Phantom’s not dead yet!

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NO, BUT IT SURE looked that way for a while.

On Saturday, “The Curse of Old Man Mozz” came to a close, after the Phantom escaped death in circumstances of the most ambiguous sort.

If you like numbers, here are a few: Since the Phantom’s debut in 1936, this was the 247th daily newspaper adventure to feature Lee Falk’s Phantom. The story started March 13 and ran six days a week for 28 weeks. Mike Manley, the artist, took great care of my script, as always, and produced 168 strips on deadline.

In brief, here’s the way it played out: We open with a tip of the hat to Lee Falk, circa 1936. Lee has a 3-day cameo to introduce the story. We often show him at his desk in Manhattan, banging out the yarn on a typewriter. He has shocking news for the reader: Old Man Mozz, the cloaked and bearded seer of Phantom lore, has had a vision of how the 21st Phantom dies. He’s knocked the daylights out of, oh, two dozen criminals holed up at an abandoned mill in the jungle and…

The “curse,” of course, is for Mozz to see such things and have only limited information about what he’s seen.

Early in the story, this character with the rifle seems like a throwaway, a device to enable a little bit of exposition. But as things develop it’ll be clear that he’s… the guy, the coward who guns down the Phantom.

The greedy little weasel, he’s not even worthy of a proper Phantom punch…

 

Nobody could ever attack the Phantom from behind if Devil is around. So we need to get Devil out of the picture.

The Phantom’s faithful Bangallan Mountain Wolf attacks a criminal and they both plummet 30 or 40 feet to a concrete floor. Luckily, Devil lands on top of the doomed man, so all he does is fracture his right foreleg.

The famed Jungle Patrol picks up the vanquished criminals and the Phantom brings Devil home to the Deep Woods, for expert doctoring by Guran, chief of the Bandar pygmy tribe.

Guran sets Devil’s leg but seems preoccupied with other matters. He treats Devil’s injury as an afterthought to his duties, almost a minor annoyance. That’s very unlike him, so it arouses suspicion on the part of Diana Palmer Walker, the Phantom’s wife.

She catches up to Guran when he leaves the Deep Woods and shadows him from there.

He’s off to see Mozz, who’s busy breaking down his body, starving himself to the brink of death so he can walk the edge of that other realm, to learn more of the Phantom’s impending doom.

So Mozz has seen the future. But is it the only future? The unavoidable one?

Maybe it’s the one that Mozz, Guran and Diana bring about by meddling in the realm of the mysterious.

So they make a pact: to say nothing, to rely on the Phantom to save himself, as he always does.

 

Diana has nightmares about the deal. In her dreams, she and Guran entomb the Phantom in the crypt with his ancestors, Phantoms 1 through 20. She wakes up screaming but… keeps the secret for now.

Diana says she needs to get away for a while. The Phantom expects to be back at the mill, cleaning up the other half of the gang that’s using it for a hideout. (That second bunch wasn’t there at the start of the story, they were en route.)

Here’s an interesting little detail coming up—the revolver. No telling how many readers picked up on it.

Diana hasn’t had the vision herself, she just has a rough idea of what happens. So when she reads a dreadful double meaning into the “I’ll be gone” line, she pictures a revolver as the murder weapon. Mozz saw the killer using a semi-automatic.

So here’s Diana in the Whispering Grove, where woe is her.

Lee Falk created the Whispering Grove, where the trees are hollow, with trunks rotted in such a way that they seem to have ghostly faces. When the wind moves the trees whisper Phan-tom… Phan-tom…

Phantom fans around the world dig the Whispering Grove, so I drop it in there now and again.

This whole week is sleight of hand. It can be read as a soliloquy, Diana giving voice to her dilemma, like Hamlet on the ramparts.

And then… she takes a second cup out of her backpack…

Hard to say how many readers noticed the second cup. I suspect that many took the final panel to be Diana breaking the fourth wall, talking directly to the reader. Not just breaking it but shattering it by offering the cup to the reader.

Some, I’m sure, figured out that Diana isn’t alone. Someone’s there in the grove with her.

 

Diana breaks the agreement and demands that the Phantom be told everything.

It’s not like the Phantom to hide out, so he goes to work anyway. Yes, he believes he’s fated to be gunned down by a threat he fails to see. And now Mozz says, yes, that’s true. But he presses on anyway, as other Phantoms have done.

He gets to work…

And now we hide his killer right where Mozz saw him…

And the leader of the gang gets his.

Tough guy fires off a clip at the Ghost Who Walks. He gets a brick between the eyes for his trouble.

On his way out, the Phantom feels gunsights on his back. And we think Mozz and Guran were right—he’ll save himself! Or maybe not.

