The Phantom Pharaoh
Writer: Don Freeman
Artist: Steve Dowling/John Allard
Published: 14/5/51 – 6/10/51 (K114 – K239)
Number of Episodes: 126
Garth materialises atop an Egyptian pyramid. Flying down to the dwellings below, he is hailed by a reverent crowd as “Horus, the Hawk-God”. He realises that he has landed in Ancient Egypt.
He is approached by an arrogant figure who introduces himself as Ptah-Hotep, High Priest of Memphis. Realising that he has been mistaken for a God, Garth turns to try and scale the pyramid for another take-off, but he is hemmed in by the crowd and his cloak snatched from his shoulders. He manages to retrieve the cloak but is unable to fasten it, so he runs along a colonnade leading into the pyramid entrance. The High Priest tells the crowd that as the God Horus is entering the tomb of the ancient king, he alone can follow him, together with the temple guards.
Garth had been hoping to hide in the pyramid galleries until nightfall, but he has to go deeper inside to avoid his pursuers. He bumps against a stone block which opens into the sepulchral chamber of an ancient queen and is startled to see a young woman standing alongside a huge tomb.
She quickly ascertains that Garth is a fugitive – like herself. As the High Priest and guards approach, she tells Garth that she will be killed if caught, so Garth raises the massive lid of the sarcophagus, bidding her to hide inside.
The High Priest enters and exclaims that the sarcophagus is open, but before he can investigate, Garth hustles him outside, and asks to speak to him alone. Ptah takes him into the temple of Ptah, the God of Memphis, after whom he had been named. Garth is obliged to take off his winged helmet and cloak in this holy place, before following the High Priest into the inner shrine. Here Ptah admits he is not sure if Garth is a God or a man, but if he is indeed a God he can be of great help to him and his fellow priests.
Their power is being threatened by “the Phantom Pharaoh”, ruler of the great house of Thebes, capital of the Upper Nile. The pharaoh has repudiated all the Egyptian Gods, and declared himself an ordinary man. Additionally, since the death of his wife Queen Nefri, he hides his face behind a golden mask. The High Priest wants Garth to lead an uprising against the pharaoh. But Garth refuses to get involved in palace politics, and goes to retrieve his space-time kit from where he had left it. However, on the High Priest’s instructions, the guards have hidden it.
Having guessed that Garth possesses no special powers without the helmet and cloak, Ptah threatens to denounce him as a tomb robber unless he agrees to help him in putting his nominee on the pharaoh’s throne, when they will be returned. Garth is obliged to accompany the High Priest to his riverside palace. He leaves Garth to sleep on the matter.
Garth has no desire to get mixed up in the political intrigue, but senses that the mysterious girl is somehow involved. Determining to find her, he leaves his room to search for his space-time kit. He overhears the High Priest detailing two guards to guard the room where the helmet and cloak have been taken. Garth overpowers the guards by slamming their heads together, and is about to don his space-time kit when the High Priest unexpectedly returns and enters the room. In hastily donning the helmet Garth accidentally reverses the winged controls and discovers that it has rendered him invisible.
Donning his cloak, Garth flies invisibly to the temple during the night, and observes the girl slipping out, accompanied by a Nubian dwarf. Garth lands and renders himself visible, but the girl is disinclined to linger and talk with him. Before slipping away, she gives Garth a sacred scarab ring and tells him that this will grant him an audience with the pharaoh at Thebes.
Dawn is breaking as Garth returns to the High Priest’s palace. Finding Ptah glowering over the still unconscious guards, Garth speaks to him invisibly before reappearing. The cowed Ptah – now in awe of Garth – claims that he had acted for the best. Suddenly noticing the scarab ring of the dead Queen, he jumps to the conclusion that Garth is a tomb robber. He admits that he has been robbing the pyramid himself to finance his planned revolt against the pharaoh, and promises to share the spoils with Garth if he helps him place his ally, Harmhab, the Nomarch (Governor), on the throne.
Garth asks to meet this Harmhab and they travel upriver to his island fortress. Garth learns that it is surrounded by sacred crocodiles, and a human sacrifice is being made. When Garth sees the struggling figure of the Nubian dwarf, he dives overboard to save him. Garth’s unexpected arrival scatters the crocodiles, and the dwarf escapes to the opposite bank. A guard informs Ptah that the dwarf had been caught travelling secretly through the Nomarch’s domains, with ‘a strange woman’. She had escaped, and when the dwarf would not talk Harmhab had ordered his execution.
Ptah conducts Garth into the presence of Harmhab, whom he informs of his plan to use Garth – posing as the God Horus – to arouse Egypt against the pharaoh who denies the Gods, and then nominate Harmhab as his pious successor. Garth remains silent, but has now made up his mind that he will not assist a man who throws people to crocodiles. Harmhab tells the High Priest that he has received news that Ptah’s brother, the High Priest of Ammon-Ra has died at Thebes. His priestly office now falls on his brother – and also the post of Grand Vizier to the pharaoh. Ptah is anxious to return and claim his inheritance. The cowardly Harmhab – disturbed by the spies from Thebes – is unwilling to become involved as yet, so endorses Garth accompanying Ptah back to Thebes as his protector.
