Who is the first ever superhero to appear in a comic strip?
We bet that most of you immediately thought of Superman... but that would be incorrect!
While Clark Kent's masked alter ego was brought to life in 1938, making him the first superhero with superpowers, he was not the first crimefighter operating in the shadows to protect humankind. In fact, The Phantom's public debut pre-dates Superman by two years, kickstarting some design trends for later superheroes and pioneering the genre.
Premiering in 1936, he is officially the first comic-strip superhero ever created.
Originally syndicated in daily news strips, The Phantom was born from the mind and pen of Mandrake The Magician’s creator Lee Falk.
His adventures were distributed by King Features Syndicate and they first published in February 1936, featuring the story The Singh Brotherhood.
Often described as a "transitional" figure, ferrying some characteristics of pulp magazine heroes into the world of modern-day superheroes, The Phantom went on to become a success across different media.
Among other appearances, he starred in dedicated novels, live action movies (the first one being signed off by Columbia Pictures as early as 1943) a 1996 biographic documentary called The Phantom: Comic Strip Crusader and several TV adaptations.
It was published by several different publishers, from Ace Comics to Harvey comics, and even DC Comics published The Phantom Volume 1 (a limited series in 1988) and Volume 2 (a longer, ongoing series that was published between 1989 and 1990).
Stories about The Phantom are still running today.
But the big question would be: who is The Phantom?
He is known under many names: The Phantom, The Ghost Who Walks, The Man Who Cannot Die.
A vigilante ante-litteram, The Phantom (secret identity of Kit Walker) walks the night fighting crimes in the fictional country of Bangalla - a man shrouded in mystery and allegedly immortal.
Athletic champion and charming playboy by day, masked hero by night, in the story Kit studied in the United States before returning to Bangalla. There, he would fulfil his role as the present-day Phantom.
Other than relying on his physical abilities and incredible intelligence, Kit can count on the help of a wolf named Devil.
He also owns a horse named Hero and a falcon named Fraka.
Later in the plot, Kit will go on to marry his childhood sweetheart Diana Palmer, and the couple will have two children: Kit and Heloise.
Even though Kit Walker was the first member of the Walker family to be introduced to the public, as the comic's universe expanded the plot also unveiled the adventures of his predecessors.
The Man Who Cannot Die... or can he?
The Phantom's immortal reputation might not be exactly accurate.
In fact, The Phantom's "superpowers" are nothing but the result of his own wits, amplified by his enemies' superstition.
Known under many pseuds, feared by evildoers and with the reputation of being a ghost stalking the night since the beginning of time, in actuality The Phantom is just a human being. He’s not immortal, nor unbeatable.
In fact, the masked vigilante is a legacy hero: the descendants of the Walker family have shared the same superhero persona for centuries, passing it down from father to son.
In the very first story, the Phantom is revealed to be the 21st member of a long-standing family tradition which, generation after generation, secretly handed down the purple costume of The Ghost Who Walks.
Although Kit is presented as a modern-day Phantom, the Walkers' quest originated in 1536, aboard Christopher Columbus’ ship Santa Maria.
During a vicious pirate attack, the father of British sailor Christopher Walker was murdered.
Christopher then became the patriarch of a crime-fighting lineage, seeking vengeance for his father's death and swearing on the murderer of his father’s skull that he’d battle all kinds of crimes.
The skull would then become The Phantom's trademark. That is the case, for example, of the ancient ring that The Phantom always wears on his right hand: a mystic jewel of unknown origins gifted to the First Phantom by Swiss alchemist Paracelsus.
The legend of his immortality is, then, nothing but a myth... and a well-guarded secret.
The Phantom relies on his intelligence and physical abilities to defeat evil and, like other superheroes (Batman might come to mind), he operates in a secret hideout in the jungle: the ancient Skull Cave.
A Trending Design
The Phantom’s design – enigmatic and captivating, playing with dark shades like purple and black – pays homage to other literary heroes.
While Falk was mainly inspired by Nordic legends and popular characters like King Arthur and Tarzan, during an interview with Comic Book Marketplace he also revealed that the Phantom’s outfit is inspired by the image of Robin Hood in popular media.
The Phantom's skin-tight costume is a tribute to the legendary outlaw, and that same design would become a trademark for superheroes in later years.
Interestingly, the fifth Phantom also posed as Robin Hood during the two-part adventure Hooded Justice, published in Issues 1552 and 1553.
Although nothing is officially confirmed, The Phantom is often credited as the inspiration for masked superheroes being depicted with white eyes and no pupils (like in the case of Spider-Man, The Flash and Batman).
Not only drawing a detailed eye within the small confinement of a mask would be challenging, but a white-eyed superhero immediately inspires awe in friends and foes alike.
Falk explained in the 1996 documentary The Phantom: Comic Strip Crusader that he had been inspired by Greek busts to draw The Phantom without pupils: the lack of pupils made the statues “inhuman and awe-inspiring.”
Although the idea stemmed from a misconception, since Greek busts were painted but the colours faded with time, the design proved to be a winner and remains popular today.
The trend allegedly kickstarted by The Phantom then snowballed into a common design for crimefighters.
The Phantom, Today
The original creator, Lee Falk, worked on The Phantom until he sadly passed in 1999.
During the last months of his life, while hospitalized, his wife Elizabeth helped Falk with the last two stories: Terror at the Opera and The Kidnappers.
Several artists and writers have taken up his work after Falk’s death, among which we can mention writer Tony DePaul as well as artists Mike Manley and Jeff Weigel.
Interestingly enough, in 1986, an adventure park called Fantomenland (which means "Phantom Land") was opened as a section of the Parken Zoo, Eskilstuna, Sweden.
The crowds could visit the Skull Cave, and other iconic places from the comic, all meticulously brought to life in the theme park.
It was inaugurated by Lee Falk himself, and it closed in April 2010.
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