The Phantom is distracted by something 180 degrees off. It short circuits his instinct. He doesn’t turn to defend himself after all.

That shadowy guy is Babudan, master pathfinder and elder warrior of the Bandar tribe. He’s a character I created in the post-Falk era.

You may have guessed by now that it was Babudan in the Whispering Grove.

Diana didn’t send him, per se. All she did was ask, you know, if he had her troubles, theoretically speaking, what would… he do?

 

So here’s Diana at home, in the bed chamber of Skull Cave. The colorist got it wrong, which happens from time to time. Diana’s supposed to be lying awake in the dark, here the bed chamber’s lit up like a Wal-Mart.

No huge deal. The entire enterprise is touched by human hands, and all on deadline.

I figure if the work is spot-on three days out of six, we’re batting .500, Hall of Fame here we come! Aw, the light’s not right in this one? Go cry me a river…

I like to give the readers material they can see any way they choose. Maybe the Phantom was going to save himself. But then he detected a shadowy movement in that window up ahead. Then it was all up to Babudan. He had to make that poisoned Bandar arrow fly true!

The Phantom did seem just slightly slow in feeling those gunsights on his back. So if Babudan hadn’t been there…?

Dunno, you tell me.

 

Okay, so… the denouement week coming up, in which we link this adventure to things that happened in previous stories. Why did the Phantom bring his son, Kit, to study in Asia? Because the Phantom knew his time was up. He never told anyone about it, but he knew. And he didn’t want his son to be called upon to take the oath as the 22nd Phantom. He knows that Kit’s too young and would be unikely to live long in the role.

So Guran takes the cast off Devil’s leg, and we flash back to a couple of strips from a year ago, young Kit’s journey into the Himalayas.

The story ends, as many do, with the Phantom at his desk in the Chronicle Room. He records the history of this adventure for the benefit of Phantoms yet to be.

Tony DePaul, September 26, 2017, Cranston, Rhode Island, USA

 

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About Tony

The occasional scribblings of Tony DePaul, 62, father, grandfather, husband, freelance writer in many forms, ex-journalist, long-distance motorcycle rider, motorcycle wrecker, motorcycle rebuilder, collector of surgical hardware, blue routes wanderer, outdoorsman, topo map bushwhacker, handy with a wrench, hammer, chainsaw, rifle, former photographer, printer, logger, truck driver, truck mechanic, jet fueler… blah blah...
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15 Responses to Phantom’s not dead yet!

  1. Peter Howard says:

    Thanks for the recap of this latest very long story. I really enjoyed seeing a selection of Mike Manleys peerless artwork all on one page and your own commentary on the story. You remarked that having the strip spot-on three days in six gives your team a very respectable .500 batting average but I reckon you do considerably better than that. The tale provoked divided opinions on the Comics Kingdom comments board (admittedly a very small sample of Phantom fandom) but I think it’s good when the unfolding events get people talking. Most everyone figured out that Diana wasn’t alone at Whispering Grove and there was frenzied speculation about who the second coffee drinker was. I was happy that it was Babudan playing a vital role in the story. He’s a great creation of yours. I’ve often said that Babudan is one of a few fictional tough guys I’d want to have watching my back and on this occasion he did not disappoint! Everyone loved his “A warrior sends himself O Ghost”. Making it clear that he wasn’t going to discuss it at length with the Great Friend of the Bandar and a worthy addition to the body of Old Jungle Sayings.
    I’m very happy that you ironed out your terms of employment as writer and I’m looking forward to following the new adventure that has just started.

    • Tony says:

      Thanks, Peter. Indeed, Babudan is trustworthy and completely loyal, he’d never discuss Diana’s ploy with the Phantom. I was hoping I didn’t telegraph Babudan’s role on April 21, when Diana was setting out to shadow Guran. Diana asked if Babudan knew where Guran goes when he leaves the village. It wouldn’t occur to Babudan to question Guran. Guran is his friend and his chief, if he ever needs to know where Guran goes, Guran will tell him! The line I was semi-concerned about was Diana’s response: “I’m your friend, too, Babudan. Please don’t tell Guran I followed him.” To my ear, it seemed to foreshadow a role for Babudan in events to come.

  2. Tarquino says:

    now we will have a “butterfly effect” in the immediate future? off course the Phantom’s death at hands of a simple petty thug would be dramatic and unexpected (I remember that his father, the 20th Phantom was stabbed in the back….I am right?) so his death would repeat the cycle if not avoided in time. I was surprised by the automatic gun/revolver detail and is awesome how even that small thing is checked up in your scripts and Mike Manley’s art.

