Unmasking the Phantom with Martin Powell

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Last Month, Broken Frontier had the opportunity to speak with Martin Powell about The Spider and his role in Moonstone Books Return of the Originals event. Although the ultra-violent Richard Wentworth is a character he loves dearly, Powell reveals an even deeper feeling of awe and respect for the Ghost Who Walks, Kit Walker.

This summer, Powell was tapped to pen Moonstone Books' last Phantom comic book story, before Dynamite Entertainment takes over the license. We spoke with him about the enduring legacy of Lee Falk’s classic adventure hero and the importance of bringing closure to the character’s tenure at Moonstone.

BROKEN FRONTIER: In our correspondence leading up to this interview, you mentioned the Phantom was your favorite comic book hero and I couldn’t agree with you more. What is it about a masked man dressed in purple, fighting evil from his base in the jungle that we find so captivating?

MP: For me, the main attraction to the Phantom is that he has remained the same pristine adventure hero since Lee Falk created the character over 70 years ago.  One of the Phantom’s greatest strengths has always been that he is, in fact, unchanging.  That’s a huge part of his mythology.  So, the Ghost Who Walks is the same today as he was when I first saw his comics many years ago, just as he was for generations before me.  I think that is a major plus which comic book fans rarely get to see in this cynical modern age of constant revivals and reboots.

BF: When did you first encounter the Phantom?

MP: Seems like I’ve known him all my life.  The Phantom is one of those rare characters like Superman, or Popeye the Sailor, who always seems to have existed.  My older brothers were both avid comic book readers with stacks and stacks of old comics around the house, so I caught the bug from them even before I could read. 

I was about five years old when I first saw the Phantom, and I was probably drawn to him because he looked cool, had a wolf for a partner, rode a horse, and used guns.  I thought he was even cooler than Batman.  When I asked my brothers who he was, their answer confused me a little.  The Phantom?  Like “Phantom of the Opera?”  "No," they said, this was a different Phantom who fights bad guys. 

How could any boy resist that?  Years later while I was painfully battling the noxious monotony of high school, I discovered the Avon prose adventure novels and the Phantom walked into my life again.  Once more I felt myself drawn into the Phantom’s world, and this time it was forever.  I loved those books and I still have them here on my shelves.

BF: How did you become the last man to write the Phantom in comic book form for Moonstone Books?

MP: Well, I’m not exactly sure.  It just sort of happened.  This kind of unexpected opportunity has been eerily common throughout my career.  Sometimes things just seem to come to me from out of the ether.  A few years ago I wrote two Phantom stories for Moonstone’s prose anthologies which I very much enjoyed doing.  The first adventure, “The Hungry Swamp”, placed the Phantom in the ruins of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  I tend to be an emotional writer by nature, and this tale in particular was very poignant for me.  (It is, by the way, a prequel, of sorts, to The Phantom Unmasked.)

Then some months ago, publisher Joe Gentile called me up out of the blue and, after kindly acknowledging my previous stories, asked if I’d like to pitch a new Phantom mini-series to him.  Writing those prose stories had been great fun, but the notion of composing a Phantom adventure for comics, the character’s original element, was almost magical to me.  I immediately concocted a Hitchcockian mystery-oriented proposal and submitted it to Joe just a couple hours later.  He liked my idea, but wasn’t certain it would play big enough to warrant a mini-series of its own.  I assured him that it would.  Ultimately, Joe and King Features trusted me.

I’ll admit now that I was more than slightly jittery, like something akin to stage-fright, as I began writing the tale and I was afraid I might freeze up in the process.  Surprisingly nothing nearly so dramatic happened.  It was a distinct thrill, to be sure, especially when I first typed the words "The Deep Woods", but fortunately the story flowed.  I suspect that this one had wanted to escape my subconscious for a very long time.

I should also stress that only when I’ve written for Superman, Batman, and Sherlock Holmes have I felt such sheer weight from a fictional character and his mythology.  The Phantom Unmasked is one of my very favorite stories in over twenty years as a professional writer.  I loved every minute of it.

