My maternal grandmother, Mrs. Nelle S. Rhodes, R.N., lived in the large apartment house that stands on the corner of West Front and Mulberry Streets in Statesville. My father, mother, brother and I would come up from Mooresville to visit her. I remember riding under the railroad bridge on South Center and then going past the St. Charles Hotel, which still stood in downtown Statesville.
At Mam-maw Rhodes’ there were two things, besides giving her a kiss, that I always did: I would ask her to start up her player piano — “The Stars and Stripes Forever” was my favorite of her piano rolls — and I would look through her most recent newspapers, not to catch up on the news, but to see what “The Phantom” comic strip character was up to.
We sometimes subscribed to Mooresville’s Tribune, but it did not have a comics section as my grandmother’s newspaper did. I’m not sure if it was one of the Statesville papers or a Charlotte paper or the Winston-Salem paper she subscribed to, but my brother and I were fans of Superman and Batman, and so we were also fans of “The Ghost Who Walks,” one of The Phantom’s sobriquets.
Lee Falk (1911-1999) was the creator of The Phantom, which has been hailed by some as the first costumed comic superhero. Falk also created the character, “Mandrake the Magician.”
Falk was a multitalented man who introduced his purple tights-clad Nemesis of Evil Doers Everywhere in 1936, in the King Features Syndicate, years before the comic characters Superman (1938), Captain Midnight (1938), Batman (1939), Captain Marvel (1939), Captain America (1941) and Wonder Woman (1941) appeared.
Stan Lee’s Spider-Man is a relative newcomer to the world of superheroes with his debut in 1962, but still earlier than Lee’s popular character Ironman (1963) and Wolverine (1974).
At its apogee, The Phantom strip was a daily treat for millions of newspaper readers and reportedly still attracts some 100 million readers in newspapers daily.
The 1943 Columbia Pictures eponymous movie cliffhanger serial was notable in that its cast included some actors performing bit parts early in their careers, including Jay Silverheels (“Tonto” in TV’s “The Lone Ranger”), Iron Eyes Cody, Ray Corrigan and Ace, the Wonder Dog, as “Devil.”
The Phantom returned to the Big Screen with the 1996 movie by Paramount Pictures, costarring Kristi Swanson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. The film was set in the 1930s, and although having a $45 million budget, only recouped $17.3 million at the domestic box office, but is reported to have made up somewhat in VHS and DVD formats.
A variety of Phantom merchandise, including comic books, action figures, DVD and VHS movies, movie posters, novels and trading cards is available for fans through on-line sources such as eBay.
A Phantastic Phantom Quiz
1. What is the name of The Phantom’s wolf/dog?
2. What is the name of The Phantom’s horse?
3. What is the name The Phantom uses when away from his jungle home?
4. What was the name of the criminal gang The Phantom originally fought?
5. Altogether, how many Phantom novels did Lee Falk author?
6. Where is The Phantom’s home/headquarters located?
7. What does The Phantom wear on his right hand?
8. What actor starred in the 1996 movie, “The Phantom”?
9. Who starred as The Phantom in the 1943 black and white cliffhanger movie serial?
10. What is the name of The Phantom’s romantic interest?
11. What superpowers does The Phantom have, like X-ray vision, the ability to fly or telepathy?
12. According to the story line developed by Falk, the current Phantom is descended from how many ancestors who also were “The Phantom”?
O.C. Stonestreet is the author of “Tales From Old Iredell County,” “They Call Iredell County Home” and “Once Upon a Time ... in Mooresville, NC.”