By Alberto Gallo
The proposal comes on a working day like many others, “Wilson McCoy is in hospital, do you want to draw the Phantom?” Appreciating the masked hero since Ray Moore’s days, Sy Barry can’t turn down the offer, even if it’s just a momentary commitment to give McCoy time to recover. While the Sunday strips are handed over to Bill Lignante, the doors of daily stories open for him. Apparently Lee Falk himself approved Barry’s name, after all, his experience as a strip designer guarantees reliability.
Born in New York on the 12th of March, 1928 into a very poor family, Seymour “Sy” Barry is placed in foster care and spends the first ten years of his life away from home without knowing why. These were the years of the Depression in USA, a difficult period in which his father, a house painter, struggled to feed his eight children. The very young Sy is passionate about drawing and adventure comics published in newspapers, in addition to the Phantom, he reads Flash Gordon and Secret Agent X-9 by Alex Raymond, Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff and Smiling Jack by Zack Mosley, but he is especially attracted by the realistic style of the illustrators who draw for magazines. Not surprisingly, among the comics, his favorite title is Prince Valiant by Hal Foster, an artist much closer to illustration than sequential art.
When he returns to live in Coney Island with his family, he discovers that his brother Dan, five years older, loves comics and has dropped out of high school to start earning money by drawing them. The common passion for drawing makes him feel very close to Dan, but the character differences will make their relationship marked by strong contrasts. In any case, Sy also shows a marked talent for drawing, so much so that one of his teachers notices him and encourages him to apply to the School of Art in the city.
In 1943 he is one of the hundred applicants to pass the school selections, where he makes friends with the young Joe Giella, Al Scaduto and Emilio Squeglio, also destined for a career as professionals in comics. After graduation, Sy works on Tarzan between 1947 and 1948, mainly dealing with layout, inking and backgrounds.
The end of the forties represents the beginning of his freelance career, during this period he collaborates with several publishing houses such as Gleason, Timely (the future Marvel) and National (the future DC), where he draws on Famous Funnies, Jonny Peril, Rex, Phantom Stranger, Action Comics, Detective Comics and many other titles. For the young artist it’s a very stimulating moment, the role of inker leads him to work with designers of the caliber of Alex Toth, Carmine Infantino and Frank Giacoia, as well as André LeBlanc and George Olesen, names that (like the former partner of Giella studies) will play an important role in his future.
The commitment with National does not prevent Sy from rushing to help Dan (under pressure with deliveries), putting himself in difficulty in completing his job and giving up higher paying positions. Despite the great esteem for his older brother, Dan’s lack of gratitude towards him will always remain a worry for Sy. Towards the end of the 1950’s he leaves National to return permanently alongside his brother on the strip of Flash Gordon, making decisive contact with King Features Syndicate, who decides to give him a chance when McCoy falls ill.
The proposal to draw the Phantom comes in 1961 during the period Sy is working on Flash Gordon, now dissatisfied with the collaboration with Dan, he wants to free himself from his brother to return to work on his own. When McCoy is forced to stop, Sy just pitched King Features Syndicate a new strip on the civil war made with Frank Giacoia, an idea much appreciated in the newsroom. Knowing him for the work done on Flash Gordon and for the desire to experience a new start, his choice as Wilson’s replacement becomes almost automatic.
Despite a fair amount of experience behind him, Barry’s adventure on the Phantom starts off on the wrong foot. “Sy, they’re beautiful but we can’t publish them” the editor warns him, looking at the strips from the first week. The style is very realistic, similar to that used on Flash Gordon, too different from McCoy’s drawings. “We’ll pay you for these, but you’ll have to do them again”.
Drawing inspired by McCoy, for Barry, is not easy at all. Their styles are so distant that, returning to the drawing board, he feels as if he has to forget all the techniques and tricks he has learned over the years to start from scratch. In fact, he has to draw in another person’s style, something never even done on Flash Gordon, where Dan’s hand was clearly more akin to his. More than drawing like McCoy, in the end, he will find a balance between his style and that of his predecessor.
On the 20th of July, 1961, he is still working on his first Phantom story, when unexpected news reaches him, Wilson McCoy died of a heart attack while he was hospitalized from an infection contracted in the Congo. Satisfied with Barry’s job, they don’t need to look for an heir to Wilson at King Features Syndicate. With Lee Falk’s approval, the temporary assignment turns into a permanent job.
When Sy is officially named the new artist for the Phantom daily strips, not a single strip of his has appeared in the papers yet. Barry’s first adventure, “The Slave Market of Mucar”, debuted on the 21st of August, 1961 and ended on the 10th of February, 1962, marking the beginning of a new era. Although style is a mediation between the past and the future, probably the most attentive readers can already feel the air of change that is about to blow on the strip.
