Saturday, April 11, 2009

Interview with Paul Kupperberg

Paul Kupperberg was The Phantom Stranger's best friend in the 1980s.

After writing the character in guest-appearances, Paul got the chance to write The Phantom Stranger mini-series, and then the subsequent Stranger run in Action Comics Weekly.

Working with such top-flight artists as Mike Mignola, P.Craig Russell, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Andy Kubert, and others, Paul broke new ground with the character, but managed to retain all the essential elements of what had made The Phantom Stranger such a good character.

He was kind enough to subject himself to a third(!) interview with me (the first two having taken place over at The Aquaman Shrine) about his work with The Phantom Stranger:

I Am The Phantom Stranger: Between using The Phantom Stranger in Showcase #100 and writing the 1987 mini-series, you wrote an issue of DC Comics Presents (#72, "Madness In A Dark Dimension") where he was the guest-star.

How did DCCP stories like this one come about? Did you pitch a story for the book, or did editor Julius Schwartz come to you and ask you to write it? And did DCCP stories come with the guest-star pre-arranged or was it partly up to the writer?
Paul Kupperberg: It could go either way really. Sometimes I'd come in with a character and story ready to pitch--I know I brought in team-ups with Madame Xanadu, Arion, Vigilante to Julie, but other times, I'd walk in the door and Schwartz would shout "Superman and the Metal Men!" and I'd say, "Yes, sir," and we'd plot that story.

On the one hand, the DCCP #72, with Superman, the Joker and Phantom Stranger sounds like a Schwartz line-up. On the other, it featured Maaldor, an evil other-dimensional conqueror who I'd concocted, ripped off of one of Len Wein's villains who I couldn't use for some reason at the time, for some earlier DCCP's, so in this case, I really couldn't say which of us came up with this one.

I was a long-time fan of the Phantom Stranger. I first saw him in his Showcase #80 appearance, around 1968, which featured a new story, a framing sequence by Mike Friedrich and the great, great Jerry Grandenetti and Bill Draut, wrapped around a story from the 1950s Phantom Stranger #2 and a Dr. Thirteen story from Star-Spangled Comics. The book also had a kick ass Neal Adams cover.

: There are a lot of familiar faces from the DCU in the Phantom Stranger mini-series--Eclipso, Commissioner Gordon, Negative Woman, S.T.A.R. Labs' Jenet Klyburn--but no appearances by any of his regular supporting cast (Dr. Thirteen, Cassandra Craft, Tannarak, etc.). What was your thought process in crafting the series' story line?

PK: I wanted to ground this story in a more human place. The story I originally pitched, to Denny O'Neil--Mike Carlin, newly arrived at DC, was handed the book later, but it was Denny who bought the pitch from me--that story was essentially Phantom Stranger as Jesus. The Lords of Order say it's over, the Stranger is left to wonder why he has been forsaken, and left to the tender mercies of mankind to judge him. I'll admit; I definitely played off of Denny's Irish Catholic upbringing when I pitched him that one!

Anyway, Thirteen and all them--and I loved that stuff...I wrote a continuing Dr. Thirteen back-up in Ghosts for a while, but they didn't fit that story. I needed "real" people to put together with the Stranger, not a lot of magical and super-powered characters.

IATPS: How much of a collaboration did you have with Mike Mignola? He did a tremendous job on the series!
PK: Mike went beyond tremendous. I love the art on this book...and let's not forget Craig Russell's inks, which are equally amazing. As for the collaborative, zilch, and none! I pitched the miniseries, started writing, full scripts--I think I still have copies of the scripts in my closet, in fact--before anyone was ever assigned.

I vaguely remember some talk by Denny of asking Jim Aparo to draw the book, which would have been...well, beyond just okay with me. I mean, Aparo was, and in fact, still is, The Man. I grew up on his Charlton and early DC stuff, especially his work on the old "Thane" back-up in Charlton's Hercules title and his The Brave and the Bold run after Neal. Jim and I worked together once as writer and artist (and numerous instances later on, when I was editing at DC) on an issue of B&B--a Batman/Lois Lane team-up--so I was stoked at the possibility of working with him again.

But as brilliant an artist as Jim was, I think in the long run, Carlin's instinct to go with Mignola, was the best course. Carlin knew from working together at Marvel where he'd just come over from to take the DC job. It was so different from much of the look of DC books at the time, which made it really stand out.

IATPS: There's a streak of dark, absurdist humor in your Phantom Stranger mini--at one point you've got The Phantom Stranger interacting with President Reagan plus an evil duplicate Reagan(!). Considering the Stranger (and his stories) could at times be so melodramatic and self-serious, was that something you consciously wanted to add to the mix?
PK: There's a streak of dark, absurdist humor in most things I do, if you know where to look. I view the world through dark, absurdist glasses and the humor of guys like Jerry Lewis, Ernie Kovacs, Bob and Ray, the Marx Brothers, Jack Douglas, and the like. Besides, the more serious and melodramatic a situation gets, the more the opportunity for absurdities to creep in and be noticed, like the stupid thing said in a eulogy that sets you off laughing at the funeral: "What did he just say?" My favorite part of the whole miniseries is the cover to #3 which has Ronald Regan blasting the Phantom Stranger with a machine gun.

IATPS: The mini-series ends on a very "up" note. Did you have more stories worked out, in case the series got to continue?
PK: I don't recall any plans for an ongoing following the mini, but a happy ending was a foregone conclusion--if I was going to see the Jesus metaphor through to the end, the Stranger had to die for mankind...and be resurrected to be its savior.

IATPS: How did Phantom Stranger sell? Did DC ever consider another mini, or possibly a regular series?

: I have no idea about the numbers...I might have known once, but I'll be damned if I can remember now. But, as I said, I don't recall discussion of plans to make it a monthly.

