Phantom Phreaks

by Frank Robson

Australian Penthouse, February 1985, pp.78-83

The Ghost Who Walks is alive and well and fighting evil in the Brisbane suburbs.

Before they were married, Chad Chadbone and his fiancee Helen had a monumental blue. Chad was so agitated he stormed into the bedroom and packed his 2000 Phantom comics into two large suitcases, leaving no room for more conventional belongings. "I'm off!" he cried, but found himself unable to lift the cases. This, and the fact that it had begun to rain, swayed the pragmatic Chadbone -- Phantom Club life member 094530 -- into giving their relationship another chance. "And that," he says today, "is how the Phantom saved our romance and was at least partly responsible for young Chad here." The boy yawns in his father's arms, perhaps having heard the story a time or two before. Like most others at the Phantom Club party, young Chad wears a T-shirt bearing the club motto: WE SERVE AGAINST EVIL.

In the Street outside the rambling old Brisbane house that is headquarters for the world's most devoted (and diverse) association of Phantom worshippers, Chadbone's van -- decorated with images of the Ghost Who Walks and used by Chadbone to perform good deeds in the name of you-know-who -- is parked alongside the $75 Holden, also bizarrely illustrated, of club president John Henderson. But the action is around the back, near the barbie. In this ordinary suburban setting have gathered several dozen men and women whose lives have been influenced (in some cases dramatically) by a muscular apparition in a sort of grey leotard, a man without eyeballs who wears a burglar's mask and lives in a cave with a dog called Devil, a horse called Hero and the grisly remains of 20 ancestors. All of whom, according to Phantom legend, wore the masked do-gooder's uniform before him. All of whom were cut down by evil forces -- going right back 450 years to the original Phantom, whose father was murdered by Singh pirates and who swore an oath on the skull of his dad's killer to devote his life "to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty and injustice, and my sons and their sons shall follow me."

Set in the Deep Woods of a land called Bengali, the outrageous yarn was created almost 40 years ago by a New York illustrator and writer, Lee Falk. But since then the Phantom character has been given life in the imaginations of his countless devotees, many of whom insist he exists in the flesh. Lee Falk, now 73, is thus sometimes regarded as a mere hack privileged to chronicle the Phantom's exploits, despite his tendency to annoy readers by "getting things wrong."

Although his comic book adventures are still followed world-wide, it's in Australia that the wise-cracking dude in the body stocking has his most enthusiastic following of "participating" fans. Here he is compared by club president John Henderson to BHP's Quiet Achiever -- a style that Henderson himself seems to possess, his clean-cut good looks and powerful physique inspiring inevitable comparisons with the Man Who Cannot Die. And when Henderson, 28, struggles into his expensively-tailored Phantom suit, well ... a peculiar metamorphosis is seen to occur. But more on that later.

In just three years the Australian club has attracted 3000 members -- from kids to company directors, from natives of the Papua New Guinea Highlands (who believe the Phantom exists in their jungles) to a Sydney solicitor who quotes Old Jungle Sayings in preference to legal precedents in court. It has members newborn and members with one foot in the grave: members in New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Scotland, Brazil and Singapore.

Most of us remember reading Phantom comics as children, or swapping (in my brother's case) a perfectly good unused condom for a tin Phantom ring that gashed his finger when he used it to slug the school bully. But modern Phantom fans are different, perhaps because in these times the Phantom no longer stacks up as the bizarre figure he once was. For downright weirdness, he can no longer compete with pop singers and business moguls, let alone the cast of Star Wars.

Like so many contemporary fashions, the Phantom renaissance is based instead on his perceived normality and good old fashioned moral virtues. Central to this is the character's moral code, spelt out in a Sacred Oath sworn by all new members: '"I promise to fight on the side of the Weak against the Oppressor -- with Good against Evil -- and to do everything in my power to destroy Greed, Cruelty and Injustice, wherever it exists. And may my children follow after me."

Talking to Phantom Phreaks (as they like to be known) confirms the intriguing theme: in this convoluted decade, moralistic and debauched, innovative and yet obsessed with resurrecting traditional values, the Phantom has been invested with the exemplary qualities of a cartoon Christ. His dedicated followers, particularly the younger ones, believe that by adopting the moral code of the Ghost Who Walks they can bring about a better world.

Chad Chadbone, for example, tells me that although himself raised a Catholic he had begun to instil into his own son (a life member under the club's new "tribe" scheme) the more practical ideals of the Phantom, whose blend of wry humor and decency the stout and affable Chadbone clearly respects more than conventional religion. "The Phantom is believable," he says simply. As John Henderson stokes up the barbecue and his guests at Phantom HQ play darts and drink beer, information is volunteered by the faithful.