No longer having to act as a reserve, in fact after two months, Barry begins drawing with his own style and from the story “The Epidemic” (12 February – 16 June 1962), he’s free to develop a personal version of the Phantom. It does so gradually so as not to upset the readers, who have long been accustomed to McCoy’s style, but the intention to aim straight for realism is clear. When the Syndicate also entrusts him with the Sunday strips instead of the unconvincing Lignante, “Treasure of the Skull Cave” (10 May – 28 October 1962), Sy confirms that his innovative approach is appreciated both by the publisher and the public. Thus, within a few stories, he completes the development of the new style, quickly imposing a new vision of the strip.
Barry’s precision and attention to detail represent the antithesis of Moore’s impressionism and McCoy’s pop style, with this arrival, a completely new period opens up, where suggestions and ingenuity definitely go to the archives to make room for realism and pure technique. His style is perhaps less artistic than that of his two predecessors but more concrete and modern, in step with the times, in some ways able to anticipate some trends of the Sixties. The greater weight of the technical factor must not make us think of a cold and scholastic work, Barry’s hand gives atmosphere to the cartoons thanks to a skilful use of chiaroscuro capable of giving depth to the images and making them come alive, bringing the Phantom into a diametrically opposite real world to McCoy’s idealized one.
The masked hero changes, his physique becomes powerful and muscular, the head is transformed into a sphere with the massive base of the face surmounted by high and protruding cheekbones, while the black mask goes down to the cheekbones and the white space of the eyes becomes larger. Barry, in essence, defines the canons of the modern Phantom, the definitive one, creating a prototype that almost all designers (including foreign ones) will refer to in the following decades.
With the usual spirit of adaptation, Falk once again adapts to the characteristics of the designer in charge, making the strip ever closer to reality and the social changes taking place. The Phantom collaborates with the United Nations, while Diana works for the UN headquarters first as a nurse and then as director of the Afro-Asian section for human rights. Together, the two also support the candidacy of the future first president of the newborn state of Bangalla, Lamanda Luaga, a doctor born in the Llongo tribe who distinguished himself for having eradicated an epidemic and foiled a coup.
The most important event, however, concerns the private life of the protagonist, after years of promises, in fact, the hero and his partner finally consecrate their love in a historic wedding to which Mandrake and the faithful Lothar also participate as guests. From the union of the Phantom and Diana the twins Kit and Heloise will be born, assuring the next generation of the Phantom. As discerning readers suspect, not everything that appears in the strips is the work of Barry, in fact, many other hands are hidden behind his signature.
Aware of the commitment required by the daily production, from the beginning of his experience on the Phantom, Barry surrounds himself with several ghost artists to speed up the work and meet deadlines. In the early 1960’s, his main collaborator was Bob Forgione, a designer born in 1929 who began his career around 1948 as an assistant to Jerry Robinson. Forgione signs the pencils of the daily strips of the early 1960’s, churning out several iconic close-ups of the masked hero in which the geometry of the head is enhanced by a skillful play of light and shadow, skillfully combined with unusual views. His clean, dynamic and expressive style seems to have no weaknesses, the collaboration with Forgione gives life to the best period of the Barry era, the phase most appreciated by readers, the one to which the name of the New York artist is most frequently associated.
With the farewell of Forgione, the stripes remain at excellent levels but loses a good part of their freshness to accentuate the realistic imprint even more. In 1966 Joe Giella introduces Don Heck to Barry (co-creator of Iron Man), propitiating a collaboration destined to last twelve years. During this time, Heck quickly becomes one of Sy’s favorite assistants, who appreciates not only his ability to make good layouts quickly but also his kindness and quiet temper. Although Heck tries to conform to the style of the titular designer, someone notices his hand and writes him a letter asking him what he’s doing working on the Phantom, arousing the astonishment of the designer.
In 1968 it was Giella himself who joined Barry’s team. The two had met at age 16, when they attended the School of Industrial Arts, and had remained good friends, also sharing the experience as assistants on the Flash Gordon strips. When Sy proposes to help him, Joe Giella accepts, fresh from the drawings of the Batman strips, three days a week he goes to his colleague’s house (about twenty minutes away from his) to work on the Phantom.
His task is not limited to pencils, inks and backgrounds, but even leads to secretary duties. Also, when Barry goes on vacation, he takes advantage of the similarity between their styles to let him complete the stripes. During the seventeen years of work on the masked hero, Giella has no contact with Lee Falk, the only meeting between the two takes place at a Christmas party organized by the King Features Syndicate, where the screenwriter, now elderly, introduces himself to Falk’s third wife Elizabeth Moxley, thirty-one years younger.
Despite the assembly line method of work, the Sixties are characterized by a discrete stylistic uniformity thanks to the hand of Barry, who refines and inks the layouts of the assistants, giving the strips his very personal imprint. Things change in 1972, when in the daily story, “The Witchman” some rather important differences begin to be noticed. The novelties are the result of the work of André LeBlanc, Haitian designer born in 1929, already working alongside Will Eisner (anonymously) on the Spirit and longtime collaborator of Dan Barry. For seven years, in the period between 1972 and 1979, he is the main designer of the Phantom, often also working on the inking and drawing of the entire stripes when Barry goes on vacation.
