Defenders of the Earth was a Marvel Productions cartoon of the ’80s that brought together characters from three King Features Syndicate comic strips - Lee Falk’s The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician, plus Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon - to create a “brand new” group of world-saving, alien-beating adventurers. A friend once described it as a show that teamed “your grandpa’s favorite superheroes” together; not only is this an apt description for a cartoon that starred characters who first collectively hit newspaper comic pages in the 1930s, but the observation might explain Stan Lee’s apparent enthusiasm for the project. Lee, at the time part of Marvel Productions out in California, not only wrote the first issue of Marvel’s DotE tie-in comic, but the (admittedly quite catchy) lyrics to the show’s themesong.
One thing that always struck me about Defenders of the Earth - aside from the somewhat random decision to make Ming the Merciless green - was a note that I spotted in the credits, which is reproduced above. “(This is 27th Phantom)”. For those who don’t know, the Phantom is a lineage-based adventure hero, with the mantle passed on from generation to generation to create the illusion of the Phantom being immortal. The note made me wonder: since DotE took place in the (nebulously established) future, did someone on the production staff sit down and work out the chronology of Phantoms-yet-to-come? Did Lee Falk, who was still alive at the time, make the call from on high?
The most fascinating thing about this note, though, came to me with hindsight. See, I was a regular watcher of another animated take on the Phantom franchise, Phantom 2040, which was produced in the ’90s. Phantom 2040 starred the 24th Phantom… which, I deduced, made the Phantom of Defenders of the Earth the grandson or great-grandson of the Phantom from Phantom 2040. This meant that I was watching a character whose descendant’s adventures were chronicled years before his own show was ever on the air.
With that, I had blown my own mind.
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