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