The titular artist meticulously supervises the work, but with LeBlanc, most of the characteristics of the dazzling Sixties are lost, the Phantom’s face is transformed, the penetrating close-ups and graphic cartoons disappear and the direction becomes more static. Hers is an ordinary Phantom, dignified but without effect shots, devoid of the vital energy that had characterized the previous decade. The high point of the LeBlanc period is undoubtedly represented by the wedding of the masked hero, “Phantom Wedding” (31 October 1977 – 4 February 1978).
Similarly to what happened thirty years earlier with Ray Moore, from the LeBlanc period onwards, Barry seems to gradually lose interest in the Phantom, ending up leaving more and more space for his assistants. The situation is certainly affected by the tense relationship with Falk, due to the frequent intemperance’s between the two. Fortunately, towards the end of the 1970’s, Richard “Rich” Buckler’s arrival at the designer’s court gave the strip new life.
Buckler arrives at the Phantom via Dan Barry, who recommends him to his brother after having him as a helper on Flash Gordon. Even without reaching the levels of the early 1960’s, the new collaborator regains some of the vigor lost with LeBlanc, proving clearly more brilliant than the aide from Haiti. The long experience as a ghost artist gained alongside Al Williamson on Secret Agent Corrigan allows him to conform more easily to Barry’s style, from which he stands out above all for a more intense use of black (see above).
In the early 1980’s when Buckler left the Phantom, Barry’s only assistant who remained loyal was George Olesen, at his side since 1962. Until 1984, Olesen mainly dealt with pencils for Sunday stories, and then also designed the daily strips. Among Barry’s assistants, he is probably one of the least gifted, the rigid and woody figures, combined with the square and older face of Phantom, contribute to making his strips excessively scholastic, in some ways inadequate. The long militancy on the character, the high productivity and the punctuality in carrying out the work make him a reliable professional, allowing him a long and fruitful collaboration.
During his Phantom stint, Barry continually struggled with Falk’s over-the-top behavior, guilty of putting a spoke in the wheel on more than one occasion. Incomplete plots, scripts that are slow in coming, forgotten characters and names changed in the course of the same story, in the first half of the nineties Barry no longer tolerates the unprofessional attitude of the screenwriter, which often made it difficult for him to plan a holiday and sometimes it forced him to intervene in the running of the storyline to plug some flaws.
Tired and now devoid of creative stimuli, in 1994 Barry decides to remove the curtains and retire to devote more time to his wife Simmy (who passed away in 2020) and to his three children, who give him four grandchildren. Falk doesn’t know that Olesen’s hand is behind Barry’s work, but when he finds out, entrusting him with the role of new titular designer, which seems a natural choice.
Retired from comics, Barry devotes much of his time to painting, focusing primarily on portraits made with a combination of oil, acrylics and watercolors. Some of these works featuring the Phantom and have been used as cover illustrations in different parts of the world. Over the years he continues to appear at conventions and to create sketches and commissioned drawings (still very coveted by enthusiasts and collectors), as well as continuing his philanthropic activity, guaranteeing time and financial support to numerous associations.
Much loved by readers, with thirty-three years of service on the Phantom strip, Barry is the longest-running artist on the Phantom, as well as being the most influential. It can be said that, by summoning an army of assistants, it was he who generated the birth of a school of artists, daughter of the style whose canons he set in the 1960’s. Almost all of his heirs will base their work on his Phantom, making him an irreplaceable point of reference.
In his fifty-year career, he himself has been influenced by many artists. First of all from his brother Dan, from whose collaboration he learned more than he could learn in his studies. Secondly by the impressionists Degas and Daumier, who often saved him from the tendency to procrastinate by providing him with stimuli and ideas to overcome moments of difficulty.
The realism of his style also required an extensive use of documentation, kept in the so-called “morgue”, photos of sports, clothes, uniforms, means of transport, foreign cities and whatever else it was necessary to draw in the strips were collected there, in those three filing cabinets full of reference material, strictly ordered from A to Z.
At the height of popularity of the Barry era, the masked hero strip is read daily by over 100 million people around the world. Although the artist believes that Falk has often tried to overshadow him to take full credit for this success, the writer has always had a good word for him, describing him as the most technically accurate artist of all who worked on the strip, gifted with a special talent for layout and considered by the entire comic industry as one of the greatest inkers.
Falk’s recognition for Sy’s work (who currently lives in Long Island, New York) is more than justified, after all, the Phantom is one of the few characters of the thirties still alive and published in different countries, so much of the credit must go to the renewal initiated by Sy Barry.