Bob crashes the party.


Medium: Comic Books
Published by: MLJ/Archie Comics
First Appeared: 1939
Creators: Harry Shorten (writer) and Irv Novick (artist)
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The superheroes of the 1940s were a diverse lot, full of weirdos like The Eye. The Bouncer and Speed Centaur. Sometimes the strangeness was in the name, like 711, who named himself after the prison cell he occupied by day — tho the fact that he was imprisoned as a felon in his secret identity is pretty odd too. One of the oddballs who stood out only for his name was Bob Phantom. He was …

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… perfectly normal (if a little unexplained) as superheroes go — but how many other superheroes have informal first names? Why not go another step, and call him Joe Bob Phantom? Would it be any goofier for him to be Spongebob Phantom?

Give him a break! Without the first name to set him apart, "The Phantom" was already taken.

However silly his name might be, Bob Phantom debuted in Blue Ribbon Comics #2 (December, 1939), only a year and a half after Superman had founded the superhero genre in comic books, and just a few months after others had started populating the newsstands. In fact, he was the very first long underwear guy published by MLJ Comics. (The Wizard would have tied Bob, but the Wiz's original superhero suit consisted of a tuxedo. Other very early ones, such as The Shield, The Comet and Steel Sterling, didn't reach the public until the first couple of months of 1940.)

The publisher demonstrated its lack of practice at crafting super-powered crime fighters, by not explaining how Bob managed to do what he did. In his first six-page story, which was probably written by Harry Shorten (Tippy Teen, There Oughta Be a Law) and definitely drawn by Irv Novick (Captain Storm, Batman), he demonstrated an ability to appear out of (or disappear into) nowhere, survive a gunfire attack unharmed, and know things he had no way of learning.

In everyday life, Bob was newspaperman Walt Whitney, whose gossip column, "Broadway", frequently ridiculed the police and district attorney's office for their failure to deal with the criminal gangs that terrorized the city. The official law enforcers didn't like him very much. If they'd known he was secretly Bob Phantom, who regularly beat them at their own game, they'd probably have liked him even less.

Bob lasted only a couple of issues in Blue Ribbon Comics. As of #4, all ongoing series except Corporal Collins and Rang-a-Tang were ousted and replaced with the likes of The Fox, Doc Strong and Ty-Gor. Most headed straight for oblivion, but Bob found a gig in Top-Notch Comics, where The Wizard was the cover-featured star. Bob transferred there as of Top-Notch #3 (February, 1940).

He occupied his slot in the Top-Notch back pages until #25 (March, 1942). By that time, readers were starting to get a bit tired of superheroes; and MLJ, in particular, was rapidly retreating from the genre. Their new star, setting a permanent new direction for the company, was Archie.

Bob Phantom wasn't seen again until 1964, when most of the old MLJ heroes came back all at once, in a Mighty Crusaders story titled — what else? — "Too Many Superheroes". Since then, like the vast majority of the others, he's led a sort of shadowy quasi-existence, turning up occasionally when Archie Comics, as the company now calls itself, trots out the super guys so readers can take another brief look at them, but mostly just hanging around in comic book limbo.


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Text ©2008 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Archie Comics.