Thursday, February 27, 2014

Master Magicians and Phantoms: An Interview with Lee Falk, Part III

We go back again to 1996, when your correspondent interviewed creator Lee Falk (1911-1999), the man behind The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician.

Would you say that there is some kind of inherent difference between comic strips and comic books?

Yes. For one thing, there was self-censorship, which we picked up years ago. The violence we eliminated pretty much ourselves. These days the adventure strip is pretty much gone, there's not much left. Flash Gordon, unfortunately, has a very slim readership, even though it's beautifully drawn by John Cullen Murphy. Of course, Alex Raymond was one of the very best in the field. Prince Valiant has a limited circulation, but still fabulously drawn. There are very few of them in newspapers still, but they never had that kind of violence in them. It was a rich field with great stuff like Smilin' Jack, and Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon.

I think that, if I can interject for a moment, that the real difference between the comic strip and comic books is that strips are more a more literary medium than comic books. Particularly in work like yours, there was a greater depth and development of characters. Strips were actually more adult than comic books are now.

I write for adults. I always have. I figured that the kids would read it, too, which they have. I was over in Scandinavia for The Phantom Fan Club. They told me that the club was the biggest youth movement in the country, bigger than the Boy Scouts! They had a 140,000 member in The Phantom Fan Club. But these are mostly children to young men and women, some kids, too. I understand that the King of Sweden was a member when he was boy.

I don't want to knock other people's work, though. There are a lot of great people working in comics now. I've always admired Stan Lee's work, and I don't think he ever got too violent.

Could you tell us about The Phantom novels you wrote a few years ago?

Yes. We did about 15 of them in the 1970s. They wanted me to do a novelization of my strip every two months! At that time, I was not only doing both of my strips, but I was very active in the theater. I had five of my own theaters, some of them with stock companies, and I was writing and directing plays. I've had a whole life in the theater independent of comic strips, and I told them I could only do the first one. I took one of my stories, and wrote about The Phantom's trip to Missouri as a boy to become educated, I think he was the 21st generation, and how he had to return to the jungle to take over as The Phantom.

That was number one. Then they got some other writers, and I gave them proofs of my original stories with outlines, and they wrote some of them up. Every six months I would do one, myself. So in the course of a few years, I did five of them. I'm rather proud of them, worked hard on them, and think they're rather good.

The others, I was very disappointed in them. I gave them the stories, but I think they did a hack job, and knocked them out. I told them to take my name off them, and just put based on my strip. Put their name on it. If it's good, I want the credit. But if it's lousy and I didn't do it, I don't want it.

Killer's Town was one of them, and I thought that was pretty good.

What can you tell us about your Mandrake the Magician and Phantom musicals?

That was good! A couple of young guys in Stockholm, Sweden, wrote me and asked permission to do a Phantom musical. I told them it had to stay over there, because there was always talk of doing something with the property over here. I went to see it, and the guy who wrote the music also played the Phantom. It was their equivalent of Off-Broadway. Pretty good, though it was in Swedish, of course. It had one number called The Bronx Blues, also in Swedish! It wasn't bad!

The Mandrake musical, I wrote the book for that. George Quincy did the music, and his wife did the lyrics. That was produced up in Massachusetts. The theater was quite nice, and the fellow who played Mandrake was very good. A producer took a Broadway option on it; he was a big industrialist who wanted to do a Broadway show. He left, trying to raise money. But it turns out the King Features, without my knowing, sold the option to someone who wanted the movie rights. The industrialist couldn't raise the Broadway money without movie rights in the package, and the film fell through too.

The score still exists, and it may be done some day.

What about working with Wilson McCoy and Ray Moore on The Phantom? How was that?

Well, Moore, as I told you, was inking Mandrake. When The Phantom took off, I knew one man just couldn't do all this work. It's illustration. It's not like Chick Young who could do all his stuff on a Monday morning, before going off for golf, which is what he did on Blondie. You can cartoon very quickly, but you can't do that on adventure strips, they're illustration and take time.

