Friday, July 05, 2013

Racism in Phantom and Mandrake comics

I offer this post as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books which Todd Mason is hosting at Sweet Freedom in place of Patti Abbot who usually does the honours at her blog Pattinase.

A childhood without comics is like a newspaper without the comics page.

Phantom—The Ghost Who Walks, The Man Who Cannot Die and Guardian of the Eastern Dark—and Mandrake the Magician—who gestures hypnotically—are considered racist comics by many and for more than one reason. Personally, I've never read them with prejudice. To me they're just comic books, to be read and savoured.

I'm sure Lee Falk, the American writer, director and producer who created the famous heroes, never meant the comic strips to be racist. Mandrake first appeared in 1934 preceding Phantom by two years. I think he wanted both the strips to be original and appealing and popular, which they have been over 70-odd years of their existence. Over the years the comics have gone through a few changes.

However, the racist implications in both the comics are unmistakable. 

The Phantom reads out to Guran. I have no idea what.

Initially, Phantom’s abode, the Deep Woods, was located in Bengali, probably a reference to Bengal in eastern India. It all started when a band of pirates called the Singh Brotherhood attack the ship captained by Christopher Walker’s father somewhere in the 16th century.

The 20-year old lad witnesses his father’s brutal murder by the pirates in the Bay of Bengalla (which, I think, is Bay of Bengal) and takes an irreversible oath on the skull of the killer-pirate.

"I swear to devote my life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice, in all their forms! My sons and their sons shall follow me."

Christopher Walker thus became the first Phantom. We are now reading the adventures of the 21st century Phantom, known to us as Kit Walker, married to Diana, who works for the UN, and with twins, Kit and Heloise.

The portrayal of the Singh Brotherhood (not that it exists) as thieving and murdering pirates raised objections in India, prompting Lee Falk to take Phantom out of Bengali and transport him to a far-away jungle near Denkali in Africa. I don’t know how far this is true. I believe Bengali (originally Bengalla) was supposed to be a fictional country located near India, but the similarities between the two are all too obvious.

The racist charge doesn't end there. The young Christopher Walker, the sole survivor of the pirate attack, is washed ashore on a Bengali (or Denkali) beach and is saved by pygmies of the dreaded Bandar tribe, the poison people, who nurse him back to health. Now the pygmies are the only people who know that The Ghost Who Walks is a mortal with a long line of Phantom ancestry. Believing him to be the Man Who Cannot Die, the other jungle tribes worship the masked hero and even bow before him. He is treated like the lord of the jungle. He is their messiah, their saviour, their guardian. His every word and wish is their command. Phantom, of course, treats them with respect and kindness. 

Mandrake and Lothar
Lothar, the black prince, is to Mandrake the Magician what the Bandar tribe and its present-day leader, Guran, are to the Phantom. Lothar, a classic image of Mr. Universe, is Mandrake’s man Friday, sidekick, bodyguard, and troubleshooter. In reality, he is the magician’s best friend and confidant. A quiet man with impeccable integrity, Lothar does what Mandrake tells him to do, including thumping the bad guys when the need arises. He lives with Mandrake in his high-security mansion, Xanadu, and their respective girlfriends, Princess Narda from Europe, and Princess Karma, a black African model.

I first read Phantom and Mandrake comics in school. At that time it never occurred to me that both the crusaders against crime were white or that their friends were black. I read the comics in all innocence. I still read comics except now I also see them through tinted eyes. I don't let it bother me. I read comics because I love reading them.


  1. Such things were tossed off so casually back in the day. Villains were needed and it was easy, I guess, to taint a whole people with villainy than do the more complicated thing of portraying the good and the bad.

  2. And, of course, the notion of the White/Pale Caucasian savior among the benighted melanin-enhanced folks helps drive Tarzan (and The Lone Ranger to some extent) and other exemplars of this kind of "exotic" adventure as well...trying, clumsily, to demonstrate an appreciation for other cultures than the Euro-American while still making it Easy for Euro-Americans to feel snug as well as smug in their condescension to the Other.

    Mandrake being a somewhat more typical dynamic (also displayed in The Lone Ranger and such offshoots as The Green Hornet, and such contemporary phenomena as Little Orphan Annie's supporting cast of Daddy Warbucks and his henchmen) of the Exotic sidekick, who of course is devoted and subordinate to the Alpha White Guy.

  3. The Phantom is speaking Swedish above. I had to find out was he was tutoring his student. Turns out he is telling him that about a secret city discovered in 1661 by the fifth phantom...or something similar. The word order was literal in the translation software I used.

  4. I grew up reading these comics in the 1970s in Italy and really loved them - it is so important to point this sort of thing out. Thanks for this salutary post Prashant.

  5. I loved Mandarake as a kid, still do actually. He is the man!

    I always think movies, books, comics,and other such forms of media need to be viewed in the context of the times they were created, not with today's societal norms.

  6. the phantom had some serious dubious and pretty much frank racism