About a week ago Stan Lee left us. Stan Lee, the creator of numerous comic superheroes, who gave a more naturalistic, realistic touch to those having superpowers. His legacies include Spider-man, X-men, Iron-man, The Hulk, Thor and many others. These comic strips/ books have made their way to live motion pictures too and have an ever-increasing fan base.
As for me I cannot say that I am die-hard fan of all these superheroes and to be frank I haven’t read the comics starring them, except few stories of spider-man. As for the movies, I find the first installments of the movie franchise quite entertaining, be it spider-man, X-men or Iron-man.
Yet, I really admire the sheer magnitude of his imagination and the high spirits with which he lived. I also liked him presenting Stan Lee’s Superhumans due to that liveliness and energy present in his attitude. And though I have a limited exposure to the comic strips he created, the news of his passing away left a sense of sadness and void.
The news, on the other hand, prompted another chain of thoughts. About comic characters in general and my favourite comic character in particular. And thinking about Mr. Stan Lee I remembered another Lee, Lee Falk, who had created my favourite comic hero, and in my opinion the one and original superhero- “The Phantom”, “The Ghost Who Walks” or as I know him- “वेताल”, “चलता फिरता प्रेत” (“Vetal- Chalta Phirta Pret”).
Lee Falk passed away in 1999. And with Stan Lee gone a whole era of those who heralded the comic superheroes seems to have ended. And sharing my thoughts about my own favourite comic superhero would be a befitting tribute, I feel.
I therefore dedicate this post to Mr. Stan Lee.
VETAL- FEW DETAILS:
The first comic strip of Phantom was published in February 1936. His creator Lee Falk had earlier created Mandrake the Magician (first published in 1934), and who follows close behind Vetal on my favourite list, for the King Features Syndicate which became widely popular.
The Phantom has been drawn by different artists- including Lee Falk initially. But the two most prominent were Wilson McCoy and Sy Barry. The version illustrated by Barry is the modernized one and perhaps most popular. It was created in 1961 and he continued working on it till his retirement in 1994.
MY INTRODUCTION TO VETAL:
I was introduced to Vetal by my mother. The comics were a regular at her home, coming either with newspaper or bought separately from stalls. She told me that she and her elder brother eagerly waited for the next edition (the books were published fortnightly). Together my mother and mamaji (maternal uncle) had collected several such books and had them later bound into three large volumes.
So, each and every time we went to our maternal grandparents’ home, my elder brother and I went through all the three volumes. Sometimes more than once. We have read them so many times (and are still game for it) that we have learnt by heart all the stories, and dialogues, especially the stock lines/ phrases.
I would like to mention here two things that I always found interesting in this regard. One, is the fact that my mother is from Satna, Madhya Pradesh. Small towns are typically considered as having lesser exposure than bigger ones. That might be true in some cases. But I feel assigning stereotypes can sometimes be wrong too. Because from whatever I have heard from my mother, Satna was quite a free and open place (literally and socially) in her time. It is also interesting that while Vetal/ The Phantom is the predecessor of all superheroes many people I came across from bigger towns (like Bombay, Delhi) had surprisingly either never heard about him or hadn’t read the stories.
The second wonderful thing has to do with translations. Vetal has been translated to many Indian languages by Indrajal Comics of the Times of India group. The ones we read were in Hindi. The translations were so beautiful, and like the original so good (sometimes I think even better) that they seem to have been originally written in Hindi. As a matter of fact, when I was a kid, I actually believed so.
So, let’s begin my Vetal gaathaa (story) without ado. And since I have mostly read the Hindi versions the whole discussion will be interspersed with the Hindi quotes/ pictures.
FIRST VETAL AND HIS GENERATIONS:
The present Vetal, on whose adventures most stories are based, is the 21st of the generations of Vetal. He is referred to as: Our Phantom/ हमारा वेताल. The vow the First Vetal took on the skull of his father’s murderer is carried out by his successors. The vow was to fight against crime and injustice anywhere in the world.
The fact that the Vetal is a mortal being is known only to readers and the Bandar tribes (बांडार बौने) or those of his close family. For everyone else he is- “The Ghost Who Walks”, “चलता फिरता प्रेत”. One who can never die.
