Few people actively reading The Phantom today can be unaware of Claes Reimerthi. The man is, after Lee Falk, by far the most productive writer to ever work on the character. Most of his work has been for Semic and Egmont, but Claes was also asked by King Features Syndicate to write the Phantom newspaper strip after Falk’s passing, which he did for several years before finally returning to focus solely on Egmont’s Phantom stories. He is also responsible for what is by far the longest Phantom story of all time, the epic Heart of Darkness saga (to date not published in English), and is today in charge of writing most of the new stories that are focused on evolving the Phantom and his world. Claes kindly took time out of a very busy schedule to answer ChronicleChamber’s questions about the future of the Phantom and his career so far.
ChronicleChamber: In the two recent stories about Dogai Singh’s life it is revealed that Dogai survived Khermet Singh’s assassination. What plans do you have for Dogai in the future?
Claes Reimerthi: Honestly, I have no idea. It could sound strange, but that is how it is. Ever since Phantom Year One and the five-part Final Countdown where the Phantom believes that his family and circle of acquaintances are wiped out, I have worked on a set of stories that follow up the questions that originated there, which the intention of is to gradually modernize the Phantom-concept. Among other things, that goes for President Luaga’s, the Jungle Patrol’s, Lubanga’s and the Singh-pirates’ future roles in the series. One should be able to compare these stories to what we called “key-adventures” during the Lubanga-period in the beginning of the nineties, which means stories that influence the concept of the series. It has due to different reasons been me who has written all of these stories.
But still I will not lock myself at only writing stories of this kind, I will do others as well, for example historical adventures. That means that there is a fairly long time span between each episode in this batch. Once a year I participate in a Phantom-seminar together with Ulf Granberg and Hans Lindahl, where we draw the guidelines for next year’s production. Then I try to get in two-three of these “key-adventures” on the schedule. The 2007-2008 schedule is now nearly done with and there are no more “key-adventures” on schedule. But in a short while it is time for a new seminar, and then I will get the opportunity to start pondering the continuation. Until then I am simply not quite sure.
CC: Sandal Singh was recently elected President of Bengalla, and this is only one of the many events that have contributed to make the Phantom’s world a lot more dangerous and insecure. What plans does Team Fantomen have for this new situation? Can we expect something like the Lubanga-era, or are you planning something entirely new?
CR: The Lubanga-period is characterized by very many episodes – not just “key-adventures” – circling around Lubanga and Bengalla’s domestic-politics. I thought it was an incredibly dynamic and exciting time for the series, but it showed after a while that a) people thought it became too much internal-politics in the series and b) that it was annoying that Lubanga was certainly struck by back strike, but was never defeated for good. So a conclusion one can draw from this is that a rate of two-four new “key-adventures” a year is more passable. Of course, for example, the fact that Sandal Singh is president also be used in other stories during the year, but the concept ought to not be hard released in the way that happened during the Lubanga-period.
At the same time I am confident that there should be an overbearing “soap opera” theme in the series; that there will at all times be things happening that brings change to the characters’ lives. Both to create uncertainty about what will happen, and to make the comic more interesting to follow. There shall at all times be stuff happening that will have consequences. The Phantom’s universe was static for way too many years. It is in addition more fun to write a comic that is constantly under development than one that just repeats the same formula over and over again and where everything that happens in the series is forgotten by the next issue. But outermost it is a question about making the series more believable and more realistic.
CC: It has always been popular among fans to discuss who will become the 22nd Phantom and if the 21st will ever die at all. A while ago a rumor was spread that the editors had serious plans about telling stories about the 22nd Phantom, without necessarily killing off the 21st Phantom. What is your opinion on this, should we, and will we, ever see stories featuring the 22nd Phantom of Kit and Heloise, or the death of the 21 Phantom?
CR: This is an incredibly difficult question. Those who favor change claim that it lays in the series’ concept that the Phantom dies and is replaced by the next generation. That is correct, but simultaneously it is a fact that Lee Falk never took this step with the 21st Phantom. Something that was reasonably justified long before Falk passed if one looks at the different Phantoms’ average life-length. It is simply two widely different cases to have the 17th Phantom die and have “our” Phantom die. My personal perception is that the 21st Phantom’s death would bring changes so big that it would no longer be the same comic. The risk is so big that one would throw the baby out with the bath water.
It is true that it’s been discussed about doing adventures with the 22nd Phantom without killing off the 21st. But so far the discussions have mostly held themselves at a common level as an imaginable possibility. Personally I deem this a good way of testing the 22nd’s carrying power, as there then is a possibility of retreating if the result in one way or another or does not live up to expectations. All things considered I would gladly see more experimenting with the actual concept. I have myself contributed with several of these experiments in the last few years.
