Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, September 19, 2014

FORGOTTEN BOOKS: THREE PHANTOM BOOKS

The Story of the Phantom
The Story of the Phantom #2:  The Slave Market of Mucar
The Story of the Phantom #3:  The Scorpia Menace
all by Basil Copper (1972)

When I was a kid I never really bothered with Lee Falk's comic strip character The Phantom.  After all, the guy had no superpowers (one reason why I didn't care for Batman, either), wore a skin-tight purple suit (although like the superheroes, he wore his underwear on the outside), and lived in a cave (Alley Oop wasn't one of my favorite characters either).  Hey, what did I know?  I was just a kid.

For those who aren't familiar with the character, the current Phantom is the 21st one.   Over 400 years ago, a young man was aboard with his father, a captain of a merchant ship, when the ship was attacked and destroyed by pirates, killing all aboard except for Kit, the young man.  Knocked overboard and more dead than alive, Kit washed ashore.  He was found by the Bandar, a feared jungle tribe of pygmies, and nursed back to health.  He then swore to devote his life to fighting "piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice," and that his children and his children's children will carry on the fight.  The Bandar eventually take Kit into the jungle to a large cave whose mouth resembled a skull.  Kit wore a costume and a mask to help inspire mystery and fear in pirates worldwide worked alone and no one saw his face.  He married and had a son and when he died his son took up the costume and his father's cause.  And so it went through the years, giving rise to the legend of The Ghost Who Walks, a centuries-old immortal avenger.  When he had to go out among the world, the Phantom adopted the name Kit Walker.

Which brings us to the 21st Phantom.  The Story of the Phantom was the first of fifteen novels published in paperback by Avon in the early Seventies.  Although credited to creator Lee Falk, the book was written by Basil Copper, who also wrote the next two books in the series.  Here we get the back story of the Phantom and meet Kit Walker as a young child, trained from birth to become the next Phantom.  Kit is sent to America to his aunt and uncle's home for schooling.  Accompanying him is Guran, a Bandar pygmy ten years older than the boy and Kit's best friend, who acts as a companion/bodyguard.  Civilization proves to be a strange place for the two and adjustments do not come easily, but soon Kit proves himself, rescuing a very young Diana Palmer and later becoming a star athelete in just about every sport imaginable.  The Story of the Phantom reads like every boy's fantasy.  Kit is the hero and the star; everything he does earns him the admiration of all around him.  He's just a regular fellow who is idolized.  He's the kid, who in real life, all the other kids would hate.
Kit begins a romance with Diana but it is cut short when he receives word that his father is dying and he must return home to Bengalla, a fictional African country.  (Originally, Bengalla was located in the jungles of India.  A number of changes were made in the comic strip over the years, including the spelling of the country.)

Which brings us to book #2, blurbed as "Lee Falk's original story" and written by an uncredited Copper.  Supposedly this was the 21st Phantom's first major adventure since the death of his father but it is clear from the narration that it is not.  (The original story was from a 1961 comic strip arc, twenty-four years after the strip began.)  Over the ages, the Phantom had brought justice to Bengalla, in part because of the Jungle Patrol that was formed by the first Phantom and was originally manned by reformed pirates.  The Phantom served as the anonymous Supreme Commander of the Jungle Patrol.  The Jungle Patrol has been concerned about recent escapes from an "escape-proof prison" located outside their boundaries.  Dozens of prisoners have escaped over the past few years and none were ever seen since.  Turns out that the warden of the prison has been taking the prisoners to The Slave Market of Mucar where he and the ruling prince have made a fortune selling the prisoners.  The Jungle Patrol has had little success in investigating the escapes until the Phantom himself gets involved.  Along with a young Patrolman, the Phantom eventually travels to Mucar to stop the entire operation.

In The Scorpia Menace things have changed.  (This one was is credited to Copper for adapting Falk's original story.)  Diana Palmer, her widowed mother, and her uncle now know the secret of the Phantom.  Diana is now an Olympic gold medalist in swimming and is gaining a reputation as an explorer.  Diana decides to take an evening class in ancient history at the local college to see if she can find out more about the Phantom (whose history can be consider somewhat ancient -- if you squint your eyes and look at it in an unlit room).  Diana decides to do a paper on the piracy that was rife when the first Phantom was created.  She uncovers a vast pirate organization that was known as Scorpia (a conflated version of the Singh Brotherhood which the comic strip Phantom battled), as well as indications that Scorpia continue to exist until about fifty years ago.

Because she is a socialite, Olympic champion, and a well-known explorer, Diana is interviewed by the local paper.  During the interview she mentions her research on Scorpia.  The story is picked up by a local television station.  Scorpia still exists and has been transformed into a world-wide (and secret) criminal organization.  As you can guess, local Scorpia agents learn of Diana's researches and are afraid of what else she may discover.  They warn Diana off, which (of course) does no good with one of Diana's pluck and grit.  They then kidnap Diana and make it appear that she died crashing her private plane into the ocean.  (Did I mention that she was an accomplished pilot?  I really didn't need to mention that, did I?)  Diana is flown to Scorpia Island, the world-wide headquarters of the organization.  There in Scorpia's stronghold, she comes face to face with the hereditary leader of Scorpia, who decides -- because of Diana's beauty, intelligence, and courage -- to marry her.  This covers the first sixty per cent of the book.  Finally the Phantom enters the stage.  On hearing of Diana's supposed death, he rushes to America and, on investigating, smells a rat.  It's not long before he heads off to find Scorpia Island and rescue his love.  Once again, The Ghost Who Walks faces the army that is Scorpia.

Not great literature and full of plot holes and inconsistencies, but I had great fun reading these three pulpish adventures.

Of the remaining books in the series, six were written by Ron Goulart under his "Frank S. Shawn" pseudonym, one was written by Bruce Cassidy as "Carson Bingham," one by Warren Shanahan, and the remaining four were credited to Falk.  Falk himself, continued to write the comic strip until days before his 1999 death, taking off his hospital oxygen mask to dictate the stories.

The Phantom continues today in the comic strip and in stories published by Moonstone Books.  A new Phantom movie is in the works and may actually be made.

Describing the Phantom, Lee Falk said, '''The Phantom' is a marvelous role model because he wins against evil.  Evil does not triumph against the Phantom...He hates dictatorship, and is in favor of democracy.  He is also opposed to any violation of human rights."

Now I'm kicking my stupid kid sensibilities.  I really should have followed the Phantom's adventures over the years.

5 comments:

  1. Much to my regret, the Phantom strips weren't carried in either of the two newspapers my family subscribed to. I knew about the Phantom, however, because the first thing I remember seeing in a movie theater was the Phantom serial. I didn't know about the new movie, but I thought the one with Billy Zane was great.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bill, I thought the Billy Zane movie was good, but not great. I hope they make the new one, though -- I'd see it in a heartbeat.

      Delete
  2. Jerry, I'm trying to figure out, from your post, if any of this is now in print or if these are old PBs, or what. Enlighten me, won't you?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Oh, I see, old paperbacks. Rats.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Richard, e-mail your mailing address to me at house_jerry@hotmail,com and I'll send these three along to you

    ReplyDelete