It’s an argument we’ve heard before, but a recent article appearing on FirstPost.com has brought it back into light; The Phantom is racist. The article, by Nisha Susan, tells us how she can no longer read the once entertaining comic strip due to the racist overtones which young minds miss but more mature minds understand. Susan explains that in a nostalgic mood she picked up a hardcover collection of classic The Phantom strips and upon sitting down to enjoy them she found she could not get through a single issue because it was “so terrible.”
The source of her horror is the aforementioned racism Susan perceived in the strip’s content. She mentions that Bengalla was originally supposed to be part of India before being moved to Africa. While this is true it’s something of a simplification of events. In The Singh Brotherhood from 1936 it’s clearly stated that the Phantom lives on the island of Luntok off the coast of Sumatra. Not long after it is moved to being off the coast of Java. However, after this Lee Falk started to bring in more and more suggestion that Bengalla was actually an African nation until, in 1964 with the story The Reef, this is confirmed when Diana writes a letter to the Phantom with the address "Mr. Kit Walker, Box 7, Morristown, Bengali, Africa".
So what’s all of this location hopping got to do with racism in The Phantom? Well, Susan seems to suggest in her article that Falk went out of his way to make the Phantom lord it over a specific group of peoples. This is of course not the case. It’s very probable that once Falk realised that his original plan of having Jimmy Wells being the Phantom was too obvious he hurriedly tried to find an exotic location for his then unknown hero to come from. While India may have sounded more exotic to Falk in the 1930s and 40s than Africa, it was probable he actually knew more about Africa hence all the African-like imagery seen in the strip and the eventual relocation
Of course, the idea of a white man being “lord” to an “ignorant” black people is something that The Phantom can easily be accused of and, honestly, it is not entirely without merit. Early in the strip’s history the native tribes of Bangalla did indeed see the Phantom as the “ruler” of the jungle. However, any fear or respect they had of him did not come from the fact that he was white, but rather that they thought (apart from the Bandar, of course) that he was some kind of supernatural entity, a “man who can not die.”
Of course story-based arguments for these racist undertones can ring hollow, but one must remember this; the strip was created in 1936. The 1930’s was a very different time in nearly every respect, possibly none more so than racial tolerance. This was the time of the Great Depression and racial violence was a very real thing in Falk’s native America. African-Americans were still being treated as less than equal to Caucasians in almost every corner. Even here in Australia such things were going on with the White Australia Policy lasting until 1973 and the Aboriginal people still being classified as “flora and fauna” until the National Referendum in 1967.
The above is not to say that Falk himself took part in any racial violence or agreed with such terrible acts - indeed many stories would suggest that he was quite a progressive thinker - however it does give the context in which these stories were created. While the earliest depiction of native Africans may seem distasteful by today's standards, The Phantom was one of the few comic strips to show black people in any kind of meaningful way. Yes, they may have thought of the Phantom as their “lord” but they were strong, independent characters within their own right, many times they were shown saving the Phantom.
The depiction of black characters in The Phantom is arguably much more favourable than in other strips of
the time. A good example of this is the character of Ebony While from Will Eisner’s The Spirit, which is considered to be a seminal comics work. Ebony is very much a characterisation of what 1940’s America regarded as “negro.” The huge lips, big eyes, small stature (although he was supposed to be a young boy) was basically a comic book version of the blackface comedians who were popular at the time. When criticised on the depiction of Ebony later in life, Eisner had said he tried to represent the character “responsibly”. “At the time humour consisted in our society of bad English and physical difference in identity," said Eisner.
