Interview with Tony DePaul


For those who came in late...

Earlier this week long-time author Tony DePaul announced that the current The Phantom stories are to be his last contributions to the Daily and Sunday newspaper strips.

As the second-longest serving The Phantom author behind only Lee Falk, Tony will forever be remembered as a crucial part of Phantom history. Despite the success of the strip in the 1970's and 1980's, the strip suffered in the 1990's with Sy Barry retiring and Falk passing away, and it could've been easy for King Features Syndicate to cancel it all together. Many phans argue that Tony DePaul and Graham Nolan were the saviours of the strip at that time.

Tony’s reasons for leaving The Phantom are thoroughly detailed in his blog here, and it's well worth your time to read it. The impact of the dispute between Tony and King Features Syndicate on the Phantom universe is far-reaching, and will certainly have a profound effect on both the short and long-term direction of the strip.

ChronicleChamber has been lucky enough to have an opportunity to speak to Tony in an interview and reflect on his time with The Phantom.

ChronicleChamber: Thanks for taking the time to respond to our questions today Tony - sorry that it’s under these circumstances.

To start with, were you always a Phantom phan?

Tony DePaul: You bet. The Phantom is absolutely the first thing I remember reading in a newspaper. I say “reading,” I wasn’t old enough to read, I was looking at the pictures. I’m sure it was the striped underwear, whatever you want to call it. Every kid likes to wear his underwear over his pants. Hell, I still do.

But no, the stripes, I’m sure that’s what caught my attention. It seemed like some kind of heraldry. It had some meaning that made the character seem ancient. I think I intuited that right from the start, bought into the myth before I even understood what it was that Lee Falk was up to.

CC: I believe you first started off as a journalist? Tell us how that morphed into a comic writer.

TD: Cash flow! The great motivator. I had been a newspaper reporter for a dozen years when I started writing Phantom tales for what was then Semic Press, in Stockholm. That was in 1990. Nobody gets rich writing for a newspaper. We ink-stained wretches were always scrounging around for freelance work on the side.

We were a one-income family at the time, my wife was home with the kids, three little ones, we had a fairly oppressive house mortgage to cover every month, I was glad to get the extra work. Especially glad it was the Phantom. I’m not really that interested in other comics characters.

CC: How did you come to start writing for Egmont?

TD: Well, first it was Semic, then Egmont. An old friend of mine from high school who was enjoying a wave of success in comics, Chuck Dixon, he knew I was looking around for work on the side. He had done some work for Semic at one time, back when he was just starting out and struggling for a foothold. He wasn’t writing for them then, in 1990, he was in the big leagues and making huge money on royalties at that point, the page rate at Semic would have been way below his radar. But he recommended me to an editor he knew there.

It wasn’t Ulf Granberg, as I recall, but somehow that person got me to Ulf and we kind of hit it off. Ulf became a friend of the family over time. He’d fly over and visit with us whenever he had business to transact at King Features in New York. A real gentleman. He always brought a gift for the house, usually a beautiful piece of Swedish crystal, a vase, a candy dish, things like that. And a box of Cuban cigars for me. The work he sent my way really made a difference for my family.

CC: How did you get the Newspaper gig?

TD: Ulf, again. When Lee Falk died, Ulf recommended a couple of Egmont writers to the late Jay Kennedy. Jay was editing the comics at King at the time. He held tryouts for the next year or so and I got the job.

CC: To what extent do you consider the Newspaper strip as the true Phantom “canon”, over and above stories created for Egmont and the like? What did you do to ensure you always stayed with the world that Falk created?

TD: I’ll tell you the facts straight up, but in a way that doesn’t step on anybody’s feelings, I hope. Especially not my friend Ulf’s or the Phantom’s loyal readers in Scandinavia. There’s no getting around it, the newspaper strip is, and must be, the canon. Jay was emphatic about that when he hired me. I have no doubt that he sincerely appreciated and valued the Swedes’ enthusiasm for the Phantom, but he didn’t want the newspaper strip following Egmont. That would be the tail wagging the dog.

I think he struck just the right balance. He was liberal about allowing the changes that Egmont writers wanted to make to their Phantom universe, but they weren’t changing the Phantom universe as far as he was concerned.

