Tuesday, November 23, 2010



From February 1975, this was adapted from Lee Falk's original 1963 story by Warren Shanahan, who did a really good job with it, much better than most of the other books in the Avon series. THE ISLAND OF DOGS gives the Phantom a worthwhile challenge to face and presents a hero who is as impressive and competent as he should be portrayed. Unfortunately, as nice as George Wilson's cover is, it does give away the story completely, spoiling any mystery about exactly what is going on upon the Island of Dogs. But the layout is so neat, leading your eye down in an S-shape to the title that it's worth it.

One great thing about Shanahan's work is that he takes the time and energy to present background information beyond the standard Phantom lore. The horrifying history of the Island of Dogs makes for three pages that will haunt you. It's not strictly necessary to the story, but it adds ominous undertones. The same goes for the life stories of the main villain, General Serge, and the impudent heroine, Janice Helm-- the background doesn't go on for too long but it makes them more believable and increases the stakes.

Shanahan also handles the Phantom's first action scene in a fascinating way. He treats the Ghost Who Walk's handling of two gunmen as if discussing an athletic event on videotape, stopping to point out details and mention how remarkable the hero's deeds are. This is so much more interesting than the usual "The Phantom hit the roughneck hard, and then turned to the other" stuff we too often get. I smiled at details such as the Phantom grabbing one thug by the shirt and then slugging him so hard that the shirt front rips off as the guy flies backwards.

One bit of Phantom mythology that always intrigues is the Sign of the Skull left on goons' faces as they are punched by our hero. Twice, we are told here that these marks have been examined by forensic scientists, who are at a loss to explain the phenomenon. "..the marks are applied with tremendous force, much more than one man could exert, even a professional boxer." Once it's implied that it would take something like a pile driver to make a mark like that.

On the other hand (haw!), the Phantom also leaves his good mark with the left-hand ring, gently pressing it against the recipient's wrist. He certainly doesn't smash his ring against a child's wrist with shattering impact.

In the interviews I've read with Lee Falk, he always just said that this is one of the Phantom's mysteries and perhaps it's best to leave it at that. But speculation is in my blood and I can't help it. There could be some sort of caustic, acidic substance inside the hollow ring, cutting into skin through the sharp edges of the skull outline (or those crossed Ps or sabers on the other ring). These marks would then be not much a tattoo as a literal brand. In a real all-out brawl, if the Phantom felt it necessary to use both fists, he could either turn the lefthand ring around so its symbol was on the inside of his fist (although maybe then it would print the mark on the inside of his hand, so that might not work). Or perhaps the symbol on the rings can be twisted a half-turn to prevent the mark from being left, as certainly there must be times when the Ghost Who Slugs must be compelled to punch some misguided soul who doesn't deserve being branded for life.

On second thought, Lee Falk knew what works. The marks left by the rings are best left a mystery.