Kevin Patrick has turned his youthful enthusiasm into a scholarly endeavor. Patrick, author of “The Phantom Unmasked: America’s First Superhero,” is a Phantom fan from way back.
“I can blame that on a childhood obsession. Like most young Australian boys growing up in the 1970s, you just read “The Phantom.” It was just a thing you did. “The Phantom” comic book was just part of the wallpaper as an Australian kid growing up there,” Patrick said. “I think it was the second comic book I ever read, and I remember the issue vividly. It was a story called “The Diamond Hunters.” It was very dramatic, very atmospheric. It was set in the jungle. It just flicked the switch on in my 8-year-old brain.”
Patrick’s book investigates the huge success of The Phantom — a character created by Lee Falk in the 1930s in Australia, Sweden and India.
He also considers why the costume-clad character never captured the collective imagination in the United States. The book is published by the University of Iowa Press, which reached out to Patrick after seeing an article he had penned about The Phantom. The UI Press has expanded its offerings in the area of media fandom studies, and editors felt his research would be a good fit.
Patrick chalks up part of the character’s international appeal to his lack of actual superpowers. He is a sort of everyman in that respect.
He also thinks The Phantom aligns well with Australians’ conceptions of themselves.
“For Australian fans, in an odd sort of way, he embodied a lot of the values Australians like to think they possess,” he said. “He’s very low key under pressure, he smiles in the face of danger. But he’s also very much a champion of the underdog, what we would call the ‘battler’ in Australian slang.”
The character’s mysterious home — vaguely located for much of the history of The Phantom — also seemed tailor made for Australian audience.
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“I think the fact that he also lived in a kind of wilderness which alternated between a jungle landscape and a semi-mountainous desert region ... also appealed to Australians ... There’s a lot of geographic similarities which I think resonated with Australian readers for that reason, too.”
In some ways, The Phantom is reminiscent of Batman; indeed, Bob Kane, co-creator of Batman acknowledged The Phantom as an influence. But Patrick identifies a key difference between the characters.
“The Phantom is not explicitly connected to a distinctly American environment ... He lives in a kind of hybrid fantasy world. It could be Africa. It could be India. It could be Arabia. It could be Asia. He has in fact been located in all those different kinds of regions throughout the strip’s history.” Falk eventually settled on Africa as the strip’s setting in the late 1960s.
“But up until that point the compass shifted a good bit. And I think that kind of geographic flexibility — the fact that he could be in all these different places — I think meant that he was a more universal hero in a way that, say, Batman or Superman weren’t.”
The Phantom never found his footing in the United States. Patrick sites the delay in transforming the strip into a comic book format, which didn’t happen until the 1960s, and a glutted market in the character’s genre of adventure serial comics.
“I think The Phantom occasionally got lost in the thickets, as it were,” Patrick said. “There was a lot of competition there.”
There also is the question of the portrayal of race in the comic.
“I think for America, the basic premise of The Phantom — that is, an ostensibly white guardian figure reigning over a jungle kingdom somewhere in Africa — is problematic. And it’s probably always been problematic to varying degrees over time in the United States.”