An Interview with Sy Barry

The following is an edited transcript of X-Band: The Phantom PodcastEpisode 53 “Our Interview with Sy Barry”.

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!

Sy Barry in his studio - a clip from David Barry's YouTube video

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.

Sy Barry watercolour (2016)

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?

Ray Moore (1941)

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.

Hal Foster's "Prince Valiant"

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.

Dan Barry

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?

Dan Barry's "Flash Gordon"

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?

Daumier's "Rue Transnonain" (1834)