Dan Mishkin is probably best known as the writer/co-creator (with his frequent writing partner Gary Cohn) of DC's Amethyst and Blue Devil series, but he also tried his hand on The Phantom Stranger on a couple of occasions, like stepping in for regular Saga of the Swamp Thing writer Martin Pasko to write a two-part story pairing up the book's two stars, which also served as a send-off to PS in the series.
He also had the Stranger guest star in the Blue Devil Summer Fun Annual, as well as writing one of the four Phantom Stranger origins for Secret Origins #10, so I thought it'd be cool to hear from someone who has written the character under such diverse circumstances:
I Am The Phantom Stranger: How did you end up writing the Swamp Thing/Phantom Stranger two-parter?
Dan Mishkin: Somebody was needed to fill in for Marty Pasko, for reasons I can't recall, and Len Wein asked me to do it. Len was somewhat of a mentor for me in my early career, and I really appreciated that he gave me the opportunity to do the two-parter.
IATPS: How familiar were you with the Phantom Stranger before this?
DM: I'd probably read every story the Stranger appeared in through the sixties and seventies, so I'll have to say I was pretty familiar with the character.
IATPS: As a writer, are the Phantom Stranger's very vague powers a help or a hindrance when trying to plot?
DM: It's something you have to be careful with. You keep things mysterious and that gives you some leeway in how you portray the character and his abilities; but that same leeway makes it very easy to handle the character inconsistently--he can end up being too conveniently powerful when you need him to be, but sometimes powerless before things that readers would expect to be no problem for him based on earlier stories.
Looking back at the Swamp Thing story, I'm pretty pleased with how I handled things, though my ideal is to show the Stranger using powers as little as possible and I did have one scene that looks like flat out teleportation (however much the dialogue tries to suggest it might be otherwise).
IATPS: The last page of the second part, in Saga of the Swamp Thing #15, I found very haunting. The Stranger mentions "great towers of accomplishment...that are in truth only made of sand", which made me think of the World Trade Center, even though obviously that was unintentional. I realize this isn't a question, but it's interesting to me how someone can write something that has a peculiar relevance many years later.
DM: As you say, I couldn't have anticipated the later resonance of the line, which only pointed out that things are often less permanent than they seem. That can really be a scary thought to contemplate, as it surely was in the aftermath of the destruction of the WTC towers.
IATPS: Do you remember how you (and Gary) came up with the idea to do a Blue Devil "Summer Fun" Annual starring so many of DC's creepy supernatural characters?
DM: I checked with Gary and neither of us can recall how the details of the story came about. What I remember most vividly is that it was our chance to work again with Paris Cullins, the original Blue Devil artist. And also that "Summer Fun" was very much the tack we wanted to take from the beginning.
As to why the supernatural stuff, I don't know. Maybe because we hadn't played in that arena very much, and we'd had fun on our previous outing with the Demon. Besides, we really liked those characters, especially the Phantom Stranger. And Felix Faust! Which you may think is a joke, but I was a huge Gardner Fox/Mike Sekowsky JLA fan, and Felix Faust made a great impression on my nine-year-old brain when he first appeared.
IATPS: You kid the cliches of the characters quite a bit in the story, The Phantom Stranger most of all. Was there ever any problem from the people at DC for goofing on some of their characters like that?
DM: I love the assumption that "the people at DC" were paying attention to what we were doing. I can say with a fair degree of confidence that they weren't, and I don’t mean that as a knock--or not entirely as one. The loose supervision of editors in those days was a wonderful climate for creativity and experimentation--it's the reason Blue Devil and Amethyst came into existence at all.
It's also not surprising that these days when you see very cool stuff happening on the fringes of the DC and Marvel Universes, it's often because that stuff is flying under the radar. (When I praised a friend recently on a wonderful little miniseries he'd done, he attributed its coming out as well as it did to the fact that nobody higher up was paying attention and sticking their thumbs in it).
But if I accept the premise of your question that anyone was watching, I think it's also fair to say that when Blue Devil became a success, we were given leave by editorial to take an offbeat approach that looked at DC's characters through a somewhat skewed lens.
IATPS: At the end of the story, The Creeper suggests that he and the others form a team of supernatural heroes--was this just a goof or was this something you and Gary actually considered? I would've loved to have seen that book!
DM: It was mostly just a setup and punch line. Gary and I always treated Blue Devil as a character who would not "play well with others" on a team. Even though he was a sweetheart of a guy, and wouldn't hesitate to save the day when it was up to him, he just didn't buy into the whole superhero mindset that you have to have if you're going to say, with deep voice and hands on hips, "Yes, I am a member of a team of heroes." Not that we wouldn’t have given such a book a shot if DC had asked us to, but we weren't seriously looking for a gig like that.
Like I did earlier with Mike Barr, I'm withholding the questions I asked Dan about his Phantom Stranger origin story in Secret Origins #10 until we get to that issue in the timeline (although what does a timeline mean to someone like the Phantom Stranger?), so we can hear from them both at once.
Dan was one of the first interviews I ever did for The Aquaman Shrine, back when I was just getting started and even though he had only written a couple of Aquaman stories. It really helped put the Shrine on the map, so I really appreciate him taking some time out of his day to talk me yet again. Thanks Dan!