Whilst Garth and the Ptah sail back down the Nile to Thebes, the valiant dwarf has stolen and ass and has ridden ahead of them. En route, he has encountered a band of roving Hyskos warriors, here called ‘Bedawins’ (after Bedouins), and told them that he was fleeing from their mutual enemy, the High Priest. The Bedawins arrange an ambush by blocking the river with a huge log, where it narrows at a rocky gorge.
Spotting the bowmen poised atop the rocky bank, Garth operates his helmet’s invisibility control and flies ashore. Looking down, he spots the leader who is directing the ambush. Garth plucks him from his horse, holding the leader in mid-air. The terrified archers cease firing at the uncanny sight. The invisible Garth orders the leader to call off the attack, before revealing himself as the God Horus. He learns that the young leader is Mahmud, a prince of the Hyskos. The pharaoh had been kind to his wandering tribe.
Sensing that Mahmud’s fighting force could be useful later, Garth instructs him to await his call to arms. Garth then returns to Ptah’s barge, which continues its journey unmolested. The High Priest is aware of Garth’s intervention causing the attack to cease, but ignorant of the details and the new allegiance Garth has formed.
When Garth and Ptah arrive at Thebes and approach the temple, they come upon a small procession. The High Priest is furious to learn that the mummified body of his brother is being carried to a tomb in the temple, but – by order of the pharaoh – entirely without the usual pomp and ceremony accorded to a priestly brother of Ammon-Ra. Whilst Ptah harangues the temple guards at this insult, Garth takes the opportunity to slip away unnoticed, and flies across a lake to the great house of the pharaoh.
Garth is challenged by a guard, but the Nubian dwarf arrives and takes charge, welcoming Garth. He conducts Garth for a personal audience with the pharaoh.
Garth declares that he comes as a friend and shows the ring. The masked pharaoh acknowledges that he has good reports of Garth from his spies. He explains to Garth that he is determined to abolish the ways of his past ancestors who have oppressed the people by claiming divinity and building vast pyramids and wasteful tombs, and to stop the priests enslaving people with superstitious sacrifices to a dozen different Gods. He has proclaimed that there is only one God.
Garth congratulates him for being an enlightened man, but questions how he can hope to gain the acceptance of the people whilst hiding his face behind a mask. At Garth’s question the pharaoh becomes strangely disturbed and sweeps out, telling Garth that Pepi – the dwarf – will bring him to resume the audience again tomorrow.
Pepi tells Garth that since the Queen’s simple funeral, the pharaoh hides his grief behind the mask. When Garth asks what has become of the woman who had given him the ring, Pepi tells him to forget her, because he will never see her again. As they emerge on the palace steps, an angry Ptah arrives and announces that he has been accepted by the people as the new High Priest of Ammon-Ra. He demands a state funeral for his brother, and asserts that he is also the Vizier now. To his astonishment, Pepi dismisses him, informing him that the pharaoh has made him first minister. He tells Ptah to retire to a villa that has been reserved for his retinue.
Garth and Ptah’s retinue are led to the villa, where they are confined almost like prisoners. Looking out over a parapet across the desert to a cliffside, Ptah tells Garth that Queen Nefri lies there in a simple rock tomb. He has moved his brother’s body nearby until he can arrange a more fitting funeral. He suspects that his brother may have been poisoned, so intends to inspect his body during the night, while the guards are sleeping.
That night, Garth rises ahead of the High Priest and flies invisibly to the largest of the rock tombs. He reads an inscription, “Here lies Nefri, beloved wife and Queen of a Pharaoh who was no God, but married her as a man.” When Garth looks inside the sarcophagus, curious to see the face of the Queen, he is astonished to find instead the body of a man.
He hears voices outside – Ptah is telling two servants that he is now satisfied that his brother had not been poisoned. He bids them to wait whilst he recites a prayer over the Queen whilst he is here. When he enters the tomb, Garth invisibly lifts him up bodily and flies him back to his bedroom in the villa. Disguising his voice he tells the terrified Ptah to repent for disturbing the Queen’s eternal sleep. Ptah calls out to Horus, convinced he has been bewitched. Garth – his flying kit removed – emerges from an adjoining chamber. He scoffs at Ptah’s story – that he had been carried off by Osiris, the Prince of Darkness – and tells him he must have been dreaming.
Next morning Garth and Ptah resume their audience with the pharaoh. Ptah makes three requests: a state funeral for his brother, acceptance of his claim to the temple of Ammon-Raa, and the rank of Grand Vizier which goes with it. The pharaoh refuses all three requests, and reaffirms that the worship of ancient Gods is ended, and that his loyal former slave Pepi is now his Grand Vizier. He instructs Ptah to return to Memphis, whilst he has a private audience with his companion.
After Ptah leaves, Garth makes himself invisible. The pharaoh instructs the guards to search for him, and leaves the court. Garth follow the pharaoh to a boudoir, and waits for him to show his face as he disrobes. To his astonishment, the pharaoh stands revealed as the girl he had seen in the pyramid – Queen Nefri!
