The complete, unedited and unabridged version was made available to Patreon subscribers on January 8th. Features of the full transcript include:
The complete and unedited voice of Sy Barry
Pre- and post- interview chat from the CC Team
Sy's thoughts on Australians
Comic strip artists living the rock star lifestyle
Sy's attitude to the Horror comic genre popular in the 1960s
Our little chat with Sy's wife Simmy
Individual identification of CC Team members - who said what
The heart-stopping moment when the call dropped out
A stunning invitation and a few rash promises
Over 5.000 more words
CC [It’s a great pleasure today to be speaking with] one of the biggest names in Phantom history and certainly one of the living legends in The Phantom and that is Sy Barry, from New York. Hello Sy!
SB Hello! How are you, good to talk to you.
CC No very good to talk to you Sy.
SB I had remarked before that it’s a shame we’re not on FaceTime because I would’ve liked to see you guys. But we’ll do it again … and maybe we can get to see each other and you can take have a look at my studio too.
CC That would be awesome. One of the advantages of doing a podcast is that we all have faces for radio as they would say back in the olden days.
SB Right, right! Right now I’m working on another watercolour. I’ve been into watercolours lately and just sketching in a portrait of a photo I have of … a young blonde lady, and I’m doing it for my class. I’m teaching watercolours to a class of women. They’re quite talented, they’re very good … I don’t give out compliments too easily. But these women are quite good but it’s just sketching, it’s just painting nothing else. They’re a lot of fun and … they’re showing improvement every day, every week there’s a little more of an improvement in their painting.
So that’s my new career and I love it, I love teaching. It’s been a whole new experience for me and for as long as I can I hope to keep teaching. And doing some painting, trying to sell some paintings that I’ve done. So that’s where I am right now. Anything in particular you guys would like to know?
CC For sure – there’s so many things!
SB Many things, okay!
CC With your watercolours, would you say you’re enjoying that as much as your work on The Phantom, or probably even more by the sounds of what you’ve told us?
SB You know something, at one point I would have said I enjoyed The Phantom more, but I got to the point, after working 33 years on it where it just became a bit of a task. When I retired I just felt that I needed to go on somewhere else. I felt like my creative juices were just kind of drying up and I needed to go into another area. Not commercially, but for my own enjoyment. I felt that I had enough of this experience, I had spent well over 50 years in comics – because you know I had worked for another 17 years … before I began to work on The Phantom … I worked several years for Marvel at that time it was called Timely Comics. I worked for DC, mostly that was my bread and butter account, and worked for several editors there including Julie Schwarz and several other editors. Then the strip came along. I guess you know how that happened? Wilson McCoy became ill and they asked me – I had just brought in a strip of my own, my own strip idea – and they were considering it when Wilson McCoy became ill and they liked my work, and I had also done Flash Gordon with my brother for a few features, so they knew me there, which was good because I had my foot in the door already, and then they asked me to just temporarily take on The Phantom until Wilson McCoy recovered.
CC How did you become aware of The Phantom as a comic book or as a character in the first place?
SB Well I began to see it when Ray Moore did it, the original art. I was a kid then, and I used to look at that strip and I loved the idea and the concept. I loved the fantasy issue in it, and I just thought it was something a little unusual, a little different. In fact, you know it started in 1936 before Superman came out, so it was really the first costumed character, before Superman. There were no other costumed characters.
CC So would you just read it in the newspaper strips then and go home and doodle your own pictures and practise drawing The Phantom at that age?
SB You know what, I didn’t spend my childhood drawing comic strips or comic characters. I enjoyed reading them and seeing them, but I didn’t really use them as my introduction into drawing. I really drew from life mostly. That’s where my style is more illustrative than humorous, because I always liked more representational kind of drawing. I was more of an illustrator than a comic strip artist. When they called it the “funnies”, I always wondered why they called it the “funnies”, because there were many adventure strips going on at the time. In fact, they took precedence, the adventure strips like Flash Gordon and Terry the Pirate and Secret Agent and Smiling Jack, all of these wonderful strip ideas. Of course the best of them was Prince Valiant, who was kind of my god because he [Hal Foster] was such a great illustrator. I loved the other illustrators who did illustrations for magazines. Those were the artists I was following; they were kind of my idols.
Not really humorous artists, more serious and adventure strip kind of artists. Then of course my older brother Dan was an artist and I hadn’t known this. I don’t know if you know my childhood, but I had been fostered out … for the first 10 years of my life, and when I came back home I discovered that my older brother Dan was an artist too. That kind of made me feel very close to him. However, he was five years older than me. I always admired his drawing and his ability, but the only thing was that our personalities were very different. He and I didn’t see eye to eye too often... So we had a lot of conflict, Dan and I, but I did admire his ability and his talent, and he happened to be a brilliant individual too. He never quite finished high school because we were a very poor family – I’m one of eight children – and we grew up during the Depression. Our Depression was extremely difficult for us. Our father was a house painter and he had a very difficult time making a living, so we knew what poverty was before we became successful. We worked our behinds off to try to make a career out of our talents.
