Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Ghost Still Walks ~ A Review of the First Phantom Novel by Lee Falk

This has been some time coming. I read the first Phantom novel a while ago and wanted to review it, but never quite had the chance. But since I'm currently in the middle of several other writing projects, and without the time to write a more in-depth post, I figured I should finally write about it. The book deserves the attention, especially with all the pulp talk going on.

In 2016, Hermes Press got together and decided to reprint the original 15 novels starring the pulp icon of The Phantom. For those that don't know, The Phantom is a legendary hero who operates in the fictional country of Bangalla in the deep jungle. He has no superpowers but has trained his whole life to be strong, swift, and smart, with the ingenuity of his ancestors. You see, this Phantom is actually the 21st to bear the name as it is a title that passes from father to son. This gives the impression of an immortal hero to those who whisper his name. The Phantom lineage actually goes back 400 years of men who look eerily alike. Kit Walker is the protagonist of the majority of the stories and this novel is the story of how he assumed that mantle of his ancestors.

The first book was written in 1972 based on the comic strip that started in 1936. It is difficult to tell that so much time has passed when reading this. The Phantom is actually one of the first line of superheroes that came from the pulps with the likes of The Shadow and The Spider, only he originated in comic strips.

Avon Publication decided, back in the early '70s to create a line of novels based on the character. This run lasted until 1975. They are all based on Lee Falk stories, though Falk himself only wrote the novel version of four or five of them. The rest were done by the likes of Basil Copper, Frank S. Shawn (pseudonym of Ron Goulart), Warren Shanahan, and Carson Bingham. Alfred Bester was originally approached to write novels, but passed and recommended Ron Goulart instead. While it would have been nice to see what Bester could have done, what we got was a series of high spirited adventure novels with one of the most exciting heroes of the the pulps. The Phantom translates perfectly to prose form.

This first story of The Phantom is about a boy named Kit Walker as he grows from an infant, describing his odd upbringing as a baby in the jungles of Africa to his education and budding romance of his teenage years in America, up to when he realizes it is his turn to become the legendary hero he sees in his father. As such, this is not so much a superhero novel (though there are heroics, and some excellent stories of heroes contained within) but a coming of age story that is surprisingly innocent and pure in intentions.

The story was clearly written originally in the pulp days as there are no graphic descriptions of violence or sex, there is no amorality, and the book is free from a cynical view of the world. It feels like an old pulp novel. Simply put, Earth is a place with good people and bad people, and things are better when good is allowed to roam unmolested by darker forces. Good is good; bad is bad. When he is called to do the right thing, Kit does so because of his upbringing and what he learned from his father. In the end he also makes a decision to abandon something that would personally benefit him in order to instead do what he should, and he is not rewarded in any way for doing so. This ends the story on not the chipper and irrationally optimistic view one ascribes (incorrectly) to Golden Age hero stories, but on the realization that heroism is sacrifice and bloodshed, and a battle between good and evil that will never end on this Earth. And yet the hero must keep getting up again regardless.

On a personal level, I found myself absorbed in reading this novel. Lee Falk's description of The Phantom's lineage, Bangalla's fascinating culture itself, and Kit's adventures learning to be a man, paint a vivid world of adventure where peril peeks around the corner, and good is overwhelmingly preferred to evil despite its lack of obvious material benefit. It's not a long read, but it hits quite well and is a good reminder as to why The Phantom is one of the defining pulp heroes even now so far removed from his creation. Pure heroes are hard to resist even for the most cynical human. This first book is a great origin story and place to start with the character.

Now for the negatives. I would say this revolves around Hermes Press's edition in particular. The covers are all reproductions of the original art from George Wilson, but they are rather washed out despite the great pulp-era illustrations. Another issue is the actual text is not Justified for reasons I cannot imagine. Finally, the release dates for every novel so far has been wrong and delayed from its supposed release leading me to get several of them months behind schedule. I have no clue as to why Hermes Press does these things, but they are issues and they should be mentioned. The book itself has no real negatives to it other than the short length which might perturb some.

Nonetheless it is nice to see pulp works get reissues like this. The original 15 Phantom novels are short and punchy but haven't been easily available in a long time. The character presents a moral, yet harsh, worldview of the sort modern heroes mistake for emptiness. The prose is snappy and paints quite the picture for being written in the 1970s and feel far more like the character's original 1930s origin point. There's little else to say, it is a fantastic read.

All in all, if you're a pulp or superhero fan then this is for you. Lee Falk does not let his audience down.



  1. Cool. Been looking for Phantom novels for a while.

  2. They're about halfway through re-releasing them. Should hopefully be done by next year.

  3. Thanks for the heads up on this. I've always liked these comics and books.