Lamanda Luaga is the President of the Republic of Bangalla. Sorry, fellas! And what? You blew up the well outside Jungle Patrol headquarters? Why? That has to be the standard, in my view. You do these little thought experiments. Would Falk blow up the well? That’s an easy one. He wouldn’t.

CC: You have created a number of new characters, notably some pretty imposing bad guys! Of all the characters you have introduced to the Phantom world, who is your phavourite?

TD: Savarna! My favorite by far. She could easily headline her own comics universe.

At the same time I don’t want to detract from the villains. A hero needs worthy adversaries. The Python [Chatu] and The Nomad [Eric Sahara] were headed for memorable ends, the both of them. The Nomad’s denouement, especially. That was coming up first and it was going to blow readers away.

CC: Phans will be extremely disappointed that we won’t get to see that! The build-up in this plot, especially with Heloise now rooming with the Nomad’s daughter at College, was fascinating and to be honest, for the strip to just leave this behind feels like a massive let-down.

As well as the creation of these villains, it’s been great to see more female characters really step into the limelight. Can you tell us the process, why and how you created the female Jungle Patrol officers, for instance?

TD: There was an obvious need for new female characters. Women are half of everything that’s going on in the world. In the culture I grew up in, urban America in the 60s, second- and third-generation working class, struggling, undereducated, I didn’t see women treated very well. I’m a father of three daughters and one of them has more physical courage than I’ll ever have.

So yeah, I was delighted to advance the roles of women in the Phantom strip. It was time to break the gender barrier in the jungle patrol with Hawa Aguda and Kay Molloy. Falk would have done it, no question. The process, I don’t know if there is one. It’s a mystery to me. These characters just appear as the need arises.

CC: And Chatu, aka The Python? He has also been an amazing addition…

TD: Chatu was a natural. A villain who had everything going for him, of the royal Wambesi line, a family protected by the Phantom, he just went bad somehow. Is he mentally ill? Is it that simple? I don’t know. But the evil he did in the world presented the Phantom with a first-ever opportunity to test his oath to its human limits. The Phantom won that test, in my view. Chatu crumbled when he realized he was going to die if he pulled the trigger on the Phantom. The Phantom was going to die, too, but he’d bought that ticket to ride. He was all-in.

CC: Did you get a say in story direction?

TD: I can’t recall King Features ever rejecting a story idea of mine. But I worked at them. Really worked at them. If I sent my editor five or six story synopses to consider that meant I had already rejected at least twenty. At Semic/Egmont, ideas would routinely be rejected. I’d send in a half dozen and be given the go-ahead to develop two.

CC: Do you have to get approval by KFS over your stories? How much control did they have over your story direction and character development?

TD: Everything I wanted to do was always reviewed and approved up front, with a few changes here and there. Mostly what I heard from King was, the stories are great, we love them, keep ‘em coming. I really enjoyed the freedom they gave me, Jay Kennedy first, then Brendan Burford. I think it would have continued under Evelyn Smith if I had been able to sort out this contract thing with the corporate side.

I always urged Jay and Brendan to throw story ideas at me, I’d be happy to develop them and file a synopsis for them to look at. Neither one ever took me up on it, they said just keep doing what you’re doing.

Every artist I ever worked with, I invited them to pitch a “What if?” line at me. I think Paul Ryan is the only artist who ever took me up on it. One day he said, "What if someone challenged Guran for the right to be chief of the Bandar?" And out of that one question I wrote The Challenge, a story that introduced Kipawa, son of Babudan. It ended with Guran still chief but giving Kipawa his blessing as a new-generation Bandar leader, perhaps a chief one day.

And Paul said once, “Whatever happened to Colonel Weeks?” I had no idea. On Lee Falk’s watch, Colonel Weeks was just gone one day and replaced by Colonel Worubu. So to answer Paul’s question I wrote The Return of Colonel Weeks.

CC: Those were both fantastic stories. Do you have a particular favourite story or stories that you have contributed to the Phantom world? Why do you think of it/them so fondly?

TD: I don’t think I do have favorite stories, but if I had to choose I’d say the five-part Death of Diana series, and the two-part John X/Patrolman X story. Because they showed the Phantom’s humanity.

And any story that depicts the Phantom helping kids, The Voyaging Canoe, The Graffiti Phantom, The College Kid, those tend to be very simple plots but I’ll always enjoy rereading them. Paul’s art was especially well done in the Voyaging Canoe, night scenes at sea, in the fog, that can’t be easy to pull off.

