New writer. New artist. New direction. Debuting with issue #12, Moonstone’s new on-going Phantom writer Mike Bullock has a huge task in front of him. There is always pressure on any new writer just coming onto any book. ChronicleChamber.com catches up with Mike to discuss what phans can look forward to come September.
Chronicle Chamber: G’day Mike, thanks for joining us here at ChronicleChamber.com. First of all, I have to ask, as a Phantom Phan yourself, surely you must be extremely excited to be writing your own Phantom adventures?
Mike Bullock: Very much so. I mean, who wouldn’t be excited to write the Phantom? He’s an exciting character with an almost limitless sandbox to play in, story-wise. He’s mysterious, adventurous, carries a few big guns and gets to hang out with a wolf all day.
CC: So, who inspires your writing? MB: A lot of it comes from Mr. Falk himself. I’ll read some of his stories and wonder what happens next, or it’ll give me ideas for other stories. Another strong inspiration is the artists that I work with. When I get a new cover from Joe Prado, or new pages from Carlos Magno, it just adds so much depth to what I’ve imagined, that I find myself inspired to write more. For example, the cover art for issue 16 (by Bret Blevins) completely inspired the story inside.
CC: You are perhaps best known for the brilliant series Lions, Tigers and Bears – the first volume TPB of which just received a second printing due to demand, congratulations on that by the way. It is an all-ages book where as The Phantom is slightly more “mature,” for lack of a better word. Did you have to alter your writing style at all due to this more adult edge?
MB: Well, not really. If anything, I feel less confined with The Phantom. When writing something that has to remain appropriate for kids, you have to be very careful with how you handle the story. Doing something that impacts the lives of children is a huge responsibility and I take that very seriously. With the Ghost Who Walks, it’s strictly entertainment and it’s a bit liberating to write his adventures. As for “my style”, I’m trained in writing children’s literature, but I also write science fiction, horror, action, adventure and poetry. Therefore, I don’t think “my style” is summarized by any one genre. I think a lot of folks jump to the conclusion that writers are only capable of doing the particular genre the reader is most familiar with at the time. Take JM DeMatteis, for example. If you’d only read his Formerly Known As The Justice League you might think he only writes parody, but you’d be missing out on classics like ABADAZAD. Ron Marz is a great example, also. He’s best known for Green Lantern, yet he’s also done fantasy (Scion), samurai (Samurai: Heaven & Earth), crime/mobster stories (his Darkness run & upcoming Russian Sunset), and sci-fi with his upcoming Pantheon City. I think a good writer has many stories to tell and won’t let genre or setting dictate where their imagination leads them.
CC: You mentioned in a number of articles and on message boards that you went back and read every story written by Phantom creator Lee Falk. That’s 70 years worth of material! Did you feel that such a huge backlog of stories was inspirational or did it make it harder to find your “own voice” when writing The Phantom? Did it take some time to find your own groove?
MB: I haven’t read every Falk story, but at this point, I think I’ve read between a third and half of them. I find it very inspirational, with every story I devour, my appreciation for the storytelling skill of Mr. Falk grows. As for my own groove, it did take me a bit to find it, but I think I’m there now. I’m currently scripting #17 and it’s flowing much faster and easier than #12 did, by far.
CC: When looking at Falk’s complete list of stories, you can see there are a number of changes in tone that his writing takes. The Ray Moore era concentrated more on the mystery of the Phantom and was perhaps the “darkest” period of Falk’s writing with a number of the stories being quite grim. When Wilson McCoy came aboard the stories took more of an adventurous turn while still retaining most of that mature edge. However, during Sy Barry’s time Rex came into things, the Phantom and Diana were married, eventually Kit and Heloise come onto the scene and as a result, the stories became much more family friendly. As a writer who has also written several all-ages series what are your thoughts on these changes in tone? Is there one era in particular that inspires your writing more than others?
MB: I think he did an admirable job at “changing with the times”. His early stuff reflected the pulp fiction style that was so dominant in that era, then after the pulp era died off a bit, Americans wanted more light-hearted, fun adventures in their entertainment, and that’s what Mr. Falk delivered. Towards the end of his life, when America became more “self aware” as a culture, he covered that as well. It was truly a prime example of art imitating life. As for which era I love the most, I’d have to say the early stuff. The Phantom’s mystery is, after all, the foundation of his only real “power”. His legends were sown in that soil of the unknown, nurtured by the light of mystery and flourish with his ability to “psych out” his adversary. Take away all that and he’s just a guy in the jungle with a couple guns and some purple underwear.
CC: Of Falk’s stories, was there one in particular that really stood out for you?
MB: Whichever one I read last is usually the one I’ve enjoyed the most. However, looking back on everything I’ve read, those that stick out in my mind are The Singh Brotherhood, The Sky Band, The Terrorists and a few others whose titles escape me at the moment.
