On the trail of The Phantom's PNG exploits
06 February 2022
NOOSA - From time to time Slim Kaikai drops me a note from somewhere in Papua New Guinea and we have a brief email swap until the next couple of years pass.
In January Slim sent me his usual “just a quick wan”, asking would I know “where to get a hold of any phantom comics in pidgin”.
Well I don’t, although ill health may be slowing down my acumen, but there’s probably a reader somewhere who can assist. You can comment below.
Anyway, in looking around the internet I came across a couple of pieces which provide something of a foundation for a few visuals.
Not comic books, Slim, but best I could do. As you’d say, “tanx and cheers”.
The Phantom is a huge phenomenon in PNG
(Lauren Beldi, ABC Pacific Mornings, April 2019)
When you think of places a comic book hero might turn up, the tribal war shields of the Papua New Guinea highlands are probably not what springs to mind.
But PNG's love for The Phantom, also known as ‘the ghost that walks’ or ‘the man who cannot die’, runs deep.
During a renewed period of tribal fighting in the 1980s, warriors even carried The Phantom into battle.
It's thought The Phantom first came to PNG with US soldiers in World War Two, and he's never left.
In the 1970s, the comic strips were republished in the country's newspapers in both English and Tok Pisin, the Creole language of PNG.
Radio Australia's Tok Pisin reporter Hilda Wayne remembers looking forward to reading them every day after school when she was growing up in Mount Hagen:
"It was just four strips, every day, from the Post Courier, so Dad would get the paper looking for his news, and I'd be looking forward to the comic strips.
"Growing up I think we all looked forward to having heroes in society and I used to hear about my grandfather being a warrior back then, so when I saw this phantom it brought me to a different place."
The Phantom's story begins hundreds of years ago, when the first of the line of heroes is shipwrecked off the coast of the fictional country of Bangalla.
Nursed back to health by the local people, he takes the ‘oath of the skull’, and is succeeded by a line of sons, each of whom dons the mask and skin-tight purple costume when his father dies.
The Phantom and his family live in a skull cave in the jungle, which may have had particular appeal to those living in the tropical climes of PNG.
And there was something else that may have set The Phantom apart — the fact that he made friends with the indigenous people of Bangalla.
"He was interacting with black people back then," Wayne said.
Two whole Phantom comics, including one with the masked man on the front declaring, "I speak Tok Pisin" were reprinted in the language.
They can now sell for hundreds of dollars online.
Perhaps the most enduring image of The Phantom's popularity in PNG is his presence on the traditional war shields of highlands tribes.
Not all of these are decades old either; the late highlands painter Kaipel Ka was putting The Phantom on shields as recently as 2008.
That was when filmmaker Mark Eby, who himself grew up in PNG, made a short film about Mr Ka's painting.
In it, he discussed his Phantom paintings:
"[The shields with] The Phantom design were for those who led the battle, because those [who] led the battle were the toughest fighters.
"[The Phantom] cannot die so men are afraid of him."
Mr Eby said that when he spoke to men in the highlands, they explained that traditional decorations on the shields represented the spirits of deceased warrior family members that would protect the current fighters.
During the tribal violence of the 1980s and 1990s, some opted for more modern designs:
"Instead of drawing the old patterns which were like butterflies and things like that, quite an abstract design, they went for the comic book characters.
"But the same idea was there, which was basically a protective strong man [like The Phantom] on the shield."
Kaipel Ka passed away three months after the film was made, but some of the shields he designed live in museum collections around the world.
Why does this comic book hero appear on so many New Guinea war shields?
(Vincze Miklós, Gizmodo, August 2014)
Lee Falk's hero the Phantom made his comic book debut in February 1936, but he also appears on dozens of traditional war shields made by people from the Central Highlands of Papua New Guinea between the 1960s and 1980s. Why?
The Wahgi people have long made enormous shields from tree trunks, and have continued to make these shields as a form of ritual artwork.
In the late 20th century, many of these PNG Highlanders began incorporating ‘new ideas’ into their traditional works, so that shields bore emblems of football teams, beer brands, and, yes, the Phantom.
Western comic books became widely available in the region after World War II, and the Phantom became a particularly popular character.
Art educator and dealer Michael Reid notes that two things in particular made the Phantom an ideal subject for a war shield: he is a hero who protects his home and he is known as ‘The Man Who Cannot Die’.
Just as many comic book readers adopt the emblems of their favourite heroes, so too have these artists taken the symbolic power of the Phantom and adapted it to their own traditions.