CC: From the outside looking in, it seems that the newspaper strip has been slowly and steadily moving toward the 21st Phantom being replaced by one or both of the twins. Is the 21st Phantom going to die? Do you think he should?

TD: That may be happening right now in the daily pages. Stay tuned.

CC: That’s a very vague way to answer a very important question, Tony! Would it be fair to say that the death of 21 and a succession plan to 22 is in the thinking? Surely a change in author now throws a massive spanner in the works in terms of this story arc…?

It’s obviously a divisive topic, with some readers arguing it’s long overdue, while others are adamant that they’ll walk away from The Phantom if it ever happens.

TD: All I can say is that in the weeks ahead readers will start to see what the Phantom thinks of his own chances of living much longer.

CC: How far ahead is the overall direction of The Phantom planned?

TD: Years ahead in thought and at least a year ahead on paper, scripts that are finished and just waiting for a final read and some touching up the finer points before I file them. I’ve been ahead by close to 2 years in the past.

This contract mess that led to me resigning, that burned seven months of the deadline cushion I had built up. I stopped writing last November because it was uncertain where things were going. So, where we left it, the artists still have material to work with for now but come July they’re going to be looking for new scripts. That’s cutting it close.

CC: What’s the biggest difference between writing for comics and newspaper stories?

TD: The space constraints in the newspaper are a killer. Editors want 2-panel days so the art isn’t so small you need to know quantum physics to see it. But the 2-panel days can make the sound of a flat tire in your ear: ba-bump ba-bump ba-bump.

CC: Do you have any funny or untold stories you would like to share from your 25 odd years of creating the Phantom?

TD: Well, there was the time that a colorist working for Egmont didn’t know that Al Capone was Caucasian. So we had an entire story with an African-American Al Capone on the loose. Now that I think of it, we had an African-American Lee Falk appear in the newspaper strip. Lee would have thought that was funny.

I’ll tell you a story of a screw-up in 2011 that required me to revisit the scene at length in a subsequent story to straighten things out. This was before Reed Brennan started sending me the proofs while there was still time to make changes.

It happened in the climactic scenes of Chatu’s Fate, part 5 of the Death of Diana Palmer Walker saga.

It was the thing we were building up to for almost two years and it went awry when Paul changed a few words in the dialogue. I’m sure he was sweating blood right on deadline. That’s when the craziest things can happen.

It was a couple of seemingly small changes that must have had readers wondering what the heck was going on for two days in a row. I’m only telling this because if it had happened 100 days in a row it wouldn’t begin to detract from the magnificent work Paul did for so many years, and for way less money than he was worth, and because he wouldn’t care about me telling it. It is kind of funny in hindsight. Wasn’t funny then, I can tell you.

The Phantom confronted The Python in Boomsby Prison, went there specifically to kill The Python for bombing the U.N. building in Mawitaan, disappearing Diana into Gravelines Maximum Security Prison in Rhodia, a thousand other crimes, not a nice man The Python. So for the good of the world the Phantom wanted to kill him. But, you know, that pesky Oath of the Skull…

So the Phantom needed to kill Chatu in a way that didn’t violate the code upheld by 20 Phantoms before him. The only way to do that was if the Phantom died, too, in a virtually impossible attempt to defend his own life. The Phantom knew he had to kill Chatu just as Chatu fired a fatal bullet at him. He gave Chatu one of his sidearms knowing that he, the Phantom, would likely be shot to death with it minutes later. But he was going to take out Chatu simultaneously and leave the world a safer place.

Well, the thoughts I scripted for the Phantom didn’t get in! On one of those closing days, the simple insertion of the word “is” decoupled two thoughts and made it look as if the Phantom was counting on Chatu to miss from ten feet away. And a change made the following day turned the whole scene on its head.

Instead of a hero about to give his life to kill a truly dangerous man in the only honorable way his code allowed, the Phantom’s inner dialogue made him sound like a wet noodle, mewling about how he mustn’t resort to “violence.” That was off-script by 180 degrees. The Phantom went there specifically to commit the ultimate violence. He was there to take a man’s life.

In the thoughts I had scripted he was resolute in seeing his way clear to using this ultimate violence against a foe while doing no violence whatsoever to the code he had sworn to live by. So he’s looking down the barrel of the .45 Chatu’s pointing at him, he’s waiting to see the villain squeeze the trigger so he’s justified in going for his gun and getting off a shot of his own.

