Monday, November 14, 2016

"He talks to animals? Isn't that a bit much?" The Phantom: Danger in the Forbidden City review

Honest question: who is the greatest Phantom artist? Is there one? Could it be the original artist, Ray Moore? To my largely-uneducated eyes I can't say there is a Phantom artist who gets my blood pumping... or least, I formerly didn't.

Enter Sal Velluto.

In 2014 writer Peter David and artist Sal Velluto produced a wonderful six-issue mini-series about the Phantom, now collected by Hermes Press as The Phantom: Danger in the Forbidden City. Velluto seemed to be a rising star in the 1990s and by 2000 caught my eye during his tenure with Christopher Priest on the Black Panther. Velluto has never attained the level of super-stardom I feel his work merits; he comes from a storytelling style super hero comics championed in the heyday of John Buscema and Neal Adams which is, I suppose, no longer in fashion. But to anyone who enjoyed his previous work this is perhaps the best Sal Velluto ever - in the sense he didn't only pencil this art but ink it as well.

Writer Peter David can usually be counted on for a light touch and a burlap sack full of puns. This time, David has written a period adventure (not certain when - 1940ish?) so his usual pop culture humour is nixed. His breezy dialogue works well in this high adventure style. David has some history with the Ghost Who walks, having first written him back in 1988; on assumes he has some fondness for the character to have visited him on both sides of his lengthy career.

The story is full of the most popular Phantom lore; the Phantom's top enemies the Singh Brotherhood are at hand, as is the Sky Band's leader the Baroness (whom I spoke of yesterday). The Phantom's wife Diana is present and treated as an important part of his fighting force. The deepest cut, however, is the presence of Jimmy Wells, Diana's old flame. As explained in accompanying text pieces, creator Lee Falk originally introduced Jimmy to the comic strip as a potential secret identity of the Phantom's but ultimately decided against it. Building on that, David reveals Jimmy is, in his own way, a jungle hero much like the Phantom. Jimmy was raised by wild elephants and can speak to animals - something which the Phantom balks at and is obviously a commentary on Tarzan and his many imitators (though David resists the urge to explain the joke).

At one point the Phantom is attacked in the jungle by a tiger; if David were free to indulge in his pop culture references no doubt the hero would have uttered, "A tiger? In Africa?" It feels like a strange lapse on the creative side but perhaps it was intentionally anachronistic - that David & Velluto weren't trying to depict the real Africa but the Africa of boys' adventure novels, comic strips and film serials of the past. When the Phantom finally does journey to a hidden African kingdom the reader is treated to the same kind of fashions & tools Velluto drew in Black Panther so many years ago. Perhaps the best sequence is when the Phantom leaps out of an airplane for a mid-air fight with an attacking biplane. It's pure pulp and wonderful. If you're curious about the Phantom, snap this book up - it's quite good fun.

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