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A Very Phantom Christmas

With the publication of issue #28 of The Phantom in December this year, Regal Publications of India have launched their first Christmas-themed issue with a wonderfully fun and festive cover image from artist Ankit Mitra.

This marks the very first time an Indian publisher has used a Christmas theme for one of their Phantom books and for mine, raises a very interesting question. We will get to that soon. Meanwhile...


It may be a new concept in India, but Christmas issues are not exactly new to the world of Phantom comics. Indeed, some Phantom readers around the world have started to have actually become expectant of Christmas covers, as they have become increasingly common over the past few years.


So in the spirit of the season, let's have a look around the world, back through the decades, and explore The Phantom's relationship with Christmas!

 

Keen Phantom historians and collectors will know that the longest continuously running Phantom publication in the world is colloquially known as the Fantomen Christmas album, which has been released annually since 1944. However this Swedish volume is released each Christmas and only each Christmas; it's not a Christmas-themed book – if we can follow that difference.


What is less well known is that in fact before that first Fantomen book had even been considered, the Phantom had already featured on the cover of a Christmas Special comic book, and in a Christmas setting no less!

It seems that the first publishers to recognise the Christmas season on the cover of their books was O Globo, the Brazilian producers of Almanaque de O Globo Juvenil. Their first ever Christmas special "Youth Almanac", published in December 1941, features the Phantom in an understated but clearly identifiable Christmas scene; an unknown artist has depicted all the characters from the O Globo comic strip universe smiling at a plain Christmas tree in the centre of the page. Remarkably, this is only five years after Lee Falk began the strip!


It would be 1948 before the Phantom appeared on the cover of this Brazilian annual special again, then again in 1952, 1958 and 1959, when The Phantom stories actually started appearing in the internal contents. With Santa and other Christmas tropes featuring heavily, there seems little doubt that the South American publishers O Globo lay very strong claim to the title of "First Phantom Christmas cover".



Meanwhile in his home country of America, the Phantom first appeared in a Christmas book in 1946. Interestingly, this was not a comic book: it was a copy of Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol. Published by King Features Syndicate, the volume was apparently used as a promotional tool for the company as, apropos of nothing, the inside front cover features an image of the Phantom joining the rest of the King Features cast gathering around a table for a Christmas meal, resplendent with tree and presents in the background.


As far as we can tell the first European publishers to recognise the Christmas season in any way on the cover of their books was Interpresse, the Danish producers of Fantomet.

Their December 1975 edition, issue #57, decorated the title of the book with a frosting or recent snowfall. The connection of course is that Denmark has a white Christmas, so this could really just be a "winter" cover more than a Christmas one. However from the following year, there could be no doubt regarding Fantomet (Denmark) being the next Phantom publisher to incorporate Christmas elements or artwork on the cover of their books.


From 1976, new editor Marianne Zivadinov ensured that the December edition of Fantomet (Denmark) went one step further with the title featuring a Santa hat, most amusingly in 1977 and 78 when it was being worn by the cartoon skull in the O of the text in Interpresse's new title font. No other reference to the season though, without so much as a "Glædelig Jul" [Merry Christmas] or a "Godt Nytår" [Happy New Year].


After a quiet spell with no Christmas references in their December 1979-80 issues, Fantomet (Denmark) released their most Christmassy Phantom cover with Fantomet #176. Marianne brought back the frosted title text, and the anonymous artist depicts a jovial Phantom riding Hero through a light snow fall, with a snowman in the inset pic. The words "Extra Jules Fjas!" [Extra Christmas Fun!] are prominently emblazoned in bold lettering too. However, we have returned to no overtly Christmas artistic elements.



Given that during this period the internal contents of Denmark's Fantomet were largely a re-printing of the Fantomet magazine from Norway, it is possible that they were also using Norwegian covers. However, a search of the amazing phantomwiki.org resource suggests that the Danes were developing their own covers through the timeframe, distinct from the Norwegian designs. None of the exactly corelating Norwegian issues have cover images uploaded to the wiki for us to be able to confirm these particular covers.