IATPS: Did you seek out the assignment to write the Stranger's series in Action Comics Weekly or did DC come back to you since you had done the mini?

: I was the last guy to write the Stranger, which I suppose made him "mine," so I got the feature in ACW by default.

IATPS: You worked with a very diverse list of artists during the Stranger's ACW run--Kyle Baker, Joe Orlando, Tom Grindberg, Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, Andy Kubert, previous PS artist Fred Carrillo--did you have the chance or the inclination to try and write stories that fit each artist's strength? For instance, the story Kyle Baker drew is one of the weirdest, goofiest PS stories ever, which seemed perfect for Baker's style. And the two stories drawn by Garcia Lopez are huge and operatic, the kind of story he excels at.
PK: I never knew who was going to draw a particular story...just like I didn't know who was going to wind up drawing the mini-series before it was assigned. But the line-up Carlin and, later, editor Rene Witterstatter, came up with was stupendous, not a clunker in the bunch!

I'd write a script, turn it in to Mike or Rene and they did a great job matching up an artist to the material. The one Kyle drew, about a supernatural virus in a computer, was the first one I did for ACW. We called on Fred Carrillo, who'd been drawing PS when I was reading it as a fan, to do a four-parter that brought back Cassandra and the rest of the Stranger's old cast of characters.

IATPS: As I mentioned previously, one of your PS stories was drawn by the legendary Joe Orlando, who wasn't doing much art at this time (he drew the Alan Moore Phantom Stranger origin story for Secret Origins, and your story, and that was about it, I think). How did this come about? Did you harangue him just so you could have one of your stories drawn by the great Joe Orlando?
PK: Joe would occasionally get the itch to do a story and he'd either ask someone if they had something for him or, if you caught him at the right moment and asked him, he'd take on a short job. I honestly don't remember the circumstances of this one, but I do remember Joe coming to me, script in hand, that big cherubic grin--that hid the heart and soul of a prankster--on his face, bitching at me about some art direction I'd put in there.

It was just a clumsily worded sentence, but Joe started sketching out how it would look if he drew it the way I asked for it, and it was a mess. He was having a grand old time at my expense. Joe was one of those guys you either got and loved or you didn't get and hated. I fall into the latter group, so I believe I just took his pencil, snapped it in half, and walked away leaving him giggling like a 5-year old who'd just said "Poop!" in front of the neighbors.

IATPS: Was it difficult working on such a different deadline, having to write up a new Phantom Stranger story almost every week for Action Comics Weekly?

: Not really. The Stranger only appeared every third or fourth issue as I recall so I had plenty of time...and if there wasn't a PS story ready to roll, they could always plug in another feature for that week. I'd pitch ideas as I came up with them. All told I did something like ten or eleven stories in the space of 30 weekly issues.

IATPS: You wrote that four-part story for ACW, bringing back all of the Stranger's former supporting cast--Dr. Thirteen, Cassandra Craft, Tannarak, Tala--was this DC's suggestion or was it something you wanted to do?
PK: That was mine. I loved the old series from the 1960s and 70s, that run written by Wein, Levitz and Conway and all those old characters. I figured by the time I'd gotten there, we'd seen plenty of the "new," walk-among-the-people Stranger and it was time to bring them back.

IATPS: Why did the Phantom Stranger series in ACW end? Could DC determine which series helped sell the book better than others? Did you want to keep going with it?

: I suppose it's time was up. The method for determining what series were helping to sell ACW probably wasn't too scientific, mostly the mail that the book received...although, as I recall, nothing was helping sell ACW. It was actually voted Diamond Comics' biggest turkey of the year the year it was launched...not a creative judgment, just based on sales.

IATPS: You've written more Phantom Stranger stories (seventeen, eighteen if you count Showcase #100) than any other DC writer! Did you ever feel any sense of "ownership" of the character during this time, the way you might have with, say, Arion? Or was it different because you didn't create the Stranger the way you had Arion?

: Wow. I did not know this, but, yeah, I've always had a sense of ownership about certain characters I've written over the years...not like I were the character's "parent," or creator, but more like an uncle that helped raise the kid. Power Girl is one of those, Aquaman for sure, and definitely Phantom Stranger. I love my own children—Arion, Checkmate—but I'll also always feel possessive and proud of my nieces and nephews, like the Stranger.

Paul has been a great friend to me and my blogs over the years, and I'm always so happy when something I'm covering was written by him, which gives me the excuse to interview him all over again.

I truly enjoyed his Phantom Stranger stories, and I'd love to see him write some more. If and when that happens, we'll have to be satisfied with what we have.

Thanks again Paul!


Bribaby said...

Good interview; I enjoyed reading that. Paul Kupperberg was one of those guys, who, when I was a kid reading comics, seemed like he'd always been around, always would be, and was always a dependable workhorse for DC. I remember not only being impressed with the 100th issue of Showcase, and the great way all those characters were brought together, but also being very excited a few issues earlier with the advent of the "new" Doom Patrol.
That story about Joe Orlando was fun.

matthew jones said...

An excellent interview. Always nice to hear from Paul Kupperberg, and he seems like a really great guy. I enjoyed his take on the Phantom Stranger a lot, and the outstanding artists he got to work with. Would love to see him write the character again.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Great interview!

While they're not really "Phantom Stranger stories" in the same sense, I think Bill Willingham must have written as many comic book issues that had the Stranger in them since he appeared in every issue but one of Shadowpact, plus Day of Vengeance #1 and Day of Vengeance Special.

Matt Wagner's now closing in, over in Madame Xanadu.

But regardless I don't see how the answer isn't Len Wein! PS 14-26, JLA 103 and 110, Superman 344, plus Legends.

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