    • Tony says:

      Hola, amigo! The 20th Phantom was shot in the back by river pirates, I believe. And though mortally wounded he lived long enough for Guran to travel to the United States and bring the current Phantom home from college.

    • G Sharma says:

      Hi. I’m from India. I’ve read the Phantom since decades, though comic books which were essentially made of newspaper strips. Most of them were Falk/Barry, and some of McCoy’s and Moore’s. From 1960’s to early 1990’s, Indrajal comics, a popular comics of those times prominently featured Phantom stories. The dailies used to run in some newspapers. The Sundays still run in local magazine in local language. I’ve always wanted to ask something about the changes that happened when you took over writing it. It was during a time I had stopped reading the comics, before I found the Comics Kingdom website. I read 1990-current strips later. So, I was surprised at many changes that happened later on. As a long time reader, what surprises me is that the Old man Mozz, who was a jungle historian with a remarkable memory, a man who told tales in a fantastic way, a lovable old man as Lee Falk wrote him, was strangely turned into a vision seeing shaman or a witch doctor kind of a character. Falk’s Old Man Mozz didn’t have any supernatural powers. May I ask why such a drastic change was brought in? It’s as if he isn’t the old man Mozz I knew from my childhood. Also, why the supernatural and superstitious angles as if they’re real? Back in the days of Falk/Barry, the supernatural/fantasy themes ended in a kind of “was it a dream or was that real” sort of ambiguity. Also, Phantom was my hero because he always fought against the jungle superstitions, and battled witch doctors who fooled and exploited gullible junglefolk, fought for justice, and the themes were modern even though some fantasy sort of themes occasionally appeared while not directly depicting or implying that the fantastic elements actually happened. (Although Phantom portrayed himself a ghost and preserved his legend as a man who cannot die amongst the jungle folk, we the readers always knew he was mortal, and there’s no magic or supernatural element involved in his case.) Also, I’m referring to the “modern” Falk/Barry era when I say this, as after the story of Samaris, there were occasionally strange fantastic stories, but there wasn’t a direct implying that supernatural things actually happened. It was more like “was that a dream or was that real?” kind of ambiguity on the end, which left it to the readers to decide. I just want to ask why the deviation from the usual theme, and why was Mozz turned into something that he wasn’t.
      Ok, I’ll stop here, the comment got quite long! I tried to express it as concisely as possible, bit I’m not much good at that. Thanks for taking time to read!

      • Tony says:

        Thanks for reading, G. Sharma, and for your interesting and thoughtful comment. Mozz certainly has evolved over time. I see it more as fleshing out the character than changing him into something he was never meant to be.

        His origins are rather murky. At first, he appeared to be a member of the Bandar tribe, but he’s clearly taller than the average pygmy. He seemed to live somewhere in the Deep Woods very near Skull Cave, then he was said to be a hermit who lived off by himself somewhere, and to have lived longer than any normal human lifespan. So I thought he might just as well have unexplained abilities that the rest of us don’t; powers that, by their very nature, have Mozz at their mercy. Despite his wisdom and long years, he can’t fully master the powers of his mind. They often vex him. They’re a curse! That seemed a natural-enough thing for this wise old storytelling character that Falk was fleshing out here and there.

        In general, anything that makes the Phantom universe a more mysterious and intriguing place is good. As Captain Jack Aubrey says to his rationalist friend and ship’s surgeon, Dr. Stephen Maturin, “Not everything is in your books, Stephen.” But I do take your point about ambiguity. When I was writing Phantom stories for Egmont, my editor and friend Ulf Granberg was always big on ambiguity, the little twist that leaves the reader thinking Hmmm…

        Like you, I remember plot lines where the Phantom is a mythbuster, revealing jungle superstitions and freeing minds of such nonsense. But, oddly enough, the first story I remember that featured Mozz was nonstop woo! Mozz told a story about a witch who lived with a small army of evil spirits in a castle in the Misty Mountains. I don’t remember which Phantom it was, not the 21st I wouldn’t think, but the witch tries to seduce the Phantom with her beauty. Her actual form is that of a ghoul. The Phantom reveals it by forcing her to stand before a magic mirror in the castle and etc etc…

        Many thanks for following the Phantom strip and the Nickels blog. Please write again!

        • G Sharma says:

          Hi, thanks for the response!

