Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Phantom: The Underground Murders

I contribute scripts to Fantomen, a comic published by Egmont in Scandinavia about the adventures of costumed hero The Phantom. After each story is published, I prepare some notes on how my script came about for a Norwegian website. I'm not sure these notes ever get seen in English, so I figured they might as well appear here. An English language version of The Underground Murders will be published in the next few weeks by Australia's Frew Comics...

Looking back at The Underground Murders, it’s hard to remember where the inspiration for the story came from. Certainly, Team Fantomen was eager for more stories featuring the 18th Phantom and his half-brother Chris Sommerset. The son of the Pirate Queen had relocated to London in a previous story and married Anna, Kate Sommerset’s former first mate. I think the title, The Underground Murders, probably came from Team Fantomen – the Phantom’s editorial staff often supply story titles as a jumping off for writers. The setting of late Victorian London immediately brings to mind the era of Jack the Ripper. Although the prostitute killer’s last slaying took place in 1888, newspapers were full of scare stories about copycat cases for years afterwards and people claiming to have deduce the true identity of the Ripper.

One such report was published in a paper called the Sun, claiming a man called Thomas Cutbush was the Ripper. Cutbush was arrested in Spring 1891 for stabbing a woman and attempted to wound another woman, both in South London. The accused had escaped from Lambeth Infirmary where he was detained as a lunatic. Cutbush was subsequently found to be insane and imprisoned indefinitely. His uncle was a superintendent in the Metropolitan police at the time. Charles Henry Cutbush committed suicide five years later.

Around this time the London Underground was becoming established in England’s capital, although it was a primitive version of the Tube found beneath the city today. Combine this evocative setting with the idea of a Ripper copycat killer, the historical fact that an insane man known for stabbing women was loose in London at the time and his uncle being a police superintendent – and The Underground Murders was the result. The two-part story tweaks historical fact for dramatic effect, but considerable effort was put into supplying visual reference from the period to make the story look as accurate as possible.

Cesar Spadari has drawn nearly all the stories in the Sommerset family saga and he does a typically sound job of these scripts. But my personal highlight has to be Hans Lindahl’s wonderfully evocative cover for the second part [see above], published in Fantomen 09/2006 – quite stunning!

Below is the original synopsis submitted to Team Fantomen for this two-part tale. As you’ll see, quite a bit changed in the telling of the story. Any Frew readers who haven't seen the published story yet should stop reading now to avoid spoiling themselves for forthcoming issues...

January 1891: The son of the Pirate Queen, Chris Sommerset, has married to his mother’s former first mate, Anna. She is pregnant, so the 18th Phantom travels to London hoping to see his first nephew. But he arrives to find the British capital gripped by fear – women are being attacked on the London Underground and newspapers are full of speculation that Jack the Ripper could be responsible. He terrified the city during the Autumn of 1888, murdering five prostitutes in the East End before abruptly stopping his killing spree. Could the man known as Leather Apron be back?
The Phantom and Chris discuss the case and decide the case is quite different from that of Jack the Ripper. He murdered prostitutes, mostly in the open air and late at night. The fiend terrorising the underground is attacking honest, decent women on trains in the early morning or around dusk. The case is complicated by arguments over jurisdiction – any crimes committed on the underground is investigated by the Metropolitan Railway Police, but Scotland Yard always wants to get involved. Mr Walker escorts Anna’s maid safely on to a busy train, but she is slain less than an hour later, distressing Anna greatly. The attacker has now escalated to murder, but each slaying will not slake his hunger for spilling blood. He must be stopped, before other innocents die!
Chris and Mr Walker go to the police but their aide is unwanted. Scotland Yard is being overwhelmed by hoax letters, would-be sleuths and psychics claiming they can solve the crimes. Chris and the Phantom decide to investigate for themselves, see what they can discover. They study evidence the police have ignored and recognise a pattern. The first widely reported attack happened at Whitechapel, the stalking ground of the Ripper, but other, previous unconnected attacks took place along the line between New Cross Gate south of the Thames and Whitechapel, starting at New Cross Gate. Could the killer come from south of the river?
The Phantom decides to ride the trains, see if he can stop the attacks or the attacker, while Chris comforts Anna. The Phantom frightens one woman alone who thinks he is the killer, so she switches carriages. He thinks he spots the killer soon after but it is merely a lover’s quarrel. A scream cuts through the air – the Phantom clambers out of one carriage to the next and interrupts the killer in action. It is the woman who got scared of the Phantom before. He makes sure she is alright, then pursues the fleeing killer – but is stopped by the railway police, who think he’s the killer! Despite this, the Phantom hears the killer command a hansom cab driver to the Lambeth Infirmary. Mr Walker is arrested and charged with the attempted murder!

In part two Mr Walker struggles to prove his innocence, thanks to Chris’s intervention. Mr Walker was not even in the country when the attacks began. Yes, but he knew the first victim and he scared the second. The survivor eventually regains her senses and says Mr Walker saved her life. The real killer had a hook nose, furtive eyes. Chris and his half-brother visit the infirmary and discover it has an insane asylum attached. The Phantom is introduced to the asylum’s director, Dr Cutbush, and believes he may be the killer – but can they prove it? The police will not listen when Mr Walker and Chris put forward their theory – a doctor would not be responsible for these vile crimes. Besides Dr Cutbush is the brother of one of our superintendents!
The Phantom and Chris resolve to take turns keeping watch over Dr Cutbush until they can catch him in the act. But he seems to lead an innocent life – could they have gotten the wrong man? They don’t realise they are observed by the real killer. He hunts the hunters, following one of them to the Sommerset family home. return to Chris’s home to find Anna being held at knifepoint by Dr Cutbush’s son, Thomas. He is the Underground Killer, a patient at the asylum under his father’s care – that explains the family resemblance. Anna fights her way free, refusing to become the next victim, but her baby is coming. Cutbush flees, so Chris stays with Anna while the Phantom pursues the killer. Cutbush dies beneath the wheels of an underground train, killed by his chosen mode for murder…


1 comment:

GermWorks said...

Wow that was an enjoyable read, thanks for posting that David (I just found the entry via The Phantom Phorum).

I was suprised to see how the story had changed especially the second part with the murderer dieing etc