Chris, a 23-year-old postman (member 086), is a fresh-faced surfer in Bermuda shorts. He has devoured Phantom comics since he was 14, but was not a serious student of Falk's imagination until joining the club two years ago. "The moment I met John (Henderson) and his brother Drew, I was sold," he says, smoothing his crewcut and beaming with charismatic zeal. '"They say people look like their dogs. Well, John looks like the Phantom. Physically, he's followed the Phantom's lifestyle of hard exercise, through footy training and surfing. And, I have to say it, he's also a man of mystery ... even now, after a period of living in this house with him and the boys, I don't really know him."

I understand what he means, having met Henderson several times and having found him polite, charming, but somehow guarded ... as if there are elements of his Phantom fixation that he wishes to keep from prying eyes. Of his background, Henderson had told me he'd hated his fledgling career in marketing and described reading Phantom comics at lunch time and dreaming of escape to the Deep Woods of Bengali. In 1981 he quit work and started the club. Seated at his desk, on which a skull lamp glowed dully, or vacuuming the carpet in his Phantom outfit, Henderson's thoughts seemed far away and a mysterious little smile played at the edge of his lips.

Later I discovered he had converted his garden shed into a replica of the Phantom's Skull Cave, complete with enormous white throne on which I have imagined Henderson sitting motionless in the dead of night, perhaps pining for his (comic book) wife Diana Palmer, or plotting retribution against fiendish pirates who blight the landscape in those Third World countries where the modern Phantom yarns are set.

Of course it's a clever act -- what Henderson once called "indulging the fantasies of grown-up children" -- but he does it so well you can't help but wonder if Henderson sincerely believes, as he claims, that his hero even now walks the Earth. Invoking the Phantom's skill as a lateral thinker, Henderson once told me: "Science can't prove that he doesn't exist!"

Back at the barbie, Chris the postie continues: "It's the Phantom's rigid morality that always impressed me. See Superman's from another planet and Bruce Wayne (Batman) has a million bucks ... but the Phantom he's just an ordinary bloke, a human like you and me. To be like him, all I have to do is follow Lee Falk's guidelines."

He then tells a remarkable story. A few weeks earlier, he'd seen a man being savagely beaten by two others in a hotel car park. "They were bashing his head against the side of a truck. Everyone was stand no around yelling 'Go fer it!' and I thought: 'This is fucking wrong!' In the past I might have turned away, but this time I asked myself what the Phantom would do. Then I walked in, grabbed one of the aggressors and gave him a biff."

He grinned ruefully. "I got a few bruises out of it, but it stopped the fight. Afterwards I felt good. Not brave or wanting to skite, but just ... good in myself. I would do the same thing again any time. That's what the Phantom means to me -- he's a guideline, a sort of book of rules for life."

Chris says his ambition is to go to New York for a holiday and meet Lee Falk. "I just want to shake his hand," he tells me. "That would be the ultimate... "

Christine Jacka, 28 (member 1030), is a bank officer who was introduced to Phantom comics as a child ... by her mother. "My mother is a little ... unusual," she says. "Every week she brought home the comics, read them herself then gave them to us kids. So part of the appeal of all this for me is nostalgic."

In black leather trousers, looking charmingly like Linda Ronstadt, Christine thinks carefully about the question of what has attracted her to the Phantom character. "I'm no prude or anything, but I suppose his sense of morality got me in," she says. "It doesn't matter how bad life becomes, people want to believe there's someone like the Phantom out there. And I like the tradition involved in the story -- how when one Phantom dies, his heir takes over." (Giving rise to the belief, demoralizing to the Phantom's foes, that he cannot die. His friends the Bandar pygmies, of course, know better.)

Christine shows me her stylish gold Phantom ring (more elegant by far than the one my brother owned) manufactured to her own design by a Hong Kong jeweller during her recent Asian holiday. "A lot of people see it as childish or silly, but I think fantasy is healthy -- although sometimes admitting I belong to the club makes me a little insecure."

Christine reads her Phantom comics faithfully because a lot of club activity involves detailed discussion of the hero's motives and "hidden meanings" -- but she doesn't believe he really exists "Just the same," she says, "I enjoy the dedication of the members who believe he is real. I listen to them discussing how impractical the Phantom's costume is in a hot climate, or how he doesn't carry enough with him on long journeys and like that. Hearing them talk about him as though he's real ... that gets me where I live. It makes me feel I am little again, reading the comics ..."

She pauses to admire the T-shirt of a passing member, a heavily muscled and tattooed artist who has hundreds of Phantom adventures indexed on his home computer. "PHUCK -- IT'S THE PHANTOM!" runs the inscription across his broad chest.