          Ok, about the first story where Old man Mozz appeared — The tale of Gooley Gooley Witch! I remember that well, it had appeared on Indrajal Comics with a different title in the 70’s/80’s or maybe in late 60’s (I don’t remember exactly when, as I got my hands on it later), and then later in one of the Phantom digests on Diamond Comics in the 90’s – I’ve got that book! Now, to the point of “her actual form which is that of a ghoul”. Let me try to concisely put my thoughts on this. ”

          When Rex and Tom Tom get to know about the witch (probably from other jungle folk, as its depicted), they ask the Phantom, he says nothing about it, and tells them to ask Guran or their teacher Miss Tagama, who says it’s just nonsense and just silly superstition from the olden days, while Guran says the witch thing is true, and tells them to ask Old man Mozz.

          Old man Mozz then begins to tell the tale about Gooley Gooley witch and the Phantom. Just then, their teacher Miss Tagama reappears and says, (quoting the exact words of Miss Tagama, as in the strip), “such tales are superstition”, and “Don’t fill the boys’ head with such nonsense”, and “Gooley Gooley Witch is silly talk”.
          ( I believe this was to set up the ambiguity of the validity of the story Mozz was about to tell)

          Then, Mozz begins his story, and the entire Gooley Gooley witch story which we see is being narrated by old man Mozz. The kids listen with interest, as every regular kid would (I too listened to ghost stories as a small kid and wondered and scared. Not after I grew up!)

          The key point I want to make here is that, the entire witch’s story that we read in the strip is being narrated by Mozz, and it’s not happening in real time, and there are no implications that whatever he says in his story is real, or is he saying from what he heard from jungle folk, or whether he’s just making it up based on jungle superstitions. (As a kid, I could relate, as there were some uncles who used to narrate us scary local stories like these, about some ghosts they “saw” in their locality and they always claimed that it was real! I never believed them anyways! I also used to make up scary stories to scare the cousins or friends, just for fun, and I always (in our childhood, of course) claimed that whatever I told them was true!)

          So, all we know is that Mozz narrated that tale, but there isn’t anything that really proves which suggest whether it really happened, or whether he was just telling another jungle folk tale, which he believed was true.

          The Phantom rides back in real time as Mozz finishes his story, and he doesn’t say anything about it. He just says, (quoting the words), “Hi boys, it’s time for bed” and “sleep tight!”. So we aren’t shown whether he agrees with whatever Mozz told the kids or not!!!

          Ambiguity working it’s wonder. I was scratching my head the first time I read this story, and kept thinking, “Darn! Was that for real? Or was that just jungle superstition like Miss Tagama said?”

          Now, for another example, taking a fast forward, in a story from early 1990’s called “How the Phantom saved the world”, (here, Mozz is introduced as a jungle historian, a teller of all tales) Old man Mozz tells a fantastic tale about how the Phantom fought against the odds of four Gods, (yes, gods!) and saved the world. That was a totally fantasy tale, narrated by Old man Mozz.

          Ok, coming to the point, at the end of the story, Phantom comes back home, and the kids ask Mozz, “did this really happen?”. Mozz just says, “Ask your daddy”.

          When asked, the Phantom just says, “Grandpa Mozz has told that tale so many times, he really believes it.” When Heloise asks again, the Phantom says, “Remember the stories momma told you — Jack and the beanstalk, sleeping beauty, frog prince.. Fairy tales. Mozz’s tales like that”.

          To that, the children say, “dad’s just being modest. I think it all really happened” !!!

          Now, that gave us readers a chance to believe both cases! I’m happy, and I believed that it was just a fairy tale, and enjoyed it that way, just like I enjoyed listening or reading such tales as a kid. At the same time, the kids and others who thought that it actually happened are happy with the Phantastic tale!!

          I’ve seen the Phantom say that such tales what Mozz said were fairy tales, or something like that, in some other stories too. I can’t exactly remember which ones right now. Old man Mozz never had any powers, and nothing about him implied that he ever had. The Phantom always said the fantasy like tales that Mozz told weren’t real (when he agreed with the realistic tales he told about his predecessors, the earlier Phantoms).

          Old man Mozz reminded me of the old uncles we had, who used to tell all kinds of tales to us when we were kids! But, I really didn’t like the witch doctor like foreseeing Mozz with real supernatural powers, as it reminds me of all the evil witch doctors who Phantom and his ancestors fought and exposed them as frauds, (even though this incarnation of Mozz really possesses supernatural powers).

          So, sorry about this another long reply! This is why in my opinion Mozz’s old character was more fun. We got fantasy with ambiguity, with wonder and realism at the same time. The Phantom was the only comic I read with such craze. By observing how he wrote fantasy themes, I believe that Falk kept this ambiguous angles on purpose, to make Phantom a more modern sort of vigilante hero, while at the same time, retaining all the mystical, fantasy, and such themes and elements!