CC … Was there any pressure on you to get a “real job” so to speak, rather than just your drawings and your art?
SB Well I worked at all different kinds of art jobs by the time I was about 12 or 13. We lived in Coney Island at the time. I should say my parents lived there with my brothers and sisters; I didn’t live there till I was 10. Why I was kept away from home all those years and why I didn’t come back home all those years, I could never answer that and I could never find out why. Nevertheless, when I did come back home it was quite a disrupting experience for me, because I was living very nicely in the foster home and I had very nice foster parents, I didn’t want to be taken away from them. When I came home I discovered my older brother was able to draw, we had something in common, but our personalities were a lot different. We had the same skills but I didn’t find him easy to deal with. Very different individuals. I spent most of my life trying to work out a relationship with him but it never quite worked. But he was an amazingly talented guy. Do you know of, have you seen any of- ?
CC Yeah, I remember reading some Flash Gordon and he also did some work on Indiana Jones?
SB Yes, he did, after he left Flash Gordon, right.
CC I remember reading the Indiana Jones and I’m going “Boy this art looks familiar” and then I looked at the credit and I realised it was Dan! So did you notice that there was a lot of similarity between your two artworks, the artworks between yourself and Dan?
SB I must say I have to give credit to Dan. When I … helped him on Flash Gordon for several years, while I was doing my own work with DC at the time. That too was disrupting for me because I had my own accounts and he kept needing help on his strip, he always was working on deadlines and he kept calling me for help. I would leave my work and help him out. Put myself in trouble, but that was the job of a brother you know, you have to step in when he needs help. I just wish it were appreciated a little bit more (laughs) in our relationship. I was always there for him and it was nice being able to help him. I always felt good about giving him a hand. Even though it affected me financially many times, I would lose money on it because it didn’t quite pay as well as my own work, but I just felt that you can’t let him down.
CC Did you learn a lot from him?
SB Yeah, you know I studied illustration and cartooning in high school and what I learned there didn’t even touch the surface compared to what I really learned doing comics itself. Reading a script and visualising a scene and you know, all these things that require so much of your talents and your creativity.
Remember, as I said I’ve been doing it for like 50 years when I retired … and it always commanded so much of our attention and our creativity that eventually you become drained, you just kind of dry up. Some guys could keep going forever, but I just felt I came to the point where I just wasn’t enjoying it the way I did once. I think you could tell from my work that I really loved it when I worked on it, I really enjoyed it. I think it came out in my work because I was always right in there when other artists would get together, respect for my work as well as the respect I had for them. Working in comics was a marvellous experience I must say. It was wonderful working on my own schedule, although it was kind of my own defeat too because I would tend to procrastinate and not get down to work when I should. I’d waste time and then when the juices started to flow then I was fine.
CC It’s good to hear that you’re human as well then Sy, because I think we can all relate to that.
SB Oh absolutely absolutely.
CC I think all creative people are like that, they procrastinate until they get the juices flowing, and if it’s not flowing, your work suffers.
SB Oh absolutely, that’s right – when the juices are flowing you can’t be any better than when things are coming through very easily… But when you can’t produce, you just sit there and you’re not in the mood or you can’t think of something and you try just applying yourself “God dammit you’ve gotta get it done”, it doesn’t always work... So we’re all humans, we all have the same problems, the same flaws and the same difficulties in getting our creativity going. We all have the same problems.
CC Yes. Did you have any methods that would help you get in the groove?
SB Yes. One of the things I did was I would look back at some of the Impressionists. I enjoyed Degas and Daumier, … to me Daumier was more of a cartoonist. So I would look back at the more classical art and just marvel at some of the things, and I would see things there and would suddenly just say “Gee that’s inspiring” so that’s basically what got me going is looking at some other beautiful art work. Or I would look back at some of the stuff that I enjoyed in comics too. Some of the things that inspired me and made me want to do comic book work.
CC … Did you have a lot of reference in your study?
SB Yes, as a matter of fact I had what they called a morgue. It was three full file cabinets of reference material from A to Z: sports, education, scenes, foreign cities, clothing, uniforms, all of this stuff. Every bit of material that you can now get on Google, Yahoo or any of the other search engines, all you have to do is type it in and you’ve got it right at your fingertips. I got rid of most of my files because I really don’t need it... Not only is there so much material out there to pull from all of the resources, but there are many different views and angles. Black and white and full colour and what have you, paintings, there’s so much to choose from that it doesn’t pay to keep a morgue and take up space. So now I use the Internet.
CC Sy ... how was the process for you in terms of picking up where Wilson McCoy left off and moving into creating your own Phantom?
SB That’s a great question … On the first week that I did The Phantom, I did in my own style and it looked a bit like one of my science fiction stories in my comic book days and it also looked like Flash Gordon. Here’s the Phantom wearing his costume in the jungle and it’s not at all Wilson McCoy’s style. So when I delivered it the editor said “Sy that’s beautiful but I can’t use it.”
