Antonio Lemos talks about the amazing journey he took to become Australian Phantom cover artist.
When you’re drawing The Phantom, the most important thing is to understand the kind of hero he is. He might be ‘rough on roughnecks’, as the old saying goes, but you can’t draw The Phantom doing something unkind to anyone – even a bad guy.”
Antonio Lemos has had plenty of opportunity to get to know The Ghost Who Walks and understand what makes him ‘tick’. Since 1993, he’s drawn dozens of covers for Frew Publications’ Australian edition of The Phantom comic book. While his signature may have been previously unknown to Australian readers, The Phantom represents the latest stage in a fascinating artistic journey that has taken Antonio Lemos a long way from his homeland of Uruguay. But the worlds of art and literature have always been more than lines on a page for Lemos, who treasured books and comics as an escape from a poverty-stricken childhood.
Born on 4 August 1940 in the small Uruguayan town of Artigas, Antonio was one of seven children, raised by their father, a butcher, and their mother, who was a housewife. “When my father was around, everything was okay. We weren’t too different from anybody else in the neighbourhood – we were poor, but we managed.” Tragically, Antonio’s father committed suicide at a relatively young age, for reasons that he and the rest of his family would never know, or understand.
“We were seven kids who had to be fed, schooled and cared for by a young, uneducated woman who had never worked outside her home before,” explains Antonio. “My mother went to work at any job she could get, from maid to washing rich people’s clothes in the river,” he recalls.
“As you can imagine, we had the freest childhoods that anyone could have, for the simple reason that providing for all of us was my mother’s full-time occupation.”
Comic books were one of the few affordable pleasures available to the young Antonio, but they quickly became more than just childhood entertainments. “They were a wonderful source of inspiration and a magical world to where I could escape and forget the rawness of reality.”
“We did not have a comic book industry in Uruguay, so all our comics were – and still are – imported from other countries, particularly Argentina,” he explains. “I remember magazines such as Frontera, Hora Cero, Misterix, Rayo Rojo, Scorpio, Tit Bits and many others,” he recalls. “Reading comics, and later anything in print that I could get my hands on, was my only consuming passion.”
While in primary school, Antonio started copying drawings from magazines and even started his own magazine with other school kids – much to his family’s bewilderment.
“No one in my family had any interest in art, let alone comics,” says Antonio. “They not only didn’t encourage me – they just couldn’t understand my penchant for drawing for hours at a time, without getting bored.”
Dream as he might of studying art, Antonio knew that this was an impossible luxury for a young boy from a poor family. Leaving high school one year before completing his full term, Antonio knew he had to earn a living and help his family survive. “It was impossible to get a job in Artigas and I desperately wanted to leave my hometown,” he explains. “I decided that the only way out for me was to go to (the national capital) Montevideo and gain an apprenticeship with the navy.”
For a skinny, undernourished teenager, earning admission to the Uruguayan Navy was a near-impossible task.
“I couldn’t complete all the physical tests, like running and rope climbing, in the allotted time, so I failed the test.”
Undeterred, Antonio applied for a second time and was eventually admitted to the Navy Training School. “It was a lonely life, in a strange city,” he admits, “but at least I was earning some money and helping my mother with the family’s Already obsessed with learning more about ancient civilisations, the afterlife and UFOs, Antonio’s naval training allowed him to fulfill his other great passion – to travel abroad, study other cultures and discover how other people lived. “Through the navy, I visited the USA, Brazil, Argentina and Panama, staying in cities throughout the Americas,” he says. But the urge to draw never left him. “I drew a comic book which was a dramatised account of our annual naval exercises with neighbouring countries, using people from my ship as ‘extras’.”
Antonio got the chance to exercise his artistic skills while working on his ship (a destroyer), but in some ways it was more frustrating than not being able to draw at all: “How do you get to publish your work if you’re at sea most of the time?” The solution to his problem came during an on-board naval function, which was attended by one of the officer’s wives, who was a journalist with El Dia, one of Uruguay’s largest newspapers. “She heard about me and my drawings and asked to meet me,” he recalls. “I showed her some of my artwork and not long after that – I was freelancing for the same newspaper!” Eventually reaching the rank of Chief Petty Officer, Antonio was transferred to the Naval Academy where he became a naval cadet instructor. During this time, he began a15-year tenure with El Dia, working as a freelance illustrator on the newspaper’s children’s supplement.
Antonio freely drew inspiration from fellow South American comic artists, such as Alberto Breccia , Hugo Pratt and Emilio Cortinas, as well as such American cartoonists as Stan Drake, Burne Hogarth and Warren Tufts. It was while working for El Dia that Lemos created his first major comic strip series, Rocco – The Man from the Islands.
“Rocco was inspired by the short stories of Horacio Quiroga, a Uruguayan writer whose tales were set in Misiones , back in the days when they were a remote jungle region of Argentina.”
Lemos both wrote and drew Rocco, which first saw print in 1974 and ran for seven years in Uruguay.
“Perhaps the most peculiar episode that I wrote was one in which a space satellite with a deadly cargo plummets to Earth in South America and Rocco is asked to rescue its contents and deliver them intact to some foreign agents.”
“The irony was that, not long after that story was published, a real space station, called Skylab, fell to Earth,” he explains. “And by the time that episode was later reprinted in Australia, parts of the Skylab space station were falling…in Australia!”
Antonio also had the chance to collaborate with another Uruguayan comic artist, Eduardo Barreto, who is best known to English-language audiences as a popular artist on such American comics as The New Teen Titans, Martian Manhunter and The Escapist.
