Jeff Parker On Reuniting The Phantom, Flash Gordon And Mandrake For ‘Kings Watch’ [Interview]
Today, Dynamite announced that they were bringing The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician and Flash Gordon back to comic books with the team of Jeff Parker and Marc Laming. The big return is set to take place in an all-new series called King's Watch, in which the Ghost Who Walks, the Savior of the Universe and... uh... Mandrake find themselves battling against forces that threaten the entire world.
To find out what we can expect from the series, we spoke to Parker about being a fan of the characters, the overlap between spacemen and pirates, and why the top hat is the most important part of a crime-fighting ensemble!ComicsAlliance: Let's start with the big stuff. If I'm coming into this as someone who's not really familiar with these characters, what do I need to know?
Jeff Parker: Mandrake is a Magician who fights evil with illusion and maybe even real magic. Phantom is a mysterious butt-kicker who slams evil, and lives in the jungle. Flash Gordon is a buck-wild adventure loving guy who is not afraid to go into space and fight aliens. Together, they fight.
CA: Is that the entirety of the high concept? Because let's be honest, I'm a dude who likes it when people get together and fight.
JP: What I'm trying to say is that this book has fighting, Chris. And mystery, and science fiction, and monsters, and creepy cult people.
CA: So what was it that attracted you to the characters? Were you a fan already?
Jeff Parker: Oh yes. I was always a big Flash Gordon fan, and still hope to one day have an Alex Raymond original artwork. Phantom was the only real adventure hero in my daily newspaper when I was a kid, so I followed him. Mandrake I mainly knew by the Kurtzman/ Elder parody Manduck in MAD, until I was able to get the Pioneer Press reprints. They were all super-pulp adventure, stuff that I'm a sucker for.
CA: I'd forgotten you were such a Flash Gordon guy. I think we've talked about that before.
JP: You probably remember me writing about Al Williamson, also known for his work on Flash Gordon, talking about meeting him.
CA: How did the idea of putting these characters together as a team come about? I know that it's not an entirely new concept, with Defenders of the Earth back in the '80s, but was it someone at King Features, or Dynamite, or is it something you actively pursued?
JP: I believe King Features and Dynamite both wanted that to happen, to make a nice big event out of these new comics. Nate Cosby came on as editor, and I think he figured based on my past work that I would have no qualms with making those characters work together. And, he was right.
CA: That's something that struck me about it, too. Between Atlas, X-Men, the all-ages Avengers book, Thunderbolts and Dark Avengers, I'm wondering if you've gotten a reputation as a "team book" guy, and whether you're comfortable with that.
JP: I don't know, because practically no creator has less a sense of how he's perceived than me. But I do think Thunderbolts proved I can juggle an incredibly large cast, so three dudes? Relaxing. Especially when one of those dudes wears a Top. Hat.
CA: You are a very fashion-conscious writer.
JP: These things matter.
CA: Is it easy for you to make them work well together, then? I mean, historically, they've been concerned with different genres of pulp adventure that don't always overlap. The Phantom has his long-standing beef with pirates, while Flash Gordon is more about high-collared spacemen.
JP: Same thing, really. You're right about how much Phantom Hates The Hell Out Of Pirates. Chris, did you know he had a cave base and a butler before-
CA: Don't. We don't want to have this discussion, Parker. Not here. Not now.
CA: Really though, I'm curious. What brings them together? Do they just hang out going "Hey, I hate evil, you hate evil..."
JP: Weird and scary phenomena start happening all over the world, and we find out that it connects to an old friend of Mandrake's called The Cobra. Not the Cobra who comes to mind for you, remember these guys did everything first. But as you'll see the plot to essentially take down the whole planet connects quickly to all three heroes.
CA: Sounds like an approach that lets you have space-men, pirates, and... whatever it is that Mandrake fights.
JP: That is how mysterious Mandrake is. In our updated version, he does street magic and levitates 6 inches off the ground with his back to you.
CA: I'm excited to see how close-up card tricks translate to the comics page.
JP: "Is THIS the card you were thinking of, Cobra?"
CA: Are they going to stay confined to Kings Watch, or are there plans in place to break them out into solo books?
JP: My guess is the latter, based on everything I know about comics publishing. So I feel if we can get this book out there into hands, solos will follow. But I'm not the official word on that, it's conjecture on my part.
