The Comic Book Club: “The Last Phantom” and “Set to Sea”

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This is what happens when Techland goes to the comic book store: we end up talking about what we picked up. This week, Douglas Wolk, Evan Narcisse, Mike Williams and Graeme McMillan discuss The Last Phantom #1 and Set to Sea.

DOUGLAS: The Last Phantom: Oh God. The only thing I can think of is the old joke about the guide warning his charges about the ceaseless drumbeat they’re hearing in the jungle–insert about five minutes of buildup here–“But remember–it’s very, very bad if the drums stop.” “Wh-what happens then?” “…Bass solo.”

My exposure to the Phantom is pretty minimal–I think I read a couple of comic books and a couple of episodes of the newspaper strip 30 years or so ago. (As I recall, Don Newton drew a couple of the comics, and I always had a real fondness for anything Don Newton did.) But what is this stultifying load of color-by-numbers savage-jungle/action-hero-legacy codswallop, and is there a reason I’d begin to care about it if I knew anything about the Phantom? Does every trademark with a costume need to be hauled up and mechanically serviced?

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EVAN: Douglas, I probably only know about as much as you do about the Phantom: Created by Lee Falk, white guy in the jungle, the guns and the skull ring, one of the earliest legacy characters in comics. You can see that they were trying to do a history-free, continuity-lite approach to the Phantom, for fear of alienating people who aren’t steeped in the lore.

But the problem with this kind of gamble is that you can lose hold of what differentiates the character. So, in this case, either embrace the purple leotard or don’t. This bathed-in-blood with guyliner look comes off as a bad compromise, especially since the purple looks like the blood’s colored wrong. Also, it’s way gorier than previous iterations of the Phantom. Does that fit the mystique?

And, yeah: the savagery. Let’s not shy away from the fact that there’s horrific political violence on the continent of Africa and also let’s not shy away from using it in fiction. But, man, you really need to set up context. The creative team doesn’t do that nearly enough here. There are enough codewords and images–“yellowcake,” “disease,” “political pressure,” oil and diamond icons–to make it seem “modern,” but all that feels perfunctory and cheap.

This does feel like trademark service. Kit Walker tells us he’s the guardian of Bengali and its people. Really? How? Why? All we get is he’s the head of a charitable organization. And we get the Bengali president invoking the Ghost Who Walks lore. How are we supposed to know how he knows that? What is that supposed to mean to new readers? That said, I did like the art.

Also, when I was reading The Last Phantom, I kept on flashing back to the infinitely better Unknown Soldier reboot that came from Vertigo recently. It also re-interpreted a pre-existing mythos in a modern context, with lots of ramped-up violence and real world political echoes. But it couched it all in a strongly delineated framework and great character dynamics full of contradictions.

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GRAEME: YES. This Phantom reboot reminds me, more than anything, of Vertigo’s Unknown Soldier – It’s as if they’re trying to do the same thing, but without a willingness to do more than give lip service to the political reality and ambiguity that Unknown Solider readily inhabits.

It’s a shame; I really liked Scott Beatty’s refit of Buck Rogers, also for Dynamite, and there he managed to balance “reboot for new readers/callouts to old stuff for old readers” much better than it’s handled here. Even the dialogue was better there, I feel. There’s just something about starting a Phantom book with the line “They call it the ‘Jungle Telegraph,’ and it warns of impending DOOM.” Is that recognition of the cliche, or just being cliched?

MIKE: My exposure to the Phantom was the movie from the 90’s. After reading this issue, though, I feel the need to go back and look up some original stuff, since this can’t be what the franchise is all about. Two things stood out to me in this book, the violence and the art–neither for good reasons.

The violence is unavoidable for this story. By the way, this story is an origin story–at least that’s how it reads to me. The fact that Kit is from a long line of ass-kickers is coincidence. A set of cookie-cutter thug mercs attacks Kit’s family compound so that a subordinate can take over a charity organization? A broke charity organization? It’s all paper-thin excuses to have his family killed. These guys go out of their way to murder a horse!

I agree with just about everyone that as an Alex Ross cover the ‘blood uniform’ works well, but as interior art, not so much. We’ll see how this series goes, but are we expected to believe that every time he is going to Phantom up he’ll break out the gun-belt loincloth and a gallon of blood? I know that a purple body suit and a domino mask can be a tough sell for a modern-day reboot, but what we get here is not the way to go.

GRAEME: I don’t know if this series is necessarily built for the long haul. Not only is there the “I have to become the Phantom again – WHERE IS MY BLOOD COSTUME?” problem, but the title suggests that this is either a bridge to a n ongoing “Now he’s the Phantom” book with, presumably, a new status quo and more durable costume, or a one-off revenge story.

MIKE: Please be a one-off revenge story.

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