THE SKULL RING he wears on his five-knuckled sleep aid has indelibly marked many an evildoer since 1936. But we bid farewell now to the Ghost Who Walks, Man Who Cannot Die, Guardian of the Eastern Dark, defender of the innocent, and the weak.
On May 17, a disagreement over movie rights ended my run as successor to the great Lee Falk, the Phantom’s creator and first writer. The issue was whether companies licensed by Hearst/King Features Syndicate can use my stories and characters in a Phantom movie.
Without a deal they can’t. That’s the position I took.
This is Lee Falk as a young man. He wrote the strip every day of the week for 63 years, which kind of puts my 17-year run in perspective. He kept pace with the times without sacrificing the genius of the original.
I did my best to emulate Falk when it was my turn to both advance and safeguard the legacy. Whenever I created a new place, a new character, one with a recurring reason to inhabit the Phantom universe, my first thought was: What do I know from Falk’s run that can inform where I’m taking his creation today?
Falk produced and directed stage plays most of his career, but never lost his passion for writing the Phantom and Mandrake the Magician, his other notable creation from the golden age of newspaper comics. I’ve written a few crossovers, had Mandrake and the characters in his universe—Narda, Lothar, Hojo—appear in the Phantom strip. Great fun! Readers loved it.
This is Falk in his later years. The old gent wrote the Phantom from 1936 right up to his death in 1999.
Hearst, the publishing and broadcasting empire handed down from Citizen Kane himself, owns the Phantom. In picking up where Falk left off, I worked with editorial people at two Hearst subsidiaries, King Features Syndicate in New York and Reed Brennan Media Associates in Orlando.
I have nothing but good to say about the people I worked with. My beef was with the corporate side in the posh glass tower.
The mother ship in midtown Manhattan, West 57th Street and Eighth Avenue, just south of Central Park.
When Falk died, Hearst/KFS held tryouts for a couple of us who were writing 30-page Phantom yarns for Fantomen, a Swedish comic licensed by KFS. By the summer of 2000, KFS had made its choice: I had the job writing the Phantom for newspaper syndication around the world.
My assignment was to create five stories a year, more or less. Standard lengths are 18 weeks daily, 26 weeks Sunday. They can run longer, shorter, whatever it takes to tell the tale, but figure roughly three stories a year for the daily papers, two for Sunday papers.
Writing for comics is a lot like writing for film. You’ve seen movie storyboards. In comics, you’re basically doing the same thing, stringing together snapshots of a story, panel by panel, advancing a narrative, creating continuity, dialogue, art direction when there’s a reason for it (usually to avoid getting tripped up on continuity issues that lie ahead).
Comics may look like a few words on a page, but it takes a fair amount of information to get them there. I think I probably wrote 5,500 pages of script over the years. The script for my current daily story is 100 pages. It describes 425 panels in sequence, published 2 or 3 panels a day for 28 weeks.
Between the overseas books I started writing in 1990 and the newspaper strips in ’99, I’ve worked with maybe two dozen artists around the world. Every one is different, different temperament, some will wow you every time, some need their hand held. The best ones, you mostly just leave them alone. All they need to know from the writer is where the characters are in a given panel, what they’re doing, what that setting is like, time of day, what the characters say, what they know, and what they think and feel about what they know.
I never had a contract to write the Phantom for the newspapers. There was never a mention of one when I started. Some years later I find out that everyone else who writes for Hearst/KFS is under contract and on the monthly payroll. My first editor set me up on my own unique arrangement. He told me to start cranking out stories and get the Phantom ahead of deadlines by two years. I’d be paid four, five, six times a year, depending on when I filed copy. He told me to invoice the company as needed and keep the stories coming. So that’s what I did.
It went without a hitch until this past November, when the company kicked back one of my invoices and said I needed to be under contract and on the monthly payroll before I could write another story.
