Monday, August 9, 2010

The problem with...The Phantom

So what is wrong with the Phantom? Hmmm? The truth is nothing. just like there is nothing wrong with Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, The Shadow, or any of the other pulp narrative characters that came upon us in the 1930s. Why hasn't this character latched onto the higher tier of popularity like Batman? What separates the A-level characters from the those that hang on with cult followings such as The Phantom? The problem, or rather the truth is that a lot of these pulp-hero characters will never quite reach the apex unless their worlds are expanded and the characters updated.

It almost seems a lost cause to hope that many of these pre-WWII characters will ever find a massive foothold outside of their current fan bases. As the years go by, many of the original fans die off without enough new fans being brought into the fold. It is the task of a few to keep the torch burning brightly so that these characters can survive to greet a new generation of fans. Ultimately, stagnation may kill many of these characters as time rolls on. An obsessive need to pigeon hole a character for the sake of the loyal can only help to weaken the character further. As the memories of the era fade so does interest in it's fiction. It doesn't have to be this way though. The road map is there and is easily traced for anyone looking to follow.

Many of these characters run on a familiar cycle. Years go by, a comics company or a television or movie studio pick up the rights thinking they have a sure fire franchise bought on the cheap. A mediocre effort is put forth, the fervent adoring faithful smile enjoying the fact that anyone has proffered a new story while secretly twisting inside knowing that so much more can be done if only a true creative force were to place it's weight behind it. You can see the pattern. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, The Shadow, The Phantom, and now The Green Hornet all received similar treatment only to lapse back into the hands of the ardent supporters as the speculators walk away wondering what went wrong. Granted the Green Hornet film hasn't hit yet, and the new run of comics has only just started to stretch it's legs. The signs are there though. We get a film that looks like a cash grab plagued with trouble and very little respect paid to the original and very little new added to the legacy.

So what do you do? Do you even bother? I mean, let's create something new and move on. Weeeell, let's not yank up the tent posts just yet. Most new ideas are barely even new anymore. Most themes have been played over so many times that we have to distill story ideas past the concepts. If you are like me, then you believe that the way forward is always with the characters. You can mold any concept around a rich cast of characters. Star Wars is a great concept, but what is it without Han Solo, et. all? What is Batman without the Joker? Ahhh, now we are getting to it.

As a sidebar, one of the things that a lot of these top level characters have going for them is fortune. In the last few years we have seen numerous characters dusted off after emerging into public domain. The Green Lama, The Black Terror, have all received a new coat of paint and have been kicked out the door. Batman and Superman had DC Comics which did a very good job of surviving the post-war years and conservative censorship to eventually be picked up by a major media conglomerate which was happy to throw marketing muscle behind it's properties. I dare say that if characters like Flash Gordon and the Phantom hadn't been running consistently in newspapers, they very well might have died out like many of these other pulp-era heroes. So we find that many of these characters exist in a different strata. You have the household name characters like Spider-Man, Hulk, Superman, etc. Then we get our 2nd tier heroes of yore that exist outside regular comic circles but still maintain a foothold in that realm and have also enjoyed a broader media life; Gordon, Phantom, Shadow. Then below them we find all these characters that exist in their isolated media world's like most comic characters yet to have a cartoon or a film such as Iron Fist, Blue Beetle, Grendel and so on.

Let us start with Flash Gordon. A personal favorite of mine, Flash lives on kind of a middle plane between the Batmans of the world, and the Phantoms and Shadows. Part of what creates that buffer is the world created around Flash. He has one of the greatest and most surreal cast of supporting characters you will ever find. Without those, Flash really is just Buck Rogers on another planet. So it is with Batman, Batman has the Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, Two-Face, Robin, Commissioner Gordon and on and on ad nauseam. If Batman didn't have a constantly expanding roster of interesting characters to interact with, he would just be the Shadow.

So now we get down to it. What is wrong with the Phantom? Is it the purple? Nah, my favorite character wears tights and dresses like a bat. Purple isn't the problem. Is it the white horse and the wolf in the jungles of Africa? Well, no, Wonder Woman cruises around in an invisible jet and has a lasso that makes you tell the truth. Bad origin? Nope, His ancestor, Christopher (Kit) Walker washes up on the island after his ship is attacked by pirates and swears to devote his life to eradicating piracy from the Earth. Each generation followed in his footsteps to take on the mantle of the Ghost Who Walks, The Phantom. Sounds cool to me. Daredevil was a blind kid in Hell's Kitchen that got doused with radioactive waste. The Phantom in particular suffers from a lack of really interesting support. We get the Singh brotherhood and that about sums it up.

The Phantom has never really had a great set of friends or a rogue's gallery to help drive his adventures. Moonstone did a really great job of telling traditional modern day Phantom stories. Part of the issue though is the world he was in never grew. Right now African pirates are a great modern enemy but they end up being pretty faceless. The Phantom has always had allies, but never anyone who truly was worth keeping up with. Dynamite entertainment begins their own Phantom comic series this month and it remains to be seen what they will add to the legacy of the Walker family line. The man in charge of writing these new adventures, Scott Beatty, has echoed my own belief in character and talked about the journey of Kit Walker. Can he choose to end the legacy of the Phantom? Sounds interesting, but you have to grow the universe the character lives in. The world is an enormous place and piracy exists everywhere in myriad of forms. I'm not talking about middle aged men with handcarts of DVDs in Shanghai, but you catch my drift. The Phantom seems like a character ripe with possibilities for modern times.

Syfy (that name change still drives me insane.) network just released a new Phantom TV movie that they are hoping to turn into a full series. I haven't seen it yet, and I have to say I was really underwhelmed by the new look of the Phantom costume. Really it was mostly the look of the helmet which resembles a scarf wrapped over a person wearing really big flat sunglasses. I applaud the attempt because I do acknowledge that if we want to throw a superhero into a modern setting, some effort has to go into creating a look that won't get you laughed out of a bar. Not to keep bringing this back to Batman, but Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight did a great job of creating a functional and cool looking costume that never seemed like a terrible stretch from the original concept Bob Kane came up with all those years ago.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Phantom's International following. It is one of the keys to his staying power and ability to capitalize on a global market. The Phantom is still one of the most popular comic books in Scandinavian countries, along with Australia, Italy and Turkey. While I have to admit a lack of knowledge of their own independent Phantom story lines, it seems clear that there is an audience that cares deeply for this character and is ready to see the character move on the next level.

As I stated, the road map to relevancy is there. Establish a fully realized world for the character to inhabit and journey through. Give the character sounding boards and obstacles to overcome in the face of characters that push the hero to become even stronger. Allow the character to evolve as the times changes knowing that continuity is your friend and not your enemy. Do remember that these characters are popular for very good reasons and that is because they once touched a chord in the public's heart that can still resonate with a modern audience.

1 comment:

  1. This illustrates an interesting point I ponder from time to time when I hear a certain phrase from critics and normal people alike. "That would never work as a _____." I wonder at the validity of statements like that. Theoretically with proper treatment and thorough application of story telling 101 anything should be able to translate to any other media. In practice, however, I don't think it ever really plays out that way. Hard to say sometimes if it's because it wasn't given the proper attention and care in translating from one medium to another or if it's just because it just isn't possible in a different medium.