Dec 23, 2014

Christmas Miracle #3: Phantom Christmas Special

Sometimes Christmas is just a time of year, and stuff comes out at that time. You sometimes get stories that are set at Christmas that really have nothing to do with Christmas. Sometimes you even get stuff that comes out at Christmas and so it gets seasonal branding even though it has nothing to do with the holiday.

So that brings us to Phantom #1713. (Yes, the issue number is not a typo. This comic is a weekly that's been going since the 1940s.)

Every year Frew Publications in Australia brings out a 100 page Christmas Special for the Phantom. Which has nothing to do with Christmas. It's usually just a couple of classic Lee Falk Phantom stories and a couple of new stories that have yet to be printed by Frew, all together in one large volume.

This year's Christmas special is no different! So let's check it out!

There are four stories in this volume. Two -- the Jungle Olympic snad King Bongong are old Lee Falk stories, and I'm not that worried about talking about them. They're perfectly good, and reflect the eras they were created in.

But the other two stories are from 2014, and are both written by Tony DePaul. The first story is... well... it's one of the worst Phantom newspaper strip stories I've ever read. It's truly awful. It starts with a female reporter trying to find the Bandar Pygmies, only to be rebuked by every Bangalan tribe she tries to get a guide from.

And that's where the... unintentional misogyny begins. (I'll explain why I say 'unintentional' in a minute):

No, Phantom. No. Bad comic strip!

Yup. The chief bashes the photographer IN THE FACE. He actually KNOCKS HER UNCONSCIOUS. Jeeeezus. That one blindsided me, I didn't expect that level of violence against women popping up out of nowhere.

But... it doesn't end there. The reporter hires a sleazy guy to guide her to the Bandar and he decides to use her to steal the Phantom's treasure -- so he poisons her, so that the Bandar will be forced to take them in and keep them alive.

Seconds ago he was pretending to be her husband. Probably because the idea is hot to
him -- seriously he only took the job in the first place because he thought she was hot.

This leads to an elongated and creepy sequence where the Phantom allows the reporter to wander freely -- because she's a good person -- but makes sure that the sleazy guide is kept under watch. Not that it matters for either of them because he plans to have Guran erase both their memories with magic Bandar Witch Doctoring.

This gives the sequences that follow a really creepy vibe, because the Phantom shows the reporter through the Skull Cave and she's wowed and awed by everything she sees. But you at the reader knows she's never getting out of here with any of the Phantom's secrets.

Hah-hah-hah. The evil guy doesn't get a tour he's never going to remember,
but the girl does! It's hilarious! Bleah.

The purpose of this story is to do a tour of the Skull Cave for the reader. These sorts of stories are part of the Phantom mythos -- tour through the Skull Cave and see all the wonders and treasures inside. Then the Phantom will tell the stories of how he acquired (or how his family line acquired) all the wonderous treasures.

There's a lot in the cave -- the Phantom's throne room, the Phantom's ancestral crypt, the diary room where all the Phantom's exploits have been written down for centuries, and of course the minor treasure room (full of gold and jewels taken from pirates) and the major treasure room (full of artifacts that really should be in a museum).

The sleazy guy wanders into the major treasure room, and steals some stuff like Excalibur, or Cleopatra's ring, etc. not realising how valuable the stuff is. But it doesn't matter because of course he's caught.
What an arsehole! Hopefully he'll get a much worse
fate than the innocent, nice woman!

And then he and the female reporter have their memories erased.

Nope. Same fate. Phantom, you suck.

And that's where things get REALLY fucked up. Because you see, the reporter had already fallen in love with the Phantom. Which a lot of women do -- he's all man -- and so the amnesia powder doesn't work right on her. She has hazy memories of what has happened!

This leads to basically one of the creepiest sequences in the history of the Phantom, where the Phantom takes the reporter back to the Wambesi and gets them to stage an elaborate ruse so that she thinks that everything she remembers about the Phantom is a fever dream she had after being brained by a savage tribal chief:

I really want to go have a shower after reading this.

I... man, this story is awful. But I don't think it's meant to portray the Phantom as such a creeper, or to demonstrate such icky disregard for our female protagonist. It's just a traditional Phantom story that is a bit goddamn clumsy in its execution. I suspect that's because Tony DePaul was trying to do a new twist on a relatively tired idea -- the tour of the Skull Cave.

Why do I think Tony DePaul DIDN'T mean for the story to be a misogynist mess? Because of the NEXT story in the Phantom Christmas special, which is also written by Tony DePaul. This is also a traditional style of Phantom story -- the Phantom telling his children a story about one of the ancestral Phantoms. But in this story the 5th Phantom is captured by pirates and has to be saved by his awesome, swashbuckling pirate wife!

Brass knuckles. Oh fuck yes.
 I cannot emphasise enough how awesome Juliet  Adams Walker, the 5th Phantom's wife, is. She's not bound by the Phantom's vow never to kill -- but she does want to further the Phantom's myth. She punches out people to find out where the Phantom is, disguises herself as a slave girl (she frees the real slave girl with more punching) so she'll be taken on the Pirates' ship -- then procedes to punch and stab whoever she had to to free her husband, before blowing the ship up with all hands! Yikes!

Another Phantom tradition -- our Phantom
pissing off his family by pausing in the
middle of stories.
Seriously, she is going to make sure
that jungle saying comes true.

And the catalyst for this story? The Phantom's own wife Diana (who is also freakin' awesome) was getting ready to ride off into action to save her missing husband. He arrived home, in fact, perhaps hours before she would have taken off (she needed time to find out exactly where he was). After some emergency medical care (he'd been shot) that's when he told the story.

The Phantom's myth is maintained by his wife
stabbing a motherfucker in the chest. Hell yes.

It's a really striking, almost whiplash-like shift in attitudes between the two stories. One story treats its female protagonist as gormless and unaware of the horrible fate our HERO has planned for her. The other story treats all the women involved as powerful and capable, and able to make their own decisions -- equal partners in their relationships with the male characters, not gormless . It even has a scene where the Phantom's kids debate who should be the Phantom when their father passes on the mantle -- and there's no suggestion that the story favours either one of them. Which is great.

The Phantom is a very old character -- he's from the 1930s. While the old stories are generally very progressive for their time (the awesome ex-pirate wife of the 5th Phantom is a Lee Falk creation!), they also show their age and could be considered very sexist or even racist by today's standards. In homaging these stories -- or using their framework -- you have to be careful not to homage their morality.



It would be neat if one of these Christmas specials had an actual Christmas story in them. As far as I know (and I did do some research, but this COULD be wrong...) there's never been a Phantom Christmas story. Which is ridiculous.

--Andrew S.
(Wait a second... looking back at that cover -- is one of the Phantom's hands a CLAW?)

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