Garth materialises and questions the Queen as to why her husband was in the tomb in her place. Nefri explains that her elderly husband had died before their marriage was consummated. Fearing that the priests would install the nefarious Harmhab on the throne and further oppress the people, she had become the Phantom Pharaoh and made out that it was the Queen who had died. Nefri is determined to carry on her late husband’s policies to break the power of the priests.
With the benefit of history, Garth realises that despite her bravery, Nefri’s reforms cannot succeed. But he pledges to help her, and to return the next day.
Garth flies to the villa to check on what Ptah is doing. Ptah is relieved to see him, and Garth informs him that the pharaoh is set on his reforms, and plays for time when Ptah presses him to lead the revolt, saying he will only make up his mind after his next audience with the pharaoh. Ptah loses patience and sends a messenger to Harmhab instructing him to advance with his army on Thebes. He expects Garth to help him by denouncing the pharaoh in the temple of Ammon-Ra.
Garth flies invisibly to the palace and materialises in the Queen’s chamber where she has prepared herself alluringly for his coming. He warns her of the coming attack and Nefri vows to fight the attackers and appeal to the people to support her. Garth again expresses doubts that the people will listen whilst she wears the mask, so Nefri appeals to him to protect her with his god-like powers. Meanwhile, Ptah has bribed the palace guards to let him slip into the chamber to eavesdrop on Garth’s audience. He overhears Garth admitting that his powers are only due to the helmet and cloak.
As Nefri declares that she is enamoured of Garth and embraces him, Ptah reaches out from his concealment behind a curtain and snatches the space-time kit. Making his escape from the palace, he has superstitious misgivings about meddling with the helmet and cloak. He leaves it at the foot of a statue of Ammon-Ra in the temple, before calling on the guards to follow him to the tombs to see for themselves who really lies there.
Garth realises that Ptah may be about to reveal the Queen’s secret, so he summons the palace guards and she removes her mask. Just as Garth is making a speech to justify her actions, a crowd storms the palace shouting their belief – planted by Ptah – that the Queen had murdered the true pharaoh, and that Garth is no god. However, his mighty strength is sufficient to scatter the crowd, and to allow him to escape from the palace with Pepi and Nefri, via a water gate, and escape down the river in her private canoe that has been kept provisioned for a hunting trip.
After hiding in papyrus reeds until it is safe to emerge, they reach the opposite bank of the river. Garth tells the Queen and Pepi that he has a plan, and leads them on a trek across the rocky desert.
After three days their supplies are exhausted, and Garth calls a halt. He then sets a fire blazing, using dead palm trees. As he had hoped, the huge palls of smoke act as a signal that is seen by Prince Mahmud and his Bedawin forces. Garth introduces the young Prince to the Queen, and – as he had shrewdly anticipated – they are mutually attracted to each other.
Mahmud’s forces, led by Garth, lay an ambush in a rocky defile for Harmhab and his advancing army. Arrows rein down on the unsuspecting army, and their rout is completed by a cavalry charge. Nefri is distraught at the slaughter, and unwisely emerges from concealment to make an appeal to stop the fighting.
Harmhab, thrown from his carriage and cowering nearby, seizes his chance to grab the Queen as a hostage. Garth, meanwhile, is directing the Bedawins, and calls on Mahmud to hold back his men as he calls on the Egyptians to surrender to their Queen.
Pepi hears his Queen’s cries for help as she struggles with the obese Harmhab, and the valiant dwarf goes to her rescue. However, the great bulk of Harmhab soon overwhelms him, and the Queen covers her eyes as the loyal Pepi is killed. Snatching up Pepi’s small sword, Harmhab advances on the Queen, intent on her death. But Mahmud arrives in his chariot and thrusts his spear clean through Harmhab’s back, killing him and saving Nefri.
With Harmhab dead, his army yields. Alongside Garth and the Queen, Mahmud leads his triumphant forces back to Thebes, where the Queen is hailed by the fickle populace. As Mahmud escorts Nefri to her palace, Garth follows Ptah-Hotep, who has fled into the temple. Garth recovers and dons his space-time kit as the abject Ptah cowers before him and begs for his life. Surprisingly, Garth orders him to accompany him back to the palace to pay homage to the Queen.
The magnanimous Nefri spares his life when the High Priest promises to work with her for the good of the people. Garth observes that Egypt is not ready for sudden religious reform, but tells the Queen that with Mahmud by her side, she can bring about social change.
Garth orders a second throne to be placed alongside the Queen’s, and tells the Prince: “It’s all yours, Mahmud – Good luck… and good-bye.” And with that he vanishes and flies towards the nearest pyramid…!
Synopsis by Philip Harbottle
In a feature encompassing the entire history of the much-loved strip, Garth writer Philip Harbottle pays tribute to artist and editor John Allard, who worked at the Mirror for over 50 years, outlining his huge contribution to Garth‘s enduring success
Strip dates given are those of their original appearance in the British newspaper the Daily Mirror, first compiled by Geoffrey Wren and Ann Holmes and updated by Ant Jones and Philip Harbottle
Garth © REACH/ Daily Mirror