In 1980 Norman Worker and Kari Leppanen began a trilogy of stories featuring the First Phantom that began with a tale of the origins of the "Phantom" name and ended with one of the greatest battles in military history - the Siege of Malta.
Encompassing The Treasure from Rhoads (Fantomen 6/1980, Frew #1734), Duel in Venice (Fantomen 9/1986, Frew #937 & 1741) and The Battle on Malta (Fantomen 10/1986, Frew #938, 1125 & 1742), having read the original Frew publications of Duel and Battle when I was but a young phan, this "Malta Trilogy" is one that had always stuck with me. So, when I met my now-girlfriend and she told me of her Maltese heritage I, of course, excitedly told her about these Phantom stories. Smiling, she promised me that she would show me around Malta some day and that we'd follow in the First Phantom's footsteps. Well, I've recently returned from that very journey.
For those who came in late, Malta is an archipelago located just off the coast of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea. It has one of the most coloured histories of perhaps any country in the world. While Battle on Malta focuses on the Ottoman invasion of the island in 1565 the country has actually been invaded many, many times from the First Punic War of 264BC through to World War II when the country was heavily bombed by Nazi forces. The reason for all this turmoil, and this is true for the battles seen in Worker and Leppanen's trilogy, is that the island sits in a hugely tactically adventitious location.
In the first part of the trilogy we see the First Phantom's cousin, Simon, tasked by the Grand Master of the Order of the Nights of St. John to find their lost treasure. This treasure sadly is a fictional creation of Worker and clearly a device in order to get the First Phantom into the mix. However, as most of you probably know the Order was indeed a real organisation created around 1023. A Catholic military order, their purpose was to provide medical aid to those coming from the Holy Land and they did indeed operate from Rhoads, over which they had sovereignty. While not named in the story, the Grand Master at this time was probably Juan de Homedes y Coscon.
At the conclusion of the story the Phantom dons a suite of armour of the Knights to do battle with the Suliman the Cruel, the fictional villain of the piece. After Suliman's defeat both the First Phantom and Simon are knighted. Notable here is the accuracy with which Leppane illustrates the armour of the Knights, matching it almost exactly to its real world counterpart.
Duel in Venice is where things really start to kick off, however. While the animosity between the First Phantom, Henri and his mother is all of course fictional, the background of the Siege of Malta is very much based upon fact. Fort St. Elmo was the first to fall to the Ottomans, as depicted in the story. The story states that by the 19th of June, 1565 St. Elmo was in ruins, but in fact it was more likely to have been earlier that month that the fort was destroyed. On the 27th of May, the Ottoman army bombarded the Fort with three dozen guns for a week straight, all but reducing it to rubble. Even so, then Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette, who was 70 at the time, ordered the surviving troops to stay in the Fort until, on the 23rd of June, the Ottoman army finally took it, killing all who remained inside.
From here the action moves onto the final days of the Siege, with the First Phantom joining the battle at Fort St. Angelo in Battle on Malta. While not much of the actual Fort is shown in the comic, the real life structure is incredibly impressive. Covering an area of 140,000 square feet it was originally built during medieval times as a castle and then rebuilt by the Knights as a bastioned fort and served as their headquarters during the Siege. In an interesting side note, the Fort was garrisoned by the British from 1800 to 1979 as a stone frigate which they referred to as HMS Egmont.
As depicted in the story, Fort St. Angelo held out against the invaders although the First Phantom is mortally wounded in the fighting. At this moment in reality backup from Sicilian soldiers arrived, falling on the retreating Ottoman soldiers and slaughtering them. Malta had survived the invasion both in Worker's story and in real life. The Ottomans never again attempted to invade Malta.
The Siege of Malta is a fascinating period of history, made even more so because of our hero's part in it. Many of the areas mentioned in the Worker's Malta trilogy can still be visited today, and many of the characters were actual people. Malta is a place covered in history, there is not a corner of the island nation you can turn around that does not have some important link to the past.
Present Day Fort St. Elmo
Present Day Fort St. Angelo