Tony De Paul has written countless Phantom stories since the early 90s, taking the Ghost Who Walks on some incredible adventures. Last year saw the Death of Diana storyline, second only to Claes Reimerthi and Joan Boix’s brilliant Heart of Darkness when it comes to being the most ambitious Phantom story ever created. Tony kindly took time out of his very busy schedule to talk to Paul Andreas Jonassen and answer some questions about his work on The Man Who Can Not Die.
It can’t be debated that the strip has received something of a modernization in the last few years. I’ve personally always felt it started when [Paul] Ryan came onboard as the artist. Do you agree with this?
Sure, I think that’s true. When the chairs shuffle and a new artist comes in, he brings a new quality and vision that can be said to update or modernize the strip. Wilson McCoy did so after Ray Moore, the great Sy Barry did it again after McCoy and so on. And yet the Ray Moore strips still knock me out! Fantastic work. I suspect that Paul Ryan would be humbled by your comment, because I know how much he respects the work of those who came before him. We’re fortunate to always have the “best artist ever” working on the strip.
This might just be something that I feel, but: in the last few years it really seems you have decided to take a deeper look at the man behind the mask, and arguably a more serious tone. Has this been a conscious decision?
Absolutely. In The Death of Diana I wanted to see how the Phantom would behave if he believed he had been beaten and might not have the heart to continue on as the 21st Phantom; finished not by his own death but by the revenge that an enemy had aimed at a loved one. His depression at the murder of Diana was apparent. Was he a good father when he sent Kit and Heloise to live with the Luagas after the terror bombing in Mawitaan? That’s open to debate. Some readers probably thought he was a lout and should have been there more for his kids. On the other hand, we saw how fiercely loyal he is to Diana. Not many men could resist Savarna but the Phantom was never tempted to commit his wife’s memory to the past and move on.
You’re an active user of Facebook, which gives phans the opportunity to communicate directly with you. What kind of response do you get from readers? Any fanatic Falk-purists sending you death-threats?
No death threats so far! All the phans I met on FB are well balanced and great fun. Through other channels, email and snail mail, I’ve run into a few who are wound a little tight, may have spent time in their mom’s basement stewing in purple tights and dry-firing a .45 at my photo. But as for FB, I recently signed off and let my page go dark. I’m not a fan of the Zuckerberg empire. He and his minions keep finding new ways to drive home the point that user-generated content belongs not to the user but to them, so when it wasn’t fun to be there anymore I decided to check out. When you hear about the Next Big Thing, a new, hipper, more user-friendly social media platform, let me know!
You’ve mentioned a desire to write a novel based on the Death of Diana-storyline, which I’d love to see as a big fan of Falk’s excellent Phantom novels. Do you think anything will come from this? Would we see stuff in a book that could not be shown in a comic strip?
As far as I know, my proposal on that is still alive at King Features and being discussed with outside publishers. I would love to write that book. It would go much further in exploring the Phantom’s humanity and fleshing out what readers saw in the strip.
The recent SyFy miniseries and the on-going Dynamite comic book depicts the adventures of the 22nd Phantom. Do you see any advantage in changing the lead character this way, and would you have done the same in the strip if given the chance?
I enjoyed the SyFy series, just taking it for what it was, a very different look at the Phantom. I wouldn’t want to go that far afield in the strip, though. I’m all for preserving the Lee Falk legacy there while bringing it up to date in ways that seem clearly necessary, like getting the Phantom up to speed on the Internet. I try to honor the past without being trapped in it. No reader under 50 can relate to Monkey Mail or the Phantom climbing a telephone pole to get in touch with Colonel Worubu. So far we’ve got Internet access established in Skull Cave and on Walker’s Table. And the Phantom WILL have a smart phone one of these days! Maybe right after I get one.
What is the greatest appeal of the Phantom? Are there any obvious limitations when chronicling his adventures?
His greatest appeal for me is his courage, good heart, willingness to forge ahead no matter what. In short, his integrity as a man. The obvious limitation? — Space! How I envy Lee Falk the space he had to work in back in the Golden Era. It’s tough to tell a story in the preferred two panels a day, and the art gets so tiny when you go to three panels out of necessity. Even with newspapers dying out, the newspaper format remains the yardstick; it dictates what we can do even in the electronic version where space is theoretically unlimited.
