The Return of the Originals: Uncovering the Phantom Detective with Aaron Shaps

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Set to explode into comic shops everywhere with the original graphic novel The Battle for LA and followed by a string of Double Shots, Moonstone Books is ramping up the action and adventure, with an expansion of their line of pulp-inspired titles under the Return of the Originals banner.

Broken Frontier spoke with writer Aaron M. Shaps as he prepares to usher The Phantom Detective into a bold new era as one of the stars of the
Return of the Originals line.

BROKEN FRONTIER: How have your past creative experiences in the industry helped inform your writing for Moonstone’s Return of the Originals line?

AARON M. SHAPS: Well, I have actually only been kicking around comics since 2005, so I am still pretty new to the game and every gig is a brand new adventure to me. I will say, though, that in general I approach everything with the same attitude: I always want my next project to be better than the last one. So anyone familiar with any of my earlier efforts will hopefully find marked improvements in every facet of my storytelling abilities when they read the Phantom Detective…and hopefully each subsequent issue will be better, more interesting, and more enjoyable than the last. 

That said, I am heavily influenced by the pulps and the pulp style of storytelling, and that is something that is readily evident, I think, in everything I have done. My all-time favorite writer and probably the single biggest influence on my style is unquestionably Edgar Rice Burroughs, whom I consider to be both the grandfather of American science fiction and the undisputed king of the pulps. The fact that I now get to—I hate to use the term re-imagine—but “re-package” one of the great pulp heroes for a modern audience is a terrific thrill and a great challenge as well. Hopefully I can rise to the occasion.

BF: For those who are unfamiliar, who is the Phantom Detective and what is his role in the Originals?

AMS: The Phantom Detective is one of the very early examples of the “super-sleuth” archetype in heroic fiction, and he was only the second costumed pulp crime fighter after The Shadow. Although Doc Savage and the Shadow tackled more cases, the Phantom Detective had a longer career: his adventures ran uninterrupted for twenty years.

The character is a citizen detective, essentially a vigilante, who works hand-in-hand with law enforcement all over the world and is widely respected by those institutions. His real identity is that of Richard Curtis Van Loan, a wealthy socialite who had grown bored with a life he believed to be without purpose. At the encouragement of his friend and mentor of sorts, a newspaper tycoon named Frank Havens, Van Loan tried his hand at sleuthing and discovered very quickly that he had finally found his calling.

In addition to being an early example of the super-sleuth, he is also an early example of the master-of-disguise archetype, and in the classic stories it was quite common for the Phantom Detective to shift identities several times within the course of a given adventure. He is a “phantom” detective because his ability to assume many identities and his propensity for working from the shadows makes him, in a sense, invisible. He is like a ghost…he could be standing next to you in a crowd, even interact with you and engage you in conversation, and you would never realize it was him.

As for his role in the Originals, in a broader sense, that’s a bit difficult to define at the moment. I think each character in the Return of the Originals line will have to organically grow into his or her place in the universe over time. There are plans for some universe-wide crossovers, but those are fairly nebulous at the moment. Obviously, I would love for PD to be the Batman of this universe, but then what role does Black Bat play? What role do the other super-sleuth nocturnal vigilantes play? A lot of the pulp characters were very similar, and that is one of the great challenges of this new effort to revive those characters: how do we make it so that this isn’t just Moonstone publishing essentially the same book with several different titles? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

BF: Will we see frequent interaction between the Phantom Detective and the rest of the Originals?

AMS: I would like to do crossovers on a relatively regular basis, but I don’t want it to be just for the sake of coolness. The way I am writing PD, it is basically a universe within this bigger Originals universe.

Think of it along the lines of Robert Kirkman’s Invincible universe, and the way that fits in with some of the other Image titles: you know they coexist, but a lot of the time it seems like Invincible takes place in a bit of a bubble. When Kirkman needs a character to fill a certain role, he creates one. That’s pretty much the approach I am taking here. PD has his own very deep bench of supporting characters, both carryovers from the original pulps and also new characters of my creation, including a number of all-new pulp-flavored heroes.

I am certainly hoping that some of these new heroes, in particular, strike a chord with the fans. Although they essentially exist to facilitate cool developments in PD’s ongoing storylines, I would love to see a few of them spin off into one-shots or the occasional back-up feature of their own.

I can tell you that I am working on a prose adventure in which PD and The Spider team-up, a horror-themed story inspired in part by Lovecraft. That should appear in the next Spider prose anthology. I’d also love to do a Domino Lady crossover.

BF: The Phantom Detective is one of those iconic characters, which have enjoyed a long, rich history. What other modern characters has he helped inspire?

AMS: Batman, certainly. PD was clearly one of the big inspirations for that character in particular. The wealthy, orphaned playboy who lives a secret life as a costumed vigilante detective…so, yeah. I mean, one of Batman’s most well-known gimmicks, the Bat Signal, is lifted directly from the early Phantom Detective stories: The Phantom Detective was summoned to help the authorities via a spotlight signal on the roof of Frank Havens’ Clarion newspaper building. It projects an image of PD’s mask into the sky above.

BF: How does your interpretation of the Phantom Detective differ from the original character?

AMS: I would say significantly, although I believe I am remaining true to the core of the character while simultaneously taking PD in a new direction.

One of the biggest problems with the original incarnation of the character is that, to be frank, he was relatively generic. There wasn’t much to separate him from the other costumed detectives, the other masters of disguise. The Shadow had cool “Eastern” tricks, the Spider had the horror elements and ultra-violence, Doc Savage had the super-science angle, etc. What did PD have? Not much. That’s the primary reason, I think, that while characters like Doc Savage and the Shadow have become permanent staples of the pop culture landscape, the Phantom Detective has been largely forgotten by all but the most diehard pulp enthusiasts.

