Antonio Lemos: The Man from the Islands

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.”

Lemos also produces custom commissions, such as this portrait of Jessica Rowe

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’.”

Rocco - The Man from the Islands

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.