Ed Catto: How To Turn 80 In Comics
A business magazine recently featured a story about the astoundingly short average life span of today’s companies, brands and product leaders. They noted that the average life expectancy of a modern company is something like 15 years. I think about a brand like PalmPilot, where one of my college buddies made a fortune, and how that name is practically a trivia question for this year’s MBA graduates. (“Is it a helicopter operator in Palm Beach?”) Likewise, cool companies they want to work for include Google and Lululemon – brands that didn’t exist 15 years ago.
So with all that in mind, let’s explore the opposite: the challenges of working with an 80-year-old brand in such a fickle climate.
Created in 1936, Lee Falk’s The Phantom was the first costumed comic hero. Bridging the gap of the masked vigilantes of the pulps (The Shadow, The Spider, etc.) and comic book superheroes, the Phantom enjoys a comfortable, ongoing popularity domestically and a rabid international fandom.
In fact, in occupied countries during World War II, the Phantom became a symbol of hope and resistance. And in Australia and New Zealand, seat at the pop culture table today is much closer to the head of the table than it is in the US.
So how does a domestic publisher best manage, and bring to life, this 80-year-old brand? I reached out to Dan Herman of Hermes Press, one of the US companies who license the Phantom from King Features.
Dan is a fast talking lawyer, but don’t hold that against him. He’s also a super-passionate fan, dedicated to creating top quality books and comics to spotlight his favorite characters and artists. And his knowledge of comic book history and geek cred runs deep.
Hermes Press offers a wide variety of books. They reprint classic characters like Brenda Starr and Pogo. They just created art books focusing on Jim Davis and Alex Raymond. At their San Diego Comic-Con booth last year, author Max Allan Collins was touting their new Mike Hammer collection.
Dan Herman is not afraid to zig while other publishers zag, either. While IDW has published reprints of Milt Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, Dan publishes the later adventures by George Wunder. Following in the footsteps of the legendary Milt Caniff was difficult, but Wunder did it for an impressive 27 years. “I always felt that Wunder was not as bad as they said,” noted Dan.
Angst Free Zone
Dan feels The Phantom is a character that occupies a unique spot in heroic fiction. “In his own universe, he’s a myth. He’s only tangible in his own country. And part of the charm and power is that he ‘never dies’,” explained Dan.
“He’s not really a revenge myth,” said Dan. “He’s a myth of the commitment to good.” In fact, noted Dan, The Phantom employs two icons. One is his dreaded Skull Ring, a symbol of punishment, and other is his Good Mark, a symbol of protection and hope.”
“The Phantom knows who he is, where he comes from and what his job is,” said Dan.
Hermes Phantom Comics
Hermes has embarked on an impressive quest to reprint The Phantom comic strips and The Phantom comics, but also wanted to add to the mythology with new comic book adventure. Dan explained he was asked, “Why don’t you create a new Phantom?”
His answer was clear and unwavering – he believes in the essence of the brand. “The Phantom is a myth and you have to keep the myth,” said Dan.
Hermes just published a Phantom series written by Peter David and drawn by Sal Velluto. It was an exciting period piece that delivered on the action and also cleverly tied up decades-old continuity questions.
Dan revealed that next up is another Phantom comic book series. In this new adventure, John F. Kennedy reaches out to the Phantom to send him on a secret assignment. And while the Phantom isn’t an American, he did attend school in the states and his wife is an American.
The new illustrator is a Hollywood artist, and he will be creating matte paintings in the style of the legendary Alex Raymond. “His work is on par with the best of George Wilson,” teased Dan. But he wasn’t ready to reveal the artist’s name to me at this time.
The Prose Phantom
In the 70s, Avon published a series of prose Phantom adventures. There were 15 paperbacks in all, many written by Phantom creator Lee Falk and all with excellent George Wilson covers.
To further develop this 80-year-old brand, Hermes will be reprinting these prose stories. And these tales are a treat for longtime fans, as they expand upon many of the adventures and settings in the classic mythology. “These stories filled in a lot of the blanks,” said Dan.
The new series will be published in the 5 x 8 paperback standard, and will be smyth sewn on a higher quality paper. A new one will be offered every other month for 30 months. Look for the solicitations in the upcoming May/June Previews.
Looks like busy times ahead for publisher Dan Herman and this particular 80 year-old hero.