As I've mentioned before, one of the wonderful bonuses in doing a blog devoted to The Phantom Stranger is that it gives me the opportunity to interview comic creators whose work I admire. Case in point: Mike W. Barr.
I've always enjoyed Mike's work, whether it be the stories he wrote in books like Brave and the Bold and Batman and the Outsiders, or the entertaining, slightly irreverent text pieces he penned for various DC books over the years.
Mike had the chance to put The Phantom Stranger through his paces in several stories, and he was generous enough to talk with me about those adventures:
I Am The Phantom Stranger: How did you end up writing the Phantom Stranger back-ups in Swamp Thing?
Mike W. Barr: I either volunteered for the task or was asked to do it. I was one of Editor Len Wein's regular stable of writers at that time; he and I held similar viewpoints on story and character. Another writer [Bruce Jones] had written the back-up in The Saga of Swamp Thing (hereafter, SST) #1, but I got the impression Len wasn't happy with that story. I don't know why I wasn't asked from the beginning.
IATPS: How familiar were you with the character at the time?
MWB: I had first read The Phantom Stranger (hereafter, PS) when he was revived in Showcase; I was unaware of him before then. I followed him from the reprints to his own book, most of which I read and collected. I had at least one letter of comment printed in PS in which I praised the team of Wein and Jim Aparo; I still think those stories are some of Len's best work.
IATPS: Most of your stories--as well as the others in the run by other writers--were human interest tales with the Phantom Stranger as a sort of host, except for the two-parter you wrote where he takes on his old foe, Tannarak. Did you want to write more stories where the Stranger took center stage like that?
MWB: The glory--and the curse--of PS is that he works on a number of different levels. I wrote the first Who's Who entry for him, where I referred to his "occupation" as "conscience, advocate." The glory of the character is that he can be used equally well in the role of active hero or the role of narrator. The curse of the character is that he can be used equally well in the role of active hero or the role of narrator. It takes a firm understanding of the character to realize which role he's playing, and I know of no way to obtain that understanding than to just read lots of stories about him.
Then there are his powers, whatever those are. The powers of most magic-based characters are vague, but PS's are the vaguest of any character I've ever come across. They have no specific boundaries, so the writer has to take care to make him neither too powerful nor too weak. I think it's only the character's history and his status in the DCU that makes him able to overcome these limitations--that and a writer who understands him. With any other character such vagueness would be the kiss of death.
I slightly disagree with the contention that most of the stories were human-interest stories. The "Amanda Dove" two-parter (#s 7 & 8) was certainly PS at his most proactive, and he even played a crucial role in "Till Death Do Us Join" (#6), though as an advocate rather than an action hero. Given the fact that PS works equally well in either role, I let the plot dictate his involvement, rather than shoehorning him into situations when he might not have belonged. And ideally, a good story is automatically a human-interest story.
For the record, the "Amanda Dove" two-part story had its inspiration in reality. In the 70s I dated a woman who expressed hawkish views on Vietnam, the complete opposite of mine. I opined--unfortunately for my romantic prospects--that it was easy for someone who was in no danger of being drafted to be a hawk. (Bush and Cheney were ardent hawks, though male, but also had numerous deferments from active service. Makes you think.) The first part of this story also contains one of my favorite bits, which I used later in "Tarry Till I Come Again"--PS debates God...and wins!
IATPS: Of the seven PS back-ups you wrote, two of them were two-parters. Did you find writing stories with the Phantom Stranger generally required more than the standard eight pages?
MWB: Sometimes a good idea required two parts to make it work. PS didn't require more pages, necessarily, but certainly not less.
IATPS: Why did you stop writing the strip?
MWB: In SST #1, the PS back-up was nine pages. By #2, it had already been reduced to eight. I wrote four eight-page stories, at which point the editorial share of the DC books, which had been 25 pages, was reduced to 23 pages. Len chose to cut both pages from PS, rather than one page apiece from each feature. I protested this--writing coherent stories at the length of eight pages was tough enough, let alone six--but was overruled. I had already agreed to write the feature through SST #8, and then left. This was not any kind of an ultimatum on my part, just a statement of frustration. The "Amanda Dove" two-parter would have worked better at 16 pages rather than 12, but it was a good job nonetheless.
IATPS: You had The Phantom Stranger guest-star in Batman and The Outsiders #8, a Christmas issue, which picks up a thread from one of the PS stories you wrote in The Saga of Swamp Thing, involving the return of Tannarak (#5, "...But The Patient Died!"). When you wrote the first part, did you plan to continue with it at some point, or did it occur to you as you were writing that issue of BATO?
MWB: I may have intended to pick up on Tannarak someday, but I certainly had no concrete plans for it at the time I wrote the PS story. (At that time, of course, BATO had not yet been created.) Certainly I didn't think Tannarak was gone forever; few characters in comics ever are. But I don't recall how I came to use the PS story as the springboard for the first of the annual BATO Xmas issues, nor even why PS guested in that issue. It's a very strange story, one that I'm not sure was entirely successful.
I sent a copy of BATO #8 to newsman Harry Reasoner, whose famous essay on Christmas was quoted at the story's end, but I received no reply.
IATPS: Batman is so clearly, unquestionably the in-charge character in Batman and the Outsiders. Was it fun writing in a character like The Phantom Stranger who could, once in a while, outfox even Batman (which he himself seems to enjoy)?
I deeply appreciate Mike taking the time--oh, wait, he's not done with the last question!:
MWB: Okay, okay. Yes, it was fun to write a character who could use Batman's best tricks against him, and the fact that Bats realized it added a bit of self-awareness to him. At the time--in the 80s--my version of Batman was often thought to be too grim and too violent, but compared to the current versions, most of which depict Batman as utterly humorless, mine is thoroughly mellow.
Though I've sometimes treated the role of Batman as a weighty obligation of Bruce Wayne's, I generally feel that Batman is having the time of his life. Being Batman must be an utter ball.
Okay, like I said, I deeply appreciate Mike taking the time to talk with me for I Am The Phantom Stranger about his brief--but memorable--time writing the character. Thanks Mike!