Ben Raab is an American comic book writer who was introduced to The Phantom community in 1999 via Egmont's Fantomen comic. He has since had 8 Phantom stories published by Egmont, reprinted in English by Frew. Now Ben has linked up with Moonstone Books who are due to release the first volume of a quarterly series of high quality Phantom books in February 2002. I recently caught up with Ben in an email interview, in which he discussed his background in comics, his experiences with The Phantom at Egmont, and the new Phantom series from Moonstone. Preview images from upcoming volumes of Moonstone's Phantom books were kindly provided by editor Joe Gentile.
Let's start at the beginning ... when and where were you born?
New York City. October 13th, 1970.
What training do you have in comic book writing?
I have a Bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Michigan, where I spent a semester studying creative writing and two semesters studying screenwriting. My first "real" job was as an editor for Marvel Comics, which I did for four years. During that time, I began writing comics. And for the past five years since then, I've devoted my career as a freelancer to nothing but writing. So, though I have no formal "training" in this particular discipline, I've spent roughly the past 10+ years working to refine my craft. Something I doubt I'll ever stop doing. It's a never-ending process. But that's part of the fun. That's where you really get a sense of accomplishment. Knowing that what you wrote today is better than what you wrote yesterday, but nowhere near as good as what you're gonna write tomorrow. Or the day after that. Or the day after that. Oh, and I've been reading the damn things since I was six. So that counts for some kind of "education", I s'pose...
When and how did you get started in comic book writing?
When I was a kid, Marvel put out two things that I think started me on the road to writing comics. Subconsciously, that is. I had no idea at the time that it would lead to where I am now... Those two things were the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and the "Days of Future Past" storyline in UNCANNY X-MEN. The former opened me up to a whole world of characters that I never knew existed; the latter showed me that their deaths could inspire a sense of loss and tragedy. So, sometime around the age of 12 or 13, I sat down with the Handbook, one of those early typewriters with the LCD that allowed you to read a line before printing it, and set about destroying the characters I didn't like and having the ones I did survive to save the Marvel Universe. It was all very sweeping and epic. Granted, it was also all crap, but it was fun to do. I'm sure it's lying around my mother's basement somewhere, along with old report cards and other sundry projects from my youth.
Where do you get your inspiration for creating new stories?
Everywhere and nowhere at all. Sometimes a line from a movie or a book or the newspaper or a song will set me off on a tangent that becomes a full-blown story. Sometimes it's something my wife or a friend might say. Or an actor, or a musician. And sometimes it's just this thing in the back of my brain itching to come out and make its presence known in the world. Maybe it's a chemical thing? I really don't know.
Apart from The Phantom, what comic books have you written stories for?
You want the long list, or the short one? Some of my credits include ...
For Marvel: X-MEN, UNION JACK, EXCALIBUR, AVENGERS, X-MAN, DAREDEVIL, WHAT IF?, UNCANNY ORIGINS, 2099, etc.
For DC: LEGEND OF THE HAWKMAN, BEAST BOY, TITANS, WONDER WOMAN, SECRET FILES & ORIGINS, etc.,
And for Wildstorm: GEN-13, GENACTIVE and a mini-series based on a character I created called JEZEBELLE.
Some of my unpublished/unfinished work includes a GIANT-MAN/WASP one shot for Marvel, a CRIMSON one-shot for Cliffhanger, a SOLAR short story for Acclaim, and a SPIRIT story for Kitchen Sink.
What was your first exposure to The Phantom?
Actually, it was the Phantom movie, starring Billy Zane, that got me interested in the character. I saw it on the flight back home from the San Diego Comic Convention in 1996, and was really impressed. I think that movie is completely underrated. At least with moviegoers here in the States. Personally, I wish they'd do another one.
Have you since read many of Lee Falk's Phantom stories from the dailies and Sundays (in comic book form)? Any favourites?
Actually, I haven't read much of the dailies as dailies, per se. I've read the Frew collections of those classic stories. Which is interesting, because you get to see how differently serialized comic strips are paced than monthly comic books. It gives you insight into Lee's writing process and illuminates the various constraints he must've faced as a storyteller working in a daily medium with an extremely limited amount of space. It's further testament to his genius in being able to keep things fun and exciting in such a small space that makes the reader eager to know what comes next. As for favorites? I really liked the one about how the first Phantom got his costume ... the one involving the Wasaka Tribe (The First Phantom - S96), I enjoyed it so much, I decided to incorporate elements of it into a couple of the stories I've written for Moonstone.