“A few years before leaving Uruguay, I teamed up with Eduardo and helped him with an adventure comic strip called Atla, about an Atlante prince living in dangerous times, thousands of years ago,” he says. “Eduardo created, wrote and drew most of the strip, but I also drew quite a bit of it, too.”
“Our goal was to try and get it syndicated through United Press, but I don’t know if that eventually happened.”
Although he had achieved his childhood dream of becoming a comic artist, Antonio, by now married and with a son, had reached a difficult crossroads in his life.
“I’d turned 41 years-old and had reached an early peak in my naval career,” he says. “Unless I decided to become an officer, I would simply grow old in my position, retire and live on a progressively diminishing pension.”
Concerned that both his own artistic ambitions, along with his family’s future, would be squandered if he stayed in the navy any longer, Antonio looked abroad for an answer.
“I heard that a Uruguayan guy was in charge of a Spanish-language newspaper, El Espanol en Australia, which was published in Sydney.”
“I sent him a sample of my work and, after he got approval from the paper’s German owners, a work contract arrived on my doorstep from Australia!”
Antonio turned his back on a 23-year naval career and, together with his wife and child, migrated to Australia in November 1981.
“But three months later, the economic recession started and I was the first to be sacked from the newspaper.”
Despite having little money, few friends and limited language skills, Antonio focussed on establishing himself as an artist in his new country.
“I got lots of commissions from educational programmes for different ethnic communities, such as Arabic, Macedonian, Spanish and Turkish, which were partly funded by the government of the day.”
Lemos was no stranger to making his way through a different society, as he’d previously spent nearly a year living in the United States before relocating to Australia.
“The migration shock was not so great and, because I was able to learn English quite quickly, the social isolation wasn’t too great, either.”
Antonio worked as a freelance artist throughout the 1980s, and illustrated 15 books during that time, but by the end of the decade, realised he could no longer support his family solely from his artwork.
“I needed a regular income,” he says. “I was already 48 years-old and had not held a regular job since the newspaper sacked me in 1982.”
During that time, however, Antonio had received official accreditation as an interpreter and applied for a position with the Department of Immigration.
“I got the job, just days before I received a letter from Walt Disney Australia, inviting me to join a training programme, with the prospect of being employed as a background artist.”
“But I turned Disney down,” he says. “Imagine me saying ‘no, thank you’ to the company any aspiring artist would give his right arm to work for!”
He may have knocked back the chance to work for Disney, but that didn’t mean Antonio had turned his back on comic art forever. By the early 1990s, the acclaimed Australian comic artist Keith Chatto had begun working as a cover artist for Frew Publications, where he made comics history as the first Australian artist to illustrate an all-new Phantom adventure – Rumble in the Jungle, which was written by Frew’s publisher, Jim Shepherd, and published in The Phantom No. 951A in 1990.
When Chatto died in 1992, one of Antonio’s Australian artist friends suggested he apply as a replacement cover artist on The Phantom comic book.
“I did read The Phantom when I was growing up in Uruguay, but he wasn’t my favourite hero – perhaps because I wasn’t too excited about the artists working on it at the time,” he admits.
Nonetheless, when Antonio applied for the position, Jim Shepherd hired him on the spot!
“Jim asked me for a sketch to see how I managed – and that sketch became my first cover in 1993!” (The Phantom No.1056, ‘Kukailomoko’, 1993)
Antonio’s association with The Phantom yielded unexpected dividends, as he began to receive commissions for caricatures, fantasy art and comic book styled-illustrations.
One of these commissions was The Wisdom of The Phantom, an educational comic book starring The Ghost Who Walks, published by the Family Court of Australia in 1997 for distribution amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Yet his new role as The Phantom’s cover artist came with some unique challenges and demands.
“Most of the time, Jim gave me a sketch indicating what he wanted shown on each cover,” explains Antonio.
“There was always the question of tight deadlines to consider, and since I was working full-time as an Immigration Officer, sometimes it was preferable to ‘adapt’ the original Semic covers than to risk disaster exploring new concepts.”
Drawing The Phantom is, in some ways, more difficult for Lemos than drawing what he calls the “American super muscular heroes, every one identical to the next – except for the costume.”
“The main thing for me is that The Phantom should always look like someone you could look up to – not because of his physical strength, but because of the strength of his moral convictions and his incorruptible character.”
“That’s why The Phantom’s pose, body language and facial expressions should be carefully thought through,” he adds. “Achieving a faithful representation of this has never been an easy task for me.”
Since retiring from the Department of Immigration, Antonio says he has been able to spend more time on his work and take his Phantom cover designs “to another level of quality and creativity,” as well as “exercising more freedom” when it comes to composing the cover layouts.
Antonio’s personal favourite of all his Phantom covers was The Temple, which appeared on The Phantom No. 1240 in 1999. Strangely enough, the opportunity for Antonio to spend more time perfecting his work comes during a period when Frew Publications have commissioned fewer cover designs from him.
“I don’t know why I have been asked to draw less covers lately; perhaps it is to cut costs, or to give readers covers drawn in different styles – who knows?”
While fans may bemoan the lack of new Phantom covers bearing his signature, Antonio still has plenty of work to keep him occupied.
“At my age, as much as I love drawing, I do not want to commit myself to be at my drawing board all day, trying to meet awful deadlines,” he says.
“I’ll continue my private [art] commissions and my [Phantom] covers and that will keep me busy, free – and content.”