The Phantom by Don Newton: A Six-Pack of GreatnessA column article, Classic Comics Cavalcade by: Jason Sacks
There’s a real gratification in watching an artist work on something that they love. That was the case with Don Newton and The Phantom.
At the time that Newton took on the assignment of The Phantom from Charlton Comics in 1975, he had been working for several years as a high school art teacher and as an artist on various fan publications. Newton was a frequent cover artist on the RBCC fanzine, among other zines of the time, and in doing that work frequently demonstrated his love and passion for classic adventure and comic strip heroes. For instance, one of my favorite RBCC covers by Newton is a gorgeous painting of Flash Gordon, looking majestic and heroic as he seems to be contemplating a life of adventure and freedom.
There also was at least one Newton RBCC cover featuring the Phantom, a gorgeous black-and-white piece that shows our hero sitting majestically on his skull and jewel-encrusted throne, with his pet wolf Devil at his side. Intriguingly, this same scene is also seen in Newton’s first issue of The Phantom, #67.
Though Newton would only draw six issues of The Phantom, his six issues are as unique, interesting and wonderful as any comics that ever featured the character. Newton did all the art on each of his issues, and also painted gorgeous covers for every issue of The Phantom from issue #67 to #74.
And so, without further ado, let’s look at Newton’s great six-pack of issues.
The Phantom #67
Written by Joe Gill
Appropriately, Newton’s first issue on this series is a retelling of the Phantom’s origin. Though credited to Joe Gill, one of comics’ most prolific craftsmen (read: hacks), Newton later claimed that he “re-wrote 50% of #67 script” - so longtime fan Newton was getting to live the dream of crafting every bit of the adventures of his beloved hero.
Behind a gorgeous cover that shows the Phantom and Devil is a stirring and heroic pose, is an exciting and moving origin story.
The comic opens with a jam-packed panel in which the Phantom fights a huge group of attackers – some Westerners, a Sikh, some natives. How much more fannish can it get that Newton draws a massive crowd scene in his very first panel? And how like Newton that he delivers that scene with tremendous assurance and confidence?
After the dramatic opening page, the story downshifts a bit as Kit, the current Phantom, reminiscences with his wife Diana about the events that led him to don the famous purple costume. As I’m sure all readers of Comic Fan know, it’s a long and rich tradition that generations of fathers and sons would become the Ghost Who Walks. The story in this issue tells the story of Kit’s father’s final mission. As the father states on page four of the story, “he almost got me. I’m slowing down.” But despite his failing strength, the Phantom cannot slow down. He’s too much the hero for that – and of course heroism was literally in his blood.
The plot is a bit tangled and complex, involving Nazis trying to take charge of natives – but it contains some interesting dialogue. As Kit says of his dad, “he died upholding the sacred oath, Diana… just as I must someday! The important thing was keep (sic) the legend alive! For four hundred years, my ancestors had dedicated their lives to safe-guarding the land and its people.” That line reads like Newton may have written it, as it captures the spirit of the character so well.
Of course, Newton’s artwork is what shines the most in this comic. There are many panels and scenes in this comic that are wonderful, fascinating and attractive. As letter-writer Sal Manolfi states in his LoC in issue #70 that comments on Phantom #67:
“Don Newton does the Phantom and Diana Palmer a little differently than Charlton artists had been dong before, but I love the way he does them! He hasn’t changed them much, but the change is for the better!”
The Phantom #68
Written by Nicola Cuti
After the splendor of issue 67, Phantom #68 is much more of a standard issue. Writer Nick Cuti (with some apparent rewriting by Newton) delivers a fairly predictable story of people who are able to transform into werewolf-like creatures. We even get the classic cliché in this story of two twins – one good and one evil.
But despite the lack of freshness in this story, the art is thoroughly wonderful once again. There’s a two-page spread in the centerfold that features a massive battle scene and is absolutely breathtaking both in its detail and the empathy that Newton shows for the image. It’s really striking how Newton draws every character in that very crowded panel as an individual. Every being in the image is unique; they seem to have weight and mass and really seem to live in the real world.
Newton’s artwork is thoroughly powerful and exciting in this story. It’s clear that despite Charlton’s notoriously low page rates, Newton was treasuring the chance to illustrate the adventures of one of his favorite characters. There are a few random panels that look awkward, but there are many more that show interesting techniques of presenting different panel angles and interesting scenes. Newton was shaping into a really special artist right in front of the eyes of all of the readers – which helps make this comic especially satisfying.
The Phantom #70
Written by Bill Pearson
And speaking of comics that are real pleasures in which Newton’s artwork shines, we have Phantom #70. This may be the oddest issue in the run, a wacky melding of the Phantom with a pastiche of such classic films as The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. As part of that melding, the story features characters who look like Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Sydney Greenstreet, Claude Rains and more.
As you can imagine, the story is pretty damn odd, and doesn’t really hold together well. But Newton draws the hell out of it. I especially like the way that Newton draws these great actors in his own unique and idiosyncratic style. Bogie looks dashing and dangerous; Greenstreet looks corpulent and full of schemes; Bacall looks beautiful and lovable. We even get a pastiche of the final scene of Casablanca at one point – and of course Newton presents a gorgeous take on that scene, with the Phantom and Claude Rains disappearing into a warm and comforting fog.
