Sep 5, 2011

Phantom at the Window -- The Thuggees.

If you were ever to try and study the core elements that make up a Phantom story, or at least an old Lee Falk/Wilson McCoy Phantom story, I don't think you'd ever need to go further than The Thuggees. It's a story from 1949/1950, when Falk had really gotten his writing down, and knew exactly what he was doing with the character.

The tension from strip to strip is amazing. The art is flying at an almost unreasonable pace, and the whole thing is... well... it's seriously worth reading.

I got my copy in Frew #1234, but it's since been reprinted in #1496. I might need to pick up that issue too, because I think there may be some stuff missing from the #1234 printing. Oh well, even with what I think is a slightly incomplete copy of the story, why don't we have ourselves a nice hard look at a classic long-running Phantom story?

Side Note: When the Phantom is printed in Frew, the strips often have to be somewhat re-arranged, to fit the page format. The Wilson McCoy era strips are generally 4 panels long, and when presenting them here I've tried to retain their original 4 panel format. However, because I'm somewhat guessing at the format here, I can't be positive I've got it right.

The idea that the chiefs know the Phantom's secret is a piece of mythology
that would fade as time passed.

The story started with the usual light-hearted Lee Falk sense of humour. There's two kinds of dramatic tension going on in this story. First there's romantic tension -- the will-he, won't-he soap opera of the Phantom's romance with Diana Palmer. The second is pure action-adventure, a kidnapping and ransom plot involving a group of evil assassins, called the Thuggees.

The guy with the monocle is our villain -- Kali.

This romantic tension was a big driving force in the Phantom's adventures for several decades. It wouldn't be until the 1970s, long after Wilson McCoy had left the strip, that Lee Falk would finally relent and let Diana and Kit Walker get married.

The two main plot lines were directly intertwined. Diana took a plane to go and see the Phantom, and the plane was hijacked by the assassins. It's here that we got to see Diana being awesome. The Thuggees wanted the plane (I'm not sure why, it's never explained), but checked the passenger manifest before hijacking it to see if there was anyone on board worth kidnapping. Naturally, since she's both rich and famous, Diana was a perfect target.

Shoulda swum harder, Diana.

Yup, Diana just leaped out of the plane, into the open ocean to try and escape her kidnappers. Because that girl is damned brave. Falk really wanted the reader to love Diana as much as the Phantom does, so she's an amazingly well-developed, well-rounded character, an adventuress in her own right. This feeds into the over-the-top, Shakespearean love affair she had with the Phantom, and makes the reader desperately want to see them together -- even reading it now, 40 years after they got married.

The two people who get the note in this strip are Dianna's mother and uncle,
very important characters in the early Phantom stories.

And so, with everything in place, the story could really get underway. A ransom was demanded for Dianna and of course the Phantom stepped in to take charge of the situation. The Thuggees weren't happy about his participation, and tried to kill him with a boat. But he faked his own death, then kicked the crap out of the lot of them.

I bet you couldn't do that!

The Phantom faking his own death is one of those key elements of his mythology that I really love about the characters. While most action heroes make a living out of escaping death, the Phantom specifically goes out of his way to make his enemies think he's dead. While that might be a big plot point for another hero, for the Phantom it's just business as usual. He fakes his death as part of his ongoing mythology.

As long as villains think he keeps coming back from the dead -- that he can't die -- it adds to the air of serious fear that criminals feel when facing the Phantom. Y'know, sorta like Batman, only he's actually good at making people scared of him.

The plot twists and turns all over the place -- as is bound to happen with serial cliffhanger fiction like an ongoing comic adventure comic strip. The Phantom met up with a prince (Prince Tydore) who was also being menaced by the Thuggees and ended up being kidnapped by them in the prince's place. It's another brilliant subterfuge sequence where the Phantom used simple, pratical techniques to enhance his sense of mysticism.

Phantom: Master of Disguise!

Side Note: The Phantom as a master of disguise is also another of those hilarious ongoing themes of his comic strip run. If I wasn't highlighting his tendency to stare through people's windows I'd be very tempted to do a collage of him dressed up in disguise.


Once at the Thuggees camp, the Phantom had a bunch of awesome little adventures -- fighting gorillas, stopping mantraps, and of course, meeting up with Diana again. He even got tied to an idol as a sacrifice at one point and had to be rescued by the girl he'd come to rescue!

C'mon jungle boy, you should know gorillas don't live in trees!

The gorilla? Oh yeah, that's the Thuggees' guard dog. No, seriously!

The Phantom: Messing with your head.
The Phantom defeats the Thuggees, the plot line is resolved and a new story starts. This story is presented in this reprint volume as one continuous story... but it's just that the plot lines setup in the previous action plot carry over into this new romance story so Lee Falk didn't bother to give it a new title.

Wait... why is Diana wearing a crown now?
Wait... that's not her? I'm confused!

The romance story is a doozy -- Prince Tydore, grateful that the Phantom saved his life, wanted to reward the dude, by offering the Phantom someone to marry. Tydore's own daughter, Tari! In his own doddering old man fashion, he tried to break up the Phantom and Diana so that the Phantom would marry Tari instead. The whole thing goes on for quite a while, with a bunch of runaround, but in the end the Phantom escapes and the daughter ends up finding someone else.

I love that last panel.

The only problem with this section is a problem with McCoy's art in general -- he has trouble making characters look really distinct and different from each other. The same natives, villains, and incidental characters appear again and again. This is especially bad with Tari and Diana, who look so similar that it can sometimes get confusing as to who is who. He usually has Tari wear a tiara, but it still can confound one at points.

In the end, The Thuggees is the Phantom at his best. It's a fun adventure story, it's got high romance, and things never stop happening. Things move at breakneck speed (though it might not have seemed that way if you were reading this as dailies back in the 1940s!), and it's all so entertaining. Oh yeah, and it ends on a cock blocking cliffhanger, which stops the Phantom from finally proposing to Diana. Woo!

Hmmm, another chance to use the 'blue balls' tag!

But in the end all of that's not why we're here, is it? We're here to add to our collage of the Phantom creepilly hanging out outside people's windows! In fact, I included both the strips where this happens already in the article, so we can get right on with adding to the collage!(Did you spot 'em? Bet you did!)

There's more to come, trust me!

--Andrew S.
(And yes, I know "Thuggees" sounds hilarious.)


  1. The Thuggees were an actual group - Kali-worshipping bandits active in colonial India in the early 19th century. It's where we get the word "thug".

    They're the bad guys in Gunga Din, as well as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

  2. My own ignorance astounds me! I did a little wikipedia research, and I guess I was sort of vaguely aware of this -- certainly the name was familiarish -- but I thought I was just aware of the Phantom story before I came to read it now.

    Actually reading about the real Thuggees is intriguing, because it really ties in pretty well with the Phantom story itself! They even use a silk noose to sign their messages!