I said “Why?” He said “Well it’s just not Wilson McCoy, it’s too much too far, it looks like Flash Gordon.” So he said “Look, we’re gonna pay you for this, but you’ll have to do it over.” Fortunately the strip was far enough ahead of deadline that I had the time to do it again, but I had to kind of rush it out. Working in Wilson McCoy’s style, to me, I must admit, I guess many people are going to be learning this now, but working in Wilson McCoy’s style was so difficult for me. It was, what I had to do, it was like stripping myself down naked. I had to undo everything I had learned, not only in school, but in comics!
All of the techniques and all of the tricks and all basic requirements to doing a good looking strip had to be forfeited for the sake of working in his style. It was more of a problem undoing what I would normally naturally do and try and work in someone else’s style. I’d never done that before … I should say I had done it when I worked on Flash Gordon, but I still had a certain amount of freedom to work in my own way. It looked reasonably like Dan’s Flash Gordon when I worked on it but it had something of my own too, it my finished technique in it, and it was the final technique that just didn’t match Wilson McCoy’s work. You know his work of course? How would you describe him? I’m just curious how another viewer would describe his work in the way of artistic ability and the way of seeing it as an interesting looking drawing.
CC A lot of phans really love McCoy’s work because it’s so simple and clean. When you took over and as your style evolved, the strip became far more detailed, … and the depth of each panel I think really increased.
SB Well that’s good, that’s a very good explanation of my work, because I did give it more depth. I gave it more body. My use of black began to give it a more three-dimensional look to it rather than the flat two-dimensional single line technique that Wilson used. I mean … I was able to understand why people enjoyed the way he worked, I could understand that. His simplicity, it had its value … and I could understand how people liked that simplistic look to it.
I remember Ed Rhoades saying that when he was a kid his father would sit him on his lap, and his father would read the strip to him because he loved it so much, he loved the style. So when I told him that I had difficulty working on it and it wasn’t my favourite kind of style I think I put a knife through him, it was like I was breaking up his childhood dreams. I hadn’t realised how badly it would affect him when I was giving a professional opinion of his artwork, you know. I didn’t realise that he was so devoted to Wilson McCoy.
CC So you didn’t have a working relationship with McCoy at any stage? Did you know each other personally?
SB No, not at all. I never met him. I think he lived in St Louis, yeah, I think he lived in Missouri.
CC That sounds about right. And what about Ray Moore, did you ever cross paths with Ray Moore?
SB Oh not at all, not at all …
I spoke to Lee Falk quite often, I met him several times. I remember being in Central Park in New York one time, … I probably was on the strip about 20 years already and I see this old guy with a cane and a young lady walking with him. The young lady was his granddaughter, and I hadn’t really recognised him until he passed me and then I turned around and I realised: hey that guy is wearing an Ascot tie, you know that’s what he used to wear, the Ascot. He’s wearing an Ascot tie and a jacket and a cane, and he’s walking very slowly. I had just seen him maybe 8 months before and he was in good shape, and here he is this guy toddling along you know, very slowly and his granddaughter holding his arm you know. I said “Lee?” Well he looked at me and he was so embarrassed, I think he just – he had a bit of an ego, Lee – I said “Lee, how are you?”. He was just a couple of blocks away from his own home, his own apartment, he lived around Central Park West. … So I never did meet Wilson McCoy and I never met Ray Moore, I never even talked to them. First of all when Wilson McCoy became ill and went into the hospital, he was too ill. He had some kind of infection that reoccurs, that he developed when he was in Africa and it seemed to return. … Somehow it formed a blood clot and went to his heart and he died in the hospital. I thought I was only doing it temporarily, until…
CC Temporary for 30-odd years!
SB (laughs) I would’ve liked … I did a chalk talk one time at the Cartoonists Museum … and lo and behold his daughter was there with his grandson, Wilson McCoy’s. She came over to me and she said “I loved your talk and did you know my father?” And I said “No I never did. I never spoke to him. I would’ve liked to.” So she said “Well I loved your drawing and your talk about The Phantom. My father felt the same way about The Phantom that you do, and you brought back beautiful memories of my father.” I felt so good, you know like, everything else was nice, it was nice receiving the accolades from other people and everything, but to hear that I reminded her of her father because of the way I spoke about my love for the strip and that’s how he felt … I just felt so good after that. I went home feeling better about that statement than anything else that was said to me. Because it struck home, … and I knew how her father felt about The Phantom. And I felt that way all through those 33 years, until towards the end when I felt like I just had enough. It was good to me, the strip, and I know I did the strip a good favour, because by the time I left the strip had picked up 400 papers. When I came on the strip we had 500 papers and when I left we had 900. Now I hear it’s back to about 450.
Sadly, adventure strips are losing their popularity. All the humour strips are taking over now.
CC The panels are smaller …
SB You’re right. They’re harder to see, and I don’t know, I’m just not thoroughly excited somehow… there was just something about the way Lee wrote. Much as I disagreed with the kind of personality he was and I had a difficult time dealing with him personally, because he was always at odds with me… I just wanted to do a professional job and get the work done, and he always made it a personal issue. Kind of, just bucking me all the time you know. So I said “You want to play that game go ahead but you know, I’ve got work to do, I’ve got a strip to turn out” (laughs) and I just didn’t let him bother me.
