The Phantom Unmasked

Before Superman, before Batman, there was—the Phantom! Making its debut as an American newspaper comic strip in 1936, The Phantom was the forerunner of the comic-book superhero genre that today animates vast billion-dollar franchises spanning print, film, television, video games, and licensed merchandise. But you’ve probably never heard of it—you probably think Superman inaugurated the genre. That’s because, despite its American origins, The Phantom comic strip has enjoyed far greater popularity with international audiences, most notably in Australia, Sweden, and India, where it has appeared in newspapers, magazines, and comic books. The paradox of the character’s relative obscurity in the United States, offset by his phenomenal success in these three markedly different countries, is the subject of The Phantom Unmasked.

By tracing the publication history of The Phantom in magazines and comic books across international markets since the mid-1930s, author Kevin Patrick delves into the largely unexplored prehistory of modern media licensing industries. He also explores the interconnections between the cultural, political, economic, and historical factors that fueled the character’s international popularity. The Phantom Unmasked offers readers a nuanced study of the complex cultural flow of American comic books around the world. Equally important, to provide a rare glimpse of international comics fandom, Patrick surveyed the Phantom’s “phans”—as they call themselves—and lets them explain how and why they came to love the world’s first masked superhero.

If you remember the character or never heard of him this is a great introduction. I first became aware of the iconic character from a late 90s movie starring Billy Zane then delved into his story from the 1930s.

Patrick provides a well-researched and documented story showcasing how The Phantom got his start stateside evolving into a sleeper hit and onto its way to becoming a cult classic. Outside the States his popularity is much higher which is a bit strange considering the Ghost is an American creation.

Since my introduction to the character came via a Hollywood production I didn’t have any knowledge of the back story and mythology and it took a while to acquire that as this was pre-Google days.

Since the Ghost Who Walks (AKA Phantom) came out before Superman it’s easy to see how he influenced the creation of what the world now knows as Marvel, DC and all the other independent artists and authors who were given a platform to display their talent in a unique way.

It’s a shame he wasn’t given the same level of popularity and love as the DC/Marvel creations in the States. It would seem only diehard fans of early comic lore will find their way to him and mythos unless you live anywhere else in the world. Could it be because he wasn’t given an American home base, mainly working out of the Jungles of Africa, despite being an American story, that he wasn’t shown the love? Was it Superman’s arrival a mere 2 years later that drove the Phantom underground because he couldn’t compete with the seemingly All American Hero wrapped in an Alien body?

Granted millions of non-Americans, and some Americans, have reportedly read his story but if you ask the average comic nerd stateside in various generations it’s doubtful many will know this character even if Billy Zane did a decent job of bringing him to life in the 20th century. He was at least able to find the respect he deserved in the Scandinavian countries, India and Australia.

Patrick provides so many details and information it can feel a bit overwhelming but it’s also a testament to how much history belongs to this complex character; only a fan can create something of this magnitude.

Thank you to Netgalley and University of Iowa Press for allowing me to review this!

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