How did you get involved with "Team Fantomen" at Egmont Scandinavia?
Completely by chance, actually. I received a random email from a Scandinavian Phantom fan by the name of Jonas Vesterlund. He told me all about how Team Fantomen works with all kinds of comic creators from all around world, and suggested I contact them and see if they'd be interested in working with me. I got in touch with Ulf Granberg [editor-in-chief], sent him some samples of my work, met him in New York during one of his business trips, talked about some ideas I had for stories and voila! The rest is history.
"The Editorial Brains Trust" at Team Fantomen often create the basic plot for Phantom stories, and then hand them over to individual writers for scripting. What's it like working up a script from someone else's plot?
Well, it's not exactly like they hand you the entire plot shot by shot, scene by scene. They just give you the basic premise ... an overall idea of what they'd like to see ... and you have to figure out how to make it work on your own. You decide what the beginning, middle and end are going to be. And if they like it, then you're good to go. But I generally don't have a problem working from other people's plots. As a matter of fact, I find it a lot easier sometimes because it allows you a kind of distance and leeway that your own ideas may not allow. The hardest part, I think, is coming up with the initial idea. Once you get past that, it's relatively smooth sailing. When someone else does that for you, it's a breeze.
Have you had much opportunity to come up with your own stories for Fantomen?
Absolutely. Those guys have been pretty open to me tossing my own concepts into the mix when it comes time to figure out the production schedule. My first Phantom story, The Link (a.k.a The Temple in Australia) was something that I pitched. And from a single panel of art set in the Skull Cave's Treasure Room in that particular story, the Spear of Destiny saga was born. The Phantom Legion is another one of my own ideas that I pitched. As was the short "animated" style My Hero which ran in FANTOMEN this past summer. But sometimes I like just being assigned a story by the Brain Trust. It makes it a lot easier knowing what the boss wants. And like I said, because the concept has already been determined, all I then have to do is figure out how to make the plot and script sing.
What's it like having your Phantom scripts for Egmont published in languages you don't even speak (Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish)?
Pretty amazing, when I stop and think about the fact that my stories are crossing all kinds of international boundaries. It's like being an ambassador on some levels. Hopefully my work will bring people together, rather than tear them apart.
Do you get the English-translations published by Frew in their Phantom comic? How does their translation compare with your original script?
Of course I get the Frew books! Love 'em! As for how the translation compares to my original script. To be perfectly honest, sometimes my stories are completely unrecognizable. This isn't a criticism, mind you. Just an observation. Somewhere during the process, between the translation from English to Swedish then back to English again, story elements or dialogue gets edited. When it gets to Frew, something might be radically different that I'm totally unaware of. So by the time I read it, it's like seeing my work in a whole new light. Which can be fun sometimes. Every story's a surprise!
Your latest story The Invisible Phantom was recently voted the Best Fantomen Story of 2001 by visitors to The Deep Woods. Congratulations! How did Paul Ryan get involved with this one?
First of all, I want to thank everyone who voted for The Invisible Phantom in your poll. That's the first time I've ever been selected to be Number One in ANYTHING. And because I know your online guests are the true Phantom fans, I feel doubly honored to receive their praise. You guys rock!
How did Paul get involved? Basically, Ulf assigned him to it. Which was really cool, because it was the first time with one of my Egmont stories where nothing got lost in the translation. Paul's got a classic style, and he's a very solid and dramatic storyteller, which I think made him perfect for that story. I would love to work with him again on the Phantom.
Dick Giordano is also due to make his Phantom debut for Egmont in 2002. Were you involved in getting him on board?
No, I had nothing to do with it, but I'm excited to hear that more of my fellow Americans are going to be involved with the Phantom overseas. Especially a seasoned pro like Mr. Giordano.
Back in August 2000, you told me about a story you had written for Egmont called The Phantom Legion. Whatever happened to that one?
Several revisions are what happened to it. It really took a long time to get that one to work in a way that both myself and the Brain Trust would be happy with. I really have to thank Ulf for being so patient with it and helping me mold it into its final form. But the script is finally done and should be published sometime this year, I believe. Which I'm psyched about because this is a story I've been very much looking forward to telling. Why's that? Oh, YOU'LL see ...