CC So what sort of things would he take issue with, in terms of bucking you … ?
B Ok. On several occasions he would lose the story, he would lose a character in the story. He would leave somebody abandoned on an island or something, or in someone’s captivity and he’d never get back to them. The story would be ending and this guy was never recovered, the Phantom should have been out there getting him back to safety. I would remind Lee and he’d say “Oh well, the audience won’t know.” And I’d say, “No don’t say that, they’re very cognisant of what goes on in the strip and I get a lot of mail! That this guy was left here and that woman was left there and what are you doing about it? She was all tied up and she hasn’t eaten in 20 days” … (laughs). I’d get these letters from these people and I’d say “Lee you can’t just leave them there! People do know, they don’t forget, they notice, you’re writing a story you’ve gotta be true to it!” So I would have some really bitter – and he hated to be corrected. He’d say “Oh I’ll look into it.” He wouldn’t admit that I was right, you know, and so there was this ego going on and I don’t play that kind of game I mean that’s not my thing. So he was a bit difficult. Then there were times when I needed to go on vacation and I’d tell him “Get me some extra script written so that I can go on vacation.” Well he made sure he did it for himself when he went on vacation but he would just hold me up and hold me up and I’d want to get ahead, then the last week he’d get a ton of script to me, the last week before I’m going to leave. Many times I had to go over his head and call the Managing Editor and tell him “Look you’ve got to do something about Lee, he’s just not cooperating with me, he’s not letting me go on my vacation. How can I go away when I’ve got so much work to do? You’re gonna have a blank spot in the newspaper one day. It’s not gonna appear.” (laughs) So those are the things that he did. He was spiteful and a bit on the egotistic side.
CC So would you ever make edits to a story?
SB No I wouldn’t do that. No. ... I once changed the words… that was part of the difficulty. He would not let me do anything on the writing, not nothing. He said “You call me first.” So I said “Yeah when I call you you give me a hard time, so I decided not to have a difficult time and I decided to rewrite a couple of words.” So he said “Don’t ever do that again.” I said “I’m not your student, and I’m not your child, don’t tell me don’t ever. You can find a better way of telling me this. I’m a professional the same as you are, and you don’t treat me like a student or a child.”
So these were the issues that came up, you know. But I must say that he was a brilliant writer. Somehow after he died the strip never had the same quality to it in the way of writing, and I don’t think it ever had the excitement in the artwork that I tried to put into it. I put so much thought into it because I enjoyed it. I wouldn’t have gone that far with the strip if I didn’t enjoy it that much. I really loved it.
CC Exactly. I thought Graham Nolan did a good job with his Sundays for the short period of time that he was on them.
SB Oh yes, after I left, yeah. I would say that he was pretty faithful to the strip, he was. I would’ve liked to see just a little more excitement in the layouts, in the storytelling I should say, but he was an accomplished artist, he was good. He at least kept the character in the strip, he really did.
CC Do you have any other thoughts on any of the other artists that are currently doing it, or like Paul Ryan, or any other Phantom artists that did Dailies and Sundays?
SB Unfortunately I’m mostly seeing; I haven’t seen the strip lately. I really haven’t, I haven’t been getting the proofs of the strip. So I don’t know what the Daily and Sunday look like lately. In fact, I’m not sure who’s doing it right now. Who’s doing the Daily and the Sunday, I’ve lost touch?
CC Mike Manley’s doing the Dailies, and Terry Beatty’s doing the Sundays at the moment.
SB Oh Terry Beatty, yeah I’ve seen his name on Facebook yep. But I haven’t seen it.
CC Well that’s probably not to be expected. I think once you retire it’s probably fair enough to move on …
SB That’s right. Once I’m done with it, you’re right, you know it’s the end of a career and I was starting another area of interest. I would just hear about another artist getting onto it, and that kind of thing. I know that George Olesen who was helping me at the time that I left, I know he continued – at one point he was doing some layouts for me, and then I would tighten them up or change the layout in a panel here and there, tighten it up and ink it. Do you know what I mean by this process that I’m talking about?
CC Could you go through the process … from the script, pencils, inking and lettering …?
SB Yeah, he would give me a rough layout and put the lettering in in pencil and if I, most of the time, he was very talented George Olesen, I guess you’ve seen his work right?
CC Yes, I’ve got a couple of pieces of his.
SB Yeah, and then this other guy Ryan… Brian was it that did the inking, with George pencilling, … what was his last name?
CC Was it Keith Williams?
CC Was it Keith Williams?
SB Williams! What was his first name?
SB Oh, Keith!
CC Yeah, Keith Williams.
SB Did you say Keith?