Besides Vetal, there are several other characters who recur in most of the adventures and some are of course his companion in each one. Like these two:
तूफान और शेरा OR Hero & Devil:
Vetal’s loyal companions, the beautiful white stallion- तूफान (Hero) and the dog- शेरा (Devil), Oops! Sorry the wolf- Shera:
Vetal’s friend and chief of the Bandar tribe in the deep woods, बीहड बन. He grew up with Vetal and also acts as his advisor, if need be.
She is Vetal’s childhood friend, his fiancé’ and later wife. She herself is a nurse working with UNO, is shown to be a judo champion and Olympic diver.
A very fascinating and lovely character. While her mother Lily Palmer is always a bit doubtful about her daughter’s choice, her maternal uncle Dave Palmer/ डेव मामा likes Vetal immensely.
She likes Vetal the way he is.
He is Vetal’s adopted son, calls him Uncle Walker* (चाचा वॉकर), and lives with Vetal in the woods.
(*for “The Ghost Who Walks”)
& Mozz Baba:
One of the Bandar’s, Old Man Mozz, one who knows everything and forgets nothing. Vetal turns to his help once in a while when he needs answers about past, especially his ancestors.
The most wonderful thing about the comics are that besides Vetal all the other main or recurring characters have themselves been etched out carefully and given their own speciality and interesting personalities.
LEGENDS AND FOLKLORE AROUND VETAL:
As the readers would know Our Vetal has been there for around more than 400 years. Or rather the generations have been. But the outside world does not know that. As Vetal, ever since the first one, has made the forest his home only the pygmies know the secret. Not even the rest of the jungle-folk know it. For them he is Phantom/ Vetal, one who cannot die. One who protects them and maintains peace in the jungle.
As such over the years (or centuries rather) lots of legends have developed around him which actually go a long way to create the mystery and fear around Vetal. These legends have become the stock line/ phrase in the Vetal stories which make them the most intriguing reads.
The most important, Vetal’s two signs:
The sign of skull- for the evil doers & the Good Mark- Phantom’s good mark means that the thing, place or person is under his protection.
When he is in action:
Or when he is angry:
“Vetal’s angry and cold voice freezes blood.”
Vetal gives tit for tat:
The Whispering Woods, where wind makes only one sound- Ve-taal:
& this one:
CALL FOR HELP:
When somebody needs help, either the jungle dwellers or anyone who has been told to ask for Vetal in need they do so. And Vetal invariably comes to their help- even if he has to jump off a plane mid-way, or fly on his horse.
When someone asks for his help, especially in forests the message always reaches him through drums:
And he comes and how- as he wishes. He can vanish in thin air, they say.
Vetal always works with silence and speed:
VETAL’S WAY OF WORK:
Vetal prefers to work alone. That’s the first rule. As he puts it- “I will reach alone faster”:
The most important watchwords of his style are stealth and intelligence. No unnecessarily facing the bad guys or impractical heroism. He uses his wit in tight situations and there is that good-humoured way in which he goes about, which makes hims endearing.
The morality of his own character also adds to the charm. He also gives second chance when someone deserves it:
The best thing that I like is, that he is human. He does not have any superpowers so as to say which make him special. Whatever the Phantom or his ancestors have acquired, have been through hard work, education and knowledge. And why not? Every Phantom (that when he is young) is sent to his mother’s place/country to pursue his education. They have to learn everything necessary to make them capable to succeed their respective fathers.
This one is what I guess makes him most different from other superheroes. The superheroes usually lead a normal life and have a different identity. They change into their costumed avatar when someone needs help. On the contrary Our Vetal’s normal life is in jungle, in his mask. And it’s once in a while that he goes outside, to city, like normal people, and take their attire.
A LOYAL FAN:
Everyone in our maternal side are ardent fans of Vetal. So much that once he makes his way into our conversation (and somehow, he always seems to), we cannot stop talking about him.
I can thus go on and on about Vetal for pages like this. In fact, as I went through the whole draft before finalising, I realised there were many things missing. But let’s leave it for some other time. Suffice it to say that I am loyal, devoted and crazy fan of Vetal.
He will be the one and original superhero for me. It is perhaps so because there is something fascinating about the whole primitive set-up along with the modern ones. Or maybe since I have read him since childhood, he is part of nostalgia. Or perhaps because of the intriguing way of the stories and dialogues are written, as also the humour present. I could count many more reasons. But I guess the most vital of them is that because Vetal, the first in line of superheroes, is one of us.