Along with Team Fantomen (Sweden), Fratelli Spada (Italy) and RGE (Brazil), Germany also created their own stories back in the 1970s and 1980s.
Not much however is known about them with English readers only seeing one story translated and a handful of others have ever been published outside the Bastei comic.
However thanks to some clever research by certain phans, we have found out that one writer Peter Mennigen wrote majority (if not all) of the nearly 250 stories published by Bastei.
This puts him in the same category as Lee Falk who wrote around 350 Phantom stories and Claes Reimerthi who is just under 300 Phantom stories as the most prolific Phantom creators.
We are lucky enough for Peter who still writes comic stories to take some time out of his schedule to answer some questions we have about The Phantom, Bastei and the character in Germany.
Chronicle Chamber: First of thank you for your time. Can we start off with you telling us a bit about yourself? What country and region are you from?
Peter Mennigen: I am from Germany and grew up near Bonn, the former capital. After completing my art studies, I worked as an author. At first I wrote comic series for the Bastei Publishing House, then other publishers like Egmont and Panini.
I also wrote books, audio plays and scripts for television series freelance at the same time.
CC: How did you become a writer? Did you study journalism or some other related degree?
PM: I neither studied German literature nor journalism - I am a self taught writer.
Because I read comics passionately from an early age, I probably internalised what a comic story should look like. I originally didn't want to be an author. After completing my studies in the summer of 1977, I applied to the Kauka Publishing House with my self drawn comics.
Kauka was at that time the only publisher in Germany who produced comics. However, all of the Kauka stories were drawn in studios abroad, mostly in Italy and Spain. Because of this, there was no need for other artists and my application was rejected. Fortunately the editor-in-chief liked my stories and offered me a job as a comic book author.
Around the same time, the Bastei Publishing House was looking for authors to continue comic series that the publisher had previously published including licenses like: Bessy, Silberpfeil, Lasso and of course The Phantom among others.
Since most of these comics were published weekly, the stock of stories that had already been produced quickly run out. This meant either the publisher stopped the series or produced their own stories. Luckily the editorial team decided on the second option. I wrote my first scripts in the fall of 1977 for the weekly series titled Gespenster Geschichten.
I then took over more and more comic book series as a writer which included the stories for The Phantom.
CC: I know it is over 40 years now, but could you go into more on how you picked up the role of Phantom writer for the Bastei Publishing House?
PM: I can still remember a visit to the Bastei Publishing House in late 1977 or early 1978. When i left the publishing house the editor-in-chief came running after me. We sat down at a table in the reception area. He showed me some of the large over sized format Phantom magazines. Each issue contained two Phantom stories, a longer story and a second shorter second story with an average length of about 15 pages.
The editor of Bastei explained that they wanted to produce these short stories themselves. So he asked me if I could write these shorter 15 page stories. When I got home, I started writing some story plots for The Phantom, sent them to Bastei for checking and I soon got the job.
I wrote each of the shorter stories for the large over sized format Phantoms magazines until the last issue #238 in the summer of 1983.
From 1980 to the end of 1984 I also iwrote the stories for the 25 Phantom paperbacks. Plus another 49 issues between 1980 and 1982 which was a four color series in the normal comic book format called Phantom Spezial.
CC: Is there anyone in particular who has inspired you and influenced your work?
PM: There are many comic book authors who have inspired and still influence me today. In the beginning it was Stan Lee, Jean-Michel Charlier and the German comic author and artist Helmut Nickel. Today I also admire stories by Peter David, J.M. Straczynski and Jason Aaron with their wonderful balance between humor and suspense. I'm also a big fan of Ed Brubaker.
CC: Are you glad you made the switch to writing instead of your original dream being a comic book artist?
PM: It was born out of necessity. After the dream was burst in retrospect, that was the way to go. As an artist, I probably wouldn't have had the same success as I have had as an author. That is life, sometimes failed plans means destiny wants to steer you in another and often the right direction.
CC: Did you like working on the Phantom?
PM: Writing Phantom stories has always been a privilege for me. When I started working at Bastei I would never have dared to dream of writing stories for a series with such a historical background. As a child, I had already read Lee Falk’s stories with enthusiasm.
CC: Did you know of the Phantom before you started work on those stories? Did you ever read the character prior?
PM: As a reader, I had known of The Phantom since I was a child in the mid 1950s. In Germany, The Phantom comics appeared in comics together with other cartoon and adventure series in a regular magazine along with some stand alone comic books.
CC: Some readers may also be confused why the stories were published in black, white and red. Do you have any insight into why?
PM: Most likely for cost reasons.
I am only guessing but since The Phantom newspaper strips were all in black and white, the publisher wanted to save on expensive colouring, along with the expensive printing films and four colour printing. The red coloring was probably a compromise.
(Editors Note: It must be noted that not all stories were printed in black, white and red. Attached in this article are some examples of full colour.)
CC: You wrote over 240 stories (224 published and some more unpublished) which makes you one of the most prolific Phantom writers. First of all congratulations and thank you for your work but secondly, do you have any specific stories that are special to you?
