Tony De Paul: Keeping the Ghost Walking

Tony DePaul has written countless Phantom stories since the early 90s, taking the Ghost Who Walks on some incredible adventures. Last year saw the Death of Diana storyline, second only to Claes Reimerthi and Joan Boix’s brilliant Heart of Darkness when it comes to being the most ambitious Phantom story ever created. Tony kindly took time out of his very busy schedule to talk to ChronicleChamber and answer some questions about his work on The Man Who Can Not Die.

ChronicleChamber: It can’t be debated that the strip has received something of a modernization in the last few years. I’ve personally always felt it started when [Paul] Ryan came onboard as the artist. Do you agree with this?

Tony DePaul: Sure, I think that’s true. When the chairs shuffle and a new artist comes in, he brings a new quality and vision that can be said to update or modernize the strip. Wilson McCoy did so after Ray Moore, the great Sy Barry did it again after McCoy and so on. And yet the Ray Moore strips still knock me out! Fantastic work. I suspect that Paul Ryan would be humbled by your comment, because I know how much he respects the work of those who came before him. We’re fortunate to always have the “best artist ever” working on the strip.

CC: This might just be something that I feel, but: in the last few years it really seems you have decided to take a deeper look at the man behind the mask, and arguably a more serious tone. Has this been a conscious decision?

2011 Frew #1602 - The Python Strikes Back (The Death of Diana)

TDP: Absolutely. In The Death of Diana I wanted to see how the Phantom would behave if he believed he had been beaten and might not have the heart to continue on as the 21st Phantom; finished not by his own death but by the revenge that an enemy had aimed at a loved one. His depression at the murder of Diana was apparent. Was he a good father when he sent Kit and Heloise to live with the Luagas after the terror bombing in Mawitaan? That’s open to debate. Some readers probably thought he was a lout and should have been there more for his kids. On the other hand, we saw how fiercely loyal he is to Diana. Not many men could resist Savarna but the Phantom was never tempted to commit his wife’s memory to the past and move on.

CC: You’re an active user of Facebook, which gives phans the opportunity to communicate directly with you. What kind of response do you get from readers? Any fanatic Falk-purists sending you death-threats?

TDP: No death threats so far! All the phans I met on FB are well balanced and great fun. Through other channels, email and snail mail, I’ve run into a few who are wound a little tight, may have spent time in their mom’s basement stewing in purple tights and dry-firing a .45 at my photo. But as for FB, I recently signed off and let my page go dark. I’m not a fan of the Zuckerberg empire. He and his minions keep finding new ways to drive home the point that user-generated content belongs not to the user but to them, so when it wasn’t fun to be there anymore I decided to check out. When you hear about the Next Big Thing, a new, hipper, more user-friendly social media platform, let me know!

CC: You’ve mentioned a desire to write a novel based on the Death of Diana-storyline, which I’d love to see as a big fan of Falk’s excellent Phantom novels. Do you think anything will come from this? Would we see stuff in a book that could not be shown in a comic strip?

TDP: As far as I know, my proposal on that is still alive at King Features and being discussed with outside publishers. I would love to write that book. It would go much further in exploring the Phantom’s humanity and fleshing out what readers saw in the strip.

2011 Fantomen #2-3 - The Death of Diana

CC: The recent SyFy miniseries and the on-going Dynamite comic book depicts the adventures of the 22nd Phantom. Do you see any advantage in changing the lead character this way, and would you have done the same in the strip if given the chance?

TDP: I enjoyed the SyFy series, just taking it for what it was, a very different look at the Phantom. I wouldn’t want to go that far afield in the strip, though. I’m all for preserving the Lee Falk legacy there while bringing it up to date in ways that seem clearly necessary, like getting the Phantom up to speed on the Internet. I try to honor the past without being trapped in it. No reader under 50 can relate to Monkey Mail or the Phantom climbing a telephone pole to get in touch with Colonel Worubu. So far we’ve got Internet access established in Skull Cave and on Walker’s Table. And the Phantom WILL have a smart phone one of these days! Maybe right after I get one.

CC: What is the greatest appeal of the Phantom? Are there any obvious limitations when chronicling his adventures?

TDP: His greatest appeal for me is his courage, good heart, willingness to forge ahead no matter what. In short, his integrity as a man. The obvious limitation? — Space! How I envy Lee Falk the space he had to work in back in the Golden Era. It’s tough to tell a story in the preferred two panels a day, and the art gets so tiny when you go to three panels out of necessity. Even with newspapers dying out, the newspaper format remains the yardstick; it dictates what we can do even in the electronic version where space is theoretically unlimited.

CC: Does Paul Ryan have any input on your scripts, or does he “only” draw them?

Weeks meets the Unknown Commander in The Return of Colonel Weeks

TDP: We don’t write stories together but every now and then Paul says something that sparks a good story idea for me. A recent Sunday adventure, The Return of Colonel Weeks, started with Paul wondering whatever had become of the old colonel. Why was he just suddenly gone one day, replaced by the younger Worubu? Lee Falk never tied up that loose end for the readers so Paul suggested that we tackle it. Great idea! Paul’s a professional and does his best work on every story but I like sending him material that I know holds a special interest.

CC: The Phantom is very popular in Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia, but is largely ignored in by Americans, who instead prefers the countless costumed characters inspired by the Ghost Who Walks. Why do you think that is the case?