CC: Do you have any all-time favorite Phantom stories by other writers than yourself?
CR: It would probably be several if I really considered. But the first that pops up in my mind are Norman Worker’s Castle of Evil and The Shipwrecker. I also liked (it is a number of years since I read them the last time) many of Janne Lundstöm’s stories from the seventies. It was Janne’s stories, in a much larger degree than Lee Falk’s, that inspired me to become a Phantom-writer.
CC: The 1996 Phantom movie adaptation starring Billy Zane remains a co discussion-matter among fans. What do you think of the film?
CR: It did not make a strong impression on me. First and foremost it was much too uneven. Good scenes were mixed with embarrassingly bad scenes.
CC: You seem to write most of the stories about the evolvement of the Phantom and Bengalla. If you were given free reins, how and to what degree would you have developed the series? Are there certain elements of the comic you feel need modernization/change?
CR: As I mentioned earlier it is maybe first and foremost me and Hasse Lindahl who determinedly fought to change and develop the concept (and who has opportunity to exert influence on that point). One could say that we got a bit carried away in regards to the Lubanga-period, which offered several opportunities to rummage around in the series. It felt very sad to return to the old, static Phantom in 1997 and see all the changes etched away. Luaga became President again, even the tunnel into the safe in the Jungle Patrol’s headquarters was recreated. I mean that if the series is to survive, then it needs to follow its times. And first and foremost the characters have to follow their times.
I have very free reins when it comes to developing the series, which is of course a strong reason why I enjoy it so much. I can make the series “mine” and write the sort of story that interests me. As I mentioned earlier, most of the ideas for new stories are presented at the Phantom-seminars. Editor Ulf Granberg is of course the one who decides if an idea is to be scrapped or realized. But we (Ulf, Hasse and I) are so coordinated after all these years that we think on approximately the same tracks. Ulf is open for changes and willing to listen to all suggestions on that way. Is it just a good idea, he tends to receive it without protests and also complete it with his own suggestions and ideas.
You can say that I now, to some extent, accomplished the changes I considered to be most needed. Luaga is gone from the presidential post (for good if I get to decide!) and the Singh have got a new interesting leader, who is just as charismatic as old Dogai, while the piracy is in the process of undergoing an adjustment to the 2000s with the launch of Singh Inc. Luaga must get a new role onwards, but the biggest problem is Diana, who does not at all have any working role in the series anymore. And I am not very sure on the Jungle Patrol’s role either. (When it comes to Diana, Hasse Lindahl is of another opinion and has, I think, certain ideas within the future) On the other hand I cannot see any sudden need to do anything with the “order of succession” in the Skull Cave.
CC: The Phantom is a character who looks to be very usable for a writer, but in contrast to other comic book figures he has not evolved that much throughout the years. What are your thoughts on the Phantom as a character? Are there any sides of his personality you wish had been different?
CR: The Phantom is a classic hero to the degree that he frankly misses personality traits. He is just silent, heroic and self-sacrificing. I made certain attempts to penetrate in “behind the mask” during the Lubanga-time by reflecting his thoughts by the help of so-called inner-monologues, but it did not work very well. One will just have to accept that the Phantom is the unalterable cliff that everything in the series revolves around, but that the changes, psychologically and so on, first and foremost influences the characters around him. The myth simply overshadows the human.
CC: Will Kigalia Lubanga appear in the series again, or is he gone for good?
CR: An interesting question. Considering the Phantom’s fairly static role (see above) the villains who challenge him are incredibly important to give the series color. Good villains, such as Lubanga or Dogai, are literally invaluable for the series. At the same time it is difficult to create villains of this calibre. Therefore a writer always hesitates to “turn off” these characters for good: it becomes an emptier, poorer comic without them. At the same time there are from the readers (even if they too love a good villain) a certain impatience, which I described above. Some time the bad guy must have to pay for his sins! His violation cannot remain unpunished forever, as this disrupts our sense of justice. And as a writer one is at time also tempted to take that last crucial step, if not for anything else then to raise the intensity and show that the fights the Phantom are battling are deadly serious and at life’s risk. And then one easily ends up in an evil circle where the bad guy’s “presumed death” is altered with constant resurrections. Both Lubanga and Dogai are examples on this. I can tell that when Dogai met his fate in The Crystal Skulls my thought was that he should really die for good. But once again he is such a good character that I fell to temptation and resuscitated him again. When it comes to Lubanga’s passing, my thought was the opposite: this was a typical case of “presumed death”. But as I see it now, I wonder if we, despite everything, should not