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Thursday, 9 August 2012

Herbie Kirby And The Origin Of The Phantom Detective

Above: 1936(?) photograph of Herbert (“Herbie”) Kirby -top of steps.  He was working on Bristol trams while writing short text stories for boys papers published by Target Publications of Bath.  Mystery Of The Tombs in the 1935 Rattler comic may have been one of his pieces.

Below: Fred Astaire in Top Hat (1935) Kirby told me: “I saw the famous American song and dance man, Fred Astaire and he always had that look of being relaxed but ready to spring into action and dance.  He also had this very easy manner of speaking. I thought I would really like to write and draw a comic set (strip) with a character like that.”

Originally, Herbert explained, “I wanted to make him a magician of some type but it just would not solidify as an idea.  It just did not work.”

But then Kirby went to France though he would never even hint at why -his daughter, Rosemary, explained why after his death.  On this visit, however, he was pausing by a book stall “Then I saw it!  It was as though I had been guided across the Channel to see this one illustration that made the entire silly idea work!”

Fantomas, created by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. Apparently, after his work had concluded, he found “a little back-street ‘flea-pit’ (cinema)” that was showing the film (or one of them). “It was that blessed mask! Just that one little addition to the formal costume gave the right air of mystery.  It was then that I realised if I could interest a publisher I needed to have a good schpiel to sell it.”

Herbert felt that copying the master criminal idea of Fantomas would be wrong.  Or as he called it “stealing the work of someone else.”  However, Raffles, the gentleman thief had been portrayed wearing top hat and tails.

A trip to a Woolworth store in Bristol led to Herbert buying a copy of the famous ghost hunter Elliott O’Donnell’s Twenty Years’ Experience as a Ghost Hunter (1916).  “He could spin a good yarn -and the chap had been in the Bristol newspaper a few times concerning hauntings. I began reading the book on a train to Weston-Super-Mare and fell to sleep.  I do hope that I never snored! I had been working day and night so was plum-tuckered out. Anyways, I had a dream of this character in top hat and tails and domino mask who was leading me around this haunted house and I said to him: ‘But why are you not afeared of these ghostly things?’ to which he replied, in a deep and cultured voice: ‘Because, like these lost souls, I too, am dead!’  And that was it. I woke with a start and began making notes!”

So it was that, in 1937, The Phantom Detective came to life -or as Herbert put it: “to death!”

There was a text story with a small Phantom Detective illustration by Herbert but he had no copies -most of his work was lost in the Blitz. He thinks (he was very old when I met him) that the publication was The Merry Midget.

There were “two comic sets” -“The Haunting Of Number 43 Old Yard” and “The Haunted Tram” for which Target paid him but he never saw the strips in print. I gave up searching for these but hope to find them one day!

It was at my third meeting with Herbert that I broached the subject of new Phantom Detective strips.  He liked the idea and was pleased with what he saw.

So, when you see the Phantom Detective remember a very old man (the family had no birth certificate but Herbert was certainly just over 100 years of age when he passed away) who had a very adventurous life, loved writing prose as well as drawing comic strips -including a try out on the original Captain Briton (Britain) from Fleetway in the 1960s which never got to print.

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