Does Paul Ryan have any input on your scripts, or does he “only” draw them?
We don’t write stories together but every now and then Paul says something that sparks a good story idea for me. A recent Sunday adventure, The Return of Colonel Weeks, started with Paul wondering whatever had become of the old colonel. Why was he just suddenly gone one day, replaced by the younger Worubu? Lee Falk never tied up that loose end for the readers so Paul suggested that we tackle it. Great idea! Paul’s a professional and does his best work on every story but I like sending him material that I know holds a special interest.
The Phantom is very popular in Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia, but is largely ignored in by Americans, who instead prefers the countless costumed characters inspired by the Ghost Who Walks. Why do you think that is the case?
I’m not sure I have a good theory on that, Paul. It could be that we simply don’t see the strip anymore. The Phantom is out of sight, out of mind, and potential new readers don’t even know he exists. Newspaper editors long ago decided that the daily gag strips were the only ones that busy readers could handle anymore. As a newspaper man for 26 years, I can tell you all kinds of stories about newspaper editors not having a clue.
How long do you expect to stay on the strip? Could you see yourself continuing to write it as an old man, like Falk did?
Well, I always think the story I’m writing today is my last, so I take nothing for granted. That said, I’d love to write the Phantom for as long as the work is fun to do and as long as King Features Syndicate likes what I’m doing. The day it starts to feel like a chore I’ll ask KFS to start casting about for my replacement. Of course, a change could originate on the King Features side at any time. Many writers working for the Syndicate have long-term contracts. I don’t, and never have. I serve at the pleasure of Brendan Burford, my editor in New York. I enjoy working on that basis, on a handshake and good will, voluntary on all sides.
The Death of Diana was a big success, judging from the response of fans. Is this kind of “experiment” (i.e. one massive storyline split into separate parts) something you’d be interested in trying again?
Yes! It’s being tried again as we speak, on both the daily and Sunday sides. The daily story A Detente With Crime is the first of three parts. The two that follow are The Den of Tigers and Mexico’s Phantom. They’ll be published starting December 12, 2011 and April 9, 2012, respectively. The Sunday story The Nomad is the first of two parts. The second part, set to start this month, September 25, is called The Shadows of Rune Noble.
I’ve been disappointed that there hasn’t been more episodes of The Game of Death (a science fiction back-up series written by Tony and drawn by Kari Leppännen, which ran in many issues of the Scandinavian Phantom books in the 90s and 00s). Do you think we’ve seen the last of that series?
I’m afraid so. But I’d love to pick up that storyline again. Now you’ve got me wondering… Maybe that’s why Egmont never published the “final” episode I wrote many years ago? So we’d have an opportunity to continue at a later date instead of wrapping things up? Hmmm…
Among other things, you’ve also worked as a journalist and a screenwriter. Do you have any non-Phantom projects coming up? I remember reading on your Facebook you were working with a film producer.
One of my scripts was optioned last year but I’ve never had the kind of Hollywood access a writer needs to get read by top producers, those who have the reputation and the money to make things happen. Trying to market screenplays is a tough game, only for those at least as hardheaded as me and preferably ten times so. On other fronts, I’ve been working on a novel lately and on a nonfiction book proposal with a reporter at the Boston Globe.
Finally, something of a standard question for Chronicle Chamber interviews: Did you see the Phantom movie starring Billy Zane and/or the recent SyFy mini-series? What did you think? What would a Phantom movie written by Tony DePaul be like?
It would be dark, the Phantom would be a night creature, and it would stick to the Falk universe. Guran would be Guran, not Kato. No campy pirates, cheesy magic skulls, or tweedy old ancestors plucked from the faculty lounge in the Great Beyond. That said, I admire Billy Zane and thought he did a terrific job with the script he had and the production as designed. I was disappointed that the movie was aimed at a very young audience, and at selling trading cards and action figures and Sequel Sequel Sequel! I’d love to be tapped to write a Phantom movie with a hard edge, aimed at adults. And no sequel. The Phantom would die at the end.
A big ‘thank you’ to both Tony and Paul for doing this interview for us!