Let’s long windedly talk about The Phantom.
I love the classic pulp heroes of the 30’s and 40’s. In the midst of this amazing universe building superhero movie trend, I secretly long for the heroes of old to get a much needed reboot as well. Characters like The Spider, Mandrake the Magician, The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Spirit, Flash Gordon, Green Hornet, Dick Tracy, and my subject of the day: The Phantom.
I’m going to try to give a very brief history on this classic 80 year old character so my revisioning can make more sense.
The Phantom was created by Lee Falk in 1936. Falk modeled the character after Zorro and Tarzan. The Phantom operates out of the fictional jungle of Bangalla in Africa. His homebase is a sweet ancient skullcave. He brands a lot of his gear with tiny skulls. He has a wolf named “Devil” as a sidekick and occasionally a horse named “Hero”. He dual wields pistols and has no superpowers. He was the first crimefighter to don tights. His nicknames include “The Ghost Who Walks” and “The Man Who Cannot Die”.
The Phantom, in his stories, was built up to be a mythic legend of the jungle that’s existed for hundreds of years. The truth being that the mantle of The Phantom is passed down generation to generation making it only seem as if he was one immortal man.
When diving into the pulp heroes of yesteryear The Phantom stands out in many ways. Many heroes back then were self made millionaire playboys that took on crime in the seedy city nights using gadgets and/or mystic powers (usually learned mysteriously in the eastern culture). The Phantom was simply a highly trained and intelligent Tarzan with badass guns who was in the jungle. So it was a little breath of fresh air.
We live in a culture that loves our “gritty realism” when it comes to superheroes but not all characters need that to be considered entertaining. The Phantom already received the gritty realistic (and devolved) take in 2009 for a SyFy miniseries. Taking The Phantom out of the jungle and throwing him in a city suited up in a rejected paintball uniform does nothing for the character. Neither does throwing him in a futuristic city of 2040.
I want to reimagine the character, yes, but more importantly I want people to realize you can take the man out of the jungle but you can’t take the jungle out of the man.
So here’s my vision of The Phantom.
I believe less is more with a lot of characterization. And I love showing it through the eyes of the people. I imagine the intrigue and mystery of King Kong meets the silent terror of Dracula and characterization of The Undertaker.
We’re deep in the dark and dangerous jungles of Bangalla. Crime runs through Africa with poaching, drug and arms smuggling, murder, and human trafficking. But the locals know that any criminals that comes through these parts do not get very far. When criminals find themselves dizzied in the humid jungle maze and it gets eerily quiet, The Phantom draws near. They realize in their final moments that they should’ve listened to the natives. That maybe the talk about the “Ancient One” or “The Ghost Who Walks Among Us” wasn’t some archaic psycho babble. Maybe they should’ve turned back when they seen the hundreds of crude skull carvings etched into the tree trunks while entering the jungle. This was the Phantom’s realm now and they shouldn’t have come here. In the distance through the fog approaches the glowing red eyes of a large wolf. It growls and salivates at their mere presence. That’s when it lands inches in front of them making a thud on the soft fertile ground. And slowly rises looming over them. They shouldn’t have come here.
So The Phantom himself. You have to keep the major elements there. He’s the peak of human condition and abilities. He has a wolf named “Devil”. He operates out of a skull cave in the Bangalla jungle.
He’s part of a generational line of Phantoms. We don’t know which. We don’t know his name. All we know is he’s been doing this for a very long time and his lineage has done it even longer. His skull cave is filled with hundreds of books on subjects from language to fighting to cooking to popular fiction. And even though this Phantom is nearly silent he knows many languages and is highly intelligent.
Now here’s where I get weird. The Phantom wears his iconic generational skull ring. But instead of it being this arlum that’s been passed down…every Phantom carves a ring from the deceased bones of the previous Phantom. A reminder of heritage and the sacrifice made both literally and figuratively. Plus we’re reminded of the crudeness of the jungle. It’s revealed that the skullcave was chosen by the first Phantom because of a mysterious purple liquid that flows through it. This purple liquid has been tapped and flows through a fountain in the shape of a skull. This elixir of sorts has special rejuvenating powers. It heals wounds and mends broken bones much faster than any sort of medicine or doctor. It also increases lifespan as we learn most Phantoms have operated for nearly 80 or 90 years. It can essentially be seen as a “fountain of youth” in lore. And the Phantom will occasionally use it to help others in need as well adding to his “supernatural” abilities. Devil will essentially help hunt and track the guilty. He’s an enormous terrifying wolf with blood red eyes.
This leads into the costume. The purple tights? Gone. Similar to samoan culture, the Phantoms take this purple liquid and tattoo intricate patterns and designs over their body as training goes on. When they are ready their body is completely covered in these purple tattoos. The liquid being “part” of them now gives The Phantom the almost inhuman physical ability and the iconic purple look. His hands and feet are “taped” or wrapped in black like a martial artist/boxer/kickboxer. Black ashes are used to paint around his eyes as a “mask”. Also his eyes are pure white like the comic to give off an eery Undertaker supernatural vibe. The human skull that adorns his belt is earned by “sentencing” his first criminal.
This Phantom also does not use guns. Though most pulp heroes were armed I thought it would set The Phantom apart even more to disarm him. The explanation being that guns are a modern weapon and someone with his skills and abilities does not need to rely on them. Do not confuse this with the fact that the Phantom does not kill…he most certainly does. He is not bloodthirsty but if a dangerous threat he will put you down. He is a predator of the jungle not a savage.
One interesting aspect about the 1996 film was that Kit Walker was actually haunted by his father (the previous Phantom) throughout the adventure. It was done in a comedic tone with Kit often seen by a bystander bickering to himself or his ghost dad having punchlines that only Kit could hear. But I liked the idea of the Phantom being haunted by his ancestors. Afterall, the character is all about ghost mythology.
In this version, The Phantom will sacrifice certain diabolical criminals for his ancestors. And he’ll even bring select criminals to his skullcave for “judgement”. Essentially imagine being in an ancient aztec looking sacrificial plot surrounded by skeletons. Where the spirits of the previous Phantoms judge your fate. The Phantom sits in the middle in his iconic stone throne surrounded in a circle by his ancestors tombs.
Well that’s all I got. There you have it. That’s pretty long winded, no? I mean, I can go on and on and on and on. This was an idea conjured up for my love of the character and me wanting him to be relevant again. I love to reimagine characters. If I was America it would be my national pastime.
I do not have the rights to this character nor I’m a in no way affiliated with it. But I can dream.