So the first thing I thought about when Joe asked me to take charge of this character was, “How do I make him different and special?”

My stories are all set during the World War II era, so one thing I am doing is basically treating all the original Phantom Detective stories that took place before that time period as canon. Moving forward from there, I view my vision of PD not as a re-imagining, but an evolution of the original character within the context of his fictional universe. In other words, this is essentially the same PD from the original adventures, and I have not changed him: he has changed himself.  He is adapting to meet the challenges of his rapidly evolving world. And it is that world, more than anything that sets this version of the Phantom Detective apart from previous incarnations.

Just as pop culture started to move away from the pulp heroes of the 30s and transition to more superhero oriented fiction during WWII, PD’s world is moving in the same direction. WWII has caused an explosion of science and technology, and some of that is spawning new kinds of threats, and potentially new kinds of heroes. Set against this backdrop, PD is a man struggling to remain relevant, and he is willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal. I guess in a nutshell I would describe my version of PD as a man who is attempting to straddle the boundary between the pulp age and the age of the superhero. There was a period of overlap there, a decade or so, when the superhero stories were picking up steam and the pulp heroes had not yet faded away. My Phantom Detective operates in that period. But don’t think of this as a superhero series, because it is not: it is pulp noir with heavy elements of science fiction.     

BF: Why do you think it’s important for modern readers to return to the characters of the old pulp magazines and comics? How are they relevant to modern audiences?

AMS: That’s a very interesting question.

I think the pulps were the product of what was in many respects a much simpler time. In the real world, particularly in the late 30s and up through the mid 40s, the “good guys” and the “bad guys” were pretty clear-cut, and much of the most popular fiction of the time reflected that. In terms of escapism, maybe that simplicity is needed right now. Maybe it’s important for people who live in a world where everything seems to exist in one big gray area to be able to retreat into a place where things are black and white, both literally and metaphorically. Maybe the psyche needs that to decompress.

I think its nice to have the catharsis of being able to spend some time in a world where there is someone standing vigilant, perhaps hidden in the shadows, who is totally incorruptible, and who will fight until his dying breath to see that justice is done.

And that doesn’t mean a “boy scout” kind of hero. It doesn’t mean Superman. A hero can be extremely rough around the edges and still not be an anti-hero. Take Tarzan, for example, one of my personal favorites. You would not be wrong if you were to describe Tarzan as a savage and often merciless killer; in that respect, Tarzan was a product of his fictional environment. But Tarzan always does what he believes to be just and right, and he is incorruptible in his pursuits.

Tarzan is a wild animal in many respects, but he is a hero through and through. There is no gray area with him: there is right and there is wrong. I mean, how do you think Tarzan would feel about the Gulf oil spill, for example? Do you think Tarzan would give a rat’s ass if BP stock dropped because of all the bad press the company is getting? Hell no. Tarzan would take one look at the unprecedented environmental destruction we are witnessing, and Tony Hayward’s throat would be in his mouth. Brutal? Maybe. Appropriate? Probably. Cathartic? Definitely. 

BF: Who are your collaborators for The Phantom Detective?

AMS: The artist I am extremely proud to be working with is a super-talented guy named Danilo Guida.

Danilo has a really beautiful style, very clean lines, which I like, and fortunately we share many of the same influences. Before we got started, we discussed our desire to do something with PD that would be very interesting visually, particularly in the sequential stories.

We are both big fans of Steranko, both his noir stuff and his more psychedelic stuff from the 60s, so we decided to let that be the launching point for the visual style of the book. We are calling the result of our efforts “psychedelic noir”, and rest assured, this aesthetic makes sense on a number of levels with regard to the story: it doesn’t just look cool for the sake of looking cool. 

The Return of the Originals
comics are going to have a very particular aesthetic as a line: they are being published in a “two-color” format, and that doesn’t mean black and white. The first color is black, and like any modern grayscale comic, that means you can have the white of the page, the solid black of the ink, and every conceivable shade of gray; but then you add a second color into the mix, and you have every conceivable shade of that color at your disposal, too.

On Phantom Detective, Danilo and I will be working with Jason Jensen, a very talented colorist with whom I am also collaborating on Moonstone’s big Zeroids comic series, and I have already spoken with Jason about taking full advantage of this two-color format. Again, I don’t want this to be something that looks cool for the sake of looking cool. So in the first issue, red is the second color, and that makes sense given the story. In the second issue it’s blue, and in the third it’s green. And, again, this all makes sense.

And, as with the Steranko influence, nothing with the way we are using the two-color format is going to be purely aesthetic: there is a real reason for every choice we are making and every new technique we are going to try.

Visually, I am very excited about the Phantom Detective. I really hope at the end of the day that even if we ultimately fail, the readers will look at this and say, “Wow, these three guys tried some really crazy stuff here!”     

BF: Where and when can fans expect to see the Phantom Detective's adventures?

AMS: In addition to being a regular feature in Moonstone’s upcoming pulp magazine, which will feature various stories in their wide-vision format of illustrated prose, PD is starring in his own ongoing comic series, titled The Phantom Detective: Double Shot…“double shot” because each issue will also feature a bonus story starring another of the pulp characters in the Return of the Originals line. I believe the first issue of the comic hits the shelves in October, just in time for Halloween, which is appropriate given the content of the first arc.

For more information on the Return of the Originals line check out the Moonstone website.


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