The casual observer may scratch their heads when coming across a book featuring the Phantom. The concept screams simplicity itself, the story of a masked avenger sporting purple tights and an iconic skull emblem as his calling card. Introduced in 1936, few at the time would have realised the contribution the Phantom would make to the world of fiction. Even today, as classic a pulp-icon as he may have been, his importance to the history of comics is lost on many readers. As the first costumed crusader in what we now call the superhero genre, the Phantom began a movement that would be followed and championed by the likes of Superman and Batman. Luckily, more than 80 years after his debut, one comic is aiming to ensure that the Phantom’s legend is one you never forget.
You may not have heard of independent Irish publisher, Lightning Strike Comics, but they’ve been creating high-quality anthologies and creator-owned series since 2012. Last year, they published an exclusive Dublin City Comic Con anthology to celebrate the Phantom’s 80th anniversary. Now, in conjunction with King Features Syndicate, they bring us The Phantom: Scarlet Sapphire, an original one-shot featuring the talents of writer: Stephen Mooney (Half-Past Danger), artist: Robert Carey (Power Rangers:Aftershock), colourist: Tríona Farrell (Azure Capricorn) and letterer: Robin Jones (Papercuts & Inkstains).
How do you introduce or re-acquaint audiences to a classic comic character when he lacks the instant recognition of the medium’s current staples? Some may have sought to re-vamp the Phantom for the sensibilities for The Dark Knight generation. Others may have sought to channel a self-referential awareness of the character’s pulp origins. The creative team have instead bravely doubled down on the character’s original premise and style. This reverence for the source material is evident from the interior cover page. Whereas comics such as Hawkeye begin by telling you “this is all you need to know”, The Phantom: Scarlet Sapphire elects to show you instead. In a move symbolic of the creative team’s tonal choice, the book begins with a stunning re-drawn version of the Phantom’s origin strip courtesy of the always wonderful Cormac Hughes (Red Sands). It leaves no doubt that the character’s pulp tendencies are here to stay.
The main story begins proper as the latest incarnation of the Phantom begins to find evidence of an illegal blood jewel ring. You may think you’ve heard this story before, but as calls to action go it resonates with the reader because its grounding in reality. Our villain may be called the Baron and guarded by elite assassins, but his scheme is one that the world is all too familiar with. In many ways that gives him a menace that iconic arch-villains often lack. Those fearful that the comic avoid that aspect of the Phantom entirely need not worry. Not only does the opportunity for a classic superhero showdown with the Baron’s hench-woman, but the Phantom is accompanied by both his trusty steed and pet wolf throughout this adventure. If you thought you never needed to see a dual-pistol wielding vigilante ride into battle on a horse, then you clearly haven’t lived.
Perhaps the most intriguing artistic choice taken throughout the book is the decision to keep the Phantom in his superhero persona throughout. Only in one scene does he take off his mask and even so, his face is obscured from the reader. Indeed, his true name is not mentioned once. This expertly portrays the Phantom’s central premise as merely the current wielder of a mantle that been passed down over the centuries. It doesn’t matter that this version is the 21st such Phantom or who he is under the mask. What’s important is that the legend he embodies, that of a man who cannot be killed, endures. In maintaining the illusion throughout the book, the reader is placed firmly within this universe and the mystery of the Phantom is one we are only tangentially clued in to. This also plays into how the local groups interact with the Phantom. He is treated as a revered figure within their culture, while simultaneously being viewed as a boogie man by the island’s criminal element. Mooney excels at this brand of subtle world-building that both expands and pays tributes to what has come before.
From an art perspective, this book displays a rare dynamism in its action scenes that often missing in mainstream comics. The Phantom is certainly skilled in martial arts, but his fighting style is minimalist and the interiors portray this stunning efficiency fantastically. Moreover, the story’s island setting allows for some breathtaking landscapes and imagery that you just don’t see outside of the Savage Land. The colouring helps to exemplify this by providing stark contrasts of densely-covered jungles, mines at sunset and midnight infiltration. They also liven up each fight scene by bringing focus to key tactical maneuvers and actions. Declan Shalvey recently said we have entered a golden age of colouring and Farrell certainly answers the call.
This comic is an utter joy to read and a credit to everyone involved. From the writing and artwork, even down to the lettering which invokes a pirate adventure, the creative team commit to a vision that celebrates the world’s first superhero. Having never read the Phantom or seen any media related to him, I was amazed by how invested and enthralled with the character’s mythos I became over the span of 28 pages. Whether an existing phan or a newcomer, you owe it to yourself to revel in the pulp glory of The Phantom: Scarlet Sapphire.
A review copy was kindly provided by the publisher.