Tough road ahead!

By Jeremy Meltingtallow

HERE’S A STRANGE COINCIDENCE I’ve been meaning to write about for a few days now: In October 2011, I received an email from overseas, from a long-time Phantom reader, a retired superintendent of police who started reading the Ghost Who Walks almost 60 years ago. He had a grievance to air: that the Phantom, in recent years, has been taking a lot of punishment when he runs up against the criminal element. The reader (I’ll keep his name confidential, because I haven’t asked his permission to use it) wasn’t talking about the daily and Sunday newspaper strips managed out of New York; his issue was with stories published around the world by King Features licensees.

Here’s part of what I wrote back:

“No one likes to see their hero powerless to prevail against the evil he needs to confront. Over the years I’ve seen many Phantom stories where he’s constantly getting whacked over the head and tied up and essentially outwitted by halfwits. We’re not doing anything like that in the daily and Sunday strips, but, in the readers’ eyes, stories generated elsewhere tend to get conflated with ours.”

I went on to describe the next three stories in the queue, and how he’d see the Phantom of old in action in all three, doing things ordinary men can’t do, always in command of the situation before him. And I closed with this: “I guarantee that you won’t see the Ghost Who Walks reduced to helplessness!”

That was the right answer, I was certain. But almost immediately I wondered if I had thought it all the way through and given the complete answer!

And then I knew I hadn’t.

More than two years pass. December 28, 2013—Saturday last—the same reader writes again! Just to say hello this time. “Today I have read your letter again and thought of contacting you,” he wrote. “Hope you are fine.”

Talk about a bolt out of the blue! He had no idea that his email would arrive just hours before publication of a story that did tell the complete answer to the issue he had raised in our first correspondence.

For your consideration, here’s my reply to him:

“Hello again, M—–,

What an incredible coincidence it is to hear from you today, of all days! I do remember your letter from 2011 and the issue you raised: how it seems wrong to see the Phantom getting the worst of a fight with evil. We agree entirely, and I still hold to what I wrote to you then. But I must say that I eventually came to see that the argument I made fails in one set of circumstances: when a Phantom is near the end.

It’s a conundrum presented by the immortality myth at the very core of the universe Lee Falk created: Sooner or later, every Phantom is destined to die, so, by definition, he’s going to run up against his limits one day and be bested by evil.

The more I thought about it, the more I knew that, eventually, I’d have to write a story like that. And the questions then would be: What would it take to bring the Phantom down? How would he behave when he realizes his chances of survival are slim to none? He’d remain the Phantom, wouldn’t he? He’d meet his doom with a mental and physical toughness that no ordinary man could muster.

Well, I did write that story. And since we don’t want our 21st Phantom enduring circumstances that may end his life, I chose the 5th Phantom to undergo the ordeal.

Here’s why it’s such a coincidence to hear from you today, my friend: that storyline begins in earnest tomorrow, when the Sunday tale goes back in time to the days of the 5th Phantom and his American wife, Juliet Adams Walker.

I’ll be eager to hear what you think of ‘Death Stalks the 5th Phantom’ when the story concludes on May 18.”

Tony DePaul, January 2, 2014, Rhode Island, USA