The Unrecognized Genius of the DC Comics Phantom Series


The Phantom series published by DC Comics called, you guessed it!, The Phantom, ran from 1989 to 1990, and has always been dear to my heart. Created by the, to use a cliché, dynamic duo of writer Mark Verheiden and artist Luke McDonnell, the series made a lasting impression on the character much bigger than its mere thirteen issues would suggest.

1988 marked the release of DC’s miniseries based on Lee Falk’s comic strip crusader. Written by the talented Peter David, drawn by Joe Orlando on top form, with excellent covers by Orlando and Watchmen-artist Dave Gibbons, the series was both a commercial and artistic success.

While a very good read in almost every way (only minor, but apparent, nitpicks prevent the story from being a true Phantom classic, such as turning Colonel Worubu into a white man!), the series’ greatest achievement must be the regular series it spawned: the Verheiden/McDonnell created book, which premiered in 1989. It sported a tone and feel very different from that of the newspaper strip, thereby probably alienating some traditional fans but also likely winning the character many new ones.

Verheiden’s Phantom is a much more introspective character than the one we read about in the newspaper every day. He can often get into deep reflections on his purpose in life – fighting a battle he knows for sure he can never win, potentially sacrificing his own happiness and life to follow an oath sworn by a man almost five hundred years ago. He is a man clearly marked by what he does with his life, something we have never seen before or after this series. This is perhaps the only take on the Phantom to be far more concerned with the man behind the mask than seeing the legend from an “outside” perspective. Though I am not sure if it was the creators’ intention, they made a series about what it means to be the Phantom and what such a heavy burden can do with a person, something that nobody has really succeeded at since (Egmont’s Year One stories kind of tried, but ultimately collapsed under the weight of unforgivable continuity problems).

This Phantom was, by Verheiden’s own admission, slightly angrier than the one seen in the comic strip, but given the gritty tone of the series and the realism of the situations The Man Who Cannot Die faces here, it’s absolutely appropriate. The charming, funny Phantom of the early Falk stories would not really work in this kind of setting, and Verheiden knows it.

It’s strange that despite coming out twenty years ago, these stories still feel like the most modern adventures told with the Phantom. Falk stories became increasingly more concerned with the Phantom fighting problems straight from the headlines as the mastermind got older, and both Egmont and Moonstone have made an effort to make their respective universes more up-to-date and realistic of late (which I applaud), yet none of them have managed to feel quite as REAL as what Verheiden and McDonnell managed. The reason might be that both companies still have one foot in the camp of classic Phantom stories, with pirates with scimitars, eye-patches and really bad hair, evil witch-doctors, countless hidden civilizations popping up again and again in Bengalla, and so on. Verheiden pretty much threw out these types of elements, and placed the Ghost Who Walks in the most believable Africa I’ve ever seen depicted in a comic (despite taking place in a country you won’t find on any map, of course). Gone are the slightly over-the-top villains we see frequently, this Phantom fights enemies that might not even be evil when all things are considered. Gone are the Singh Brotherhood, in its place we get the kind of pirates that we read about in the newspapers right now: real people committing terrible, cowardly crimes, real evil. Antagonists have more shades of grey than the sometimes black and white villains found in Falk and Egmont comics: some of them are not really bad at all, but act the way they do out of what is expected of them. A prime example of this is the captain who commits toxic dumping in Bengalla in the story Waste, which according to an interview done by Friends of the Phantom is Verheiden’s favourite of his own Phantom stories.

Waste also happens to be this writer’s favourite of the bunch, and if I were to make a top 10 list of the all time best Phantom stories (I probably will, so watch this space) this would surely be on it somewhere. It is certainly the most moving story ever crafted with the character (though Donne Avenell and Hans Lindahl’s masterpiece Eden gives it real competition), and I remember shedding a tear while reading the ending for the first time, around a decade ago. A haunting tale of a poor father trying to support his family by driving the poison that eventually ends up killing his own son, it has a maturity and honesty to it that assures that even if you only read it once you will never forget it.

The excellent two-parter Hate, on the other hand (Verheiden seems to have a thing for one-word titles), is the first ever story to make Kit confront his past in the US, as he travels back to the peaceful town he spent many happy years in to find out things have changed for the worse, with a group of racists terrorizing black inhabitants. Once again we get scarily believable villains; these people could be your neighbours. This is probably among the Phantom stories I’ve read the most times in my life, its impact and message of tolerance always powerful. It also has a moral that I try to live by to this day: do not judge people because of the colour of their skin, sexual preferences, etc., judge them by their character.

