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The Phantom Show

THE PHANTOM SHOW brings together over 40 artists in an exhibition dedicated to the great comic character.

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This is the fourth Phantom exhibition. From the first one at Ray Hughes’ Brisbane gallery in 1973 to the Australian Galleries in 2014, curated by Peter Kingston and Dietmar Lederwasch, The Phantom is still going strong. Some of the participating artists include Gary Shead, Reg Mombassa, Euan Macleod, Dick Frizzel, Elisabeth Cummings, Kerrie Lester, Kevin Connor, Jan Allen, Michael Bell, Frank Gohier, Richard Goodwin and even Austen Tayshus, all of whom are contributing their various interpretations of the ‘Ghost who Walks’. It proves that those obsessions with The Phantom that developed during childhood can be hard to shake.

So why The Phantom? Why not Superman? Or Batman? Why does a comic book character created prior to World War II still resonate so strongly with many generations nearly 80 years later? Is his appeal just an antipodean anomaly or something more? Could any fictional comic book character easily attract over 40 artists in 2014 to reinterpret his image in an art exhibition in Australia, let alone anywhere in the world? Is this too many questions? Let’s start at the beginning.

The creator of The Phantom was Lee Falk. Falk was born in St Louis Missouri in 1911 and died in New York in 1999. As a young boy, magicians, exotic places and legends had fascinated Falk. When he originally decided to turn his skill as an artist and storyteller to comic strips he created Mandrake the Magician, purportedly using himself as the model for the pencil-moustachioed crime fighter in a top hat. That was in 1934, a full two years before he created The Phantom. Mandrake had supernatural (or rather ‘magical’) powers, such as using hypnosis to make his opponents hallucinate, and embarked on various adventures, thwarting villains and solving crime. Crucially, Mandrake was often aided by his best friend Lothar, a native of Africa and therefore a harbinger of Falk’s later depiction of exotic locales, which would manifest itself in The Phantom and the country of Bengali/ Bangalla, which he inhabited.

When Falk created The Phantom in 1936 he was the first costumed ‘Superhero’ and predated Superman (1938), Batman (1939) and Spiderman (1962). The same year that the ‘Ghost who Walks’ first walked, Gone with the Wind was published, the Queen Mary set sail on her maiden voyage, the German boxer Max Schmeling defeated African-American Joe Louis, Hitler presided over the opening of the Berlin Olympics and the USA was just beginning to emerge from the Great Depression. Falk originally envisaged The Phantom as a wealthy New York playboy by day and The Phantom by night, an escapist fantasy that would no doubt have appealed to comic book audiences during those penurious times. He abandoned this premise early on and some have speculated that had Falk persevered with this storyline (as Bob Kane and Bill Finger later did with Batman), The Phantom would have had much greater appeal in the United States than he did.

While technically a ‘Superhero’, the Phantom is ironically greater than that, for he fights crime and rights wrongs without the aid of ‘super’ powers to assist him. If he could fly unaided through the sky or tie a one-inch metal rod into a bow or leap a tall building in a single bound then defeating the Swamp Rats or Singh Brotherhood would be a cinch. Rather it’s his human skills and resourcefulness (not to mention a pair of handy pistols and a crashing right blow) that invariably save the day. Like Batman, he owes more to earlier pulp detective fiction than the legion of supercharged superheroes which followed.

It is perhaps this humanness and vulnerability that has maintained The Phantom’s appeal for generations in Australia. Even from an early age, most bright children realise they don’t possess super powers. No heat or X-ray vision, super strength or super hearing for them. Deep down they know they could never be Superman but maybe, just maybe they could be The Phantom. For many of these young people, comic books are their introduction to art and narrative. Along with illustrated storybooks, a comic book is often the first form of storytelling that many children encounter. More tellingly, a comic book is usually the first book that they themselves seek out and purchase with their pocket money. The power that simple artwork, coupled with a compelling storyline can convey cannot be underestimated and it seems that obsessions developed during childhood are always the deepest and longest lasting. Later life obsessions usually drop off or fade into nothing but youthful obsessions often linger, taking root in impressionable consciousness and refusing to budge.

Although The Phantom comic is an American produced comic, there seems to be something intrinsically Australian about it, so much so that many people to this day believe it to be an Australian creation. No doubt the source for much of this misunderstanding lies with the earlier tweaking of the storyline to insert local flavour. This began from as early as 1937 in the Australian Woman’s Mirror, when Diana Palmer was altered from her existence as a New York socialite to a “young Sydney girl” in an effort to appeal to local audiences. Mention of money was changed to reflect local currency, and local publisher Frew Publications, which has published Phantom comics in Australia since 1948 made The Phantom a ubiquitous character in many Australian homes. The impact of The Phantom here can also be measured by how it has crossed over into other Australian popular culture mediums. Paul Hogan parodied one of the biggest developments in Phantom history when he mined the routine of post matrimonial life between The Phantom and Diana Palmer for laughs on his popular television show. A Ramones influenced Sydney rock and roll band named The Eastern Dark existed in the 80s and it also came as no surprise when a feature-length movie of The Phantom was made in Australia in 1998, also directed by an Australian, Simon Wincer. Even the iconic Aussie genre film, Stone had a scene where one of the biker gang is more enamoured of his dog-eared Phantom comic than the purring moll vying in vain for his attention.

Curator Dietmar Lederwasch reveals his own fascination with The Phantom, “As a four-year-old I remember clutching my first Phantom comic, The Sky Band. The artist was Ray Moore. I couldn’t read it but was captivated by the mysterious and brooding images. Eventually I was able to appreciate the wonderful humour. This exhibition with over 40 artists interpreting their own Phantom seeks to understand why his appeal is universal.”

EXHIBITION
The Phantom Show
9 December to 21 December 2014
Australian Galleries

Image 01: Peter Kingston, Phantom on the throne, 2003, painted wood, edition 2, 21 x 19.5cm
Image 02: Elisabeth Cummings, PK as The Phantom, 2014, oil on canvas, 70 x 60cm

Images courtesy of the artists, Australian Galleries, King Street Gallery, Sydney, and Watters Gallery, Sydney

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