By Alberto Gallo
In 2004, the Phantom celebrates his 80th Anniversary and George Olesen finishes his work as an artist on the Phantom. Inked by Keith Williams on the daily strips and Fred Fredericks on the Sunday pages, Sy Barry’s former assistant has given rise to a transition phase (with more shadows than light) marked in 1999 by the death of Lee Falk, who is permanently replaced by Tony DePaul after a short period of alternation with Claes Reimerthi.
Born in 1954, the former journalist DePaul had been chosen as Falk’s heir for having distinguished himself with Team Fantomen, the group of authors committed to creating new stories for the Scandinavian market. When Olesen retires, that huge reservoir of artists from all over the world provides the name of his successor. Paul Ryan is chosen, a solid designer who came to the Swedish Phantom almost by accident.
Born in Somerville, Massachusetts on the 23rd of September, 1949. After graduating from graphic design Ryan joined the Army and was sent first to Fort Dix (New Jersey) for basic training, then to the Massachusetts Military Academy in Wakefield for training for officers.
For eleven years he worked in the graphics department of Metcalf & Eddy Engineering in Boston, but he hasn’t forgotten the love for comics he’s felt since childhood, with a preference for adventure characters such as Tarzan, Prince Valiant and the Phantom. As a kid, he enjoyed Wilson McCoy’s work, but it was the arrival of Sy Barry that exalted him. The Phantom was drawn in the same realistic style as ‘Superman’ by Curt Swan, his favorite ‘Man of Steel’ artist alongside Wayne Boring’s ‘Breed’. When ‘Breed’ is published by Bill Black’s Americomics in Starmasters #1 (March 1984), Paul’s name begins to circulate on the Boston comics scene and he eventually joins Bob Layton, who hires him for a year as a background assistant.
The collaboration with Layton is his entry into Marvel, thanks to the interest of Jim Shooter, an eleven-year long militancy during which among his many projects are the drawings for all 32 issues of ‘DP 7’ (1996). A standout is the collaboration with John Byrne on the ‘Avengers’ series from 1989 to 1991, the historic marriage between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson which appeared in ‘The Amazing Spider-Man Annual 21’ (1987) and the famous run on the ‘Fantastic Four’ written by Tom DeFalco between 1991 and 1996.
Taking out two issues at the end of the cycle on the ‘Fantastic Four’ series to make room for Carlos Pacheco, which is in response to the imminent arrival of Jim Lee, Ryan consoles himself with the giants of the DC, including ‘Batman’, ‘Flash’ and ‘Superman’, also becoming involved in the ‘Superman Red / Superman Blue’ saga in 1998. In addition, with the collaboration on the special ‘Superman: The Wedding Album’ of 1996, Paul becomes the only artist to have participated in both the iconic wedding specials for Marvel and DC.
After a quick return to Marvel and a foray into the orbit of minor publishing houses, the turning point came in 2000. By auctioning his boards on eBay, Ryan receives a message from a Swedish enthusiast, “Have you ever thought about drawing the Phantom”? The author of the message is Jonas Vesterlund and he says he worked as an intern for Egmont, the publishing house that produces Fantomen in Scandinavia.
As an old admirer of the masked hero, Ryan takes the opportunity to send a few pages of his work to Ulf Granberg, the manager of Fantomen. When he receives the comic strips, Granberg has no hesitation, a few model sheets of the main characters and Ryan’s entry into the team is done.
Ryan’s debut on Fantomen takes place in November 2001, involuntarily propitiating an innovation. For the occasion Ryan is asked to design the cover, but Paul does not feel like creating a painting technique as required by the magazine’s tradition. He hasn’t painted since 1967, it would take him too long to regain confidence with brushes and paint. Upon approval by Granberg, Ryan decides to draw the illustration in pencil and ink and then entrust the digital colouring to his friend Tom Smith. The result pleases both the editor and the public, who seem to appreciate the more modern approach proposed by the American artist. Noting how the digitally created cover recorded a slight increase in sales, little by little the other artists of Team Fantomen also change to this new method.
Twelve stories drawn over five years, Ryan’s work on Fantomen continues until 2004, attracting the attention of Jay Kennedy, editor at King Features Syndicate, who names him the new artist of the daily Phantom comic strip.
For Ryan it’s not the first experience with a syndicated strip. Between 1992 and 1995, he had already drawn the Sunday strips for Spider-Man. His first strip appears on the 31st of January, 2005 half way through the Phantom story, ‘Temple of the Gods’, a story started by Olesen and Williams.