How did you get involved with the new Phantom books by Moonstone?
Again, I have to thank a fan online for bringing to my attention the fact that Moonstone was bringing the Phantom back to American comic books. I contacted editor Joe Gentile and told him I was interested. He was looking for writers, so the timing was perfect. Once again, history had repeated itself.
The first Moonstone book Ghost Killer is due to appear on sale this month. Without giving too much away, what can we expect from this story? [cover art on right by Joel Naprstek]
It's a present day Phantom story. The basic premise is this: an arms dealer is running prototype semi-automatic rifles through Bangalla. But these are no ordinary M-16's. They've each got a global "re-positioning" system built into them that makes the user virutally invisible to all kinds of scanners. Even infra-red and ultra-violet. If these weapons were to penetrate the arms market, they would change the face of warfare forever. Now it's up to the Phantom to stop them from using his native land for their illicit activities.
The artwork for your first story was done by Fernando Blanco. What was he like to work with?
A true professional in every sense of the word. Fernando's a great guy. He's very easy to work with, has a lot of talent and I think he did a fantastic job in bringing the story to life.
The Ghost Killer: Pencils & Inks by Fernando Blanco, Colours by Paul Mounts
What other Phantom stories have you written for Moonstone? Who will be drawing them?
My next story for Moonstone is The Singh Web [cover art on right by Joel Naprstek] ... which was actually my first story, but due to a shift in the creative team, that one had to be re-scheduled. We went back to Fernando for this one, as well. Set in 1936, it's a story about the Phantom's grandfather trying to stop the Singh Brotherhood from resurrecting the soul of their ancestor, the dread Kabai Singh. Having read the script yourself, you know it was very much inspired by the 1996 Phantom movie in that it hearkens back to the era when the Phantom was first introduced to popular culture.
The Singh Web: Pencils & Inks by Fernando Blanco
On the heels of that one comes The Hunt ... a story inspired by the classic short story The Most Dangerous Game, in which the Phantom finds himself trapped on a not-so-deserted island where he must now fight to survive the big game hunter who calls it home. It's drawn by veteran artist Lou Manna. And so far, it looks great! What's interesting is that his style is very classic, while Fernando's is very modern. Makes for a nice contrast, I think. Hopefully the fans will, too!
The Hunt: Pencils by Lou Manna
And finally, there's Curse of The Phantom ... which is only an outline of story as of now. I haven't gone to script yet, but I look forward to doing so. This one is a lot different than any of the other Phantom stories I've done because it takes place over four generations in a single 48-page issue (Sort of like Spear Of Destiny in miniature). It's like telling four different stories for the price of one. The basic idea is that when the original Phantom assumed the guise of the Wasaka tribe's god, their vengeful shaman placed a curse on him that has affected his descendants throughout the ages. Now it's affecting the current Phantom, who must finally put an end to it before future generations are forced to suffer as well. In consulting the Chronicles, he discovers this has happened in 18th century Japan, 19th century Russia and 20th century New York ... Can he break its spell over the Walker family once and for all? We shall see... This one is slated to be drawn by Gabriel Rearte. Again, a very different style.
How would you describe your approach to The Phantom for Moonstone's books? What do you hope to achieve with this character?
Our watchword for the Moonstone Phantom books is "mystery". We're trying to keep the Phantom as mysterious as possible in order to emphasize the fact that he's a living legend. I'm also very attuned to the whole tradition aspect of the character, and that's something I try to infuse all the stories with on some level. Our ultimate goal, however, is to entertain readers of all ages, both old and new.
How has The Phantom movie influenced your approach to these stories?
The movie captured a real sense of fun and adventure, and that's something we hope to do with our series, as well. Each one of these is an edge-of-your-seat, thrill ride!
What sorts of Phantom stories do you think have the strongest influence on your writing?
Not sure, to be honest. I just like to write stories that I find interesting, whether they be of my own creation or inspired by something else. I couldn't pinpoint any single Phantom adventure that influenced the stories I've done so far. Other than the movie, that is ...
What other influences have you drawn on for the Moonstone stories?
Well, history certainly will play a part in Curse Of The Phantom, as it takes place during four disparate time periods. Literature was definitely the inspiration for The Hunt. And The Singh Web drew heavily on elements of Raiders Of The Lost Ark and The Phantom movie. I guess of them all, The Ghost Killer is pretty much my own special brand of lunacy. Where exactly it came from, I have no idea ...
