Alan Brennert is, hands-down, one of my all-time favorite comic book writers.
This fact is all the more amazing when you realize that Alan has only written less than a dozen comic book stories, almost all of them for DC. To my mind, Alan's batting average is astounding--of the stories he wrote, half of them are bona-fide classics, while the rest have to settle for being merely excellent.
I've always wanted to interview Alan for one of my blogs, but never had a remotely justifiable reason for it. But as soon as I realized Alan wrote a story featuring The Phantom Stranger, I was shooting him an email just a few minutes later.
As always, Alan was generous in saying yes, he would agree to talk to me about his one encounter with the Stranger, in Detective Comics #500's "To Kill A Legend":
I Am The Phantom Stranger: You wrote for comics only every so often. How did writing a story for Detective #500 come about?
Alan Brennert: I'd known Paul Levitz, who was then editing the Batman books, for years--ever since he and my old pal Marty Pasko (with whom I had co-published a comics fanzine in 1970-71) had shared an apartment in New York. Sometime in '79, I think, Paul was in Los Angeles on business, and over dinner with him one night I happened to mention an idea for a Batman story that had occurred to me; I offered it to him gratis, for one of his regular writers to do.
He countered, "You're a writer; why don't you write it?" At that point the only comics work I'd done had been the plot for a two-part Wonder Woman story that Marty had scripted (the purpose of which, I must admit, had been largely to get me some much-needed cash while I was in college).
But as a freelancer I actually started out circa 1970 writing a comics script that I submitted to a science fiction comics magazine Jim Warren was developing (I think it eventually became 1984). But the editor of that mag--it might have been John Cochran, but I couldn't swear to it--had me do something like two or three rewrites on this little eight-page script and then ultimately didn't even buy it.
He was probably right; the story was never published and doubtless didn't deserve to be. But at the time I was so put off by the experience that I decided to try writing prose fiction instead, and as it happens I had much better luck placing short stories with science fiction magazines and anthologies. That led me to novels and eventually to television, which was how I was making a living when Paul invited me to do the Batman story.
So I wrote it, and Paul liked it and paid me DC's top rate, which was very generous of him, and I expected it to turn up as a fill-in issue of Batman or Detective. Next thing I know, Paul tells me it's going to be in the 500th issue of Detective Comics. I was pleased but a little stunned--even more so when it turned out to be the lead story. Really, I thought I was just doing a fill-in story. Who knew?
IATPS: How did the Phantom Stranger come in to "To Kill A Legend"? Did you always want to include him and work from there, or was he a convenient character to get you (or, more precisely, Batman) from A to B?
AB: The Phantom Stranger was, as you surmise, pretty much just a convenient character to get Batman to the other Earth. It might have been Paul's suggestion to use him, I don't recall. I do remember putting in, at Paul's suggestion, that line about, "Are we really on another Earth, or is this just one of the Stranger's illusions?"--which I understood as a way to root the story more in Batman's reality rather than, say, the JLA's--though I hated that whole smoke-and-mirrors approach to the character. (More on this below.)
I did like using the Stranger, though. I liked the idea of him coming to Batman and offering him a chance to alleviate some of the guilt and grief he's carried ever since his parents' deaths. It was a chance to show superheroes acting like real people, not just fighting crime but showing real kindness to one another. (And I also had fun contrasting the Stranger's stentorian pronouncements with Robin's more casual attitude.)
But mainly it was all worth it for me for that big splash panel with the Stranger next to the overlapping images of Earths One and Two. Made me feel like Gardner Fox in 1963. I still have the original art to that page. Beautiful.
IATPS: Were you familiar much with the Phantom Stranger before this? Had you ever read his solo comic?
AB: My introduction to the Stranger came in those Showcase try-out issues, where I found him an interesting character but the old recycled stories from the 50s pretty much looked like, well, old recycled stories from the 50s.
And I just had no patience with Dr. Thirteen, who seemed unbelievably obtuse to me; as obtuse as Scully would, years later, on The X-Files. The Stranger worked best, I thought, when the writers simply accepted his powers as real--which was why I liked Len Wein's stories in the Stranger's own book. I liked Len's work on that series quite a lot.
IATPS: Many of your stories have a quasi-mystical or supernatural bent. Did you ever come up with other ideas for him? Would you have been interested in writing the character again?
AB: Funny you should ask! After doing a few Batman stories, I got a call from this selfsame Len Wein, who was then editing Saga of the Swamp Thing. He wanted to do a Phantom Stranger back-up feature and offered me the series: "Only eight pages a month," he told me, "little anthological stories with the Stranger as narrator."
Though I kept this opinion to myself, I thought this would probably work about as well as the Spectre did when he was tied to the Book of Destiny (I really loved The Spectre and was kind of pissed off when those cosmic Murphy Anderson and Neal Adams epics were replaced by Jerry Grandinetti stories that would've worked just as well in House of Mystery). Plus, I really had very little interest in doing a monthly comics feature, even only an eight-pager. Mike Barr went on to write some very nice stories, but I still preferred the character more in a Dr. Fate/Dr. Strange vein.
"To Kill A Legend" remains one of my all-time favorite Batman stories, ever, along with two or three other Batman stories Alan wrote. I can only imagine what he might have done with The Phantom Stranger if he ever had--has(hope springs eternal)--the chance. Thanks Alan!