When one media is adapted into another it is not uncommon for something to be lost in translation. Obviously, each media has its strengths, something it does better than any other, and for comics their greatest strength is the visuals with which the reader is presented. When drawn by a talented artist there is no limit on what can be shown in the pages of a comic book and thus readers can be treated to some absolutely amazing imagery. So then, it might seem strange that in 1972 Avon Publications decided to commission a series of fifteen Phantom novels.
However, those that have read the novels which make up the Avon series have often remarked on their quality. While the books may not contain the powerful imagery of a Phantom comic (with the exception of the beautifully painted cover art by George Wilson) they still perfectly capture the spirit of the classic comic strips and books, in some cases even surpassing them.
Happily for those of us who may have missed the Avon novels in the 70’s or haven’t been able to track them all down on the secondary market Hermes Press has begun to release facsimile editions of the novels with the first two already in stores. While I’ve the second volume - The Slave Market of Mucar - sitting on my shelf ready to go, I thought I might take a moment to share a few thoughts on the first volume entitled The Childhood of The Phantom.
As the title of the book suggests, Childhood chronicles the life of the 21st Phantom from the moment of his birth all the way through to the day he took up the mantle of his father. We learn about his development in the Deep Woods, his adventures with Guran and the Pygmies, his hunting expeditions with his father and his impressions of the mighty Skull Cave. I’m sure that a lot of these are what inspired the events we saw in Kid Phantom recently.
Of particular note is young Kit’s education while living with his parents which often comes from stories told to him by his father about the adventures of past Phantoms. These are quite interesting points in the book as they act as stories within the story that give more weight to what Kit is experiencing. The early chapters feel almost like an anthology contained within the framework of a story about the young Phantom. This works rather well as each story is interesting and it is fun to read Kit’s reaction to them, but introduces a problem which I’ll come to later.
The book comes in at only 160 pages so most will be able to power through it in a week or so. Even with its relatively short length Falk is able to pack a lot of story in there. The book flies along at a nice pace with never too much of a break from the action (or the action of a child growing up at any rate). However, this short length and speedy narrative creates a problem in which many of the characters, even Kit himself, feel less than fleshed out. While Kit’s mother perhaps suffers the worst from this - we don’t learn much more about her than that she is beautiful - all feel very much like a 2D version of their fully fleshed out comic strip counterparts. This is a shame as the prose format would have allowed for some more in depth development of character than is often able in a comic strip.
Still, the situations the characters find themselves in - from Kit and Guran traveling to the US to the celebration of Kit Walker Day, something I found incredibly interesting - are a lot of fun. The novel may be an adaptation of the strip of the same name but (as far as I can remember, it’s been awhile since I read the strip) it is not an exact adaptation so there will be something new here if you’ve only ever read the strip.
While Childhood of The Phantom is an enjoyable read, I do not feel it is the best of the Avon novels. Due to the nature of the book’s subject there is not a heap of “traditional” Phantom action in there and people expecting an exciting, pulpy adventure might be left wanting a little bit. I think if this story had have been left for volume 3 or 4 it could arguably have gone over better as something of a refreshing change. However, I feel that it lacks the punch that the first entry in a series needs. But then, if you’re reading this article there’s a good chance you’ll be picking up Childhood of The Phantom regardless of what I say, if you haven’t done so already.