By Alberto Gallo
For years he drew page after page in total anonymity, replaced Ray Moore during the war, helped him get the job done when his health failed him, then took over his job by remaining at the helm of Phantom for fifteen years. Robert Wilson McCoy is the perfect example of the reliable artist, the one who doesn’t spare himself and never backs down, always willing to take up the challenge and always on time for the appointment with deadlines. A fundamental quality for a comic artist, even more so when it comes to daily strips. Throughout his life, however, McCoy has dealt with many other things.
His story begins on April 6, 1902, when he was born in Troy (Missouri), the penultimate of seven children in a family accustomed to wandering the length and breadth of the United States due to the work of his father, a trader of musical instruments. His parents, Edward Ferdinand McCoy and Theodocia Elizabeth Turnbull, were married on May 23, 1886 in Batchtown, Calhoun County (Illinois), and only later moved to St. Louis (Missouri), the city where Wilson grew up constantly changing house.
His first job came in 1914, a year after his father’s death, at the age of 12, hired in a grocery store, he worked eight hours a day after school and twelve hours on Saturdays and Sundays, for a total of $3 a week. Destined to help his brothers and his mother, who in the meantime has opened a pension thanks to a loan. Two years of high school follow, then the entry into the advertising agency D’Arcy Advertising Co. (initially as a delivery boy and then within the creative staff) and later in General Outdoor Advertising. Meanwhile, with the accumulated savings, he enrolled in the School of Fine Arts, at Washington University in St. Louis, where he met Dorothy Rainwater, three years younger: after winning 5 dollars each in a comic contest launched by St. Louis Post-Dispatch in January 1925, the two officially engaged in June of the same year. The wedding arrives on September 12, but the intention to move to Chicago still has to wait until the last year of university, during which Wilson becomes president of the Art School Association.
While Dorothy is pregnant with their first child (Robert Wilson Jr.), in the fall of 1926 McCoy made a first foray into Chicago with $7 in his pocket to attend the American Academy of Art. Despite the work found in the Windy City, the following year he returned to St. Louis to work as a drawing and illustration teacher.
1931 is the year he gets a big scare: a motorist overwhelms Wilson while he is at the wheel of his car, causing him to crush his lungs. Although he is in serious condition, he miraculously manages to save himself, becoming the first person in the world to survive such an accident. In the meantime, his professional life began to give him some satisfaction: in 1930, with his colleague Charles Francis Quest, he opened his first advertising agency, McCoy & Quest. The studio is located at 2313 Washington Avenue, St. Louis, in the same building as Ray Moore’s studio, who attended his own university along with Wilson’s future partner Lester Harry “Tex” Willman.
Throughout the decade, McCoy’s career was booming: collaborating with several studios, he worked for companies such as Shell, Tums, Dr. Pepper and US Rubber, as well as making illustrations for calendars, prints, pin-ups and covers for Liberty Magazine.
In 1939, with the beginning of Phantom’s Sunday stories, McCoy and Willman become Moore’s assistants. Wilson can’t imagine either as well as creating illustrations for calendars, prints, pin-ups and covers for Liberty Magazine. In 1939, with the beginning of Phantom’s Sunday stories, McCoy and Willman become Moore’s assistants. Wilson can’t imagine either the turning point in his life, but that’s exactly what happens: even if the $53 a week he received to replace Ray during the war makes him turn up his nose, over time the compensation will grow, finally allowing his family (which expanded in 1933, with the birth of the second child Carol) to move to Chicago.
After seven years of work as a ghost artist, McCoy’s first officially credited story, “Queen Asta of Trondelay”, was published between July 15 and October 26, 1946. Three years later, with the publication of “Fathers and Sons” (20 February – 24 April 1949), the artist also begins to sign the Sunday plates. Although Moore’s shadow does not disappear immediately, Wilson tries to completely detach himself from the design of his predecessor, developing a flat and essential style, deliberately naive, so naive as to seem childish. A clean break with the past of which there were already signs in the period spent as an assistant, during which his hand had taken more and more space contributing to the stylistic transformation of Moore. McCoy takes care of the smallest detail and makes extensive use of photographic documentation in search of maximum naturalness, setting up home sets in which his wife and children pose for him interpreting the scenes to be drawn. The villa where she lives and works, located in Barrington at 254 Donlea Road (in the Chicago metropolitan area), becomes the model for Diana Palmer’s house, demonstrating how the real context is the essential basis of her work. In short, McCoy’s style is not as childish as it might seem: Wilson re-elaborates reality through an extraordinary work of synthesis, demonstrating remarkable technical skills and a personality capable of flowing into an irresistible pop vein.
