Interview with Tony De Paul
Comic writer Tony De Paul tells about his relationship to our mutual hero, The Phantom
Tell a bit about yourself, your career, your hobbies, etc.
I'm a Pennsylvanian by birth, born in Philadelphia in 1954. I met the love of my life in 1972, at college. She was sitting on a stone wall reading a book. I told a buddy of mine, "See that girl over there? I'm going to marry her someday." Immediately I faced three obstacles: I didn't know her name, she already had a boyfriend, and she was a little on guard against crazy looking bearded guys. But we were married four years later and raised three lovely daughters. As for career, I was a newspaper reporter for 26 years. Now that my kids are grown I write on a freelance basis instead of sitting in a dreary newspaper cubicle every day. Truth be told, I mostly goof off and ride motorcycles.
How long have you been reading the Phantom?
Since the early 1960s. I started following the strip in my local newspaper, the Philadelphia Bulletin, as soon as I was old enough to read.
What do you think of the Phantom as a literary figure?
He's a pure archtype, the selfless hero who braves any danger to do right, and never resorts to doing wrong as a means to accomplish an objective. That's awfully old-fashioned today, but I like it. What makes the Phantom notable, of course, is the immortality myth. If Lee Falk hadn't hit on that angle, the Phantom might have faded into obscurity in the 1940s.
How did you get in touch with Ulf Granberg?
Indirectly, through an introduction from a high school pal of mine, the comics writer Chuck Dixon. I was a newspaper reporter with a family of five to support and wanted to make some extra money writing on the side. Chuck introduced me to an editor at Semic, who in turn referred me to Ulf, who became a good family friend. Chuck and I have lost touch over the years but he remains my point of origin in the business. I'm in his debt.
What made you decide to become an author of comics?
As I said, to make a little extra money doing something that's fun. Newspaper writing can make you feel old, old, old... you're always writing about something tragic or outrageous or unfortunate. Comics writing is good clean fun and there's always a hearty laugh in it.
Do you prefer contemporary or historical Phantom stories?
I lean toward the contemporary, but that presents a few writing problems of its own. In order to be fully contemporary, the Phantom should be equipped with up-to-date gear: computer, e-mail, cellphone, GPS. I'd like to do some work in that regard, bring him up to date. I suppose the charm of the historical adventures is that he can be as antiquated as the time period in which he appears. That said, I did enjoy writing an adventure in which the Phantom aids Union troops in the hunt for John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Do you have an all time favourite Phantom story?
No, but someday I'll write it!
What is the main difference between working for Egmont and working with the newspaper stories?
The space constraints in the newspaper. The daily strips are so reduced in size that two-panel strips have become the norm, and that can give a story the beat of a flat tire... ba-bump ba-bump ba-bump ba-bump... With effort, a writer can overcome that limitation, and I hope I succeed at that in general, but, oh yeah, those wide open spaces of the Egmont format are a real luxury! They can spoil a writer fast.
How much liberty do King Features give you when writing the strip?
A lot. So far, the ideas have all been my own. In some cases, editor Jay Kennedy will suggest changes, or turn down an idea entirely for one reason or another, but we generally agree on what makes a good story that remains true to the character.
How did the change of artists on the strip (From George Olesen/Keith Williams to Paul Ryan) affect your writing?
Not a bit. The writing is the writing, then my job's done and someone else takes over, I really don't care who. I write for the reader, not the artist.
The story Diana’s Crisis has been heavily debated on certain web forums. What made you start writing these stories and what do you think of the result?
The idea originated at one of the story conferences held by Egmont, and I was given the assignment. I thought it was interesting to write about Diana as a momma bear, having this primitive instinct to protect her children even from the Phantom legend, the central organizing principle of the family she married into.
Was The Phantoms of the Night originally meant to be a story separate from Diana’s Crisis?
Not sure about the original intention. That's probably a question for Ulf. The Egmont stories generally come to me as assignments. They're developed at story conferences in and around Stockholm (I've never been there but hope to, someday) and then Ulf says, "Do you think you could..." and I say, "Absolutely, when do you need it?"
Here in Scandinavia we see that the story Chamber of the Gods, which started in the dailies, now has evolved into six stories, three of which have already been published by Egmont. What inspired you to write this story, and how come Egmont chooses to produce four stories in addition to your two daily strip stories?
Ulf liked the idea and wanted to take it farther than King Features did. KFS doesn't want ideas to go on too long in the newspaper because it's harder to grab new readers if the story is always already in progress. That's why we try to have three new daily stories open up each year.
Why, do you think, is the Phantom less popular in the US these days? And do you think he will keep up in a market almost entirely ruled by humour strips?
We may be jaded about the Phantom's simplicity and purity. Anti-heros seem more realistic, perhaps, but why turn to comic strips for your daily dose of realism? You can get that everywhere else. I think it might help the strip to bring the Phantom up to date technologically. I don't think most loyal readers from decades past would object. That said, just about everyone has sporadic reading habits these days and that's tough on the continuity strips in general.
What did you think about the 1996 Phantom movie starring Billy Zane, and how do you think the Phantom should be handled in a new big screen adaptation?
Don't get me started. I hated that movie. The approach was utterly false to the character. It was Indiana Jones in purple tights, as campy as the old Batman TV series with Adam West and Burt Ward. I'll never know why they turned Guran into Kato. I hated that the Phantom's father appeared to him, and that he appeared as a decrepit old man to boot, not the 20th Phantom in his prime. I'll just say this: If I ever meet anyone who had anything to do with missing that golden opportunity to bring the real Phantom to the big screen, I am very, very likely to Slam Evil.
Did you ever meet Lee Falk?
Never had that pleasure, I'm sorry to say.
Have you considered bringing back old Lee Falk villains (i.e. General Bababu and the Singh Brotherhood) to the strip?
Not so much Bababu, I'd rather create new villains like the Wambesi terrorist Chatu, "The Python." But The Singh Brotherhood is definitely a candidate. Pirates remain a real problem in some parts of the world, and not the Johnny Depp kind, a yo ho ho and a bottle of rum...
Johnny Hotwire was voted the best story of 1996 here in Norway. Are you intending to write more stories of that kind?
Yes, I enjoy creating other personas and identities for the Phantom. He doesn't always have to go out in daylight as Walker. But the Johnny Hotwire story had a certain built-in problem. All those other greaser car thieves are what, 70 years old by now? And the Phantom is...?
Why is vengeance a popular theme in American comics?
People fantasize about vengeance when they lose faith in justice. The Phantom, as ever, is out for justice.
Will Deathgame, which started in 1996, continue or has this project stagnated?
I'd like to resurrect it. Deathgame was meant to come to a conclusion after X number of issues but it just kind of went away at X minus 1. I honestly don't know what happened. I wrote the final installment but to my knowledge it was never penciled.
Do you have anything to say to the Scandinavian fans?
Yes. Please give out my phone number to all Scandinavian women.
Thank you for your time, Tony.