I have a theory about that: I think it had something to do with Hearst/KFS licensing a production company to make a Phantom movie. Maybe these guys, maybe someone else. I’ve tried to get details, names, a look at the script. No dice.
As I say, just a theory, but I suspect that someone in Hollywood or New York realized over the winter that under federal copyright law my non-contract status amounts to a potential break in the chain of title to Lee Falk’s Phantom. In other words, Hearst/KFS sold movie rights that belong, in part, to me.
Who’s this guy writing the Phantom for the last 17 years? Are you sure we have the movie rights to everything he’s written?
Hell, no, Moe. If Phantom characters or narratives I created appear in your movie, I expect to be paid.
After World War II, the Phantom started appearing on tribal war shields in Papua New Guinea. You can see an interesting collection of them here.
If a Phantom movie uses characters or storylines I created, I’m not certain why it would so offend Hearst/KFS if I were paid for that.
The company sought to avoid this nightmare scenario by time-traveling back to 1999 for a do-over. They wanted me to agree to a fiction: to say I was a work-for-hire writer the whole time. That was just plain weird; as if I had done something dishonest, tricked them into waiting 17 years to put a contract in front of me.
Work-for-hire means the company owns the rights to everything you produce, as if you’re an employee drawing a paycheck (which you’re not), sitting at their desk (you’re not), using their computer (not), their electricity (nope), covered by their health plan (ha!) their Social Security contributions (dream on), eligible for unemployment benefits if the work runs out (what are you smoking there, son?)
My lawyer in New York, Eric Rayman, told Hearst/KFS that retroactive work-for-hire is simply not contemplated in the text of the law. Work-for-hire requires a signed contract before the work begins. That’s all there is to it.
The company kept trying different word games to achieve a de facto retroactivity. (Pretty impressive how I can talk all that legal talk myself now, isn’t it? ipso facto, bingo bango, you name it.)
At a certain point I realized we were just burning the time my editor would need to find a new writer before deadlines are upon her. So on May 17, I resigned in a letter to Evelyn Smith, my editor at Hearst/Reed Brennan.
The final days of my current daily and Sunday stories will be published in the fall.
A point about new characters before I close, how they weave in and out of these narratives and become an integral part of the whole: Movie options on comic strips typically list all the characters the production company can use. I’m guessing that whoever bought the Phantom option is looking at a list of the many I created: good guys like Babudan, Hawa Aguda and Kay Molloy; villains like The Python and The Nomad; and in the antihero class, one of my favorites, the deadly but fetching Captain Savarna, a pirate hunter from India.
Savarna roams the seas alone on an automated freighter with hidden gunboat capabilities. Her family was wiped out by pirates, so she and the 1st Phantom have that in common.
Here’s how the late Paul Ryan drew Savarna. She just destroyed a pirate speedboat not knowing it was the Phantom at the helm. He’d already dealt with the original occupants.
Savarna won’t recognize him in Phantom guise. From previous adventures, she knows him only as “Walker,” his street persona.
In a later adventure, Savarna helped the Phantom get his wife, Diana, out of Gravelines Prison in Rhodia, the fascist state bordering Bangalla. That took character, given that what Savarna would really like to do is elbow Diana out of the picture and have the Phantom to herself.
Jailing Diana was the work of a madman I created, Chatu, aka, The Python. At the time, Chatu was running his terror network out of a cell in a different lock up, Boomsby Prison in Bangalla. You following all this?
Savarna shelled Gravelines from offshore, to help the Phantom (he’s wearing a guard’s uniform) get Diana out and safely across the Rhodian frontier.
Next up, Terry Beatty’s interpretation of Savarna, from a subsequent adventure in the Sunday papers.
The Rhodian junta sank Savarna’s ship as payback for high explosives raining down on Gravelines. (Note how the Sundays are written so they make sense without the top row. Some newspapers publish only the bottom two-thirds of the art you see here.)
