|That "By Popular Demand" caption isn't just bull crap
like on American comics, this is the most requested
Phantom reprint of all time.
The story was written entirely by Falk, and drawn by Ray Moore and (after Moore enlisted) Wilson McCoy. Falk himself enlisted while still writing the story, but never missed a single deadline, despite active service.
I guess I should start by saying that this story does not feature a Phantom at the window moment! It's mostly set outdoors, in the jungle. And it's mostly about the Phantom killing Japanese people, not peering at them through windows.
Like many stories of the time, The Phantom Goes to War is filled with the rage and indignation of a nation that's been attacked. Even though America itself is barely referenced in the story, especially once the action begins in Bengali, the attitudes expressed throughout are thoroughly American. The Phantom speaks of free men battling oppressive regimes, and constantly spouts American-style war propaganda.
The plot of the story is very simple. The Japanese invade Bengali -- the Phantom's homeland -- in the hopes of cutting off allied supply lines. The Phantom is then forced to fight a holding action against the huge Japanese armies until the allies can join them and stop the evil Japanese!
|Silly Bengali, and their ignorant lack of preparedness!
There is a theory that Lee Falk was writing this story before the Pearl Harbor bombing, and rushed it to publication after the bombing. Falk was generally at least 10 to 12 weeks ahead on his writing, so this is pretty possible. Certainly it gels with the way the story reads -- the earlier parts of Phantom Goes to War are pretty light, and filled with the kind of disbelief in the cause that was typical of isolationist America before the Pearl Harbor attack.
Quickly, though, the tone of the piece turns very grim and that's where it both gets much better, and in a way much worse. You see the problem with The Phantom Goes to War is that the Phantom himself is really out of character here. He's so... racist.
|He's been reading too many Superman comics.
In this story Diana is mostly paired with Byron and they both sorta play the part of damsels in distress. They're proactive about getting out of danger sometimes, but most of the time they're on the sidelines waiting for the real hero to do the work. Dianna gets the additional role of well... here, take a look:
|Now that's what I call an ending!
The other major characters are the natives and the Japanese. The natives are used in several ways, usually as allegories for attitudes by more 'civilised' peoples. Take a look at how Falk uses the natives to portray American isolationist attitudes in the 1940s, it's a scathing attack:
|I also really love Ray Moore's racially sensitive depictions
of the natives in these stories. Yikes.
The natives were also used in this story to show the importance of the courage of the individual in war. While the Phantom is the hero, and the General in this battle, the natives are his soldiers. Throughout the story natives get a chance to be... tragically heroic, laying down their lives for the precious freedom that the Japanese are trying to steal.
|He shall be remembered... I guess. What was
his name again?
So what about the Japanese, how are they depicted in the story? Well... let's just say that the depiction is very much of the time.
|In this case, 'Of the time,' is a codeword for, 'racist'.
To get him to talk the Phantom colludes with some natives and this little scene happens:
|The panel of the General climbing out of the pot is my favourite
in the entire story, I think.
It's kinda breathtaking how Falk simultaneously spits on the Japanese while depicting people's perceptions of native peoples are silly and backwards.
The violence in this story is brutal, but not more brutal than normal for Phantom stories. The thing that makes it unusual is the Phantom himself. He's killing people. That's pretty unusual for him, and feels a bit out of character. On the other hand, well... actually I'll let the Phantom explain it:
|Kurachi you fiend!
I think this page also illustrates how Diana and Byron serve as the damsels in distress in this story. That's them tied and sugared up at the top of the page. Notice however that it's only Diana's name that the Phantom says when he sees them. Kit's not really friends with Byron in the same way. (From an artistic standpoint I also really like the otherwise silent running sequence by the native in this story. This would have comprised the cliffhanger, and an entire daily strip, when originally published. A moment of quiet action in an otherwise frenetic, and word-heavy story. It's this sort of brilliant pacing that made Lee Falk a legend.)
The Frew publication of this story that I have is its 4th reprinting by that company. It refers to The Phantom Goes to War as Lee Falk's masterpiece. That's an assessment I just can't agree with. The Phantom gets to be badass here, but he's also pretty out-of-character throughout, in the name of propaganda. That same propaganda leads to racism and hatred against the Japanese that just drips from the pages. While some of that is now funny, I can't help but remember that this sort of racism led to the internment of Japanese citizens in countries like the USA.
Is it a good story? Absolutely. It captures the mood of the time, and it is very much an amazing piece of war propaganda. I would definitely recommend reading it if you can (And there are some nice hardcovers being put out by Hermes Press at the moment, and Phantom Goes to War is in volume 4 as The Inexorables.) I wouldn't call it a stand-alone masterpiece, though.
To finish off I wanted to show you one of those moments of sheer badassery I've been talking about, but unfortunately that would probably require a few pages at a time, to really capture and put in context the sheer scope of the awesomeness. Like the time he single-handedly destroys an ammo depot, or his capture of a Japanese tank using a tiger trap, or when he kidnapped a Japanese General from in the middle of an entire battalion of Japanese soldiers... So since I can't do that, how about we just leave off with some more shots of the Phantom beating up Japanese service men.
|The answer is, 'yes he can'.