By Lee Falk and Ray Moore (and Winston McCoy)
Originally published: 29th December 1946 – 29th June 1947
Any look at The Phantom would not be complete without a look at the comic strip where it all began. The 12 Tasks is the oldest story I have, and I thought it was a good place to start.
This story doesn’t have the famous ‘For those who came in late…’ intro, which recounts the legend of The Phantom, so if you’re not familiar with The Phantom’s adventures, this is probably not the ideal one to start with. But none-the-less, the story set up is simple enough. The Phantom is away on business, and Diana Palmer has adjourned to the Bengali Coast for some relaxation and a swim. At the same time, Prince Pepe, Potentate of Ptjar is hosting a beauty pageant. The winner is to become his wife. As Diana is in a swim suit, she is mistaken as one of the pageant contestants, and is crowned the winner. She is now expected to marry Prince Pepe. Naturally, she claims it is all a misunderstanding and heads off, as she has no desire to marry the Prince.
The Prince however, has other ideas and arranges for some of his thugs to kidnap her. She is smuggled to Ptjar where the Prince attempts to force her to marry him. She refuses and constantly humiliates him in public. She warns the Prince, when her beau, The Phantom turns up, he is going to be in big trouble.
Instead, the Prince interprets this to mean that she will not marry him while The Phantom is still alive, so he sets up a trap. When the Phantom does indeed arrive, he is captured, and the Prince hands down a challenge. If The Phantom can complete twelve tasks, he will release Diana. If The Phantom fails, then he will be dead (or will be killed), and Diana will have no choice but to marry the Prince. Or so the Prince believes. Diana is not actually present when the bargain is struck, and even if The Phantom was killed I can’t see her marrying the Prince. But that’s not really important. The setup is, and that’s now complete. The Ghost Who Walks has to perform twelve life threatening tasks to free his beloved Diana.
These tasks include bringing a nine-foot tall bandit to justice, ridding a river of its piranha fish, best a tribe of vicious mountain apes, and ridding the bay of sharks. Of course, The Phantom succeeds, but you knew that.
This story originally played out over sixth months, which is a very different way to read the story compared to reading it compiled into one issue, and in this format, the middle tasks are extremely truncated, limited to just one or two panels. This wouldn’t be as noticeable if it were presented in a weekly format, as the story would still take its time to play out.
Due to the nature of this story, starting with the kidnapping of Diana Palmer first, and then The Phantom joining the story later, many of the recognised Phantom elements, such as the skull cave, the pygmy Bandar are missing. Also his skull ring is not really put to effect. He punches a few adversaries over the course of his challenges, but none of them end up sporting the sign of the skull on their cheek.
This story while enjoyable, has quite substantial plot holes, especially relating to why The Phantom would allow himself to be used by Prince Pepe. And this is even more noticeable at the end, after The Phantom has succeeded. If Pepe was such a snivelling, cheating little weasel, why did he honour his promise allow Diana to go free. He could have had The Phantom killed afterwards, just as easily as he could during the challenges. And if he was a toothless tyrant, then at any time, The Phantom could have stopped participating in the challenges, whalloped the Prince and then rode off with Diana. It’s not quite all that black and white – but none-the-less there are some severe questions about each of the characters motivation in this story.
I don’t think this one of the great Phantom tales of adventure, but thankfully there are so many others that it is easy to move onto another one, which I am sure will deliver a healthy dose of the kind of jungle mayhem I am after.
October is the month of the Skeleton Suit! Or Skeletons, Skulls and Bones, and in a month long celebration, The Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit is checking out the Skeletons in their closets.