The Ghost Who Walks is still going strong at 80

Murali Gopalan Mumbai | Updated on January 20, 2018

Lee Falk, creator of the popular cartoon characters, Mandrake the Magician and the Phantom. Photo: The Hindu Archives

It was a little over a fortnight ago when one of India’s favourite comic heroes turned 80. The Phantom made his global debut on February 17, 1936 but it was not until a good three decades later that he found his way to India in a full-fledged comic.

Indrajal Comics introduced the Phantom to its readers in March 1964. The first issue was The Phantom’s Belt priced at 60 paise then but can fetch a cool Rs 50,000 today if it is reasonably good condition. Prior to this, the Phantom was a popular comic strip in The Illustrated Weekly of India for years. In terms of recall, he was the best bet as a regular comic offering in India ahead of other iconic American brands like Superman and Batman.

Readers, of course, loved the masked hero whose home was in a skull cave deep within the jungle. His companions were a tribe of pygmy warriors better known for their poison arrows. They were the only ones who knew the Phantom was mortal in a lineage spanning 400 years. To evildoers, however, he was the Ghost Who Walks or the Man Who Cannot Die.

Phantom's close circle

The Phantom’s close circle also included his horse, Hero, and loyal wolf, Devil which accompanied him on trips across the world. The other integral part of his life was his sweetheart, Diana, who lived in the US and they took turns visiting each other. It took a good 40 years for this couple to finally walk the aisle after which the children followed with a tree house thrown in for good measure.

The generation growing up in India of the ‘60s just fell in love with the Phantom. They were intrigued by his mask, the skull cave with its unbelievable treasures and chronicles of 20 Phantoms before him. He also took breaks from time to time to fight crime in other parts of the world.

To quote an old jungle saying: ‘There are times, the natives say, when the Phantom leaves the jungle and walks in the streets of the town as an ordinary man’. On these occasions, he would slip into a trench coat and sport dark glasses as part of his oath to keep his face permanently concealed.

The Phantom was also the mysterious Unknown Commander of the Jungle Patrol who had different homes be it Walker’s Table in a remote part of America, the Golden Beach of Keela-Wee or the Isle of Eden where tigers and lions coexisted peacefully with zebras and deer.

What tickled our generation silly were some of the ‘old jungle sayings’ associated with the Phantom’s aura. ‘He who sees the Phantom unmasked dies a horrible death’ or ‘Cold voice of angry Phantom can freeze a tiger’s blood’.

Apart from attractive traits like his courage and distaste for violence, readers also found the Phantom endearing especially when it came to popping the question of marriage to Diana. This is when his cool confidence disappeared and he would get all worked up and nervous.

The stories were, of course, to die for and Indrajal Comics wasted little time moving from a monthly to fortnightly as the Phantom’s popularity grew. The cover price also increased gradually from 60 to 70 paise and to a rupee by the early ‘70s. This may seem almost laughable now but a comic was still a luxury then for a middle-class family.

What most of us did not know at that time was that the name of the Phantom’s home was actually Bengali but changed in the Indian context to Denkali for obvious reasons! Likewise, his dreaded foes, the Singh pirates, were suitably modified to Singa so that local sentiments would not be offended.

What was equally hilarious was that strips featuring romantic moments with Diana were chopped off in the Indian menu. Remember, this was a time when even a kiss was taboo on screen and films naturally steered clear of this zone. The Phantom, likewise, was no exception to the rule and it is only when you read unedited versions of these comics do you realise how the scissors were at work in India!

It is over two decades since Indrajal Comics stopped publishing the Phantom. Yet, the mania lives on but for entirely different reasons. Traders have jacked up prices to ridiculously high levels for old issues and genuine collectors find themselves sidelined in this frenzy of greed. It is something The Phantom would not have approved of for sure!

Published on March 05, 2016

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