Phantom Eagle shown towering dramatically over landscape. Artist: Herb Trimpe.


Medium: Comic books
Published by: Marvel Comics
First Appeared: 1968
Creators: Gary Friedrich (writer) and Herb Trimpe (artist)
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There are many cases on record of 1940s superheroes having the same name as later ones. Usually, there's a direct connection between the two, the publisher simply trying to promote a new character just as they'd promoted the earlier one, as in the case of Green Lantern/Green Lantern or The Shield/The Shield. But sometimes it's just a coincidence, as it was for The Black Panther/The Black Panther or The Black Orchid/The Black Orchid. There's an observable trend in those cases for the '40s guy to be a real obscuro, like The Unknown Soldier was, at least compared with The Unknown Soldier. The two Blacks appeared …

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… just one time apiece during the '40s. But here's a case where the obscurity ran in the other direction. The Phantom Eagle of the 1940s wasn't exactly a media sensation, but that of the '60s was about as close as Marvel Comics ever came to a one-issue wonder.

One might question whether a World War I flying ace, like Snoopy was beginning to impersonate right about then, could be considered a superhero. But it said right on the cover of his introductory appearance that he was one. The Phantom Eagle was first seen in Marvel Super-Heroes #16 (September, 1968), which at the time was being used as a try-out title, like the rival DC Comics was using Showcase. The company had already launched Captain Marvel, another with the same name as an unrelated '40s character, but the confluence of names wasn't exactly a coincidence. The following month it would use the same position for The Black Knight, an example of the first sort of naming a new character after an old one, as there was a link between him and his '50s namesake.

But there was no connection between The Phantom Eagle and the guy with that name who'd run in the back pages of Fawcett's Wow Comics, where Mary Marvel was the star, during and beyond the war years. This one was Karl Kaufman, an American of German descent who decided to use his aviation skills on the side of the country where he'd grown up, rather than that of his ancestral home. Since nobody could see what he was wearing while flying a plane, one wonders why so many airborne costumed heroes, such as The Flying Dutchman and The Black Angel, took the trouble. In Karl's case, it was to prevent reprisals against his parents, who'd returned to Germany, on the off-chance he was spotted.

The Phantom Eagle was created by Gary Friedrich (The Blue Beetle), who had been scripting Sgt. Fury for the past several years, and was therefore no stranger to war stories. The artist was Herb Trimpe (Captain Britain), whose first illustrating job in comics was this one. It promptly went down in flames — reader support was insufficient to move him out into his own series.

But by this time, Marvel was in the habit of nurturing its flops. The Incredible Hulk, for example, had lasted only six issues the first time around, but Marvel had promoted the character through guest appearances here and there until he was strong enough to hold down a back-pages series, and he'd recently been placed in his own title again. Problem was, The Phantom Eagle's setting made him inaccessible to potential guest stars except through time travel. This may have been established as existing in the burgeoning Marvel Universe, but it wasn't so easy he could simply hit the guest star circuit like Warlock and S.H.I.E.L.D. would do in the next few years.

At one point, time-traveling Avengers villain Kang the Conqueror dumped The Hulk on him. Another time, his ghost, killed dishonorably in the closing days of the war, haunted the now-superannuated murderer to death in the vicinity of The Ghost Rider. But for the most part, he didn't make a plausible enough guest star to use regularly, so interest in him, what little there was, petered out.

They did take the trouble to place him in Freedom's Five, a team of good guys of various nationalities, as part of a long-term tendency for Marvel to strew costumed evil bashers in various historical settings, like The Black Rider in the Old West, for potential use as guest stars in future period pieces. Besides him, there were The Crimson Cavalier, Sir Steel and The Silver Squire. Union Jack, the fifth member, was first seen as an old man in The Invaders, a World War II team built around Marvel's three most prominent '40s heroes, Captain America, The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner.

The Phantom Eagle was consigned to the backwaters of Marvel Universe history, and forgotten for years. But in 2008, writer Garth Ennis (Dan Dare) and artist Howard Chaykin (American Flagg) launched him in a five-issue mini-series for Marvel. War Is Hell: First Flight of The Phantom Eagle harked back to an anthology of war story reprints Marvel had published in the '70s. After all these years, Marvel finally found a use for the character. Time will tell if they capitalize on him this time.


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Text ©2009-11 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Marvel Comics.