SF in all the Wrong Places -- Phantom Island [or is it just an Isle?](c) 2015, Arthur L. Lortie

The beauty -- and bane -- of having all these amazing research tools at my disposal is that I start examining one thing and a few hours later I find myself completely immersed in something even more fascinating!

Which holds my attention for at least 5 minutes until that Next Big Mystery rears its ugly head.

Mr_%20Monopoly.jpgI started, innocently enough, by looking at an early, obscure Bob 'Batman' Kane creation called The Little Colonel [much more on that another day] and immediately noticed his resemblance to a certain greedy old gent who collects his hefty Park Place rents and then gets sent to jail without passing Go, on that ubiquitous Monopoly board game from Parker Bros. A scenario that's a lot like real life -- or should be.

That curmudgeon, known as Mr. Monopoly or Rich Uncle Pennybags ("the man who ran the town"), first started showing up on Chance and Community Chest cards in the U.S. editions of Monopoly way, waaay back in 1936, just a tad before Kane's character hit the newspapers on March 19, 1937. Nobody seems to know -- or maybe no one wants to admit -- who designed that icon. But there are those who believe he's a poor copy of Little Esky, the cover mascot of Esquire Magazine. (I'm stubbornly turning a blind eye and deaf ear to anyone who suggests this is instead an unflattering caricature of banker J. P. Morgan, if only because ... well ... "NOT comics" is a topic for another day.)
Rich and lecherous little old men sporting bushy white mustaches, top hats, canes, striped pants and Charlie Chaplin tuxedo coats were apparently all the rage among the Rich and Famous of the Great Depression era.

Esquire Magazine.jpgBut who gave us Little Esky, you might rightly ask? He was introduced to the world as a clay figure on the cover of Esquire's second issue, dated January, 1934. If you believed the official story at the time, Sam Berman was the culprit and every month three artists would model, color and bake a clay figure in New York, and then carefully ship it to Chicago for photographing. Berman would go on to become a famous American caricaturist of the 1940s and 1950s, probably best known for his political cartoons in Collier's and promotional work for The NBC Parade of Stars.

He also happened to be white.

It took publisher Arnold Gingrich three decades to finally gave credit to the real creator, Elmer Simms Campbell, in **Esquire**'s 30th Anniversary issue in 1963. Campbell had been on staff from the very beginning, contributing a popular risqué cartoon series, Harem Girls, that appeared in almost every issue through 1958. You could also find his watercolor lovelies prancing through the pages of many other respected magazines like Cosmopolitan, Ebony, The New Yorker, Playboy, and Redbook.

Since this whole research endeavor had begun with a newspaper comic, I naturally wondered if Campbell had also contributed to that field. And of course he did, like every other artist of note did in those days when, for most of them, the real money was to be made doing comic strips.

The March 23, 1940 issue of the New York Amsterdam News, a paper produced by and for New York's black community, proudly announced Campbell had joined their staff and would be producing not one but SIX new features -- Harlem Sketches [a humorous single panel], Little Mose [a pantomime humor strip], Did You Know? [a black history panel strip], Men's Fashions [text articles], a Weekly Short Story [text, usually with an illustration] and, of course, my "SF in all the Wrong Places"™ subject, Phantom Island!

The lead-in promo for this strip promised an intriguing mix of "history and phantasy"! Please note their spelling.

All began fine and dandy in the News on April 6th as promised. The Pittsburgh Courier, another black newspaper, would pick things up in midstream on May 4th, providing a helpful "What Came Before" for its new readers.

At The News, these strips joined long running incumbents, Pee Wee by Bill Chase and Crème Puff by Jay Jackson, and the new lineup was announced triumphantly with a flashy banner!

Logo 19400427 (New York Amsterdam News).jpg

Phantom Island [shortened to Phantom Isle in the Courier; apparently because it lost acreage crossing state lines] began with an intriguing cast of characters plucked straight from the Jules Verne handbook, especially those created for In Search of the Castaways and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Phantom Island 19400504 (original art).jpg

We are introduced to the wealthy Jamaican inventor Captain Tobey, his two grandchildren, their governess and the resourceful Booma, a giant African strongman. A hurricane puts them at the mercy of a Captain Nemo-esque, and aptly named pirate, Hookhand, the inventor of a super-secret advanced submarine and leader of a dastardly pirate crew. Hookhand houses a secret, however; he's really a 200-year-old mutineer from Haiti who once sailed with Ponce de Leon -- and he knows the hidden location of the Fountain of Youth on that mysterious Phantom Island!

After 8 weeks of derring do and intrigue, we finally reach the fabled isle and -- the strip ends!!!

Wait! What? Its over?

Booma gets shot from a torpedo tube, Tobey and clan are menaced with "Next week: The Hook of Death!" -- and it just freakin' ends!!! Is this where those LOST creators learned their craft?

In the New York Amsterdam News, the strip was replaced by a black Tarzan, Tiger Ragg, with art and story by John H. Terrell, whose private detective Ace Harlem would later run in the 1947 All-Negro Comics. Unfortunately, Tiger's adventures would meet the same abrupt fate as Phantom Island and just a mere 2 months later, his story ends literally in mid-vine swing!!

The rest of Campbell's strips likewise went missing, with another whole new lineup joining Pee Wee and Crème Puff. Little Mose got channel switched by Radio Patrol; Passing Fancy proved just that and saw The Sports Story by Fay Young take its place; Harlem Sketches lost its position to Exposition Follies by incumbent Jay Jackson, now pulling double duty; Men's Fashions got replaced by Nite Life Roundup by Carl Lawrence; and Do You Know? got dumped by Every Tub by Teddy Shearer!

There was no warning or explanation offered to any of the strips' loyal readers. Just -- poof!

Until the day a lost script or two surfaces to destroy my scenario, I'm proposing that Booma became shark bait, the kids died of malnutrition from lack of proper supervision, Tobey got disemboweled by a hook and the governess became the zombie bride of a Haitian pirate!

Take that, Campbell! Because ... karma!
Cuties ad 19400604 (Dallas Morning News).jpg
After the disillusionment, it took a little poking around to find out why it really ended.

Campbell was given the chance to do his trademark buxom-beauty-and-lecherous-old man single panel cartoons for the Big[ger] Bucks at the larger King Features Syndicate, joining artistic superstars Alex Raymond [Flash Gordon] and Hal Foster [Prince Valiant], among others, as perhaps the first acknowledged artist of color doing strips for a major syndicate. [NOTE: I am well aware of the contributions of Jackie Ormes, who I don't think ever worked for a large syndicate, and Creole George Herriman,whose ethnicity. I believe, was not widely acknowledged at the time]

The Dallas Morning News announced the start of Campbell's Cuties on June 4, 1940, just one week after his Phantom Island sunk beneath the waves. Cuties ran FOREVER -- or so it seemed!! It ended in 1971, 31 years later, a respectable and profitable run for its creator.

Surprisingly there are at least two pieces of original art for this short-lived strip still in existence, the inaugural piece from April 6, and the installment dated May 4, 1940. I've included both in the archive of strips and promotional material I placed online.


And now back to Bob Kane!

Additional E Simms Campbell links:

Jim Keefe, SALLY FORTH (and former FLASH GORDON) artist

Ariel S. Winter, author, children's books

Ohio State letters collection