The story doesn’t quite live up to the gorgeous art or its clever pastiches – I found myself desperately wishing for the story to follow more closely to the movies that it was paying tribute to – but this story is one heck of a lot of fun to look at.
The Phantom #71
Written by John Clark
This issue has a tightly focused story that features a large group of set-pieces that allow Newton’s artwork to really shine. The Phantom #71 starts with the image of an imposing figure of the Phantom hovering above the mysterious mountain of Zanadar. Even with the crappy quality of printing that Charlton offered, this is a really striking image that nicely sets the stage for the issue.
The story involves the Phantom leading an expedition up the mysterious mountain of Zanadar to rescue some scientists who had gotten stuck at the top of the mountain due to a helicopter crash.
This plot is the classic set-up for a traditional adventure, filled with madness, double-crosses, a lost civilization and a giant spider. If this sounds like it could have been a story featuring Doc Savage or Tarzan rather than the Phantom, I think that’s a pretty much intentional. Newton is very much at home with the elements in this story, and that helps him deliver some really wonderful art. He clearly loves drawing the giant spider, for instance, and there are some set-pieces with the Phantom that are especially dramatic and exciting.
The Phantom #73
Written by Ben S. Parillo
If The Phantom #71 has a Doc Savage feel to it, issue #73 has a James Bond feel to it. The opening sequence in this issue is reminiscent of scenes in Goldfinger and other Bond movies. On page one we see a mysterious figure slowly rowing a boat up to a dark and shrouded island. His The man’s face is hidden for the first three panels, until the final panel shows the man’s face highlighted in a full moon. We discover that he is… the Torch.
We flip the page to see another mysterious figure emerge from the waves, this time a man in scuba gear. He climbs onto the beach and removes his diving mask. He is… the Phantom.
That’s the dramatic set-up for this interesting and tense issue. The Torch and the Phantom are on the island to track down and attack a mysterious and villainous old man who’s conducting some dark and strange experiments.
The story takes lots of twists and turns, with the Phantom and Torch even teaming up as part of the story, before reaching a spectacular conclusion. This story really does read like a James Bond movie on paper, with nasty villains, amazing action scenes, strange perils and an amazing opening sequence. All that’s missing is a gorgeous Bond girl.
The Phantom #74
Written by Don Newton
Newton’s, and Charlton’s, run on Phantom comics ends with the best issue of the run.
The cover of this issue is absolutely stunning. One of the great covers of the Bronze Age, and one of the most patriotic comics covers ever presented, this gorgeous Bicentennial tribute presents a thoroughly heroic Phantom standing in front of a tattered but still waving American flag while images from the Constitution hover in the background. It’s a stirring and exciting cover, full of drama and excitement that grabs any reader by the lapels and demands to be read.
Behind the covers we get a stirring tale of America in 1776, as the Phantom of that era comes from Africa to Colonial America to bring back some of the natives from his tribes who have been abducted by raiders under the leadership of the evil Blasco Vruelle (great name, huh?) who want to bring them to America to sell them as part of the slave trade.
This very logical plotline is the perfect set-up for an exciting and thoughtful story that’s written as well as drawn by Newton. Newton clearly loves every moment in the story, obviously doing a lot of research into the clothes that people wore at the time and into the settings of all aspects of the story. There’s a breathtaking image on page six of an enormous sailing ship that’s quite stirring - though marred a bit by Charlton’s crappy printing. Wow, how I wish these stories could be reprinted on nice paper!
There’s also some stirring action in this issue. The sword fight between the Phantom and a pirate is exciting and well-choreographed. The scene has an Errol Flynn feel to it – full of energy and power. Shortly after that scene, Newton shows the British Redcoats attacking a small farm. Once again, every detail of the scene looks perfect, with every bit of clothing and weaponry depicted perfectly by Newton.
But the real highlights of the story are Newton’s depictions of two American patriots. Farmer and turncoat Shane Burgher is apparently a creation of Newton’s, but the creation has a realistic look and attitude, and certainly seems to have walked out of an American history book.
The other historical figure depicted is known to every schoolchild: Benjamin Franklin. Franklin comes across as an empathetic and passionate man who is not surprised by the presence of the Phantom near him. Newton draws Franklin really well, and the scene that features Franklin ends with an allusion to a scene that’s very famous from paintings.
This is a thoroughly satisfying story, and it’s obvious that Newton gave it every bit of his enthusiasm.
As we’ve seen, Don Newton’s work on The Phantom for Charlton Comics was a remarkable six-pack of issues. Several featured stories that were spectacular while others featured stories that were more ordinary. But all six issues feature empathetic and exciting artwork by Don Newton. It was obvious in every panel he drew that Newton loved this assignment. It’s a tragedy that Newton’s run was cut short when Charlton lost their license to the character because he really deserved to have a very long run illustrating – and maybe writing – stories featuring a character that he really loved.