McCoy also transfers his experience as a pin-up illustrator into the drawing of the female figure: starting with Diana, his women are pretty bourgeois-looking girls, far removed from the sensual femmes fatales and sophisticated Hollywood stars outlined by his predecessor. The Phantom also radically changes its appearance, going from Moore’s athletic and powerful figure to a buttery physique that makes the tights look like a clunky pajama.
When he takes the reins of the strip, in essence, McCoy quickly focuses on a personal path, devoid of any continuity with Moore and completely indifferent to the most popular graphic currents. His style plays down the protagonist’s exploits, emptying them of any heroic connotation, in a sweetening of the tones that almost seems to anticipate the crackdown imposed by the Comics Code in 1954.
McCoy promotes a courageous but effective choice, because it allows Phantom to develop its own well-defined universe: Falk, in fact, adapts to the characteristics of the designer by completely changing the tones of the strip. The dark adventures of the Moore era give way to bizarre plots aimed primarily at young audiences, often set in fairytale kingdoms ruled by young kings and capricious princesses, or in forests inhabited by curious indigenous peoples. In this way, the screenwriter better delineates the imaginary state of Bengali that is the background to the stories, a country where the pristine jungle of the natives coexists with modern South African metropolises. In short, to vary plots and settings, it is no longer necessary to move to the United States, it is sufficient to move the Phantom to coastal cities such as Frasertown and Bengali to make it live adventures with urban atmospheres against gangsters and terrorists. McCoy, however, is at his best in jungle stories. The Bengali forest abandons the dark and threatening aspect of the Moore period to transform itself into a large, much more reassuring, almost idealized forest, where Phantom spends his days relaxing in the company of Diana or reading the chronicles of his ancestors in his Skull Cave.
Passionate about travel and safaris, McCoy personally goes to the places that inspire the scenarios of the masked hero, modeling the Bandar tribe on Mbuti Pygmies, an indigenous population of the Ituri forest in Congo. Wherever he goes, he documents himself, takes photos, studies the architecture and clothes of the local inhabitants for possible future uses.
Moore’s successor is completely absorbed in his work, an artist with a maniacal approach apparently far from the stylized mark shown in the strips. Unlike his colleagues, he also prefers to do everything alone, without relying on a team of assistants. The only one to give him a hand is his wife: in addition to taking care of the lettering, Dorothy uses her good skills as a designer for layouts and backgrounds, helping him to lighten the enormous workload.
McCoy, in short, is probably the artist who more than any other has been involved in drawing Phantom, dedicating body and soul to the production of the strip. For a tragic twist of fate, it will be the habit of documentation and the passion for travel to cause its end. In 1961, during a safari in Congo on the trail of the Mbuti, Wilson contracts an infection. He is treated with antibiotics, but every now and then the problem returns to disturb him until it forms a blood clot and involves the heart. While battling the disease, on July 20, 1961, a heart attack struck him in a hospital bed at the age of only 59.
His last daily strip appears on August 19, 1961, while the last Sunday table comes out on September 17 of the same year. The daily stories are taken over by Sy Barry, the Sunday stories pass for a week to Carmine Infantino and then permanently in the hands of Bill Lignante.
McCoy’s death marks the end of an era, an unrepeatable period marked by a surprising transformation in style and content. The transition to a more naïve character vision might seem like a regression compared to Moore’s management, but in reality it is simply a different approach that testifies to the versatility of Phantom and its world, capable of shedding their skin while remaining faithful to their essence. The change of course only works thanks to McCoy’s style, perfect for drawing these kinds of stories, often more like fairy tales than the adventures of a crime opponent. It wouldn’t have been the same with another artist: unthinkable, for example, to imagine Moore struggling with wizards, sorcerers and other supernatural figures such as those who populate the strips of this period. The fictional stories will continue even after Wilson’s death, but no artist will be able to make them work with his own magic.
Ultimately, McCoy’s Phantom remains a unique example, a happy parenthesis that leads the masked hero to rampant popularity: published in five hundred newspapers in forty-seven countries around the world, during the McCoy era the walking shadow strip reaches its maximum diffusion. It doesn’t get more pop than that.