The Phantom’s scripted thought was: “Live or die, I do the Phantom code no violence tonight!” The line that appeared in the strip was: “Live or die, I uphold the Phantom code! No violence tonight!”

CC: That is amazing, and explains a lot of the confusion we felt at the time! Just goes to show what a difference punctuation and a few key words can have…

It's clear that you had an enormous amount of respect for Paul. Of all the artists you have worked with in your 130+ Phantom stories, do you have a favourite?

TD: Any artist who lifts a pen to draw the world’s greatest comics character becomes great by osmosis! And then there are those who are just plain great to begin with. The energy in Graham Nolan’s art, astonishing work every time out.

I think Mike Manley will stand among the greatest as well when all’s said and done. He’s a fine artist first, so he knows the body and how it moves. You can see that immediately in his action scenes.

CC: 60 odd Egmont stories and almost 80 newspaper stories (Dailys and Sundays) makes you one of the most important Phantom creators by pure numbers, but also what you created. What do you think will be your lasting legacy to the Phantom’s community?

TD: If my run is remembered for anything I hope it’s the Phantom depicted as a fully-realized, imperfect human being, and a plot-rich environment for him to inhabit.

And the new characters I created. Every one of them opens up a whole new world. Captain Lara, the young woman in love with Rex King. Hawa and Kay in the Jungle Patrol. Interesting things were going to happen in the Himalayas with Kit’s tutor, Kyabje Dorje, and the local fascist lawman, Chief Constable Jampa.

I do regret the legal uncertainty over whether any of them can ever again appear in the strip.

So I guess that’s the other edge of the double-edged sword; I might be remembered for a cast of characters that never saw the light of day again. Here’s hoping the next writer creates a new ensemble to command the spotlight, and my characters can quietly shuffle off into obscurity with me.

CC: It seems pretty obvious that the last 7 months have been the lowlight of your time with The Phantom - but do you have a particular highlight you can share?

TD: Every story was a new highlight for me. None of them were throwaways. I never once sat down to work on a Phantom story and thought to myself, I’m tired of doing this, I’m sick of this plot, I wish this story were over and done with. It’s just such a rich universe to work in. There’s always something new to discover.

And it’s such great fun. I mean, look at the final panel in the Sunday Phantom today [4th June 2017], where Worubu points to an empty picture frame on the wall and says, “Come off it, Captain! You know the Unknown Commander better than that!” Where else can you write that line?

CC: Is this truly the end of your Phantom journey? Is the door firmly closed with KFS and the newspaper strip?

TD: From everything I know today it is. We started out at a dead end on the copyrights issue. We never got anywhere on it.

If I do any Phantom writing after this I hope it’s a movie. I wouldn’t foresee KFS having a veto if I were working with one of its licensees. But who knows?

I’m working on a film project now, chasing a deal with a director I’d dearly love to land. It’s a road movie, a love story, a family saga, a lot of things rolled into one. I’m editing my novel based on the same story. I’ve had a 140,000-word first draft sitting on the shelf for a few years now.

At the same time I have to say I’m tempted to drop it all for now and disappear on the well-traveled old Harley hog for a few months, sleep under the stars, be a free man on the Earth, maybe in the Arctic again, maybe the West.

That’s my thing, always a powerful lure, just to head out and not know where I’m going, discover it as it unfolds. Sort of like writing, actually. Solo travel on two wheels became a passion of mine after I quit newspapering in 2005 or whenever it was. Didn’t go back to work after lunch one day after 26 years, and that was that. I’m way overdue for a disappearing act. I mean besides this one.

CC: On behalf of all Phantom phans, thank you so much for 17 years of incredible stories, compelling new characters, and your faithfulness to the universe we have all come to love so much. We sincerely wish you the very best in your future endeavours, whatever direction they take you.

Do you have a final message for the millions of Phantom phans and loyal readers around the world?

TD: Yes. To please give the next writer a chance. He or she may be the best thing that ever happened to this Phantom tale we all enjoy so much.

CC: Thanks again Tony, for taking the time to talk to us and to the Phantom community.

#TonyDePaul #KingFeaturesSyndicate #LeeFalk #GrahamNolan #Semic #Egmont #UlfGranberg #PaulRyan #MikeManley

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