CA: How much are you able to share in the way of details?
JP: Something dreadful happens to one of our Trinity. Too specific? Dr. Zarkov looks a lot cooler than on that SyFy show from a few years ago. Lothar can straight up break a jaw with one punch.
CA: You mentioned an updated version of Mandrake, so I'm assuming this is set in the present?
JP: Yes it is. But really Mandrake is pretty classic looking. Very suave, I was kidding with the David Blaine stuff, readers.
CA: I figured. He seems like more of a Criss Angel. Mandfreak.
JP: SOUL PATCH MANDRAYKE
CA: I know that The Phantom is still a going concern in newspapers, but with the pulp roots for all of the characters, was there ever a thought of setting the books in the past? Dynamite seems keen on that, with what they're doing with the Shadow and Green Hornet.
JP: Not with this, though I would have been fine with that because I love writing period fiction. But I'm also happy to show how these characters with no real changes can work great in modern context. I've always railed on the idea that high adventure can only happen in the '30s for some reason.
CA: In addition to writing, you also designed the logo for the book.
JP: Yes! I like making logos, I did it on Agents of Atlas, Underground and other books. This one I wanted to feel big and classic and have design elements that come from the story -- that big circle will make sense later. Also I thought it would be cool to put in three icons that represent our heroes.
CA: I was going to mention that it was similar to what you did with Atlas, especially those big block letters. But that was another book where you were reviving classic characters, so is there a thematic connection there too?
JP: I won't lie, I want readers to feel a connection because these are iconic pulp heroes and part of the same tradition. Except in this case these characters started most of the traditions. If you liked my Atlas stories, you're going to like this.
CA: Is there added pressure there, in terms of having more of a legend to live up to, or are they removed from superhero comics enough that you think you'll be bringing in a new audience?
JP: They have a fan base, but I think a lot of comics readers mainly know them because you just know about them, more from reputation than having read actual stories. So I want to bring them in epic-style and show why these heroes caught the public's imagination back in the day. And do it again! The nice thing is I can cherry pick great elements from a long timespan, there's no dictate to one continuity. The basics are in place; Phantom is from a long line of heroes who wore that mask and gave skull-ring beatdowns, and so on.
CA: So wait. This continuity doesn't involve Billy Zane?!
JP: I'd say there are some definite Zane-elements.
CA: Let's talk about Marc Laming.
CA: Have you worked with him before?
JP: No, and I don't know why not. I'll sure try to whenever possible now, he is killing on these pages.
CA: How'd you get hooked up with him for Kings Watch?
JP: All Nate Cosby master-planning. He's pretty good at mashing up creators. Marc is the best to work with, all that talent and no ego somehow. Funny as well, if you follow him on Twitter at @monkey_marc .
CA: Did you two get together to talk about what you wanted to do with the characters and where you wanted to take the story? Did you at least get to warn him he'd be drawing rampaging elephants on page one?
JP: He clearly was fine with drawing rampaging elephants, that is no problemo for Marc Laming. Everything in this is right up his alley, though I make it clear I am open to any of his suggestions. Among other things he's great at are covers.
CA: Looking at that first cover, he's drawn the Phantom as a little more haggard than the other two. Is there a story reason for that, or is he just The Ghost Who Doesn't Shave Very Often?
JP: Yeah, that's for a reason. Our Phantom has seen and been through a lot, and that figures in what he does in the story. He contrasts to fresh-faced idealistic Flash.
CA: Where does Mandrake fall on that axis?
JP: The other two can at least relate to being more obviously human than Mandrake, who kind of freaks people out. Mandrake is a true enigma and knows things that probably no one should.
CA: Are there other characters that you want to bring in, beyond just these three?
JP: Well we do have Lothar, Dale Arden and Professor Zarkov and a few others. And DEVIL. You see Flash's dad.
CA: Second-greatest. See, the reason I ask is because King Features also distributes a comic you may have heard of called Funky Winkerbean.
JP: Ohhhhhhhhh sssnnnnnnnaaaappp. Flash gets beaned with a baseball.
CA: So can we look forward to the Funky Winkerbean crossover? Is that the horrible world-shaking event? Just widespread misery and smirking?
JP: The Funkyverse is compromising our own universe's boundary!
CA: I'd read it.
JP: When Flash teams up with the Slylock-Foxmen you would probably be there too.