I revisited the Phantom comics I loved growing up, only to find they were ghastly, racist
Part of adulthood is finding out that you can't go back to all those things you loved as a child — including Phantom comics
By Nisha Susan
I once loved Phantom. I loved his purple outfit, his muscles, his mythology, his wolf and his habit of drinking milk at bars. When I had to return the comics to the lending library, I did it sadly. Especially the special issues, like the one when you see a flash of Kit Walker’s face or the one in which Kit Walker marries Diana Palmer.
When I first got irony as a teenager, I used to say “Old Jungle Saying” and laugh, but still fondly. Fond enough to spoil the memories by watching the movie adaptation with Billy Zane in purple. You can imagine why I felt a great thrill of decadence when I recently bought a hardbound special edition of Phantom comics. What else is adulthood good for, I told myself.
Apparently, adulthood is also good for finding out that you really can’t go home again (and that isn’t just a tagline for movies about loners). I couldn’t get through a single issue because it was so terrible.
Let me be clearer. These are the same old comics. They haven’t changed.
I found out only recently that the creator Lee Falk intended Phantom to be set in India. Falk wanted it to be such that “four hundred years ago, a man was washed up on a remote Bengal shore. He’d seen his father killed and his ship scuttled by Singh Pirates.” However in the Indian editions I’ve read the non-place ‘Bengala’ became the non-place ‘Denkali’.
When I was a kid I didn’t realise how ghastly and racist these comics are. A white dude continuously being god-like in his wisdom, power and justice-dispensation to child-like, black people who defend themselves with poison arrows, yo. His love interest is a conveniently white woman living in New York working for umm…the UN. Only time travel could possibly allow me the pleasure of reading Phantom again.
This is not to say that my political correctness is slaying my couch potato habits all the time. I am happy to watch Friends whenever I remember to pay Tata Sky and see it on a channel (since it’s apparently always playing somewhere). I grimace at how continuously terrified the men in Friends are of anything ‘gay’. I notice that there are no black people in season after season of the show. I notice this, and also notice that the show How I Met Your Mother is hugely transphobic, but I do watch it every now and then and never think of it much. This is not the same feeling that Phantom gives me. The racism is so built into the premise of the comics that it’s hard to think of anything else. I had a severe twinge with Gerald Durrel and his jolly-white-man routine a few years ago, and am not brave enough to go back.
A friend with a great appetite for romance says that she can’t read Mills & Boon anymore as she did as a teenager. “I can see the sexism over the romance too much and my hormones won't blind me to the bad writing anymore either,” she says. She also thinks that “too much therapy has ruined Mills and Boons” for her. In her case it isn’t that her appetite has reduced, it’s her palate that is far, far finer. “I have replaced them with the Gita Govinda, no lie.”
While I was recovering from the shock of that refinement, I heard from another friend who told me that she still loves a lot of old stuff because her kid keeps her tastes young, but soon after she remembered with a giggle that she once loved He-Man. “Now it looks and sounds too gross, ya,” she said. Not even the power of Castle Grayskull.
A male friend who is far from being obsessively politically correct says that he can’t read Colin Forbes anymore. “I tried recently. Shockwave was a seminal teen reading experience. Of the main characters, one is a trained female spy who mostly makes the meals and tea while the boys go out for the action. I think she also gets to drive the car a bit.”
I must also report, however, that I recently had a happy moment around Phantom. Apparently Sweden has been running its own timeline of Phantom since the 1960s.
And now they think it’s time for the 22nd Phantom to make an appearance and they are hinting strongly that it’s going to be Heloise Walker, one of Kit Walker’s twin children. They even blandly cite a historical precedent. Apparently, when the 17th Phantom was sick his sister Julie briefly acted as substitute teacher/preacher/justice-seeker in purple.
This should be fun, I thought. But I also wonder with a wince why these terrible comics are popular in Sweden that prides itself on its progressiveness.
Perhaps for a lot of people, the pleasure of watching Mad Men and Game of Thrones must be the reverse – to be able to wallow in an oppressive status quo with permission because, hey, it’s historical realism (or fake medieval realism with dragons). It’s cool to not have brown people or black people and to have women raped all the time. And that the people who make these shows know that under the high production values, these are the values they offer some part of their demographic. Now that’s much more depressing than not being able to enjoy Phantom anymore.
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