What Eisner is suggesting here is that in creating Ebony he was reacting to what the popular idea of an African-American was at the time he created the strip. One must remember that many of the comic strips of the time were outsourced to various production houses. The creation of The Spirit was a direct reaction to the then booming comic book market with Eisner being commissioned by newspaper mogul Everett M. "Busy" Arnold who wanted a comics feature in his Sunday papers. Because of this Eisner had to, in some ways, adhere to the popular tastes of the time regardless of his own feelings towards them. Given this, it is easy to see that Ebony is very much a product of his time, a way to ensure that the majority of readers would understand who and what the character was. Commercial papers didn’t want readers to have to think - indeed they wanted easy consumable entertainment and thought of comics as nothing but - thus even if Eisner did not agree with this depiction of Ebony he probably would have been forced to do it anyway.
While we don’t have any proof in the matter, it’s very arguable that Lee Falk perhaps felt the same way in creating the Bandar. He wanted the Phantom to exist in an exotic location and to 1930s America “exotic” meant “savage.” The Phantom was created at the request of King Features Syndicate after Mandrake the Magician was such a success so it is not unreasonable to think Falk was in a similar situation to Eisner.
Even with these racist undertones Susan seems to ignore the fact that some very interesting things happened in The Phantom. The opening strips of The Singh Brotherhood does not even show the hero but rather Diana Palmer beating a man in a boxing match. The fact that a female character laid out a male character with a well placed crack to the jaw is a pretty big thing for the 1930’s, a time when a woman’s place was still in the kitchen or as a secretary. The strength of Falk’s female characters and the advancements they made can not be understated, paving the way for many more strong female characters to come. Still later in the strip, once Falk had established Bengalla in a more defined manner, the world received its first African President in Lamanda Luaga. Even the Bandar, whom Susan seems to take most issue with, were, after a time, presented as very loyal friends to the Phantom rather than his “subjects”. Guran is shown as being the Phantom’s childhood friend in Childhood of The Phantom, having gone to America with him when he was young. The two grew up together and it was Guran who informed the Phantom of his father’s murder. For all intents and purposes the Phantom and Guran are brothers, equal in importance to the people of the jungle.
While the strip of course did still have black villains , such as the dreaded General Bababu, the vast majority of villains in The Phantom have always been white. Whenever something goes wrong in the jungle and the Phantom investigates, nine out of ten times the tribes will tell him “white men” were responsible.
It is interesting that Susan calls out Friends and How I Met Your Mother for racism and other prejudices but seems to be okay with these. I’m not a fan of bad American comedy so I can not really comment on these shows themselves, however, one has to wonder why she is so offended by The Phantom and not these sitcoms. As they are more modern should they not be even more harshly criticised than The Phantom for their prejudices, having come from a more “enlightened” time? Why is one media allowed to get off the hook while another isn’t? Perhaps it is because Susan was more invested in The Phantom due to her childhood memories of the strip, but then if one is invested wouldn’t one try to understand?
While Susan’s arguments that The Phantom is racist may have some validity, I do not feel that it is as prevalent or indeed as intentional as she claims. The zeitgeist of 1930’s America was a lot less kind to African-Americans, and black people in general, than today’s (arguably) more informed times. Culture informs the media that is created within it, and that media is often a reflection of the culture. While The Phantom did, in time, challenge some of those ideas of 1930’s America, arguing that The Phantom is racist is the same as arguing that Agatha Christie probably shouldn’t have given her novel And Then There Were None the original title of Ten Little Niggers. Like Falk, Christie had no intention of the title being a racial slur as it instead refers to a blackface song - a part of her culture - which she uses as a plot point within the story.
In 2016 it is easy to judge these earlier works as being outwardly racist. However, we must remember that all art is a product of its time and culture and things that are considered normal or acceptable 80 years ago are very different from what is seen as such today.
So, to the main question; is The Phantom racist? Well, yes, it is, but only in the way that anyone who is ignorant to any kind of sensitivity can be inconsiderate. The racism that appears in the earliest stories of The Phantom do not come from a place of hate or discrimination, but rather a place of misinformation and cultural ignorance. But without this context, without the historic understanding of where The Phantom came from and what it did in its future to challenge those very ideas we can not appreciate why it was, and continues to be, such an important entry to comics history.