Ray Moore came onto The Phantom, and when World War II came, went into the Air Corps. Wilson McCoy, who was an artist who did work for advertising companies, and a pal of Ray Moore's, took over when Ray was gone. When Ray came back, he was slightly debilitated. He said he was hit by a propeller, but I think he actually got into a fight and was hit in the head with a monkey wrench. It left him with a nervous disorder, and one side of his face was paralyzed. Anyhow, his hands were shaking, but I still kept him on the payroll for a long time, and continued until he died.

I was grateful to McCoy because I had joined the Army, and had done all of scripts ahead of time, so I didn't have to worry about that. I never liked McCoy's work too much, because he started out copying Moore exactly, which was good, but then he got into his own style which was more simplistic. I know in Europe they enjoy his work more, but I didn't care for it at all, actually.

How would you explain the overwhelming popularity of Mandrake and The Phantom abroad?

They're very popular in Mexico, South America, Argentina, and Brazil. I've been to these places and spoke to the people, talked at press conferences, and all that. In Barcelona, they started publishing a complete works of The Phantom, and he got out about six big volumes of comic books before he went bankrupt, publishing them in Spain and Portugal.

For a number of years, they published in Stockholm a Phantom magazine. They kept redoing my stories. In a one magazine, they could run a story that would take three or four months in the newspapers. They'd just chop it down and cut out the necessary repetitions that are in a daily strip.  So they asked if they could occasionally publish some of their own, which we granted. So they have a very good group of artists, from all over the world, doing their own stories of The Phantom, along with reprinting my original work. It has just grown into an industry, it's huge!

The Phantom is popular almost everywhere. In Scandinavia, it's amazing. There's a complete saturation in all the newspapers. Last time I was there, they had Batman, Superman, all the rest. But they told me that The Phantom outsells all the others, combined. Isn't that something?

Another story, somewhat painful, was during War, as people of my generation call World War II.  Norway was under Nazi occupation, a very cruel occupation. They controlled the newspapers, and put out misinformation like Washington bombed, New York bombed, America was crumbling, that sort of thing. It turns out that during this time The Phantom was appearing everyday, including Sunday, in Norwegian papers. And the Nazis did not change the text. The Phantom had not run in Germany, and they did not know him, but the Norwegians did.

Now the following is true, I had a Norwegian publisher who I met after the War come up to me, embrace me, and tell me the story. During the first two years of the War, I was in the Office of War Information, and still writing the strip. It turns out that this whole time The Phantom was being smuggled into Norway, and published in Norwegian, and that it raised the morale factor enormously. The Norwegians figured that if I was still at home, managing to put out The Phantom, that things could not be that bad in America! It was a big joke on the Nazis. But more than that, “The Phantom” became the password for the Swedish-Norwegian underground. I always liked that. Just about a year ago, oddly enough, I was at a dinner table with some other people, among them a woman who had just come from Norway that summer. She said that her brother, who was part of the Norwegian underground, took her out to the barn to show her a radio hidden under the straw, where during the war he would broadcast to the states as The Phantom. When she told me, I was so amazed -- that not only that it mattered then, but that people still had memories of what he meant to them then.

But both of these characters loom very large in the history of comics.

Well, especially The Phantom.  In some places The Phantom's Oath, The Oath of the Skull, where he says he devotes his life to destroying piracy, which stands for all kinds of criminality, cruelty, and injustice, is no laughing matter. Now in those places of the world where there is cruelty, where there is no justice, he has had quite an impact. Some places, like Haiti, for one, there was a rebel movement, a revolution under Papa Doc. After the big parade after the Lenten mass, young officers were coming out in Phantom costumes! The thing fell apart, and they were caught as it happened, but I was told about it by someone who managed to get out of Haiti. So in many places, they take The Phantom Oath very seriously, and it gives the strip another dimension that other strips simply don’t have.

That must be very satisfying to you as well.

It certainly is! You asked me why it’s so popular -- I don’t know, but fortunately it remains that way, or I’d have to go to work!

More Lee Falk tomorrow!

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