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 let him remain dead, for the believability of the series. But I cannot swear that I will not sometime in the future fall for the temptation to resurrect him again. As Oscar Wilde said: “The best way to get rid of a temptation is to fall for it” (quoted freely from the memory). He was a usable figure.
CC: Have you ever had any ideas for new stories that have been rejected simply because they were too controversial, or are you usually allowed to tell the stories you want to?
CR: No, I cannot recall ever getting a story rejected for that reason. The most common occasion is usually that they are simply not good enough. I experience having a very large artistic freedom to evolve the series after my own mind.
CC: In the stories about Dogai Singh we get a new appearance by Kabai Singh from Lee Falk’s first story, plus a glimpse of Sala, the aviatrix. Is it of interest to use more characters or crime-organizations (such as Hydra) from Falk’s stories in new adventures?
CR: What concerns Kabai Singh and Sala, they show up in the series simply because they are an established part of the Phantom-myth. I cannot claim that I have any personal connection to these characters that makes me think of ideas to stories where they are featured. Generally it can very well be thought that figures from Falk’s universe resurface again, under the assumption that I feel I can do something exciting with them. One can look at them as pawns standing ready without leaving the game-board. But the crime-organization Hydra will probably not resurface in any of my stories. It is a pretty sad and anonymous organization whoes only distinctive stamp is the fact that it consists of a large number of branches. It does not at all have the lightning-power and originality of, for example, Singh and the Vultures. The Vultures’ specialty to primarily attack the weak and helpless makes them perfect enemies for the Phantom. They should actually get more attention in the series. We manage just as well without Hydra.
CC: The last part of the serial ends with a real cliffhanger, so I just have to ask: Are you planning a sequel to the trilogy about the Phantom Crusader?
CR: Of course I intend to keep exploring the past history of the Phantom-family. They are actually the stories I am the most enthusiastic about at the present time. But it will drag on a while before all the mists are spread and things will get their final explanation. Right now follows a trilogy that takes place in the antiquity of Rome and Palestina. That one I will start writing in a few weeks. Then I have two additional trilogies planned. Where and when they take place I think I will not reveal yet, but I really look forward to start writing them. I hope to realize such a trilogy once a year. The readers seems to have liked the Phantom Crusader-trilogy, so I hope to get to play further with this concept another time.
CC: Which of your own stories are you the most pleased with?
CR: I don’t think I can give a good answer to that. With almost 200 Phantom-scripts under my belt I have simply forgotten quite a few stories that I have written. There are some stories that I wish I had never written; a fair amount that are competent craft but not much more; and then there are a number of stories that for some reason “stand out” a bit extra, but that may be due to very many different reasons. I leave it to the readers to decide what stories they like or not. Donald Duck-artist Don Rosa has said, that for every story he does there are those who think it’s the very best he ever did, while others think that it is the absolutely worst one. And most of the assessments end up somewhere on the scale between these extremes. That is also my experience. That makes one purified in the adversity and sober-minded in prosperity.
CC: The “brain trust” consists of you, Ulf Granberg and Hans Lindahl. How far into the future are you planning stories?
CR: Earlier on we had one seminar bi-annually, but now we are content with meeting once a year. On this meeting we draw the guidelines for about a year’s production.
CC: You have written the longest Phantom story of all time, Heart of Darkness. Have there ever been plans to publish this serial in a collected edition? And has it been discussed making another of these serials that are published over several issues in the future?
CR: I have long hoped to see Heart of Darkness collected, as I think the series would work better as a continuous narrative. Clearly there are at least a fair amount of readers who wish the same thing, as I have gotten to learn that it is the series people request most frequently for reprinting in the Swedish Phantom Chronicles (interviewers note: a black and white comic book that reprints older Phantom stories). Pleasantly enough we will get to have our wish fulfilled this year already if everything goes according to the plan. A reprint of the entire Heart of Darkness is as a matter of fact planned in the autumn and will run over four issues of The Phantom Chronicles. The thought is moreover that the fourth and final issue is to be completed with an entirely newly drawn episode that ties up to Heart of Darkness. This is to fill out the final issue. I am currently reading through the entire Heart of Darkness to find an angle to such a story. So let us hope that I will so that these plans can be locked.
CC: Are you currently working on other writing-projects that are not related to the Phantom?
CR: I write about 8-9 Phantom-scripts per year. Beyond that I write scripts to the Swedish humor-series 91:an and make translations for the Donald Duck-editorial staff (I have for instance translated about two thirds of the article-texts to the Swedish prestige-edition of Carl Bark’s Collected Works on 30 volumes). Beyond that I write a number of facts-articles for The Phantom and forewords to the Donald Duck-volume books. During my free time I work on a youth-book, a fantasy-novel that is called Myrddin (I have just finished editing the first half of the book and will in some days send it away to the publishing house), and with text- and facts scrutinizing of a book about Swedish comic book history (comic book history is one of my great fields of interest) that is set to be published by Seriefrämjandet (interviewer’s note: The Swedish Comic Book Association). Myrrdin I have done on pure speculation – I have no contract on the book yet – and the comic book history is ideal work from my side.
CC: And finally, the obligatory question: What inspires you as a writer?
CR: Everything I see, hear and read. I watch a lot of movies, read a lot of comics and heaps of both fiction and books of facts. One can say, that when if I do not write, I read. I do not have time for much else. There are therefore ideas popping up all the time and occasionally where you least expect it – both background-material and impulses for themes, plots and characters.
Note: Claes has also written many Phantom stories under the pseudonym Michael Tierres
For further reading, Claes Reimerthi's PhantomWiki biography and complete list of stories authored is here.