SB Keith, Keith. Oh Keith Williams, yes. You know I forgot Australians say “A” for “E”. I think I told you – I don’t know if I mentioned this story when I spoke in 2008 at the dinner, there’s this story of the first time I came to Australia. They had a convention, and they had a couple of tables for me to put my work on. They put some of the things that I did that were reprinted into comic books, some Dailies and Sundays. People were bringing – when I came in there they said “Oh you’re going to be signing a few pieces of work for your fans” and I see this line starting to develop and start to go around the room. Before I knew it there were like 300 people on line! I said “You’re kidding, am I gonna sign all these things? 300 people?” Each one of them had about 6-7, or a dozen pieces of work for me to sign! I said “You’ve gotta be kidding, I’m not, my hand’s gonna fall off!” So, these people came along, I decide I would sign 2, 3 at the most at a time. One guy comes along, a big burly guy, well over 6 feet and he’s got a short sleeved, like a T-shirt, and he’s got the T-shirt rolled up to his shoulder, you know, so as his whole arm is showing. His bicep and his tricep. And he’s got a mark, he’s got a red mark indicating where he would like me to put my signature. Put my name “SY BARRY”.
So I said “What do you mean, you want me to sign on your arm?” He said “Yeah, right there, right over there.” So I said “Wait a minute, what’s your name?” He says “Diamond.” I said “Diamond?” He says “No, Diamond.” I said “Yeah, Diamond!” He says “No, Diamond.” (laughter) So I said “Wait a second, maybe he means Damon, oh DAMON!” (laughter) Well from that point on I realised that the “A” was an “I” and not an “A”. But the funny thing was, so I said “Well why do you want me to do that? You’re gonna go home, you’re gonna shower, it’ll all wash off. Unless you don’t intend to bathe?” So he said “No, I’m gonna go from here right into a tattoo shop and I’m gonna tattoo it on my arm.” My god. My wife Simmy was sitting next to me, she almost fainted. (laughter) We both started laughing, it was just hysterical. Even people next to him were laughing, I mean it was such a funny scene. I never heard of this before. That’s how much a guy wanted my signature on him, so that it would never be removed. … I’m certain that he did it, I’m certain that he really did that. He was so determined, you know. I said “I hate tattoos.” He said “Please, I really want to do this, it’s very important to me.” So I did it!
CC Wonderful. .... [and] did you want to finish the procedure of how you were doing the art? … It sounds like there was a big support staff and-
SB Oh yes yes yes – trying to bring my style around to, you mean trying to bring my style around?
SB So then I redid it. It was so difficult working in that style, undoing whatever I had learned in the past you know. Trying to duplicate that simplicity, that utter simplicity, … not working with any blacks, and not being able to give it a three-dimensional look. I mean there are ways of using black and white to give the effect of solidity and volume to the work to make it look three-dimensional like it’s popping out of the page. You can do it more effectively with colour, I began to realise that when I started to work with colour, you can do it much more effectively with colour but to do it with black and white- I’m finding that it’s much more difficult doing it that way. All the secrets that you’ve learned to make things look three-dimensional … were there so I was able to give it more dimension, but I couldn’t do that until I was able to break into my own style.
So I must say that for the first 5 to 6 weeks I began to just lighten up, or should say, get a little heavier in my artwork, rather than the very light simplistic style. I began to put a little black here and a little black there and more black in the background. Then I began to work with some more shadows and just little by little began to introduce – but it was tough working that way, very tough. It’s very hard … to simplify, very hard. I mean, ask any designer when they have to – one of the main tricks to design is simplicity. The more things that are on a bit of fashion the more distracting those things are. The simpler the lines, the simpler the effect, the better it looks. So it’s a very good principle. One of the basics of art is simplicity. Mine got to be more and more involved, but only because, not because I put more work into it later on, but because everything was reproduced smaller. Much smaller. By the time I finished, I would say it was about at least a third smaller than the original size I worked. If you don’t know what that means, unless you’re working on panels, and reducing lettering and reducing pictures and trying to get figures to fit into a panel and trying to get them make look obvious to the viewer. It’s very difficult to work small and give the viewer an opportunity to see the point of the picture that you want them to see. That’s a very difficult thing to do.
SB So I hope I’m teaching you a little bit of art while we’re at it.
CC … Back when you started doing The Phantom what was the process … in getting the scripts and what have you?
SB Well it wasn’t Monkey Mail.
SB You remember Monkey Mail?
CC Of course.
SB Yes right okay. He lived in New York and I lived on Long Island, and that’s about 35 oh 40 miles away from each other, all right? Now, when you say 35 to 40 miles, to get into New York City from Long Island, it could take anywhere from an hour to three hours, depending on the traffic. I don’t think there’s anywhere in the word that’s as busy and as tied up and as intense, as New York City. So going through the tunnels and the bridges and all of that to get into New York … you have to go over the East River and all of these different crossings to get into New York. So naturally he would mail the stuff to me and many times when I finished up the work I would send it in by messenger rather than travelling in and delivering it, I would send it in by messenger, it was a lot easier for me.
CC So was that the finished artwork, the finished panels?
SB Yes, that’s the finished artwork, the finished Dailies or finished Sundays, right. Sometimes I’d send them both in together, the Dailies and the Sundays.
CC Did Lee Falk have a final look over that before it went to publishing or anything?
SB No, no, he didn’t. It went right to the Syndicate. I would fume if Lee had a look at that. If Lee had’ve looked at that stuff I would be fuming.
SB Because again. I’m not letting another professional look at the work of another professional and I think it’s just a poor practice and I would never abide by it.
