The first Phantom comic, featuring the legendary superhero with his now clearly identifiable face mask, and jumpsuit (blue or purple) who lived deep in the jungles of Bangalla, appeared in 1936, where the Phantom, the alias of Kit Walker, takes on the Singh Brotherhood. Bangalla’s location – and Lee Falk in fact first went with Bengali – was always uncertain. Initially Falk was himself ambiguous, deliberately so, about its whereabouts, though considering that the Singh Brotherhood’s undersea base was in the Java Sea, near Krakatan (the old name for the famous volcano), Bangalla posed a certain resemblance to Bengal, till the clarifications and changes were introduced.

But such ambiguities remain a staple of the early Phantom comics, accounting for, perhaps, as some Phantom theorists have speculated, on his strange popularity outside the US rather than in the country of his origin. Phantom enthusiasts, and they are legion, have pointed to an anomaly – despite his superhero status, predating Superman and Batman, the Phantom wasn’t quite in the same league as these later heroes who came a few years later. It could be that the Phantom wasn’t “American” enough since he lived somewhere obscure, or that the villains he battled were not easily relatable to (at that time), unlike the grim, clearly urban, even alien-sounding, evil-doers the Superman and Batman fought.

When Lee Falk submitted his first idea for the Phantom, he was to some extent a desperate man. An earlier concept, when he wanted to resurrect the old Arthurian legend, had been rejected and so he offered the Phantom – a superman who had a mix of the very modern and the mythical; all of which Falk was to sort out via numerous back stories as the series took on a long and enchanted life.

Twin villains of an Oriental kind

The Singh brotherhood was a cabal with ancient rites of belonging; its hideout was located deep in the Java Sea. Its leader Kabai Singh, the Phantom’s bête noire, appears, if you place the images alongside each other, to be modelled around the evil character of Dr Fu Manchu, the (clearly oriental) villain of the popular series created in 1913 by Sax Rohmer.

The first Fu Manchu movies were made in the late 1920s, only a few years before the Phantom himself appeared. The villain was portrayed as an evil genius who had at his service dacoits and thuggees of clear Indian persuasion and different secret societies dating from the time of the Boxer rebellion in China. These loyalists would, at Fu Manchu’s behest, carry out missions aided by poisonous germs or natural chemicals, and even, on occasion, venomous cobras, and sinuous pythons.

Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie, clear Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson alternates, were in the war to bring Fu Manchu to justice. It was Agent Smith who described Fu Manchu as the “yellow peril incarnate” – a description that soon came to have several unfortunate connotations.

For all this, there is that clear resemblance between Kabai Singh and Fu Manchu, complete with their turbans, long robes, and what came to be called the “Fu Manchu moustache” – a facial addition that appeared not in the book but in the first film adaptations of the Fu Manchu books. The moustache became part of the stereotyped accoutrement associated with Oriental villains in Western cinema.

The first movie of the series appeared in the late 1920s. But it was the 1932 film, The Mask of Fu Manchu, that earned American filmmakers and its government severe Chinese opprobrium, particularly when in one frame Fu Manchu is seen urging a varied “Asian” collective to wage war against the West.

The strange land of Bangalla

In one of these early Fu Manchu stories by Rohmer, Smith travels to the forests of Burma and is almost decapitated by a poisoned arrow. Arrows, the secret poison they contain and Bangalla (Bengali) itself, not far from Burma, appeared in the first Phantom comic.

The Skull Cave, located deep in its forests, is where the Phantom returns to recover from an injury after having successfully battled the Brotherhood. Bengali was where the tribe called the Bandars stayed – you can see how Falk carried political incorrectness all the way, and had a lot to make up for in the later comics. Indeed, in later versions from the 1970s onward, Bangalla moved to the African east coast, close to Kenya and Zanzibar.

The only other time Bangalla appeared in known historical writing was in a book written a hundred years and more before Falk’s writing of the Phantom comic. A British businessman, John Ranking, based in India and Russia, and convinced of the genuine historicity of his efforts, wrote Historical Researches on the Wars and Sports of the Mongols and Romans in 1825, which mentions Bangalla as being located at the mouth of the Ganges, at the eastern end of Bengal itself.

He makes outlandish claims, such as its kings being Abyssinian slaves. Bangalla, Ranking writes, was conquered by the great Mongol, Kublai Khan. It is the vast horde of elephants that Kublai Khan acquired following his victory that served his army well in later campaigns as far afield as Siberia in the north and up to the borders of the Roman Empire in the west. That elephant (mammoth) skeletons have been found in these places, Ranking wrote, attested to the fact that these animals appeared in Europe even earlier than was believed, all thanks to Kublai Khan’s endeavours.

The first Phantom comic in India appeared in March 1964, when Indrajal Comics began a series featuring him. Besides English, these appeared in other languages too. Some names and places were suitably changed: Bengali became Denkali, or even Dangalla, for instance.

The search for ambergris

The Phantom intervenes against the Brotherhood when his lady love Diana Palmer, a champion undersea diver, is kidnapped for her precious cargo of ambergris. Ambergris was a greatly valued and much sought after commodity, and one of the chief reasons why whale-hunting began in an organised fashion from the early nineteenth century onward.

Ambergris, it is believed, is obtained as a “throw up”, and secreted in the intestines of the great sperm whale. In great demand from the world’s perfume industry, it has featured in adventure novels before – most especially in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), when one of the crew members of the whaling ship Pequod mentions a dead sperm whale that would yield them a rich harvest of ambergris, which it does. On his sixth voyage, as Richard Burton the explorer has it, Sindbad the Sailor enters a stream flowing out of a cave, and finds it full of precious stones and ambergris.

And in a work written in 1881 – A Romance of Perfumed Lands or The Search for Captain Jacob Cole (with interesting facts about perfumes and articles used in the toilet), by Frank Sanford Clifford (or Clifford Perfumer) – a voyage around the world in search of the world’s fragrances leads from America to lands as far afield as Africa and India (Bengal and Shimla), where its yogis and holy men have the power to derive perfumes out of nature, and where the perfumery industry is thriving.

It is here, away from the Irish coast that the intrepid sailor Jean, complete with diver’s equipment (including a lamp to produce electricity underwater) and also a tube to enable conversation with those on board the ship, descends to the bottom of the sea. Ambergris is apparently produced, Jean explained, from the faeces of the sperm whale. But a fictional character is not expected to be scientifically correct. The ambergris he sends up has bones embedded in it, because of the whale’s habit of consuming tons of the beaked cuttlefish.

Whale hunting has been banned in most countries now; ambergris, however, continues to yield a rich haul to its finders as happened most recently in Wales.