A new book on phantom shields of the New Guinea Highlands
(Bruno Claessens, Duende Art Projects, March 2021)
While virtually visiting the 35th annual San Francisco Tribal and Textile Art online show last week, I was delighted to learn about the publication of a new book on the super cool ‘phantom’ shield of the New Guinea Highlands.
‘Man Who Cannot Die’ – a new book on phantom shields of the New Guinea Highlands – is published by art dealers Chris Boylan of Sydney and Jessica Lindsay Phillips of Toronto.
This publication contains several essays on the subject, and a catalogue section illustrating 105 examples from public and private collections.
I discussed these amazing shields on this blog in 2014, see that post here. You can order the new book online here, below the blurb:
“In the second half of the twentieth century, an artistic tradition arose in the Wahgi Valley of the highlands of Papua New Guinea of painting traditional war shields with the image of the comic book superhero The Phantom.
This derived from some seemingly inexplicable intersection of the age-old bellicose traditions of one of the most culturally remote areas of the world and twentieth-century comic book illustration, if not pop art — a phenomenon that art historian NF Karlins has referred to as ‘pop tribal’.
The frequent text in English or in Tok Pisin on other examples — man ino save dai (man who cannot die) or man bilong pait (man of war) — only adds to the multicultural depth.
Though these appear to be curiously syncretic objects to the Western eye, to the people of the Wahgi Valley they held deep meaning to the martial power of moral rectitude and the guidance of ancestral spirits”
The Phantom: ‘Mi Save Tok Pisin Nau’
(Auction of comic book, October 2015)
In October 2015, the comic book was auctioned for the equivalent of $720 on eBay in the USA. There were 22 bids starting at $50.
This was the description provided by the seller pre-auction:
“You are bidding on a single issue of a PHANTOM comic book by Lee Falk and Sy Barry published in Papua New Guinea.
There is no date listed but believed to be published between 1976 and 1978 (King Features Syndicate).
It is published by Wantok, which was the name of the local newspaper who ran comics of the Phantom for many years. Printed at the Wirui Press in Wewak, ESP, Papua New Guinea.
It is believed that King Features Syndicate actually ordered Wantok/Wirui press to stop publishing future separate Phantom comic books due to legal issues, though I believe the newspaper was eventually allowed to continue publishing smaller strips in their daily or weekly papers.
24 total pages (complete) with color cover, the rest in black and white. Reverse has an ad for a New Guinea Yamaha/Toyota dealer.
I don't know much about grading comics but this issue seems to be in very good condition overall.
There is a faint horizontal crease across the front, a very slight curl to left edge, some very light edge wear, and a hint of browning (age toning) along the top edge.
Phantom comics, and the general idea of the Phantom were so popular in New Guinea that local tribesmen began including paintings of Phantom on their war shields, many of which you can see online.
This issue is special in that it is in the local New Guinea language - Phantom's caption says "Mi Save Tok Pisin Nau" which translates to ‘Now I talk Tok Pisin’, the Creole language of Papua New Guinea, sometimes referred to as Pidgin. It is currently not known if this was the only issue or if it led to a series.”
Phantom was my favorite comic book back in the 90s my father and I would love reading them and have a collection of series Phantom book back then.
Posted by: Betty Wakia | 10 February 2022 at 08:29 PM
Some public servants may remember that in 1976, in the room containing all the red bound copies of the Laws of PNG in Waigani, there were two red bound copies of the Laws of the Jungle.
Volumes 1 and 2 were each filled with Phantom comics. They had to be signed out by the person on duty in the room prior to removal for study at one's work station.
Posted by: Peter Wohlers | 08 February 2022 at 06:11 PM
I've got a phantom tee-shirt, a copy of the Billy Zane 1996 Phantom movie and a phantom ring.
They are the remnants of a cache I used as prizes for the best line cutting crews in the Southern Highlands during petroleum exploration work.
They worked a treat.
Tony Bonner was in the film and played a kiap type role.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 07 February 2022 at 08:06 AM
I was amongst a number of founder investors in the Australian company, Keela Wee Pty Ltd (The Phantom's Golden Beach).
Formed in the mid-1980s by Josephson Wright and Company Ltd, Stockbrokers of Brisbane.
It was a mineral exploration company with prospecting licenses in New Ireland and Queensland.
I remember Ross Garnaut as a fellow founder shareholder.
Posted by: William Dunlop | 06 February 2022 at 11:29 PM