PM: I can only remember very few comic book stories that I have written. This applies not only to The Phantom, but also to all other comic series I have written over the years.
While it has been a lot of years since I've written most of them. At Bastei I wasn't just the author of The Phantom. I also wrote several weekly, bi-weekly and monthly comic book series for other characters and titles such as Lasso, Bessy and Silberpfeil to name just a few.
I was not afforded the luxury to memorise all the scripts. After I completed a script, I immediately erased its content from my memory to devote myself entirely to the next story I had to write.
CC: We are led to believe there are several previously unpublished Bastei Phantom stories. Do you know if they still exist now?
PM: That is correct! This happened because of the cycle of stories.
For example when a comic book was released, the following three or four comic books of the series was already in different phases of production. The artwork for the second issue was already completed and was waiting to go to print. The third comic was still in the drawing studio, but was almost finished except likely the speech bubbles which was the last stage. The fourth issue was also normally at the studio and in layout stage.
In addition also some of my Phantom plots and full scripts were waiting for their approval by the Bastei editorial office. I say all that because there was certainly a whole bunch of Phantom stories that were not published.
Ironically, last year I was sent one of my unpublished Phantom scripts and was asked to modify it and turn it into a prose version. This year the story will appear in a Phantom special edition.
CC: Oh wow! Please let us know when that becomes available so we can inform the Phantom phans.
PM: Of course.
CC: Can you tell us why the stories were never published?
My stories and the artwork either stayed in the studios or was stored in the archives at they canceled with advanced warning and you can plan on not creating any new stories. I only know one comic book series where that has happened throughout my time in the fields.
My stories and the artwork either stayed in the studios or was stored in the archive at Bastei when the series was cancelled. I expect majority is lost forever though as Bastei Publishing House moved locations in 2009 and I suspect it was thrown in the garbage.
CC: For the average Frew (Australian) reader there has only been one Bastei story published in English. Do you have any specific stories that you would recommend phans hunt down and read?
PM: Unfortunately no. I cannot name any special titles, especially since there have been no new comics of The Phantom in Germany in recent years. I can recommend the oversized Bastei magazines, they are a treasure trove for every fan because of the great mix of newspaper strips, my Bastei stories and the stories from Sweden which we published some off.
CC: On the comics, they were price-marked on the cover for distribution in West Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland. Do you know if they made it into those countries and regions?
PM: Bastei had a phase distribution plan. In the first phase a comic book was published in the north of Germany, in the second phase in the south of Germany. In the third phase, any remaining issues were then sold in German speaking countries such as Austria and Switzerland.
The left over comics afterwards were then delivered to the tourist strongholds of Spain, Italy and other countries where Germans vacated. In theory it meant the local Germans who brought the comic, did not have to miss out while traveling. So the shops outside Germany did not had to convert the German comic book price, the price was printed on the cover in the relevant national currencies.
CC: Do you know how many issues sold on average?
PM: No, the sales figures were kept secret by the publishing house. But compared to today's sales figures, the sales figures for The Phantom were certainly a lot higher than most comic book series.
During the 1970's and 1980's if a comic series at Bastei Publishing House had a sales run of 50,000 issues it was at risk of adjustment or cancellation. Today, a comic series with 50,000 issues would be described as a bestseller in Germany. How times have changed.
CC: We believe there was also a Phantom club. Do you have any information on that?
PM: At that time there were a number of Bastei clubs for almost each published comic series. Cut out club ID cards were printed and enclosed on selective Phantom comics. However, it was primarily up to the fans to organize the clubs activities. No one from the publishing house organised anything.
(Editors Note: Attached is a gallery of the Club ID cut out, the instructions for the club along and an example of a Club sticker. The stickers can be found on eBay at times.)
CC: One of the most obvious differences between Bastei and Falk stories is that the Phantom in your stories is the 15th in line and not the 21st. Do you know how that came about?
PM: I don’t know where the information comes from that the Phantom in my stories was said to be the 15th instead of the 21st. I never received any documentation or a set of 'rules' from the editors like what number the Phantom was.
If this appears in the text of a comic, somewhere in the magazine section or in the editorial of the magazine, the text would have been added or edited by the editor and not me.
CC: Another big difference is that the Phantom rarely wore his Mr Walker alias outfit to hide his identity when in public. Could you explain the reasoning behind that for us?
PM: Good question. Some Mr. Walker illustrations in which he still wore a hat and coat over his phantom costume didn't really hide his identity and I was disappointed in them. They didn’t convince me and his appearances in the costume seems to be cooler than those in the Mr Walker outfit.
While I made the creator freedom to remove that back then, if I was to write another Phantom story again today, I would definitely interpret it differently and implement him wearing his Mr Walker alias.
CC: Did you create stand alone adventures or were they part of an ongoing serialised adventure?
PM: I did not receive many guidelines from Bastei except one. All comics were not allowed to be sequels or serialised and had to be stand alone adventures. Each comic book had to contain a completed story. When purchasing the comic book, readers should know that they did not need to spend money on a sequel to know how the story will end.