What is it like working simultaneously for two different Phantom publishers (Egmont & Moonstone)?
It's great. They have two completely different editing styles, but I find both of them compatible with the way I like to work. Joe Gentile has been a great supporter of my stories and is eager to make this the best Phantom series possible. Ulf Granberg has been an excellent guide through the Phantom's world. His instincts as an editor are dead on, and I trust his judgment implicitly. I've been lucky to collaborate with guys like these.
What other projects do you have in the pipeline (apart from The Phantom)?
Let's see ... I've just had a couple of things hit the shelves in the past few weeks, including a 4-page story in DC Comics' September 11th benefit book entitled A Tale Of Two Americans and the 64-page JLA: SHOGUN OF STEEL Elseworlds, drawn by amazing artist Josue Justiniano. As a matter of fact, Josue Justiniano, and I are currently developing an all-new 12-issue maxi-series for DC. I've also just written the lead story to the upcoming GREEN LANTERN: SECRET FILES & ORIGINS #3 (drawn by Jamal Igle) and the DC FIRSTS: GREEN LANTERN annual (drawn by ROBIN artist Pete Woods). Those are due out in May, I believe.
On April 4th, my first creator-owned book, CRYPTOPIA, comes out as part of the Image Introduces ... series of "pilot" one shots being published by Image Comics. My artist/co-creator is newcomer Pat Quinn. We're both very excited about this project ... especially since we're in the process of having it optioned for development in film and television! Who knows? Maybe we'll see it on the big screen sometime soon! www.cryptopiacomic.com
Also in April, the UNION JACK trade paperback will hit the stands. It collects the almost impossible to find 3-issue miniseries I did for Marvel with my buddy John Cassaday a few years ago. I'm very proud of this series, and would recommend it to any Planetary or Captain America fans out there. John's art is simply stunning.
I'm also one of the contributing artists to a new comic book magazine entitled COMICULTURE. It's the brainchild of colorist Steve Buccellato, and it's going to be a 64-page bi-monthly anthology series showcasing the variety of stories that can be told in this particular medium. Our fellow collaborators include the legendary Klaus Janson, Don Hudson, Marc Siry and Rob Tokar. My own personal contribution is a 6-part horror/mystery series entitled THE LOST TRIBE. If all goes according to plan, our first issue will be available at this summer's San Diego Comic Con.
And last, but in no ways least, is a short story entitled "Croaked" which I've written for the upcoming MOONSTONE MONSTERS: SEA CREATURES anthology one-shot. It's gonna be creeeepy ...
Thanks Ben for taking the time to do this exhaustive interview!
A complete index of all Ben Raab's Phantom stories is listed below in order of their first publication. The corresponding issue numbers for Fantomen (Sweden) and Frew's The Phantom (Australia) are included. Story titles are translated from the original Swedish titles, and where different, the titles used by Frew are given in parentheses.
|1||The Link (The Temple)||32||Boix||16/1999||1240|
|2||The Doomsday Sect||31||Spadari||20/1999||1244|
|3||The Spear of Destiny Pt.1: The Test||32||Boix||5/2000||1256|
|4||The Spear of Destiny Pt.2: Deadly Cargo||30||Boix||10/2000||1261|
|5||The Spear of Destiny Pt.3: The Devil's Whirlpool||31||Boix||23/2000||1278|
|6||The Spear of Destiny Pt.4: Child of Destiny||31||Boix||26/2000||1279|
|7||Prisoner of the Mafia (Revenge of the Mafia)||31||Felmang||16/2001||1298|
|9||The Invisible Phantom||31||Ryan||25/2001||1308|
|10||The Phantom Legion (The First Mission)||31||Felmang||25/2002||1308|
|11||The Sorcerer's Apprentice (The Apprentice)||31||Bade||20/2003||1366|
|1||Book #1||The Ghost Killer||Fernando Blanco||Paul Mounts|
|2||Book #2||The Singh Web||Fernando Blanco||Ken Wolak & Dawn Groszewski|
|3||Book #4||The Hunt||Lou Manna||Matt Webb|
|4||Comic #1||Stones of Blood Pt.1||Pat Quinn||?|
|5||Comic #2||Stones of Blood Pt.2||Pat Quinn||?|
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