          Thank you for taking your valuable for reading all this! And sorry again for such a long reply (and my apologies if any typos crept in despite my best efforts.). I’d like to say I’ve enjoyed stories by you, like when the Phantom and Mandrake went on a cruise, the War Mongers, The Ghost Train (the name of the story I don’t recall, but there was a train full of ghosts, and they were all fake! That was a fun one!) and many others (Unfortunately, I can’t recall all the names right now. So some other time, perhaps!), but I didn’t like the ones in which the supernatural elements really happened along the course of the story (like for example, the Fallen officers, and Aeronaut, where real ghosts are shown to exist, without any ambiguity. (I was hoping that you’d end them ambiguously, and give me another head scratching moment!).

          So thank you for those great stories, and I’m hoping you will move away from supernatural themes (the current Locust one appears supernatural too!) and more towards modern adventures as before! You’ve kept working, even with the odds against you, and I’m happy that those “issues” between you and the syndicate were solved.

          Thank you again, and have a great day! Cheers! 🙂

  3. Joe Smith says:

    Loved the length of this strip and your recap is much appreciated. I totally didn’t know who Diane was speaking to in the woods.

    I found GWW’s “final” moments rather poetic. Sure, some would see standard fisticuffs, but the way you wrote it, he seemed at ease with his own mortality, which can only bring peace. And for us readers to be let in on his intimate thoughts at what he believed were his final moments was a special thing indeed.

    As a veteran of the Middle East wars, I appreciated his coming to terms and even accepting that this could be *it* and being at peace with that.

    Well done, sir.

    • Tony says:

      Thank you, Joe.

      Your comment puts me in mind of something I saw last night on the Ken Burns series on Vietnam. A veteran named Vincent Okamoto talked about how liberating it was (that’s the word he used) when he realized he had little chance of surviving a particular battle. Once he decided that he was okay with not surviving, he went on to do some astonishing and seemingly impossible things. So yes, I guess it was something like that for the Phantom. He decided the only thing to do was to roll with it, come what may.

      I’m glad to know you’re in the company of my nephews Dave and Rob, guys who were fortunate enough to make it home from that part of the world.

      Many thanks for following the adventures of the GWW, Joe. Glad to have you as a reader.

  4. Robert Alberts says:

    Thanks for the recap, it was much appreciated. There were a lot of lively, thoughtful discussions from most everybody on the comment boards. There was more than the average amount of ambiguity in this story and it kept us guessing. Great fun, which is why I read the strip. For fun.

    You seem to be showing us the Phantom legend “by raising the hood” and showing us how it works, the decisions of the characters and their feelings about the Phantom heritage. Awesome. In the Phantom line, there is no one more sincere than the 21st Phantom.

    Thanks again!

    Robert

    • Tony says:

      Glad you enjoyed it! Many thanks for the good word, Robert.

      I’ve heard that some readers were eager to see the GWW die, for the Phantom line to move on. And others, I’m told, swore to never read the strip again if we killed him.

      The question I always ask when I sit down to write: What would Falk do? It’s not the only question, but it’s the first question.

      I’m confident he wouldn’t kill GWW21 on a whim, certainly. Not just to create publicity and get eyes on the strip.

      Would he have ever killed him? Maybe… But the thing that argues against it is that he never showed much interest in growing up the offspring. Falk seemed to be content to leave the twins as toddlers.

      Who can say what the future will bring, but when my watch is over, I would at least hope to leave the next writer with a proper GWW22-in-waiting, so he or she can make that big universe-changing decision if the time is right.

      Cheers, and thanks again for reading.

  5. Ye Olde Statistician says:

    That’s an intriguing idea: the Ghost Who Walks and the Ghost Who Waits. Perhaps they could trade off the main job so 21 can take a vacation now and then. (I wonder if any previous Ghost had a brother, a spare, so to speak.)

    I liked seeing the entire story in retrospect and realizing that some aspects that seemed arbitrary or foolish were especially well-crafted. It’s easy to lose track over the weeks of some subtle clue that was planted in an earlier script.

    • Tony says:

      Not a brother but a sister, as I recall. Julie Walker. I don’t recall whether the Phantom was wounded or ill or what, but his sister donned the costume and carried on the Walker family tradition for a while. That was in the Falk/McCoy era, a 1952 Sunday yarn.

      And yeah, the stories do look very different when assembled. The continuity makes a whole lot more sense. Readers sometimes react all out of proportion to a single daily installment, sort of like reviewing a book after reading two or three consecutive sentences chosen at random. The Frew reprints in Australia are fun, they publish the entire yarn start to finish.

      Thanks for reading!

  6. Ellen McCurdy says:

    This was fantastic. Thank you for the adventure of it all. I enjoyed it as much as when I read the strip as a kid.

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