About 10 years back, I’d curl up on my bed with my collection of Batman and Superman, and think about how it’d feel to fly at supersonic speeds or speed through the city in the batmobile. Ten years back, in the local paper in my home town, another comic hero used to appear frequently, and he was called The Phantom.
It’s a pity that most people won’t recognise that name these days. Lee Falk’s Phantom was one of the first heroes ever, one of the earliest good guys beating up everyone from India to America with his skull-mark ring, the ‘bad ring of the Phantom’. He was the quintessential hero, the ‘Ghost-who-walks’ who lived in a cave in Africa and was considered immortal. The same goes for Falk’s other creation — Mandrake.
Mandrake was another hero altogether, compared to the Phantom.
He was a wizard, who studied at the College of Magic, pitted against the criminal organisation ‘8’ and his psychopath brother. The best part of reading it was coming to the panel when Mandrake raised his arm, did an odd gesture with his fingers, and everyone with guns in the room suddenly started floating upsidedown, and he’d tip his hat, bow elegantly, and let the police in.
What about Zorro? Even before seeing The Mask of Zorro, we’d run around with sticks and swing them fast in a ‘Z’ shape, leaving the Mexican bandit’s mark wherever we went. Zorro was everything in those days — flamboyant, stylish, witty and always in trouble, the typical smart-talking hero, who always poked fun at his overweight arch nemesis Colonel Garcia while riding off into the sunset on his horse Tornado.
At that time, in the ‘Golden Age of Superheroes’, Superman and Batman were just part of a huge collection of heroes and villains — Zorro, the Phantom, Mandrake, Highlander, Conan the Barbarian, the Green Hornet, the Question, and the Spirit — they were the staple of those days, when Lee Falk was as known then as Bob Kane is now.
And when I shifted to Marvel comics, understanding the huge world of heroes they’ve created, I found out that one by one, all the old names had disappeared; those old ‘80s and ‘90s editions that my parents bought for as little as ` 3 or 4, were now worth thousands, and collector’s editions at that.
Now, thanks to niche publishing houses, all of those once big names are finding their way back into popular culture. Dynamite Comics, one of those houses, is actually posing enough of a challenge to Marvel and DC these days; they maintain Zorro, the Phantom, Highlander, Conan the Barbarian (which M a r v e l dropped a long time ago, surprisingly, not thinking it to be such a phenomenon).
They also bring out their own franchises — one of my favourites is The Boys.
It deals with a group of Gmen who have to deal with whatever mess the superheroes leave behind, when they clash with their supervillains; the Boys are the proverbial cleaners that no one sees.
The Phantom becomes The Last Phantom as the torch is passed on to the original Phantom’s son; Conan the Barbarian carries memories of his time under Robert E Howard, Conan’s creator, making references to adventures past, Red Sonja, also from R E Howard, has become Queen Sonja, ruler of her own empire, much like Conan himself.
The wacky horror comedy Evil Dead sees progress as Dynamite maintains its Army of Darkness series, one of the most clichéd, irritating, sarcastic zombie series of all time. Even after his last movie, Ashley Williams, the series’ clumsy Johnny Bravo-esque protagonist, is a delight to read in his own series.
The common link in Dynamite is the drawing style, which rarely changes, unlike in other publishing houses.
Although it makes for repetitive, flattish artwork, the people at Dynamite have done a lot of research and put careful thought into these comics — never mind the legal affairs since so many of these heroes are well-known.
Since so many of them have a background, Dynamite has incorporated that into their comics as well, while still coming up with newer scenarios and plotlines for these heroes. Their most recent work is the Warlord of Mars series, taken from Tarzan’s creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, which is to be made into a Disney movie later this year.
All those yesteryear heroes are a delight to read since these publishing houses have carefully kept their characters in line with the original thoughts of their creators, while some of the original heroes and villains have left behind a new generation to don the cape. Others have not aged at all, and continue to move billions of fans around the world, people who remembered them in what was truly a ‘Golden Age of Superheroes’.