"One thing I don't understand," she continues, "is why more women don't join the club. OK, the Phantom's a man -- but he's a very attractive man, built like a brick outhouse." I ask if she has detected a physical resemblance between John Henderson and the Guardian Of The Eastern Dark (Old No Eyes). The pretty bank officer smiles wickedly. "You noticed that too, eh?" She glances over to where the president is playing darts with the team that represents the Phantom at suburban pubs. "He's a little shorter," she muses, "but yeah, the resemblance is uncanny." Christine says her sister once deduced that Diana Palmer (whom the Phantom married in 1977 and who now commutes to her job at the United Nations from her tree house in the Deep Woods) was the only person ever to see the Phantom naked. "They go swimming together in the raw," she confides. And then perhaps embarrassed by my laughter: "It's like Charles and Diana. People wonder what goes on behind closed doors. It's only human nature, isn't it?"

I assume Diana Palmer, normally seen with the Phantom when he adopts his "street alias" of Mr Walker, is also the only person allowed to look upon the Phantom's exposed face. Others who make this mistake "will surely die a terrible death" -- Old Jungle Saying.

I notice several enormous men wrestling on the lawn (it would have been difficult not to notice, believe me) and ask the largest, Turtle Johnson (member 2357), what the Phantom means to him. Without hesitation, Turtle Johnson rumbles: "The Phantom is someone to believe in."

I spot an interesting-looking woman who holds her dog -- a Devil look-alike with a Phantom badge on its collar -- on a lead, and ask her the same question. "To me he is simply an enigma," says Guinevere McBride (member 674), a registered nurse. "I don't like to speculate whether he really exists -- somehow that destroys the magic. Let's say he represents something I hope exists."

Guinevere was shocked a while back when she picked up a Phantom comic on the way to work and saw that the artist (a number of artists have illustrated Falk's stories, from Ray Moore in 1948 to Sy Barry today) had given her hero eyeballs instead of the traditional flesh-colored triangles. "It detracted from his enigmatic appeal," she says. "I was really irritated, but thank goodness it only happened in that one issue."

Ken Evans, vice president of the club (life member 003), is a merry-spirited 26-year-old who, like Henderson and the other purists, is adamant that the Phantom draws breath in our time. "He simply hasn't the time to handle his own publicity, so Lee Falk was chosen to do it for him," Evans says matter-of-factly. "To me, the Phantom's doctrines are more a philosophy than a religion. It's a matter of asking yourself, before you do something, whether the Phantom would approve."

When I suggest his mentor seems something of a wowser, Evans appears genuinely annoyed. "Certainly not," he snaps. "There is no evidence of him drinking anything stronger than milk (a habit that gets Mr Walker into innumerable brawls in the seedy waterfront bars he often frequents), but I'm sure he knows how to enjoy himself."

Our conversation attracts another member whose name and number I fail to record, but who is associated with Queensland's tirelessly Left-wing radio station, 4ZZZ. His views on contemporary issues suggest a novel way of testing whether the Phantom, like the Vatican, has been forced to water down some of his more archaic doctrines to maintain mass appeal. In the following dialogue (which develops later into a group discussion around the fire) the Left-winger is denoted by "4ZZZ."

Evans: "The 21st Phantom procreates in the normal way. He and Diana now have twins -- Kit and Heloise -- who live with their parents in the Deep Woods. As for promiscuity, he'd oppose it. He is a romantic by nature, very shy and naive around women. There is an Old Jungle Saying: 'The Phantom is strong as a bull and cunning as a fox, but when it comes to women he is unto the ox.'"

Evans: "Drugs are an aspect of modern piracy that the Phantom views as a rot, a disease to be eliminated ..."
4ZZZ: "Now hold on, Ken, The Phantom is a modern, lateral thinker. Evil drugs like smack of course he wouldn't approve of. But marijuana use by adults ..."
Evans: "Remember that story in which he sees drugs being offered for sale by a horrible crone in the street? And he thinks: 'This evil place ..."
4ZZZ: "Times are changing though."
Evans: "But dope is still an illegal substance. My feeling is that it's too controversial a subject for the Phantom to touch at this time."
4ZZZ: "Well, the Phantom may not approve of dope, but I believe he wouldn't disapprove too strongly. In this state he'd be more interested in combating the drug financiers, the Right-wing Fascist crooks who control the drug industry ..."

Around midnight the stayers gather by the fire, some sitting on an old Malibu surfboard that Henderson has dragged over and placed on blocks. The setting is now perfectly reminiscent of less complicated times, of Bermuda shorts and simple pleasures; of the unashamed nostalgia permeating almost everything the Phreaks have told me. The discussion continues.