Under Ryan and DePaul, the Phantom comic strip is experiencing a real renaissance. Although they worked together on Fantomen for just one story, the two immediately demonstrate an extraordinary understanding, giving new life to the character.
The pinnacle of their era is in the maxi saga in five episodes published between August 2009 and May 2011 (the longest story ever) starring Chatu, a ruthless terrorist nicknamed ‘Python’, who has become the main enemy of the Phantom. But Chatu is just one of the many new recurring characters that DePaul creates to expand the cast, particularly reinforcing a female presence with the inclusion of figures such as Captain Savarna and the new recruits of the Jungle Patrol, Hawa Aguda and Kay Molloy.
Terrorism, illicit trafficking and international intrigues; thanks to plots increasingly oriented towards real crimes at the expense of folkloristic stories, throughout the management there is a strong air of contemporaneity, extraordinarily interpreted by Ryan’s art. From cities to interior furnishings, through to clothes, objects and vehicles, the Massachusetts designer moves the characters in an extremely lively and real environment, whose spatiality is enhanced by a skilful use of perspective.
In Ryan’s comic strips, the Phantom really seems to be part of our reality, almost as if his exploits were real news, those published stories within the same newspaper. From this point of view, Ryan takes up the concept of realism introduced by Barry, accentuating and updating it. Although the New York artist is admittedly his beacon in the night, Paul does not fall into the trap of emulation, preferring to use Barry as a reference point from a conceptual rather than a stylistic point of view.
Graphically, in fact, his pages are physiologically more modern, characterized by his typical detailed sign and dominated by a particularly powerful Phantom, whose marked musculature highlights the profound anatomical mastery of the artist.
Not liking to see his drawings inked by other hands, Ryan works on the strip alone, with no assistants, consistently maintaining enviable quality despite the tight production pace. In his pages, you never see a drop in attention, shortcuts, approximate cartoons or figures pulled away. The high quality level appears even more surprising if you consider that from 2007 to 2011 (plus a brief parenthesis in 2012, due to the death of Eduardo Barreto) he also designed the Sunday comic strips (coloured by the faithful Tom Smith) and allowed himself some new forays on Fantomen .
With his arrival on the scene, in short, Ryan finds his ideal size, the suitable context to sign the best pages of his career, expressing a potential that has perhaps never been fully shown in the years spent at Marvel and DC.
On the morning of Monday the 7th of March, 2016, readers wake up to the tragic news that Paul Ryan had died suddenly at his home in Hudson, Massachusetts, aged 66, just as he had just received a new script from DePaul.
His run on the Phantom stops drastically as had occurred with Ray Moore and also with Wilson McCoy and Barreto. The news of Ryan’s death immediately bounces from webzines to blogs, from forums to social networks, giving life to the coloured memory of an artist who, although never properly celebrated, signed some of the main events of the eighties and nineties.
His Phantom strips will stay in the public eye until the 28th of May, 2016 before handing over the helm to Mike Manley.
Despite a career that took off late and ended prematurely, Ryan has often had important professional opportunities without looking for them and has taken with him the satisfaction of drawing most of his favorite characters.
With the Phantom in particular, a special connection had been created, which on some occasions, had see him suggest some ideas to DePaul. To show his commitment, he took about seven hours to draw a single strip, four dedicated to pencils and three to inking. Once the pencil drawing was set, he made shadows and chiaroscuro effects directly with a brush, and then added details, hatching and outlines with a finer brush.
Although he always had reference material at his side, he preferred the privilege of observation, modelling the physiognomies of the characters on real people and relying on his artist’s eye for both anatomy and environments. “In every situation, I always try to memorize everything”, he said, “I can memorize a face, a room, paying attention also to the shadows”. The ability to observe was supported by a great technical knowledge of drawing, and a vast wealth of personal experiences.
Like the Phantom, Ryan had practiced fencing, horseback riding, archery and weights throughout his life, but he also knew how to handle firearms. During his time in the military he had even joined the National Guard shooting team, leaving the army in 1978 with the rank of second lieutenant. Before marrying Linda (his lifelong partner), he had practiced martial arts for two years, stopping at the Shotokan brown belt under the guidance of police sergeant Jim Tatosky, master of Shotokan and taekwondo.
Finally, thanks to the masked hero, he could finally have fun drawing his beloved horses. According to DePaul they were one of the designer’s strengths, but it’s really hard to find fault with his work. Sometimes considered Sy Barry’s ideal heir, Ryan was credited with rejuvenating the strip, and together with DePaul, was able to relaunch it in a big way after the decline following the end of the Falk era, establishing himself as one of the main artists in the history of the masked hero. Not bad, for an artist who came to the Phantom almost by chance.