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|March 29, 1999||
Mr Walker's last mile
On the assumption that you're as fed up of Rabri Devi, Mohan Guruswamy, Vishnu Bhagwat and the Badal-Tohra feud as I am, this column is devoted to the passing of a man who managed only a single paragraph in most Indian newspapers. Lee Falk was hardly a household name anywhere in the world. When he died recently, at the age of 87, some newspapers duly recorded his departure but felt under no obligation to provide complete obituaries.
Even if you've never heard of Lee Falk, my guess is that you have heard of his two most famous creations: Mandrake the Magician and the Phantom, the Ghost Who Walks. And if you've heard of them, then you'll know why Falk's death marks the end of an era for people of my generation.
Falk conceived of Mandrake around 70 years ago at a time when superheroes were hardly the rage. Mandrake was no superman, either. A stage magician, he always appeared dressed for a performance at the Palladium, complete with cape, top hat and faithful loin clothed negro sidekick, Lothar (there was no political correctness in those days). Mandrake's gimmick was hypnosis.
In those days, it was commonly believed that mass hypnosis was not only possible but also easy to do. Now, of course we know better -- Sai Baba and J Jayalalitha notwithstanding. But Falk thought that hypnosis could be harnessed by the forces of good to fight crime. All a magician had to do was to wave his arms and a crook would feel that his pants were on fire or that his machine gun had turned into a snake.
Mandrake was followed in 1936 by the Phantom. The original concept was simple. A millionaire donned a mask to fight crime and then retreated to a cave. Nobody knew his true identity and because the title the Phantom was passed from father to son, everyone believed that the original Phantom was immortal; hence the name, The Ghost Who Walks.
If the original concept of the Phantom seems eerily familiar even to those who have never read the strip, think about it. A masked man? A millionaire with a secret identity? A hideout in a cave?
That's it. Right concept. Wrong hero.
Doesn't it sound too much like Batman?
I met Falk in 1980 on one of his rare visits to India. Already quite old (he must have been nearly 70) he looked like your average American tourist with a string-style Texan tie as he lounged by the pool of the Bombay Taj. He was surprised to find how popular the Phantom (or the Fanum, as he pronounced it) was in India and a little taken aback -- and here, I pause to blow my own trumpet -- to find as dedicated a fan as myself in Bombay.
What about the parallels with Batman, I asked.
Falk sat up in his chair. "It is a complete copy," he said. "the whole damn thing is a complete copy of the Fanum."
The way he told it, the Phantom came first (this is true) but because the character never had his own book, appearing instead in daily newspaper strips, Detective Comics (the forerunners of today's DC) were able to appropriate many of his distinguishing characteristics, combine them with some attributes stolen from The Mask of Zorro and claim that Bob Kane had invented Batman. Falk did not have DC's resources so he watched dumbfounded as Batman began appearing in three different comic books.
Faced with the theft of the characteristics of his hero, Falk was left with two options. Either he buried the Phantom or he changed the character. Sensibly, he opted for the latter. Out went the Batmanlike touches. There was no millionaire now, there was no secret identity and the Phantom did not operate out of a city. "I kept the skull-cave though," he said. "the Batcave is such a cheap copy."
He moved the Phantom to the jungle and decided to (this was my surmise though he was not pleased by it) steal a few of Tarzan's characteristics by making him the king of the jungle. There were problems though. Falk had never been out of the United States. He did not want to be like Edgar Rice Burroughs whose ignorance caused him to get Tarzan to fight a tiger in deepest Africa in one of the early books.
So, Falk made up a country. "I wanted it to be partly India," he recalled, "like that guy Kipling and The Jungle Book and all that. Basically, I wanted Rajas." But there was another problem. He wanted pygmies as well. "So I thought why not make up an Afro-Indian country with its own name?"
And what name did he choose?
"Well I wanted something really wild-sounding. You know, like the tiger."
So he called it Bengal.
If you've read the Phantom comic strip or even the books produced by Indrajal comics in the Sixties, you have already paused for thought. Surely, you say to yourself, it wasn't called Bengal?
Well, actually it was. He was so impressed by the royal Bengal tiger that he called it Bengala. But when King Features picked up the strip for international syndication in the Fifties (yes, people of my generation remember reading it in The Illustrated Weekly), they had a little talk with Falk and told him that there were no lions, negroes or skull-caves in Bengal. So could he please change the name?
"I thought, it doesn't really matter, does it?" he remembered. "I mean, I made it up in the first place." So he let them call it Denkali. (It is still called Bengala in many versions, though.) But he kept the Indian touches. There are lots of rajas. And the current Phantom's father was killed by the Singh pirates (who, no doubt, sailed the seas of the Punjab).
The funny thing is that when I started reading the Phantom as a child (in the Weekly), it never occurred to me that it was meant to be set in India. I always thought it was Africa. After all, the Ghost Who Walks was protected by the Bandar pygmies (another politically incorrect Indian word - bandar -- think about it!) and his chief sidekick was a pygmy called Guran who wore a grasshat and had drooping breasts.
Everyone else was lily white, though. Even if the poor man lived in a cave in Bengal, he managed to find an American girlfriend called Diana Palmer, adopt a white child called Kit and pose as a white man when he visited the West, wittily calling himself Mr Walker (get it?)
But still, the Phantom was, for us in India at least, a comic book hero for the masses. We read him each week in the Weekly and in the early Sixties Indrajal Comics started collecting the newspaper strips in books, priced at 75 paise each. When they ran through all of Falk's original stories (one comic book takes at least six month's worth of newspaper strips), the creative folks at Indrajal (a branch of The Times of India) wrote their own Phantom stories. Such was our sophistication as children, that we couldn't tell the difference.
By the time Falk came to India in 1980, it was all over for the Phantom abroad. The strip still appeared in 500 small-town newspapers but nobody paid it much attention. There had been a Republic picture serial in the Forties (with Tom Tyler as the Phantom) but nobody seemed interested in making a television series or a movie. (A cheapo movie was made in the Nineties by Robert Evans with Billy Zane but it was a huge flop.) Falk was more optimistic about Mandrake. There had been a serial in the Forties but the producers had thrown out Lothar on the grounds that Americans didn't like black people. Federico Fellini had expressed a brief interest but nothing had happened. Falk was now pinning his hopes on Kevin Kline who was developing a Mandrake project. (It never happened.)
He was pleased therefore to come to India where the Phantom meant so much to people of my generation. Everywhere he went, journalists would take him aside to discuss the Phantom's marriage plans. "Well," he would say, "I can tell you this much. The Fanum will marry Diana, they will live in a tree house and have twins."
"It's a great feeling," he told me. "Because you know, the Fanum is really set in India." I didn't have the heart to tell him that they would hit him with jhadoos in Calcutta if they heard about the skull cave and the pygmies of Bengal. But my heart went out to the old man, cheated by Batman of the recognition that was his due in this own country, looking desperately for a reason to find significance in the Indian response.
Sadly, three years later, the Weekly dropped the Phantom. I never followed the adventures of the twins and the treehouse, forgot about Guran and had difficulty remembering Diana's name. And now alas, with Falk gone, there will be no future for the Phantom. The Ghost Who Walks has walked his last mile.
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