Pirates are known to have been relentless adventurers, dedicated to a life of preying on ships laden with treasure or prospective slaves. They were plunderers without fear of anything or anyone, the legend goes, but there was an exception to the pirate legend. For centuries, there has existed one man, a man who is said to live forever, who can’t be killed, and that man lives to rid the world of pirates and piracy.
This legendary character has been a part of Americana for a bit over 70 years, a figure unlike any other in the world. He is known in every country on Earth, even though only a handful of people know what he really looks like. To the world at large, he has lived for hundreds of years, unchanged by time. His enemies fear that they will be marked by his rock-hard fists. He comes out of nowhere, metes out justice, then returns to a remote jungle location in Africa until he is needed again.
This is The Phantom, a man immersed in a business that few would like to take on. He almost always works alone, and this makes him harder to pin down and fight. Ask any military strategist, and he’ll tell you that a single man is a lot harder to stop than an army. One man can hide where an army can’t, and strike before you know he’s there.
The Phantom started out as a daily comic strip on February 17, 1936, the product of the fertile imagination of writer Leon (Lee) Falk, who also created Mandrake the Magician. From the start, this was a very innovative character. Clad in a purple skintight suit, he was the first masked crime fighter to wear such an outfit, a style which became the standard for all the super heroes to come. His mask’s eye slits were white, making his eyes unseen, yet another costumed hero trait that to this day is a feature on Spider Man.
One thing that sets The Phantom apart from many of today’s super heroes is that he has no special powers. He is a normal man, if you consider living in a cave with pygmies for neighbors normal, who relies on his wits, strength, agility, and a secret intelligence network to carry out his mission in life. Being believed to be a supernatural spirit doesn’t hurt his cause either.
On February 17, 1536, Christopher Walker was a cabin boy on his father’s ship when the vessel was attacked by pirates from the Singh Brotherhood. During the furious battle that followed, both ships exploded, and the last thing Christopher saw before being thrown into the sea was one of the pirates killing his father. The young man wound up on the beach in the nation of Bangalla, a fictional country originally said to be in Asia, but eventually relocated in Africa during the 1960s because at that time Africa was still largely unexplored, therefore more mysterious.
A band of pygmies from the Bandar tribe found Christopher and nursed him back to health. Some time later, as he walked along the beach, he found the body of the man who had killed his father. He waited for vultures to pick the body clean then over the killer’s skull he swore an oath to fight crime and to especially seek to wipe out pirates everywhere. In exchange for their care, he helped the Bandar gain freedom from the Wasaka tribe that had enslaved most of their people. In order to do this, he created a costume based on the likeness of a god the Wasaka feared. The costume was so effective that he kept it as his action garb.
Thus did the legend of the Phantom begin, and because his son, and all of the family line’s sons thereafter, took on the role of the Phantom from their fathers, he gained a reputation as an immortal, alternatively named “The Ghost Who Walks” or “The Man Who Cannot Die” by superstitious tribesmen throughout Africa. As his work took him across the globe, his path crossed that of many pirates and criminal masterminds. Small-time crooks are basically cowards, and often superstitious too, so the prospect of running against a supernatural ghostly nemesis fills them with fear. In the jungle, the Bandar are feared because their territory is the home of the Phantom. Even the most powerful tribes only venture into the Deep Woods when invited.
The Phantom is quite a fearsome apparition. His purple costume, colored by the juice of jungle berries, hood and mask reveal little of his facial features, so he could be anybody. Only his wife, kids, and a few close friends know his true face. The present-day Phantom, when he wanders around the “real” world, dresses in a hat, sunglasses, and trench coat, using the name Kit Walker or just plain Mr. Walker. On a wide belt, he has matching holsters with .45 caliber pistols, but like some of the later crime fighters, only kills as a last resort. On each hand he also wears a ring, one of which is his “good mark”, a sign that a person carrying an imprint of that ring is under The Phantom’s personal protection and safe from the dangers of the jungle. On his other hand, which he uses to knock villains about, is a ring shaped like a skull, and those he punches with that hand get a skull imprint so they’ll remember who they fought with.
The Ghost Who Walks has a number of animals helping him out. They are a mountain wolf named Devil, a white stallion called Hero, and Fraka, a trained falcon. Members of the Bandar tribe relocated in various places around the world provide intelligence reports for Mr. Walker. Locally, in Bangalla, the Phantom has earned the trust of the many tribes by never handing out single-handed justice. Instead, he calls for a council of chiefs to come to his Skull Cave in the Deep Woods and render a verdict to criminals. The Skull Cave, in addition to being known as The Phantom’s home, is a burial crypt that holds the remains of all the previous Phantoms.
In 1978, The Phantom married Diana Palmer, a beautiful heiress who works for the United Nations, who had been his sweetheart since he attended college in America as part of his education process. The following year the couple welcomed the birth of twins Heloise and the by custom named boy Kit, who will succeed his father as the next Ghost Who Walks.
In an era where pirates seem to have quite a degree of popularity, fans of the masked hero are equally enamored with him. They aren’t quite as open as pirate fans in their devotion, though, so to the world at large, The Phantom remains just as mysterious as he’s been for hundreds of years, and this no doubt helps in his never-ending battle. Today’s society seems to disbelieve that pirates still exist, but they are still around, especially in Asia and Africa, mostly targeting large yachts and small cruise ships, so it appears that The Phantom’s work isn’t over by a long shot.
Historically, the hero’s legacy goes back some 500 years, but most of his stories in the last thirty years or so have centered on the present-day Phantom. In addition to the syndicated strip, he has appeared in comic books by Ace, Gold Key, King, and Charlton before moving to DC Comics in 1988 and Marvel in the 1990s. Today, Moonstone Books handles the comics while King Features Syndicate continues with the newspaper strips. Avon books published fifteen Phantom novels, one of which, “The Goggle-eyed Pirates”, concerned Mr. Walker’s pet peeve as he broke up a gang of pirates who used colorful costumes to blend into the crowd during ship parties before robbing them.
Another thing The Phantom detests is the oppression of people. In one famous case, known as “The Mysterious Ambassador”, he agrees to become a special United Nations envoy to make sure that Bangalla’s elected president can take office after an army general voids the election results and seizes the country by force, bringing fear, looting, and political killings to Walker’s homeland.
In 1943, Columbia Pictures produced a fifteen part serial starring Tom Tyler, an action-adventure actor who also portrayed Captain Marvel, in which the Ghost Who Walks searched for a lost city. A 1955 sequel with a different actor became tangled in a character ownership battle, so it was renamed and references to The Phantom were dropped from the script, even though the costume remained and the character was referred to as Captain Africa.
The year 1996 saw Paramount Pictures release a full-length movie starring Billy Zane, who is such a fan of the character that he lobbied fervently for the role, which he earned over Bruce Campbell. So dedicated was he to making The Phantom “look right” that he began a strenuous exercise program to build up his body so a special padded suit such as the one in the Batman movies wouldn’t be needed. Zane’s portrayal helped him garner a role in “Titanic”.
A new film, tentatively called “The Ghost Who Walks”, is said to be in production, putting the hero in today’s time frame. No release date has been confirmed for this movie, but if it’s successful, it could bring The Phantom to a whole new generation of fans. As long as pirates continue to plague humanity, The Phantom will be there to stop them, guns blazing and fists cracking criminal jaws, leaving his skull mark on them as a reminder that piracy is a bad choice of profession while he’s around.