The Phantom was racist

I grew up reading Phantom. But a reboot of this problematic property is going to have to effectively destroy the legacy of the franchise. Because at the end of the day, we are talking about a White man sitting on a throne in an African tribe and being worshipped by them as a god.

The only acceptable way to revive the Phantom is acknowledging its deeply racist roots and consciously abandoning them to head in a new direction altogether. The Phantom’s origin story is devoid of cultural context and drenched in “White Man’s Burden” thinking. It shows not only in the aforementioned forest setting, but also in the globetrotting, foreign government destabilising, saving his white wife from being abducted by men of colour tropes that form no small part of the Phantom universe.

Lee Falk, the creator of the Phantom, had actually created the Phantom as something entirely different – a millionaire who dresses up in tights at night and fights criminals. But Bob Kane stole that premise and created Batman and was able to sell more. Falk, in an attempt to differentiate his character from Batman, changed his back story to something resembling Tarzan, another White guy being praised as a hero by tribes in Africa. Falk, who had probably never been outside of America, called the Phantom’s tribe the Bandar tribe (after the Hindi word for monkey) and the place Bengala (after the Royal Bengal tiger). He clearly couldn’t tell the difference between Africa and the Indian subcontinent and I doubt he and his contemporaries would have cared even if they knew.

But do you know who else didn’t care? Indians! The Phantom was incredibly popular in India when the comics were being published here in the 80s by Indrajaal Comics. In retrospect, given India’s insensitivity to discrimination and racial / caste issues, it’s probably not surprising.

The point is, though nostalgia is a powerful lens with which to view the value of old tales it shouldn’t be the only such lens. And if old tales are not things we can let go of, then we should at least be honest enough to admit what their failings were and make attempts to recast them in the fires of more enlightened imagination. And this goes for all stories, including mythological ones.