The 1950s were pretty much a desert for kids who loved superheroes. You had Superman and Batman in the comics, Superman, Zorro, the Lone Ranger and Mighty Mouse on TV, and little else.
One other oasis was found in the King Features Sunday newspaper comics section — the adventures of Lee Falk’s Phantom, a purple-clad masked champion who seemed to be a cross between Batman and Tarzan.
Created in 1936, the Ghost Who Walks was well known worldwide, and had been featured in a 1943 Columbia movie serial and a 1944 hardcover novel.
At Halloween, you could dress up as a plastic and vinyl Phantom in a Ben Cooper costume that cost $3. If you were lucky, you might even run across a Harvey Hits Phantom comic book. They were rather odd-looking repackaged newspaper strips, and eight Phantom issues were published sporadically, beginning in 1957.
“The Phantom was the first fictional hero to wear the skintight costume which has become a hallmark of comic-book superheroes, and was the first shown in a mask with no visible pupils (another superhero standard),” Wikipedia notes. “Comics historian Peter Coogan has described the Phantom as a ‘transitional’ figure, since the Phantom has some of the characteristics of pulp magazine heroes like the Shadow and the Spider, as well as anticipating the features of comic book heroes such as Superman, Batman, and Captain America.”
The Phantom fought criminal conspiracies in the jungle and worldwide without the aid of the super powers possessed by his comic strip “brother” Mandrake, although he pretended to have them to give himself a mysterious edge. Really the 21st in his line of champions, the Phantom posed as being an immortal who’d lived since 1536.
Tough, durable and admirably optimistic even when the odds were against him (which they often were), the Phantom was a pulpish character from a pulp era. In fact, like the Lone Ranger and the Black Hood, he could easily have headlined his own pulp magazine.
The Phantom did finally get his pulp adventures, beginning in 1972 in a series of 15 Avon paperback novels written by Lee Falk and Ron Goulart. The handsome covers seen here were by George Wilson, who’d previously produced similar paintings for the covers of the Phantom comic books published by Gold Key.