The only bizarre element is that US authority clearly knows very well who the normally mysterious Phantom is, and gives him permission to do whatever it takes to clean up the mess created by the antagonists. Maybe they knew him from reading the Phantom comic strip in their local papers?

The series’ best villain is easily British arms dealer Cammel, appearing in the two-part story that appeared in issues 1 and 2, Guns. Wicked, nasty and generally despicable in every way, he’s the kind of villain you wish would show up in that great Phantom movie we will likely never get. His ”I don’t care about what my actions do to people as long as I benefit from it” attitude is one found everywhere bad things happen in this world.

Like so many of Lee Falk’s stories, this is a very romantic take on the Phantom. The writing really makes the reader feel that Kit and Diana are destined to be together, and Verheiden adds a sense of melancholia not found in the newspaper strip: Kit knows that he could possibly have been even happier with Diana if he didn’t have to follow his family legacy. This is a take that focuses heavily on the darker aspects of being the Ghost Who Walks, and Diana Palmer is here shown as the light in Mr. Walker’s at times dark existence.

The story in issue 7, Gold Fever! (which deals with the cheery subject of death), ends with a lovely three-panel sequence of Diana walking towards a clearly shaken Phantom, putting her hand on his shoulder with him gratefully putting his left hand (with the Good Mark ring prominently displayed) on top of hers. No dialogue is needed, the sequence perfectly illustrates their relationship without a single word uttered.

Mark Verheiden’s words frequently feel like poetry, with beautifully constructed sentences and a real sense of depth. While too many comics that prominently features the lead character’s internal monologues end up pretentious, pointless and downright laughable by not really adding anything to the story and being poorly written, Verheiden never falls into these traps. The Phantom’s thoughts really add depth to the tales being told, and usually have some kind of relevance to the plot. Issue 3’s superb adventure Pirates is a great example of this, as it shows Mr. Walker’s disdain for this breed of criminal better than any other Phantom story by connecting the chilling story of a modern day pirate with the 21st Phantom reminiscing about something as normal as going to the movies with his father, to see a movie featuring, yes indeed, pirates.

McDonnell’s artwork matches the prose perfectly, giving the book a moody, gritty and almost sketch-like look unlike anything I have seen before or since in comics. I really like the body language he gave the character, his Phantom moves in a way different than other interpretations. Like he should, this Ghost Who Walks looks terrifying when angry, and like somebody you’d trust and respect when he isn’t.

Some of the book’s best and most memorable illustrations are not found in the action scenes. My favourites are the stunningly beautiful, intimate scenes of Kit and Diana together at Eden, where the terrific script is brought to life in a way reminiscent of a beautifully shot feature film. Marvellous stuff.

A minor nitpick is the fact that the colourist arguably gave the purple costume much too light a colour (a colour more like the one seen in recent Moonstone stories would have been far more appropriate for a series as realistic as this one).

The series finished with issue 13 (according to Verheiden because of dropping sales and licencing issues), which ended beautifully with the Phantom and Diana’s marriage. I would have loved to see at least another year’s worth of stories, but hey, that’s life, and the US just isn’t as big a market for the Phantom as the rest of the world.

Verheiden has since moved on to become a successful writer for both film and TV, working on hit-movies such as The Mask, Timecop, the upcoming Teen Titans and Quartermain (starring Sam Worthington, who was at one point rumoured to be starring in the now likely dead The Phantom Legacy), as well as two films starring and directed by Bruce Campbell (who thankfully lost out on the title role of The Phantom to one Billy Zane) My Name is Bruce and the recently announced Bruce VS Frankenstein (the greatest title in motion picture history? Maybe).

He has also executive-produced TV-shows such as Heroes, Smallville and most importantly, the remake of Battlestar Galactica, the best work of fiction this writer had the pleasure of following last decade. Mouthwateringly, the man was also in talks to write what eventually became the 1996 Phantom movie. I can only imagine how much better the picture would have ended up being then.

McDonnell has continued to illustrate comics, among them Batman, and he also designs toys and figures, among them a beautiful, and these days very rare, Phantom figure that was released in the early 90s. He also revisited the Phantom in another way, drawing a superb, haunting cover for Friends of the Phantom’s Lee Falk memorial issue.

It goes without saying I would kill to see them both creating Phantom stories again one day, as, the world of the Ghost Who Walks would be an even richer and more complex place for it.

Thanks to Ed Rhoades (www.edrhoades.com/phantom), whose wonderful Friends of the Phantom magazines allowed me to find some of the information used in this article.

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