CC: In the stories Guran was a lot skinnier in some stories? Was that just an artistic license issue or was it part of the style guide for your stories?
PM: There was no such think as a style guide for the drawing studios. So Guran's different presentation was pure coincidence. It was up to each artist and art studio on how he graphically presented the characters. They only had to remain recognizable which was kept an eye on with the Bastei editors. I am sure there would be other differences as well.
CC: How much time did you spend on writing a story? It seems like you must have written new Phantom stories almost weekly, and that was in addition to writing several other comics at the same time.
PM: Taking into account how many Phantom comics were released at the same time with the "oversized Phantom magazine" published monthly. The "Phantom Spezial" released partly weekly and partly bi-weekly and from what I remember, the paperbacks with multiple comics appeared every two months.
I would have had to be creating one and a half to two Phantom stories every week. Since I was also writing other series at the time, I had to work to a precise strict schedule.
My average day would have looked like: 6am my working day started by writing plots. I usually came up with three or four story plots by noon and then sent them to the publisher. I received the edits and suggestions back from the publishing house a few days later. Mostly they were provided with small comments or requests for changes.
During the next step I worked out each story as a script with detailed picture descriptions for the artist. I always reserved the afternoons until late evening for that. It would take me about thirty minutes per page. Because of the many series I was forced to work through weekends and public holidays.
To return to the question, depending on the length, it would usually take me a day or two to create a Phantom story from the idea, to the plot, to the finished script.
CC: Wow that is simply amazing how quickly you worked through the stories! You are probably one of Germany's most productive comics writers, and you have worked on lots of your own creator properties and other licensed properties. How highly do you rank your Phantom work among your work?
PM: The Phantom is very high on my list for obvious reasons. If someone asks me today to name the most prestigious comics I have been allowed to write on (apart from my own) my top six would be: Lucky Luke, The Phantom, Prinz Eisenherz (Prince Valiant), Manos der Dämonenjäger, Bessy and Silberpfeil.
CC: A lot of stories (Newspapers, Spada, Charlton & Team Fantomen) published by Bastei were heavily edited. Were you involved with any of the editing? Was there a reason behind it? Was it to fit in with your universe better?
PM: I was not involved in the editorial work (including cutting and removal of the panels). I guess the main reason was that a comic book was not allowed to exceed a certain number of pages so that the length of the story was adjusted to fit the comic.
CC: Do you have ideas that would be suitable for more Phantom stories if you get the opportunity?
PM: As far as I remember there was no female phantom in my stories. In retrospect, I very much regret that and would correct it if I had the opportunity. I would occasionally involve the Phantom in actual historical events too. I would also perhaps focus more on the mystical aspect of the character.
As mentioned briefly earlier, maybe a Mr Walker story were he stays in costume and set in a film noir style would be interesting.
Another idea would be of a descendant who refused to accept the Phantom's legacy and preferred to have fun as a student in England.
A lot has changed since I wrote The Phantom forty odd years ago. The comics are no longer as simple and innocent as they were then. In order to reach a modern readership, the stories have to be told differently, but on the other hand they should remain true to The Phantom lore.
Just like with James Bond, the success of the series is based on the fact that each Bond was adapted to the respective era but still remained true to itself. In terms of content, the stories of Sean Connery and Daniel Craig are not all that different, only the way they are told is completely different.
Lastly I also think (and hope) that I have developed more as a writer since the 1980s. I know I definitely take a lot more time writing my stories than what I did in the past.
CC: Have you any thoughts on the other created stories from around the world?
PM: Bastei published the comic strips from the United States, but also increasingly the stories produced in Sweden by Team Fantomen. I very much enjoyed the Swedish stories & think they were very well done.
Thanks to the internet, I am able to research the artists behind the modern Team Fantomen stories. César Spadari for example did great artwork, Angelo R. Todaro and Joan Boix are also excellent and have enjoyed their work. Many of the Swedish creators that I cannot name I have also enjoyed looking at their art.
CC: You are currently writing the successful graphic novel series Malcolm Max, which is set in Victoria London. This series includes cameos by other literary characters, i.e. Sherlock Holmes. Could a mysterious “Mr Walker” one day make a cameo appearance in a Malcolm Max story?
PM: A crossover of The Phantom and Malcolm Max would certainly be interesting however legally it is like walking on thin ice with licenses.
I am safe using historical figures like Queen Victoria into the comic. A character like Sherlock Holmes is more difficult because of the license, I end up writing about a detective at 221B Baker Street but never mention Holmes by name.
CC: If people want to learn more about yourself, they can go to the Phantom wiki but do you have any other places on the Internet they can visit?
PM: I´m posting news about my current work and things from my past as a (comic book) author on Facebook and Instagram. In addition, a comic portal (Comic.de) regularly publishes articles about my work as a comic book author.
CC: We thank you for your extensive time in this interview and your imprint you left on our hero.
PM: Pleasure was all mine. Keep up the great work!