That said, it is absolutely worth noting that during the tenure of editor Petter Engbo the December issues of Fantomet (Norway) from 1981-1983 each included a supplement of four "God Jul" [Merry Christmas] cards. That said, these cards are happy Phantom scenes with "God Jul" text overlaid, rather than festive Christmas themed scenes as such.


The first time we actually see the Phantom drawn in a Christmas style in Scandinavia was the supplementary set of "God Jul" cards that accompanied Fantomen #25/1986.

It appears that Jaime Vallvé had a bit of fun creating these cheery images of Diana and the Phantom in festive attire. These were not accompanied by any type of Christmas cover on the actual comic book, and seem to have been a one-off for the Swedish publisher with no similar cards coming with other December issues of the Fantomen magazine. It would seem that this was the last time the Phantom got Christmassy in Europe!


In Australia, Phantom comic books titled or labelled as Christmas Specials emerged in the 1990s, with full Christmas-themed covers a much more recent development of theirs, but one that has been gathering some momentum. Frew Publications began embracing the trend under the watch of Jim Sheppard in 1992.

Issue #1030 was the first copy of The Phantom to be headed with the words Christmas Special, beginning an annual tradition of Frew finishing their calendar year with an end-of-year bumper Christmas Special. These books are typically around 100 pages with 3-5 stories.


1993 was the first time a date was added to the words Christmas Special. A sprig or two of holly appeared as decoration for the 1994 iteration, then Jim really stepped it up for the cover of #1123 in 1995, adding a small inset of Santa with sunglasses. Mr Walker dressing as an “ordinary Christmas man”, perhaps? From 1996 to 1998 the effect was less subtle, with the inset featuring a Phantom wearing a Christmas cap.



Issue #1248, released as a Christmas Edition in 1999, marked the first time in 40 years that a Phantom comic book featured a genuine and complete Christmas cover, with both text and artistic elements deliberately evoking all the festive spirit of the season.


Frew used a panel from Ray Moore’s iconic Christmas Day strip from Daily story #4 Little Toma (25 December 1937*). Proving it truly a Christmas cover and not just a coincidental advert for the contents: the story Little Toma did not even appear in that issue!


Without knowing why or what feedback Frew may have received regarding this cover, the following year we saw a reversion back to a simply titled Christmas Special (or occasionally, Edition), with no artistic Christmas elements at all. Suddenly, and despite what had seemed a decade-long build up, other than those words up the top there was nothing particularly Christmassy about the covers of these still bumper end-of-year issues from 2000 right through to the end of the Sheppard era in 2014.

Interestingly, it was actually American publication Comics Revue that released the next comic to use a cover that featured the Phantom in a Christmas scene, when Jim Keefe had Phantom and Hero riding out from behind the tree as part of their then one-off Christmas-themed cover in 2013 (#331-332).


Back in Australia, the new Frew Crew continued the Christmas Special tradition in their first December release in 2015 (#1744). Changes were made internally from 2016, as they pivoted the contents so that the now-institutional 100-page issue became a colour collection run of recent newspaper stories.


On top of that, a little bit of holiday spirit returned to the cover! When we asked, publisher Dudley Hogarth told us, "In 2016 responding to feedback from Phans I asked for a bit of Christmas on the cover and got a sprig of holly applied to the Frew logo."

And then, all of a sudden, Frew were all in!


In 2017 and 2018, with Massimo Gamberi’s festive “Phantom on Hero with Christmas Sack of Phantom Goodies” (#1800) launched the idea of a Christmas cover into a new stratosphere. Following that in 2018 with Jeff Weigel’s whimsical “Ugly Sweater” (#1828), Frew were now offering their readers Christmas covers with bells on.



