“I was honoured. I’m just so happy that others see the value of the book,” says Robert Aman, associate professor in education, and researcher in comics at the Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning.
Praised by critics
When we meet, it’s only a few days after he walked onto the stage at the Göteborg Book Fair to receive his diploma from Svenska serieakademin. The academy writes in its citation that Aman’s book När Fantomen blev svensk: vänsterns världsbild i trikå is “a classic in the making”. The author finds it a bit difficult to describe his response to these grandiloquent words, as he shuffles books and comics around in his overcrowded office. “The success of The Phantom took place at the same time as Sweden, and this is particularly true of the 1970s, had started to arrive on the world stage as the country with best gender equality, and as the strongest antifascist and anticolonial society,” says Robert Aman Photo credit Anna Nilsen
“I don’t think I’ve been awarded a diploma since I was learning to swim at school. But it’s wonderful, of course, and a great honour.”
The book has received praise from literature critics and has been taken up by Sweden’s major cultural editorial offices. The response surprised Robert Aman.
“It’s not often you get such a response to complex articles in English published in academic journals that only a few of your colleagues read. And having the book reviewed was particularly gratifying.”
“This is the first book I’ve written in Swedish, and I think you have to have a bit of luck to succeed in publishing your début book today,” he says.
An article that grew
He fiddles with the blue book cover showing a black and white comic strip with The Phantom in conversation with his wife Diana. He has worked for many years to understand how an American superhero in blue tights, who has been accused of both racism and sexism, could become a Swedish national hero. After publishing an article in 2018 in the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, he was left with the feeling that the article wasn’t enough.
“There was so much I wanted to say. The amount of material was just growing, and I decided that it was something I had to put into a book!”
The Phantom appears as a comic-book character in Sweden at the beginning of the 1940s, but Robert Aman has analysed his adventures from the 1960s and 1970s. The comic had its heyday in Sweden during this period. Around 170,000 copies were sold of every issue in the 1970s, and Australia is the only other country in the world where The Phantom was as popular.
“The success of The Phantom took place at the same time as Sweden, and this is particularly true of the 1970s, had started to arrive on the world stage as the country with best gender equality, and as the strongest antifascist and anticolonial society. In the book, I try to investigate the reasons for this.”
Because what happened, as described by Robert Aman, was that the powerful left-wing ethos that flourished in Sweden started to become evident in the comic. The Phantom became seriously “Swedish”. In order to meet the intense demand in Sweden, it was desirable to increase the rate at which issues appeared, and Lee Falk, who had created the character, agreed that Swedish authors could draw new adventures. At the beginning of the 1970s, the comic came under a Swedish editorial board, “Team Fantomen”, with new authors.
“What these guys all had in common was that they were influenced by the left-wing ethos of the period. They wanted to change the content of the adventures, and counter the criticism that The Phantom promoted racism and sexism.”
How did they achieve this?
“They toned down the violence and let The Phantom attempt to solve conflicts with other methods. They created new baddies – it wasn’t any longer just princes obsessed by knives or starving cannibals. For example, there’s a trader who exploits black workers in agriculture. Rather than beating the trader up, The Phantom encourages the workers to start a cooperative, a Coop in the jungle, to protect their own economic interests.”
Robert Aman has always devoured comic books, and even now races through a couple of albums every week. He first encountered The Phantom in the attic at his grandparents’ house, where piles of comic books that his uncles had read were waiting for him. Other early favourites were Tintin and Spirou.
“I’ve always loved pictures. And the combination of picture and text is, I believe, the best way to tell a story. But only if the subject matter is suitable, I must add. Several of my favourite comic books when I was younger had excellent artists drawing the pictures, which were accompanied by an exciting intrigue. I was able to visit exotic places, briefly, and experience excitement in safe surroundings.”
Do comics have the same effect on you today?
“I love reading comics, but it’s difficult to feel the same edginess when you read it at 40 that you experienced aged 11-12. It’s a shame, but I don’t run straight home to look for The Phantom comic in the letter box, to find out whether he survived or not.”
Robert Aman is working on several research projects at LiU. One is a project that is examining how comics can be used in schools to increase pupil engagement in norm-critical discussions in areas such as gender, ethnicity and class. Will there be a sequel to your book När Fantomen blev svensk? “It’s not at all unlikely.”
“I can see a book in which each chapter discusses a comic series that was around at the same time as The Phantom, and was in the same way affected by the left-wing ethos. One chapter will deal with Johan Vilde, one with Mystiska 2:an and one with Bamsy, who also was affected by the left-wing ethos at the time.”
Photo credit Anna Nilsen