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The Ghost and the Machine

Does a ghost need technology? JD takes a look at technology in The Phantom’s world.

The internet. Television. Digital media and penicillin.

All things that, in today’s world, are taken completely for granted. It wasn’t that long ago that television was seen as evil, penicillin as a dangerous drug. Heck, in your parents (or perhaps your grandparents) day rock and roll was the music of the Devil. As the world grows older and more sophisticated, so does its technologies. Society is built upon and gauged by the power of its technology, even an individual’s place in that society depends on what gadgets and gizmos they possess. A man with an MP3 player is quite hip, where as the man down the road still lugging around a Walkman is considered old school. In a world built upon and fascinated by technology, isn’t it only natural that our comic heroes would also move with the times?

Although The Phantom has always been set in the time of which the strip/comic was written, technology seems to be one aspect of the world the Ghost Who Walks doesn’t have a handle on. In even the most recent of stories, the Phantom still has that huge “talking box” set up in the Skull Cave. Surely, he would receive better coverage and service, (not to mention greater convenience), if he set himself up with a satellite phone? Why not use satellite internet with an encrypted e-mail account for contacting the Jungle Patrol rather than traipse up and down the poisoned well all the time?

The idea of modern technology in a Phantom story is one of controversy. On one hand, some Phans feel that a modern hero should be equipped with modern technologies. On the other, other Phans seem opposed to the idea of a “teched-up” Phantom and would rather see him clamber up and down that well. The Poisoned Well is probably not a good example in the “new vs old” argument as it has been a staple of Phantom mythos for as long as any Phans can remember and some things should not be changed. Hitting a “send” button just isn’t anywhere near as cool. This seems to be where much of the fear of a techno-Phantom comes from – the fear that adding technology to the story will eliminate many of the classic aspects of the character and his mythology. But, would this actually happen?

Phans who are pro-technology argue that it is simply common sense to outfit the Phantom with a few modern gadgets. In the Marvel three-issue mini-series, which came out in 1996, the 22nd Phantom sported an almost completely re-designed costume. It was made from Kevlar body armour, had infrared lenses in the mask, as well as a device in the costumes’ wristbands that allowed the Phantom to hack safe combinations.

While the safe-hacker might be going a little too far (the smallest ones in real life are the size of a brick) the armour and infrared do make sense. The Phantom is regularly shot at, hazards of the job. Surely, it’s only common sense to have as much protection as possible. Body armour would also strengthen the legend of The Man Who Cannot Die. If a villain shoots the Phantom in the chest and our hero barely flinches, imagine the impression that’s going to be made. Add to that the fact that one of the Phantom’s favourite tricks is to turn off the lights and take out enemies under cover of darkness and you can see where the infrared lenses would come in handy.

…does it change the Phantom’s character? While some would argue that it doesn’t (that technology would simply give our hero an extra “leg up” over the villains) others would argue that yes, it does change the character considerably. With the “traditional” Phantom, we put his ability to see in the dark and come out of a firefight unscathed down to his years of jungle training – something that no other comic hero has. Wouldn’t such technologies as those mentioned above destroy the need for that training and make him just another muscle-bound guy in purple tights?

If the Phantom’s jungle training defines him wouldn’t technologies that basically provide these abilities without the training completely defeat the purpose of the Phantom in the first place – that of a jungle bred hero? If they did, however, the character would still retain his legacy so would it in fact be that great a decimation of the hero?

So what of technology in the field? In a world where digital crime is escalating rapidly, should the Phantom not have access to computers, the internet and databases? Should he perhaps not have knowledge of computer tech and wizardry along the lines of programming, hacking and encryption to help him in his fight against evil?

2006 Frew #1442

In the recent story Death In Cyberspace (Frew #1442); the Phantom is thrust into a digital world not dissimilar to that found in The Matrix. The same rules seem to apply – reality can be bent and twisted as the user sees fit. While this is a very new style of story for The Phantom, it is not one out of sync with today’s world. People are able to build digital environments that are limited only by their imaginations.

One needs only to look at the video games such as the fantasy series and its fantastical, yet quite possible worlds. Games recently released on Microsoft’s new console the X-Box 360 show how closely that digital reality mirrors our world. When you consider that only ten or fifteen years ago Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Brothers were the hottest games on the shelf you can see how fast digital reality has progressed.

As anyone how has read the manga Ghost In The Shell or seen the film based upon it will know people are beginning to notice how much digital reality is taking the place of “real” reality. In these stories, reality and the digital world intertwine at every juncture, sometimes indistinguishably so. More and more we hear of people having digital experiences – digital meetings, digital concerts, digital television, digital radio, digital dating, even digital sex. It is not uncommon today for people to have a digital relationship that leads to marriage and a life together. In a world that ventures into the digital realm so often, is it not acceptable for a comic hero such as The Phantom to expand on such them

1995 Marvel - Phantom 2040

Even considering the above, as well as society’s shift toward digital entertainment and digital living, the question remains – does a Phantom exploring and having digital experiences stay true to the character Lee Falk created some 70 years ago?

Some would say no, others would argue that it is a natural evolution of a character who has always reflected his audience and the world they live in.

The Phantom is actually quite problematic when trying to move him into a technologically dominated age. While other heroes such as Iron Man and Spider-Man lend themselves well to such themes, (they both have something of a sci-fi quality) the Phantom has always been very much a pulp hero. A character that was created in the more “innocent” time of the 1930s perhaps does not segue as easily to a digital world.

Pulp heroes are generally detectives, mysterious “old school” heroes, not techno babbling demi-Gods such as Neo fromThe Matrix.

1995 Marvel #1

The most technologically advanced we have seen the Phantom was in the animated series Phantom 2040. As with the Marvel mini-series, many of the hero’s gadgets made perfect sense. He’s known as The Ghost Who Walks so an invisibility suit is not only a nice stealth device, but also it’s really going to play up that legend. The best aspect of however was that it proved there is a place for the Phantom in a futuristic, technology driven world. In the series, the Phantom fought for environmental preservation against the backdrop of the evil Madison Empire and its industrial filth.

Perhaps the best course to take is that of compromise, such as Moonstone has done in their Phantom stories. Moonstone’s Phantom is obviously a modern day hero, the themes of Moonstone’s books dealing with modern day life such as the world’s current fear of terrorism. The technology of Moonstone’s books is unmistakably modern day with the most high tech equipment we’ve seen coming in the form of gliding suits used by the Sky Band in Ben Raab’s The Aviatrix. However, suits similar to this do exist in today’s world. Moonstone has kept the Phantoms pulp quality, the hero has yet to use any teched up gizmos himself. He remains as dashing, handsome, adventurous and heroic (not to mention cheeky) as in any Falk tale and it works perfectly in a contemporary 2006 setting.

Perhaps a techno-Phantom is something we will see one day when technology again jumps to amazing heights. Perhaps digital reality does have its place in Phantom stories. As time goes on, the Phantom will progress with it, as he’s always done.

When our own technology amazes us every single day, imagine how amazing the stories based upon it could be.

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