CC Sure. What sort of turn around were you looking at, from script to seeing it in the newspaper?
SB Oh, you’d see it, well actually, from the time Lee would send it to me, well from the time I delivered it, it would be five weeks before it’s printed in the newspaper – the Daily, the Daily would be five weeks ahead. The Sunday would be eight weeks ahead because there was a colour process going on and you needed a – in those days when I first started on it there was a four plate processing, your black red yellow and blue, and now it’s all done by computer, it’s all done by codes and numbers. It’s not done by plates any more. It’s a much cheaper process, much faster.
CC So did you have to draw the Sundays differently knowing that they were going to be coloured and did you have a preference for whether they came out in black and white or…?
SB There’s not a preference. If you do a Sunday page it’s gotta be done in colour.
SB Yeah, so there’s no pref – the only preference is… At one time we would have the staff, the art staff at the Syndicate do our colouring for us. They basically knew the colours we were using for The Phantom and all the other issues. If there was anything that I wanted a little different … then I would make colour notes. Indicate what I wanted. Whatever changes I needed. So that’s how it was done in those days. Now guess what? They … don’t require you to send in the work anymore. You copy it up on your copier, on your printer, you copy it up if you have a copier, … you run that copy onto your Internet and it gets sent out onto your email and it gets sent out. You keep your originals you don’t send them out.
CC So you didn’t get to keep a lot of your originals … then?
SB No. Those days I delivered them because we didn’t have that process. When I retired don’t forget it was in ’94, 22 years ago. So we didn’t have that process then.
CC So obviously you’ve got your website there and you are selling some original art. But I’m just curious- obviously you don’t have your full back catalogue of original art then if most of it got sent in?
SB Oh I’ve got some – some of it got stolen I don’t know if you heard about that?
SB Yes. Yep. I really don’t – can’t make accusations but I have an idea of who stole it but I can’t really vouch for it definitely but it was pretty awful and I’m very upset about it. Now I’m hearing that those Dailies and Sundays are being sold, and that’s even more upsetting... I mean you as a collector could appreciate how difficult it is for me to deal with that, that my work is being sold out there and profits are being made on my sweat. That’s pretty bad. Pretty bad. Whoever is selling it … seem to have a lot of my work and they claim that it was given to them. That I gave it to them, and I have to prove that I didn’t give it to them. So I’m really up a creek.
CC Right. So I hope that wasn’t a home invasion or anything like that was it? Did it disappear from King Features or-?
SB Yes. I called them one time to get my originals, they said “No. They’ve been taken, we don’t have them.” They didn’t say who took them. They wouldn’t tell me- and I was furious. I really wanted to sue. But you know, whoever did it pretended that they had the right to it, for some reason. Guys in the mailroom had no experience with this. They, they just gave it away- Anyway, I have to get past that. I can’t worry about it; I can’t let it get me sick. I mean I know it happened and I know who did it, but that’s it. If I want to keep my sanity I can’t bother with it.
CC Sure. Some things are not worth stressing over.
SB No, that’s right. Exactly.
CC Health is more important.
SB Yes. It is. Especially at this stage of my life – so many of my friends are becoming ill or more serious … I’m just grateful that I’m in the shape I am and that Simmy is as well. So we just are very grateful. Really. Yep, we get up each morning, we say “Hey, we’re here. My back aches so I know I’m alive…”
SB So we’re doing fine. We’re very content, I love what I’m doing, I love the teaching and I just wanna be around a few more years to get to a certain point in my talents that I’d be satisfied with. I’d just like to be able to hold a pencil and hold a brush for another few years.
CC So do you have, when you look back at your career Sy, do you feel like there was a particular period when you were at the peak of your powers and really knocking out some great work? What was your favourite stories, or period of time?
SB Oh. Well, my favourite story, one of my favourites, very favourites is The Jungle Patrol. ... It’s a group of pirates that … the Phantom appoints as the beginning of the Jungle Patrol, and he makes Redbeard the Captain of the, or Colonel of the Jungle Patrol. That was my favourite story. One of the things that I really was hitting my juices with, I must say, I guess that I appreciated my work on… there was a story called, I think it was called The [Masked] Ball.
Now the funny thing was at that point I was not talking to my brother Dan. We had had a real break up and then I tried getting in touch with him again because I felt- his family, he wasn’t doing well with his family. I felt like I had deserted him so I started to get back in touch with him and he wouldn’t receive me. He wouldn’t respond to me. You know, I had to say that I tried. And I thought of him as one of the villains (laughter).
As a result of my experience with him I made him the main villain. He was the guy – he was the pirate.
CC Yes, yeah I know the guy.
SB Okay. Dark, very dark-haired guy you know, with a pirate hat. It looked so much like him. If you go back to that sequence at all, if you can find it.
CC We’ll do that later today I think. …
SB Oh you are? How are you looking it up? How do you find that?
CC Back issues of Frew comics mostly.
SB Of Frew yeah, okay.
CC We all collect Frew comics so I think we’ll be able to go back and find the publications of that … [Frew issue] #1125 in 1996 is the last published, but it was first published in #402 in 1969.
