skull Cave’ say the British took the wrecked u-boat in tow… Not that I was there to witness it or I had recorded it. In any case there is still the 60 years. Gotcha!

  4. OK having said that, I draw your attention to the name of the comic “THE PHANTOM” not the ’21st Phantom’, or the 20th, or 22nd, but “THE PHANTOM” This gives you the opportunity to write about any of the long list of Phantoms without having Continuity errors. I think it be a great way to tell a lot of stories, new and old I know I have enjoyed this last one of the 5th Phantom. I think you have enjoyed it as well, So how about it?

    Unless you have some legal requirement not to change the Character, I can’t believe that Lee Falk the creator didn’t see this coming, I hope you go for it.

    I hope to hear your reply

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