What the Phantom stands for
Henderson: "I believe the Phantom is more into personal freedom than a set code of ethics or morality ..."
4ZZZ: "And civil liberties. All forms of evil involve taking away personal liberties."
Me: "What would the Phantom do if he met Joh Bjelke-Petersen?"
Henderson: "I think Joh would be left with a skull mark!"
4ZZZ (seriously): "He would try to make Joh see the error of his ways ... he would work towards achieving a one-vote, one value voting system so that elections in this state would at last be fair and democratic."

[NOTE: Joh Bjelke-Petersen was the Premier of the state of Queensland in Australia for about 15 years or so. He maintained his status by gerrymander -- electoral boundaries were shifted to favour his own political party. He has also been accused of all manner of shady dealings.]

Is the Phantom a religious figure?
4ZZZ: "Define religion."
Henderson: "He lives by his own code, not a religion. That code is best summarized by an Old Jungle Saying: 'Be rough on roughnecks'!"

Predictably, the conversation on this topic soon shows signs of becoming nasty. Some members refer to the Phantom's "spiritual qualities," others say he epitomizes what the rest of us would like to be; Henderson feels "he lives in the heart of every good man" -- yet all but one Phreak resists any suggestion that their idol is in any sense a replacement Christ.

Henderson (brooding a little at his end of the surfboard): '"Anyway Frank, the Phantom doesn't take himself seriously, so why should you?"
Me: I'm just intrigued by all these references to his morality. He seems, like Christ, to be a symbol for you all to live up to. "
Henderson (staring implacably into the fire): "He is very human. He goes on fighting for what he believes in, because it is his duty and his responsibility."
I'm about to laugh when Guinevere, regarding the president with undisguised admiration, says softly: "I think that sums him up very nicely."
Me (recalling Guinevere's description of the Phantom as enigmatic): "Isn't there something ... enigmatic about John Henderson?"
Chorus: "Definitely!'
Chad Chadbone: "I'm turning into the Phantom, too. Just ask me missus."
This is not possible Mrs Chadbone, quite sensibly, is asleep upstairs.

Chris the young postman had earlier mentioned how, after donning Henderson's Phantom outfit for a public appearance in Brisbane, he became unaccountably nervous. His hands shook and he felt a queer sense of anxiety out of proportion with simply appearing in public. "It seemed like the pressure of living up to that image, " he'd said. "Really, it just blew me out." Chris confided that even Henderson didn't wear the suit unless it was "absolutely necessary." Hoping to catch the enigmatic president off guard, I ask him about this.

Henderson (drily): "Well, we always hope the man himself will turn up. But if not I put the suit on. Actually, I don't like it because it's damned uncomfortable."
Inga (club secretary): "But I've seen you, John! When he first put the suit on in my presence I could see the change in him. He fulfills the role ... seems to walk with a straighter back, like a higher man ..."
Hoots of laughter do not faze the admirable Inga. "I saw the difference!" she cries, shouting them down. "It just wasn't John. I work with him personally, so I know. There was an aura around him. It's very strange, but that's what I saw." Henderson, smiling a little, says nothing.

And so ends my evening with the Phantom Phreaks. It seems a pity to sully their phantasies with phacts and phigures, but the Phantom (who, it just occurs to me, has so far died 20 times for our sins) is also a multi-million dollar industry controlled by King Features (the Hearst empire) and no account of his new role as the Quiet Achiever of Oz would be complete without a brief explanation of how he is marketed internationally.

To trade as The Official Phantom Club in Australia, Henderson must pay King Features $1000 a year or seven percent of sales, whichever figure is higher. So far, he says, it's been a grand a year -- a percentage derived both from the sale of Phantom paraphernalia and club membership fees.

Phantom comics are published fortnightly in this country by Frew Publications (Sydney) and no one seems to mind that only about eight new yarns appear each year, the bulk of the comics being reprints of Falk stories -- sometimes 30 or 40 years old -- that have appeared six or seven times before.

And whether the Phantom movement is seen as quasi-religious, a healthy fantasy, or (Heaven forbid) just a sustaining money-spinner, there is clearly a serious intention behind its quirky facade. In a passage urging members to follow the Phantom's good examples, the club's quarterly publication Jungle Beat calls on them to do what they can to change the world for the better, adding: "If we don't, the future looks very grim."

And yet, as Henderson rightly says, the Phantom himself usually applies humor to even the gravest situation. Rescued from a watery grave in Phantom comic issue 734 -- "Mystery in Alexandria" -- the Nemesis Of Pirates gives his famous cheeky grin and quips: "Well, my Dad always said if you lived right and kept your teeth brushed, everything would turn out fine."


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Bryan Shedden /
Last updated 30 August 1997