CC That’s when it was first published.
SB It was first published in ’69? Did you say ’69? … Wow. All right.
I don’t think – you know something; I think that was stolen too. See I try to forget about it until I need to look for something. When I need to look for something and then I can’t find it - it gets me upset all over again you know. And you guys as collectors would certainly appreciate that right?
CC I think most collectors are very keen on making sure that the products they buy are all licensed by King Features and that sort of thing. We want to make sure that the money’s going in the right way and for it to not go back to the artist who produced it, that’s yeah, it’s very wrong.
SB Yeah exactly, exactly. So, it’s upsetting. It’s upsetting. But as I say, it doesn’t – when I don’t need something from it or when I’m reminded of something that I have done and they say “Oh I loved that sequence” and then I think “Oh no I don’t have that either” (chuckles). It does get to me a little. But you know, I have to live with it and that’s about it.
CC ... I‘m sure I read somewhere recently that you saw something of the personality of the Phantom coming into your world, that it was an escape for you to draw the character, so you’d really get involved in the story that you were illustrating at the time?
SB Yes, well particularly the villains. In order to make them realistic and to depict them as qualifying as a villain you had to kind of feel their emotions and see how would they react if they were being, if their plan is being voided, foiled you know. How would they react and what would the expressions be and would they throw some things around? So I would go beyond Lee’s description and I would add some things in there you know. But I would never change the dialogue. I’d never do that. I tried it once and he was not very happy.
CC [Did you understand how much you were loved by comic book fans?]
SB ... I mean there were many [artists] that were loved. For some reason this Aragonés… Sergio? Aragonés…
CC Yes. Did all the work for Mad Magazine.
SB Yeah, yeah. He’s got quite a reputation and I mean, his work is funny but I’ve seen other artists whose work was easily as good and in some cases better, and yet there’s something about his technique that the audience seems to love, they rave over his work. His work is beautiful, it’s nice, but there are a lot of other artists that are very capable who don’t get the same acclaim. Go figure that. How do you figure?
CC Just in the right place at the right time I suppose.
SB I guess so, I guess so. There’s something about it that seems to hit their fancy, they just enjoy it. I guess I could understand that because there were artists whose work I, even as a professional, whose work I always enjoyed and admired and respected. For example, in comics I admired Stan Drake’s work. Are you familiar with that? He did a Romance strip… what was her name, in the strip? [The Heart of Juliet Jones, also owned by KFS] Oh god, it was a beautifully done strip.
Then there was another guy, whose work is very little known. His name was Luke Vine [?], he was an illustrator. He was probably ten years older than me. He’s gone now. He was a marvellous artist. He had a wonderful technique, realistic and yet semi-teenage kind of style you know, just beautifully done. So there were some artists whose work – not too many guys knew, or were aware of, but that I knew personally – whose work I really admired.
CC Did you – with the fame in Australia which you experienced first-hand, did you ever go to the Scandinavian countries like Norway and Sweden?
SB Yes yes, I went to three of them. There too I was invited to sign some books. They were producing the Sundays, reprints of my Sundays in a hardcover book, and I was asked to come and sign for them at a book convention. So that was quite an experience because at the time, guess what happened? It was 9/11.
… We were there in Sweden, in Guttenberg Sweden when it happened. We couldn’t believe it, we were sick. We tried to reach home to find out if our kids were all right, or any of our relatives were affected at all and we couldn’t get through. All the trunks were closed, telephone trunks. So I used, at that time I think Egmont had taken over at that time and Egmont used its News services to try to get us through.
CC Oh wow.
SB Now if anyone could get us through to our family it’s a News service. They couldn’t get us through by phone, but they got us through by mail, by email finally. We couldn’t even use emails, everything had shut down. Everything. Just shut down. It was terrible. But everyone who came along… meanwhile I was signing books and pictures and everything – there again there were a few hundred, couple of hundred people on line waiting – and everyone who came by said “Mr Barry we’re so sorry for what happened in New York.” I’m telling you, it was such a difficult experience, I don’t know how I stayed through those hours of signing. It just was a bit overwhelming for me. It was tough, it was tough. But nevertheless our flight was never cancelled ... We were able to get home. They made sure, the Egmont publication made sure that our flight was honoured.
CC That was good.
SB Yes, we were very grateful for that, yeah very grateful. But I loved it there. I think one time we were in Norway and Simmy stopped for a minute, and I stopped, and I see her looking at something in a store, like a novelty store. She sees this rack of comic books and there’s The Phantom, a couple different issues of The Phantom in Norway. And she said “There’s one of your books!” She saw my artwork on the cover. (laughter)
I pulled it out and then everybody – we were on a bus tour – everybody on the bus saw my name Sy Barry on the cover and on the, in the book itself. So I felt a little, I felt very good that day.
CC So, you mentioned before about being asked to draw the Horror strips [see unedited version] and not wanting to do that because … you wouldn’t want to draw something that you didn’t want your kids to see. The Phantom is, as much as any comic strip character, a very moral character and … a family guy, good versus evil, all of those sorts of things. To what extent do you think the morality of the character kept you on board for so long?
