“The Ghost Who Walks,” “The Man Who Cannot Die,” “The Guardian of the Eastern Dark.” In the beginning he had been a half-drowned sailor, flung ashore on the terrible, blood-drenched Bengalla coast after pirates burned his ship and slaughtered his mates. The gentle Bandar pygmies, taking him to be a sea god of ancient prophecy, nursed him back to fitness and became his everlasting friends — as the castaway faced his destiny, donned costume and mask and was reborn as the first of the Phantoms, scourge of predators everywhere.
“I swear to devote my life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty and injustice!” he cried as he formally took “The Oath of the Skull” by firelight. “And my sons and their sons shall follow me!”
And in time there was a son. In time that son begat another, and thereafter that son begat again. After a while, there arose a dynasty of Phantoms, one after another, born into the legend then reared and rigorously drilled in the disciplines and the duties.
Through the generations these eerily identical jungle lords have prowled an evil world in the cloaks of many identities, and none today but the Bandar and a handful of other secret souls know that all are not one and the same.
The modern Phantom is the 21st of the line. Since Feb. 17, 1936, he has been the law in his dangerous part of the world, a one-man police force, a silent avenger who appears and vanishes like lightning. His home is the fearsome “Skull Cave,” deep in the heart of his jungle. His only intimates have been the faithful Bandar, his great white horse Hero, his savage gray wolf Devil, and his lovely American sweetheart Diana Palmer. Even the men of the Jungle Patrol, the paramilitary peacekeeping squad an ancestor had organized some years ago, have never seen the face of their mysterious commander in chief.
From thieves and smugglers to cut-throat harbor rats to crazed dictators seeking to enslave free men, all have met the Phantom over 60 thrilling years, and all have tasted his wrath. Always changing with the whirlwind times around him, he has increasingly come to function as something of a United Nations troubleshooter-at-large, a shadowy trench-coated figure slipping in and out of modern Third World political intrigue.
But never far from the Phantom’s stage are the great emperors and brigands of yore, in the shining tales of his 20 heroic forebears, recounted in the epic Phantom Chronicles. In more than 60 years of daily newspaper stories and 58 years of Sunday-only yarns, “Phantom” creator Lee Falk has meticulously fleshed out the most minute details of a fabulous dynastic pageant, illuminating the lives of the Phantoms of old whose blood courses through the veins of the modern Ghost Who Walks. Many of them have swashbuckled their way through the famous newspaper comic strip in grand flashback sequences — one early Phantom is known to have married Christopher Columbus’ granddaughter; another is known to have married Shakespeare’s niece; still another took a Mongol princess as his bride.
The fifth Phantom crossed swords with the pirate Blackbeard in the early 1600s. The 13th Phantom traveled to the young United States and fought alongside Jean Lafitte in the War of 1812. The 16th appears to have put in some time as a Wild West cowboy.
And succession is assured.
The current Phantom and Diana Palmer were wed in 1977, and today their scrappy young son, Kit, is in training to someday take the sacred “Oath of the Skull” and become the 22nd Phantom. (Phantom 2040, the futuristic television series that in 1994 spun off from Lee Falk’s classic comic-strip legend, posits a 24th Phantom, apparently Kit’s grandson.)