Saturday, November 21, 2015

Meet Bob Phantom, Just a Regular Guy and the Scourge of the Underworld

I always suspected that Bob Phantom, an early MLJ superhero, added the friendly, aw-shucks “Bob” just so he wouldn't seem too fancy.
 “However silly his name might be, Bob Phantom debuted in Blue Ribbon Comics 2 (Dec. 1939), only a year and a half after Superman had founded the superhero genre in comic books, and just a few months after others had started populating the newsstands,” Don Markstein observed.
“In fact, he was the very first long underwear guy published by MLJ Comics. (The Wizard would have tied Bob, but the Wiz's original superhero suit consisted of a tuxedo. Other very early ones, such as The Shield, The Comet and Steel Sterling, didn’t reach the public until the first couple of months of 1940.)
“The publisher demonstrated its lack of practice at crafting super-powered crime fighters by not explaining how Bob managed to do what he did. In his first 6-page story, which was probably written by Harry Shorten (Tippy Teen, There Oughta Be a Law) and definitely drawn by Irv Novick (Captain Storm, Batman), he demonstrated an ability to appear out of (or disappear into) nowhere, survive a gunfire attack unharmed, and know things he had no way of learning.”
“Bob” was secretly Broadway columnist Walt Whitney, who goaded the police to arrest criminals. So he was Walter Winchell as a superhero? I must say, the mind reels.
Actually, it seems likely that Bob got his silly name simply because people had run out of variations on the evocative mysterioso term “Phantom.” By the late 1930s, you had Lee Falk’s comic strip superhero the Phantom, the pulp magazine superhero Phantom Detective, Gene Autry’s Phantom Empire movie serial and so forth. Even in the current Mickey Mouse newspaper comic strip story (running from May 20 to Sept. 9, 1939), the redoubtable rodent was busy battling the Phantom Blot.

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