SB Why wouldn’t it keep me on board? I liked the established style, the established concept, that Lee wrote into this. I just thought that he developed a character who could be tough, and rough … rough on roughnecks… But he was clever. He did the things that families respect. They didn’t, he didn’t deviate into the more ugly – sadly it’s become more acceptable here in the States, I don’t know how things are now in Australia, I haven’t been there for a few years. The fact that the Australians love the strip so much, they respect the cleanliness and the- ethics of the strip… I think that’s what they see in it, as well as the legendary story, which I thought was the most brilliant part of, the most brilliant concept to use for a strip. So I must respect Lee, as much as I think there were many things that he wasn’t nice about, I must say that he was a brilliant writer and his concepts were really clever, really… They were the kind of things that helped it last for this many years. That’s one of the things that made it last all these years, is that wonderful fantasy, and the ethics involved in the strip. It never lost sight of that. And it still stayed, it still stays a fantasy strip. And it’s hard to make it a science strip, or a science fiction kind of strip, and start to deviate completely away from the old concept – it loses, it’s not The Phantom anymore, and it needs to be The Phantom. It needs to be an escape. And I think, I thought it was a beautiful escape.
SB Are you guys awake?
CC A bit mesmerised by your talk.
SB Okay. (laughs)
CC Just to finish up here Sy: you’re almost universally acclaimed as one of the big three artists of The Phantom and for many phans … you are their unashamed favourite. How do you consider your place in the history of such an iconic and culturally important comic book character? … What do you see as your legacy to The Phantom world and to the comic world?
SB I think that I interpreted The Phantom … the way I saw it, and since the time that I was a kid I saw him in a certain way. I always dreamt of someday – it’s strange ‘cause it was that strip, because of its fantasy and its unusual concept, and where its location was, everything seemed to fit in so well. I just thought it was a great strip idea and a great concept. Even as a kid I thought that. And I said “Someday, I wish I could draw that strip someday, because I would love to give it my illustrative technique” you know. And strange enough fate played her hand and I was able to do it. So I would place The Phantom as something more unique than the average strip. I would say that it gave… a new concept – of course fantasy was always selling, for … hundreds of years, fantasy was done. But to put it into a comic strip in this form and make it a costumed character, and to present it as fight against evil, and to use this concept of a 400-year-old man; I thought it was a marvellous idea and it held up! It held up for all those years, it’s been 80 years now, and it’s still popular. It’s, the idea of it is still popular. … It wouldn’t be a strip without the artwork, without some good artwork on it. My feelings that in most cases the artwork has been very dedicated to the story concept. It has been, in most cases. … If I have to mention what kind of legacy I left?
I think I gave it the kind of character and- emotion. I gave it a kind of emotion that it didn’t have before. That’s one thing I think I may have added to the strip. The emotion of the characters and identifying them as individual human beings, that’s the way I wanted the reader to see the Phantom and the characters involved in The Phantom. When they were sad I wanted everybody to feel it. When they were happy I wanted them to look gleeful and expressive in many ways so I think I did give it that, I gave it the emotion that it needed. As well as the drama. Those two issues. Drama and emotion, that’s, I think I contributed that and I think I left that legacy behind.
CC Totally agree.
SB If you saw that in the strip then I’d be very satisfied because that’s what I tried to leave there. I tried to add to it. That’s what I felt I added to it. And if it was left there and people can remember it, I did my job.
CC I think most phans would certainly feel … that you were the perfect artist at the perfect time for The Phantom. You know, getting married and having children and having those family moments, that style that you just talked about was the perfect … style to take at that time.
SB I think we hit the nail on the head because those subjects were new and they were difficult to draw and difficult to – first of all I had to visualise them and put them … on paper, make the reader appreciate what I was thinking … what I wanted to depict, to express the story. That’s the important thing, expressing the story. To be able to depict that and to have the opportunity – I loved it. I just loved it, the challenge. The challenge was just wonderful, it was a wonderful experience, really. As I say, having had that experience and lived through it and done what I did, and I felt I did I had no more to express, I just felt I had to go on to something else.
I know it was sad for a lot of readers because I got so many letters saying “Why why why don’t you get back on the strip, I loved your style, I miss you” you know, and much as I appreciated it, it made me feel sad that they felt that way. … I did what I needed to do and I couldn’t do anymore as far as I was concerned. And things were getting more difficult with Lee too, he was getting older and more irascible and more difficult to work with, so there were little problems. Yeah, I didn’t want to deal with that anymore, I’d had enough of it, it was too silly to deal with. …
CC … Thanks a lot for your time. You’ve been very generous Sy thank you so much.
SB Right. I didn’t think it would take this long. Woah, two hours! I can’t believe it.
CC No, we really appreciate it and I’m sure everyone who’s listening [reading] will really appreciate it.
SB Oh, you’re very welcome. I don’t give Simmy two hours at a time!
SB Okay guys, good talking to you … It’s … quite an honour, thank you so much.
CC No thank you. The honour is ours, thank you very much Sy.
SB Ok guys. Take care, good talking to you.