CC: Many Phans seem keen to see the return of classic Falk villains such as General Bababu. Although you have introduced a new villain to the Phantom’s world in your stories, would you ever bring any of these classic villains back? On the flip side of that, are there any new villains besides the one you’ve already mentioned on various boards (not that we know too much about him!) that you’ll be introducing in future stories?
MB: Well, we have Manuel Ortega who makes his debut in #12, Temur Singh who comes along shortly thereafter, the members of The Grinning Skull Gang, and a certain Warlord simply named “HIM”. Along with these not-so-nice guys are a slew of others who will be along for the ride as the stories propel the Phantom, and these villains, on a collision course at the intersection of issue #25.
CC: You mentioned on a Phantom message board that you hope that Moonstone’s 25th Phantom issue will be a big one. Any hints as to what it might involve?
MB: See above. That’s all the cats I’m letting out of the bag this early in the game.
CC: Tease! I believe you have said you have written the scripts for, or at least planned up to issue #20. Now you have experience at writing a Phantom script, could you take us through the process?
MB: Well, it always starts with an idea. Then I take that idea and flesh it out into a story synopsis. That synopsis is then run past our Phantom Consultant Extraordinaire, Ed Rhoades as well as Joe Gentile and other editors at Moonstone. Once that’s ironed out, I script a very rough draft (with #12, this rough draft went to the editors & consultant instead of the synopsis), then script a second draft, which is sent over to the fine fellows at King Features. They’ll respond with any changes they want and I edit the final draft. It then heads out to the artist who pours his heart and soul all over the pages before sending them to me. The pages are then shipped over to letterer Troy Peteri, who does his typographical wizardry, then I’ll do the final dialogue editing and corrections before it’s sent off to be colored, run through production and off to the printer.
CC: You and Moonstone are aiming your Phantom stories toward an American audience, as your goal is to widen awareness of The Phantom in America. However, as a large majority of Phantom Phans reside in countries outside the USA one would assume that the stories you produce must also relate to them. An example I’ll use if I may is Marvel’s Civil War, which I’m told really taps into the political situation in America with the war on terror and the Bush administration etc and the comics have caused quite a stir. However, these references are sometimes lost on people in other countries and those fans see it as an interesting character study, but no so much a political statement. With this in mind, do you feel that The Phantom has to deal with more universal concepts than your average comic does?
MB: I’ve never written “your average comic” so I really couldn’t say, in fact, I’m not even sure what qualifies as an average comic anymore. I write stories I’d enjoy reading. If Americans love them, great. If folks worldwide love them, better still. However, a writer can’t get caught up in worrying about what the reader will think. A writer needs to concentrate on crafting the best story possible and always understand that some will love it, some will hate it and some will be indifferent. Hopefully, you’ll get more of the former, but I don’t think you can worry about all that and still write a good story.
CC: A number of very vocal Phans have been displeased with what they see as Moonstone “mistreating” the character. Some say that Moonstone have modernized the Phantom too much while others argue the Phantom does things in the Moonstone comics that creator Lee Falk would never have him do. What is your reaction toward this?
MB: Well, I’ve read several Falk stories where the Phantom shoots and kills people. I’ve yet to see anything worse than that in a Moonstone book. There are some technical errors in the early Moonstone stories (such as rings on wrong fingers etc) but I read a Sy Barry story yesterday where the Skull Ring was on the Phantom’s left hand in one panel. Therefore, you can’t start a witch-hunt on Moonstone for these sorts of things when it happened to masters such as Mr. Barry. We’re all human and until you, me or anyone reading or creating the Phantom learns how to walk on water and turn it into wine, we remain imperfect and anything we create will be equally so. I think part of the trouble any creator faces when working on a character with such an established history is rooted in the magic of the comics’ medium itself.
In order for a comic book (or any other form of visual storytelling) to be entertaining, the writer and artist(s) must create enough written and visual information to engage the imagination of the reader, but not enough to “spoon feed” them. In most cases where this is properly achieved, the readers mind “fills in the blanks” left by the storytellers. When you’ve spent a long period filling in these blanks, you sort of take on the idea that you have some sort of ownership in the property. Star Wars fans are a prime example of this sort of thing. It’s human nature. However, with any form of art there is no right or wrong, there’s just interpretations. Art is totally subjective and for every one person who voices displeasure at what Moonstone has done, I’ve found ten others who love it. As humans, it’s far too easy to travel down the slippery slope of nonconstructive criticism and focus on the negative aspects at the expense of the positives.
