Phantom Vs Batman! Now if both the vigilantes were to lock cowls, who would win?
Oh, yes, it’s a silly question indeed. It would be the Dark Knight all the way! The Grey Ghost (or should we say, the Purple Ghost?) would be voted out by comic book lovers all across the world. Even critics, who usually bail out the underdogs, would swear by the Dark Knight. Indeed, an unfortunate state of affairs for the grand daddy of Masked Vigilantes and ‘underpants-over-the-pants’ crime fighters.
Reminds one of the Superman Vs Captain Marvel sales war way back in the 40s where the public chose the ‘Inspired’ over the Original forcing National (now DC) to sue Fawcett over intellectual property rights violation.
Just like it was plain and acknowledged that Captain Marvel was a verbatim copy of Superman, (so were all the subsequent super heroes) so was Batman a reinterpretation of The Phantom, though never really acknowledged.
Yes that is indeed a serious allegation, no doubt. But let me see if I can convince the jury. Here are the three key points of discussion.
1) Raison d'être – What made Christopher Standish (later Christopher Walker) to become the Phantom and what made Bruce Wayne to become the Batman were the gruesome killings of their parents. Coincidence?
2) Fear – Now this is the most telling aspect of the Phantom that was appropriated into the Batman character. One of the underlying Ideas in both the comics is the play on Fear and Superstitions. The very look of the Phantom is to induce fear among the criminals, an Idea that was liberally borrowed by Kane while creating the Batman. But neither Kane’s artwork nor the writers’ story telling ever managed to create that feeling on the pages of Batman comic. The only time I’ve seen this motif effectively captured was when Chris Nolan came out with the movie, Batman Begins.
3) The Territory – Even though the Phantom operates in the city occasionally on account of his numerous visits to meet Diana Palmer, his ladylove, Phantom’s territory is usually the Jungle. And so is Batman’s! Practically it may not be, for Gotham is a city with a Mayor and all that bureaucracy. But metaphorically even the Batman operates in the jungle. Unlike in Superman or Spiderman, the city plays a far more important role in Batman Comics. You don’t speak about Metropolis or (oops, I can’t even remember where Peter Parker lives!) in the same breath as you would speak of Gotham! Gotham plays far too critical a role in Batman comics. Just like the Phantom who cannot exist without the Jungle, so can’t Batman without the City! Just like the Phantom who needs the cover of the jungle to operate, so does the Batman, the City. In Batman, the city is a metaphor! A metaphor for the jungle where all the dangerous species take refuge. And when the night falls, the city behaves no differently from a Jungle. From the alleys, isolated buildings and dark corners, criminals crawl out for the kill. But don’t worry, Batman to the rescue!
Now before the jury retire to the chamber to make up their minds, here are a few minor points to chew upon:
4) The Mask – The Phantom may not be the first in popular fiction to wear a mask, but he certainly was the first to in comics (even though there was a fella by the name of the Clock who was masquerading around the same time). True, Batman’s mask is more of a Cowl, but just like in the case of the Phantom, the whole get up is part of the character (thanks to Bill Finger who convinced Bob Kane that a Domino mask wouldn’t just do the trick!) Yes, this is rather debatable on account of the fact that a character based on a Bat has to resemble a bat at least aesthetically and I am sure that the die-hard fans of Batman won’t just give up easily on this topic. So let’s leave it there and move on to …
5) The pupil – This was purely Lee Falk’s genius. Inspired by the Greek busts that were devoid of pupils, Falk employed the same idea on the Phantom with great result. The result, masks without pupils become a superhero standard!
6) Skin-tight costume – Yet another superhero standard, thanks to the Phantom.
7) Colours – Indeed, the Phantom wears a Purple costume where as Batman is dressed in Grey. But then the original colour of the Phantom’s costume as mentioned in the comics was Grey!
8) Underpants-Over-The-Pants – To the best of my knowledge, it wasn’t Superman who introduced this standout feature of the superhero culture. It was the Phantom!
9) The Cave – This doesn’t need much explaining, does it? Both the characters use a cave as their bases.
10) Wealth – Both the characters are rich beyond one can imagine.
11) Generations – Looks like Batman will soon incorporate this aspect of the Phantom (even though to generate reader interest). Dick Grayson is touted to don the cape and in a few decades time one can expect to see Dicky retiring or giving up the cape to err, what is the name of the incumbent Robin?
I rest my case. But originality seldom sells, does it? As we all know it’s all about bottling the product! And that is what made Batman the figure that he is today and the Phantom more of a one-dimensional stock character. Again one’s attention is brought towards three decisive factors:
1) Aesthetics - There is no denying the fact that the Batman has much more appeal than the Phantom. A Masked Vigilante in a purple suit! And to say nothing of the striped overwear! Come on, gimme a break! The ideal colour could have been a deeper shade of grey as Falk had initially mentioned in the early comic strips or even black! Such a character has not even a snowball’s chance in hell against the Crusader decked up in shades of grey, with his face covered in a stunning dark mask (with bat like ears) and shrouded in a cape. Ah the cape!
2) Art – There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the artwork in the Phantom. As a matter of fact, Sy Barry’s more than 3 decades long artwork is immaculate, consistent and flawless to say the least. But as opposed to the artwork in Batman, the artwork in the Phantom lacked the edge. It’s seldom inspirational. You don’t find yourself lost in a particular panel or the use of shadows and colours. No, you can’t defend by saying that the Phantom is not much into staying awake in the night to allow shadows to play across the face. It’s about understanding the possibilities of a character. This can easily be understood if one compares Superman and Batman comics of the 60s and 70s. While Batman comics looked exciting in terms of artwork, Superman comics looked dispirited. This was because the same artists who worked on Batman comics found making Superman look respectable a bit difficult and ended up presenting a beefy hunk instead. So unlike Batman who could often take the comic book to the level of a graphic novel luring older audiences ensuring longevity, Phantom could never grow beyond the definition of a comic strip character. Nevertheless its heart warming to note that the newer artists are doing some commendable job on Phantom. Well, better late than never!
3) Villains – A hero is only as good as a villain. So one can imagine what villains like the Joker, the Two-Faces, The Penguin, The Riddler and The Catwoman (the list is endless) among others can do to Batman’s resume. One aspect that made the Phantom, the poor man’s Batman!
But even if all these aspects had been favourable, the Phantom still wouldn’t have made the cut. Because the single most important factor that can decide a character’s popularity is exposure. And that brings us to the Medium.
The Medium – This was perhaps the single most important factor that shunned the Phantom’s emergence as an internationally relevant superhero. Phantom made his appearance in comic strips instead of in a comic book. The trouble with comic strips is the fact that it doesn’t really lend itself to feature length stories, as it would take at least a few months to finish a story. And reading an adventure story, 3 panels a day doesn’t really work unless you are a die-hard fan of that particular strip. Even though the Phantom stories did get collected and were presented in the form of a comic Book, well unless the medium gets carte blanche command over a character they can’t really do much, can they? On the other hand Batman had the perfect launch pad in the form of Detective Comics. Finish the story in one go and just hope that there is some mischief brewing in Gotham so that Batty can put it right! Besides Batman often got reprieves in the form of highly successful TV Serials and Movies.