When the Phantom gets to Rhodia to confront the naval officers who ordered the attack, he finds Savarna there, hunting and assassinating those same men.
Who knows where the adventure goes next? The Phantom universe is diminished without Savarna, one of many new characters who came to life on my watch.
Anyway, now you know: If you ever see Savarna in a Phantom movie, that writer didn’t create her. I did.
Speaking of Phantom movies, the 1996 outing was a disappointment from my POV. Some people love it. It’s harmless good fun but pure cheese from the get-go. A campy little romp aimed at 6-year-olds. Indiana Jones in purple tights (written by the Indiana Jones writer, the late Jeffrey Boam).
Billy Zane did a wonderful job as the Phantom, given the production design and script he had. But I’d love to see the Phantom rebooted on the big screen with an entirely different headspace behind it. A dark tale. The Phantom as a night creature, at home in the shadows. But with that bright and sound psychology Falk gave him. Not just another comics cliché, as in the haunted Batman, the deranged Punisher.
I hope the producers who bought the option can succeed, despite that no one at Hearst/KFS thought of steering the screenwriting work my way.
Steering’s not the right word, they can’t tell the production company who to hire. But, c’mon, it wouldn’t have cost a dime to give me a friendly heads-up on the deal so I could make a pitch for the work. The company got 17 years of professional writing services at fanboy prices, resold my stories around the world without ever throwing a buck my way. Mention me to your movie people, fer crying out loud.
I was unhappy for, oh, 60 seconds. Because I know this drill. From 26 years in newspapers I know that the workaday ox treading out the daily bread is taken for granted and rarely seen as potentially more. Maybe that’s true of business in general, you tell me. All I know is media, short on imagination, long on inertia. Someone in management checks a box on a checklist and that’s you, function covered.
Okay, but to have another go at everybody getting what they want, my lawyer proposes a counter offer that makes it easy for the company to say yes. He was concerned it might be too easy.
We tell them I’ll sign over all rights to my Phantom stories and characters for token money, a few grand to help with the costs of negotiating a deal. But in return I want to see money down the road if the movie ever gets made and is derived from rights I currently hold. We cap it at $20,000, pocket change in movie terms. And I’m last in line for chow. I won’t see a dollar until the company has made quite a haul for itself.
Not a chance, came the reply. If I want to keep writing the Phantom I have to sign away my intellectual property with no strings attached. I’m to have no expectation of ever being acknowledged or rewarded if other people make money off my work.
That’s when I knew the other side was locked-in and determined to miscalculate. The outcome it was intent on achieving—me handing over my rights for free—had nothing to do with how badly I wanted to keep writing the Phantom. I could want to keep writing but simply choose not to.
So that’s what I did.
It’s never easy to walk away from work you love, but if you need to trade your self-respect to keep it—walk away.
A few days after I resigned, I got word that readers of Fantomet magazine in Norway had voted one of my Hearst/KFS stories the best Phantom yarn of 2016. It was a two-parter that ran for 36 weeks in the newspapers, then the company sold it to the Norwegians for republication there.
Ironic timing, to be sure, but what fun to get a good word from the readers! That’s who I’ve really been writing for all along.
I gave up work I enjoyed but I’m a happy man, like this guy. It was my honor and privilege to carry on the legacy of a classic adventure strip loved around the world: 64 original stories in the overseas books, 76 stories syndicated in newspapers, published online, republished everywhere.
It all started circa 1959, when America liked Ike. I was vaguely aware of his mug on the front page, but the Phantom, way inside the paper, was the one and only reason this grubby little street kid snatched the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin off the front steps. What great fun, in that concrete-and-asphalt world, to spread out the paper on the living room floor and imagine adventures in a jungle over the far horizon.
Who could have predicted that one day I’d write the great Lee Falk’s Phantom for a worldwide audience? No wizard I know.
Tony DePaul, May 31, 2017, Cranston, Rhode Island, USA