CC: Each story from Moonstone thus far has been pretty much self-contained, easily allowing new readers to jump on-board. Once you have a few issues under your belt would you consider doing an “event” that would shake up the Phantom's world and have major and long-term repercussions? An example of this would be the Egmont story Election in Bengali in which President Luaga lost his presidency to the evil Lubanga. MB: #25 will shake things up quite a bit. You can’t be a man like the Phantom and not make powerful enemies.
CC: Ben Raab has left a number of his stories open for follow-ups, such as the return of Sala in The Aviatrix and the escape of terrorist Ali Gutaale in Stones of Blood. Would you consider revisiting these characters to tie up loose ends?
MB: You can expect to see both of them in the future.
CC: What is your favourite aspect of the Phantom’s character?
MB: The mystique. As I said above, without it, he’s just a guy in tights. I really have to applaud Mr. Falk for employing that as a staple of the character. When you really get down to it, most criminals are barely more than animals, in the broadest sense of the word. What is it that sets humans apart from animals? Our intellect. The Phantom’s mystique is the embodiment of his intellect and that of the twenty Phantoms who came before him. By using his mystique, he also forces the villain’s intellects to work for him as well, enslaving their imaginations to fight for him, carry on his work in his absence and instill the notion that justice is all- encompassing at any time, in any place.
CC: How long do you plan to stay on the series?
MB: As long as I can. The retailers and readers will vote with their dollars, and if I receive enough “votes” then I should be in for a very, very long haul. Based on the pre-order numbers for issue 12, the voting is working in my favor.
CC: Is there one scenario that you would love to place the Phantom into in order to indulge your inner Phan-boy?
MB: The final scene of issue #19. That’s all I’m gonna say…
CC: Killing off the 21st Phantom (the current Phantom in the Moonstone books) and having his son take over the role of the Phantom has always been a topic of much discussion amongst the Phantom community with many arguments for and against. Hypothetically, what is your opinion on this? What sort of options do you feel it could give you story wise and, if you had the opportunity to kill him off, would you?
MB: I don’t see any need to do that. Now if a reason arose in the story where it worked to go that route, I’d consider it, but the Phantom in Moonstone continuity is in the prime of his life, so killing him off would serve as nothing more than worthless shock value on the page.
CC: Not to take anything away from issue #12 artist Gabriel Rearte or on-going artist Carlos Magno who are both brilliant, but if you could choose any artist to work with on The Phantom who would it be?
MB: You have to consider a lot of things when you look at a question such as this. Is the artist visually appealing? Can s/he make a deadline? Is s/he fun to work with? Will s/he “deliver the goods” every panel of every page? Looking at those questions and more, the only artist I could think of at this point in time is Carlos Magno. The guy is a shooting star and I count myself lucky to be basking in his glow.
CC: Here is one of our favourite questions; have you seen the 1996 Billy Zane Phantom feature film and what did you think of it?
MB: I’ve seen the movie twice now and I think it’s a very fun movie with the potential to be great, but that potential isn’t realized. The parts of the plot taken from Mr. Falk’s stories were incredible and a true testament to his storytelling prowess. However, in the place where the plot veers away from Falk inspired things is where it gets into trouble. I also think Treat Williams’ character dragged the movie down a bit as well. His dialogue and demeanor was very campy, something the good superhero movies aren’t known for, but something that hangs like an albatross around the necks of the bad ones. While Mr. Williams played the role he was given superbly, the role was written poorly and the character itself was anything but menacing or villainous. You can’t really portray the heroic depths of a character as grand as The Phantom unless you have an equally despicable villain. The Phantom flick sorely needed such a villain. I do think that cast was top notch, and had they taken a bit more care with the crafting of Treat’s character (maybe shown us he was Kabai Singh’s puppet and given Kabai a larger role?), and then the movie would have been two thumbs way up.
CC: Moonstone issue #12, your debut issue, is out very soon. Is there anything you’d like to tell the Phans about it before we close?
MB: Every story must have a beginning… no wait, that’s Star Wars… sorry. Issue twelve debuts not only my writing, but new cover artist Joe Prado (with an alternate cover by Ruben Procopio, a man Phans will become very familiar with over the next year or so). A new ongoing column by Phantom expert and friend of Mr. Falk, Ed Rhoades and a new villain, new direction and a contest where Phans can… oh wait, I’m not supposed to mention that yet.
CC: Yes, tell us more about this “new direction” that the book is taking. Is it a new direction story- wise, character wise, tone wise or no more striped undies wise?
MB: It’s a new direction story-wise. Basically, whenever you have a new chef in the kitchen things take on a new direction. With Ben no longer at the helm, a new direction is inevitable.
CC: Cheers Mike, and thanks for speaking with us. So you’ll be back for a follow up interview after the release of issue #13 to discuss your first arc as on-going Phantom writer?
MB: Certainly. Thanks for the time, guys and keep up the great work with the site.