BF: Without giving away the goods, so to speak, could you tell us a bit about the plot of The Phantom Unmasked?

MP: I wrote this mini-series as a sort of homage to the suspenseful style of Alfred Hitchcock, full of twists, turns, and mystery, including, of course, a brilliant, and beautiful, icy blonde protagonist with a shady past.  Her name is Laughton Brice, my own addition to the Phantom mythos and one of my favorite original creations. 

A dying billionaire induces her to bring him absolute proof of Life After Death, worth a million dollar reward. Setting out on her adventure, Brice encounters rumors of the legendary Ghost Who Walks and, with unlimited funds, pursues the evidence across the country and ultimately into the Deep Woods.

However, her mysterious billionaire benefactor has a secret, vicious vendetta of his own.  And…that’s as much as I should tell.

BF: The story possesses a very real sense of finality but not in a way fans might expect. How important was it to bring a sense of closure to the comic while still leaving the door open for future tales?

MP: That was of tremendous importance to me.  Although I’m obviously not going to reveal the ending right here, I’ll admit that I had planned that conclusion right from the beginning.  I knew exactly how I wanted it to finish before I ever wrote a word.  At first I felt a bit of trepidation hoping King Features wouldn’t interfere, but fortunately they remained quiet so I went ahead and wrote what I wanted. 

I felt obligated to end Moonstone’s long respectful run with a strong, unexpected, and fitting conclusion.  I wanted the reader to be haunted by the ending, and to continue thinking about it even after they close the comic book and put it down.  In a very real sense the end of the tale defines the Phantom, adding considerably to his legend.  That part was difficult to write but also very satisfying for me as a Phantom fan.

BF: Moonstone Books has typically taken a very respectful and traditional approach to their source material. How attractive was it for you as a Phantom fan to write a story for this character that didn’t rely on a revamp or updated style approach?

MP: I wouldn’t have been interested in writing the Phantom under any other circumstances.  Lee Falk created one of the great classic heroes in fiction, unaltered and successful for decades.  There is nothing to improve or to fix.  Possibly more than anything else that’s what I wanted to explore with The Phantom Unmasked.  The Phantom is brilliant just as he is.

BF: Who are your artistic collaborators on The Phantom Unmasked?

MP: One of the great things about working for Joe is that he always allows me to choose my own artists for my various Moonstone projects.  He had sent me a half dozen art samples and I decided on Hannibal King the instant I saw his work.  The Phantom has always been very real world to me and Hannibal’s graceful, realistic rendering of anatomy and composition seemed a perfect fit.  His first drawn pages of my script literally amazed me.

Unlike many of today’s comic book artists, Hannibal isn’t afraid to compose a page consisting of more than three or four panels.  In fact, he sometimes added a panel here and there which improved upon my pacing and storytelling.  He’s a pleasure to work with.  You can be assured that Hannibal and I will be teaming up again on another project in the very near future.

Andrew Dalhouse’s atmospheric colors further enhanced the dynamic art and Tom Floyd’s lettering very effectively balanced my dialogue and narrative captions.  Tom and I are close friends and very frequent collaborators.  Knowing that Tom was also a big Phantom fan, I just had to get him involved, which made the project even more special to me.  The fabulous covers are by Franchesco, yet another huge Phantom fan, who had been friends with Lee Falk, so I also invited him along.  He designed both covers magnificently.  I should also take a moment here to thank Phantom-writer-supreme Mike Bullock for his warm support.

You know, it isn’t very often in this business when all these separate elements and personalities blend so seamlessly, but I believe The Phantom Unmasked has that distinction.  With guys like these on my side, I knew I couldn’t lose.  We all loved what we were doing and I think it shows.

BF: When can fans expect to get their hands on The Phantom Unmasked?

MP: The first issue is available right now!  The second, and concluding issue, is currently at the printer.  This has been such an exciting time for me.  I’m so lucky to get the chance of writing my favorite comics character.  Not everyone can say that.

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