Everyone reading this knows who Gerry Conway is, so I don't need to get into his legendary biography. But most people probably don't know he tried his hand at writing The Phantom Stranger, and not just in his guest appearances in Justice League of America.
After talking with me a few months ago for my blog JLA Satellite, Gerry generously agreed to talk with me again about his brief--but memorable--experiences writing the character:
I Am The Phantom Stranger: How did you end up writing the Phantom Stranger?
Gerry Conway: I had worked before for Dick Giordano, and Dick and I were working on House of Secrets, and I was writing the interstitial pages--all the Abel stuff that took place between the stories--and I wrote a bunch of stories for him, too. So I was a rising "up and coming" talent at DC.
Joe Orlando was doing House of Mystery, so it was a natural segue for me to go over and do a couple of stories for him. I wrote two or three House of Mystery stories, and he asked me at that point to work on a Phantom Stranger with him.
I wrote two Phantom Strangers for Joe, and actually there were the first two continuing character stories I think I had ever written.
IATPS: At the time, right after they had stopped grafting in the reprints, a couple different people wrote the book--Mike Sekowsky, Denny O'Neil wrote one, Bob Kanigher wrote a couple--was Joe Orlando trying different people out, what that the sense you got at the time?
GC: I don't know he was trying people out so much as that was the way he had always done comics--he went all the way back to EC, he worked with Archie Goodwin on Creepy and Eerie, so he was accustomed to working with different writers and artists, and he really didn't have any continuing character books, so I don't think that was part of his mind-set, to have one writer working on a series.
The Phantom Stranger was, as you said, a weird hybrid--it started out as a reprint series, and gradually over time became a continuing character series. So it was kind of interesting--half of this, half of that.
IATPS: What was the impetus behind the creation of Tannarak? Was it like "I gotta give this guy a Lex Luthor"?
GC: Actually, as a Marvel comics fan, was towards heroes and villains battling it out, and if we had a hero in The Phantom Stranger, then we have to have a bad guy for him. Tannarak was my attempt to create that.
As I said, I only did two stories, so Joe's way of thinking wasn't at that time to think of a series, so I didn't have much of a long-range plan [laughs] for the character.
IATPS: What was it like working with Jim Aparo?
GC: It was just awesome. His work was terrific, and I think he was very eager to show his chops.
He'd been doing superhero comics, for the most part, at Charlton, and then at DC with Aquaman, so his experience with supernatural and fantasy art was kind of limited. I think he saw this as an opportunity to do something really different, and I think it led, almost directly, to his work on Batman and Brave and the Bold.
IATPS: Joe Orlando admitted that on the letters page, when people complained about Aparo leaving the book. He basically said, "Look, Superman and Batman are our two most popular characters, and we need a talent like Jim Aparo over there."
Did you have much contact with him?
GC: Yeah--actually we went out to lunch a couple of times, and I really enjoyed talking to him. He was a quiet guy, very much of the Old School--retiring, quiet sort of artist. An "the art first" type of guy. A nice guy--extremely nice.
IATPS: When you were writing JLA, you didn't use the Stranger all that much--at least in proportion to how many issues you wrote. I think when Steve Englehart wrote the book--you know, he only wrote about ten issues, and I think he used The Phantom Stranger like, six times.
IATPS: You used him four or five times over the course of 70 or 80-plus issues. What was the thought process there? Was it "I want to work him in at some point", or did write a story and go "Oh, there's a hole here, this would be a good spot to put the Stranger in"?
GC: I think--well, first off, I think the reason Steve used him so much because it was a way of doing Dr. Strange-type stories.
IATPS: [big laughs]
GC: But for myself, when you're doing as many Justice Leagues as I had done, was doing, you're always looking for a way to change it up or make it different, and interesting.
One thing The Phantom Stranger brought to the League that eventually Zatanna did was the supernatural. Here you have a book that felt to me like a superhero/science fiction book, which is how I think Julie Schwartz set it up. So putting The Phantom Stranger into it sort of broadened the franchise.
IATPS: I guess it was a no-brainer back when you were working on the 200th issue [of JLA]--I'm always going to ask you about JLA #200--
IATPS: --I always have to! I guess it was a no-brainer to work The Phantom Stranger in--since you were working everybody into that issue--and to get Jim Aparo to draw that chapter, since he had worked on Aquaman and The Phantom Stranger?
GC: I didn't have that much to do with getting the artists together, but it pretty much was as you say a no-brainer--any opportunity to work with Jim Aparo is a good one.
Talking with Gerry Conway is always a total pleasure, and like I said at the time our JLA talk, its a special thrill for me to chat with someone whose work I loved for so long and means so much to me. I really appreciate him taking some time out of his day to talk me again, this time about The Phantom Stranger. Thanks Gerry!