Frew subscribers even got a little more touch of merriness in 2017, when their envelopes arrived with a bonus gift of a Sal Velluto postcard depicting the Phantom enjoying a very Aussie Christmas.


We were back to just the title Christmas Special for 2019 and 2020 – albeit with that little dash of Christmas spirit on the Frew logo again. "The cover artists were given the internal stories but had not been briefed that we wanted a Christmas theme, so we were back to adding sprigs of holly," explains Dudley.


In 2021, they returned to placing a Christmas-themed cover under the tree for phans, as Glenn Lumsden provided the cheers on #1908 with Phantom and Santa sharing a nice cold milk, and have shown clear intent in following it up this year, in #1934.


Dudley seems excited about continuing this more recent trend and plans to make it a tradition: "This year's cover by Giancarlo Caracuzzo is also a Christmas theme and I'm hopeful that from now on they will all be. Merry Christmas to you all!"


Meanwhile Comics Revue also returned to including the Phantom as part of a Christmas-themed cover for their 2020 and 2021 end-of-year issues, both created by Jeremy Macpherson. They have stepped away from the practice in 2022, with a wedding scene advertising that classic featured story.



However as mentioned from the outset, Regal Publications has jumped on board the Christmas issue sleigh ride this year with Ankit’s classic Christmas holiday feel. Regal have been publishing titles under the banner of a "Christmas Special" since 2020, but for the first time have added a cheery scene on the front cover.


Now what struck me – and this is my interesting question from much earlier, patient reader – is that a Christmas theme is surely an unusual one for the region. The most recent census of India (2011) tells us that a mere 2.3% of the population are Christian. With a predominantly Hindu and Muslim population, India does not particularly celebrate this Christian holiday, not even in a commercial secular fashion. Nor would you think that Regal readers would particularly be drawn to a Christmas theme.

However, it seems that the publisher sees things differently. You see, in recent years more and more Indian readers have had access to Frew issues through subscriptions and the like. And Indian readers like colour comics. So, the issues featuring a colour collection run of recent newspaper stories have been a hit. And, those issues have had Christmas themed covers.


Could this be a thing? Have Indian phans begun to associate Christmas covers with quality Phantom comic books? Possibly. Will The Phantom bring Christmas to the subcontinent?!?


It could also just possibly be that Regal is mindful of potential Australian sales (issues available through Frew's website) and are hoping this issue might be more popular among those buyers. Either way, the proof will be in the pudding and we'll have a fair indication if they do it again next year!


Whatever happens, it’s all a bit of fun and festive way for the Phantom to let his hair down after another long and brutal year fighting roughnecks and battling cruelty. And what’s wrong with that?


Merry Phantoming to us all!


 

* Side bar #1: Ray Moore’s Christmas panels in Little Toma are actually a complete anomaly, written by Lee Falk solely for the purpose of being published on Christmas Day 1937. As you can see from that weeks' strips below, the 25 December strip is completely out of context and contributes nothing to the continuity of the story. It is, however, irrepressibly charming.


Far more thoughtfully written is Paul Ryan’s sequence from Daily story #224 Justice for the Python, as Tony De Paul simply sets the closing actions of that story to take place over Christmas Day 2008.


 

** Side bar #2: Phans with long memories might ask about a story where the Phantom dressed as Santa to catch a murderer dressed as Santa? Didn't that have a Christmas cover??


Well, that is debatable.


A Team Fantomen story with that plot certainly exists. Murder in the Eyes, written by Tony De Paul and illustrated by Kari Lappanan, was first published in December 1994 in Sweden (Fantomen #25/1994). Frew published a English language version in January 2007 (#1466).


However, looking at the covers by Christer Thunborg and Antonio Lemos respectively, I'm not sure we could call them a genuine Christmas cover, at least not in the fun and festive sense!

 

Many thanks to Jermayn Parker, Frank Borg and Harmony Gates for their research assistance.


Phantomwiki.org and ThePhantom.fan were invaluable sources for this piece.

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