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?

from "The Childhood of The Phantom" - 1959

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.

"Fiery Revenge", Tony's first story for Semic, appeared in Fantomen 1993/2

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.

Savarna in "Terror Cells of New York" - Daily strip: 7 Dec 2010

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.

Eric Sahara, aka The Nomad

from "The Twins' Futures" - Daily strip: 6 Oct 2016

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.

From "The Patrolwomen" - Daily strip: 11 & 12 April 2008

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.

Chatu in "Justice for the Python" - Daily story: 30 Sept 2008

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?

"The Challenge" as published by Frew #1778 in March 2017

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.

"Patrolman X" - Daily strip: 3rd March 2015

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.

From "The Curse of Old Man Mozz" - Daily strip: 13 March 2017

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.

"The Curse of Old Man Mozz" - Daily strip: 25th April 2017

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?