The Phantom movie promo book, 1994
Okay, who here remembers that there was a live-action Phantom movie in 1996, directed by Simon Wincer and starring Billy Zane?
I saw it in a theater, but I remembered absolutely nothing about it until I rewatched it to write this article. If not for that, I’d remember it for one reason only: I was hired to help promote it. It turned out to be my most lucrative project up to then, and my art was reproduced in the best quality I’ve ever seen. That’s the nice thing about working for a big time movie studio, I guess. Even if the content is nothing special, the presentation is top notch.
I also don’t remember how I got the job. It had to be a professional referral. One day I got a call from someone in the promotional department of Paramount Pictures asking if I could come in and talk about doing the art for a Phantom project. When I got there (to this day my only visit to the Paramount lot) they showed me some promo stuff they’d recently finished for the movie Congo (due out a year later). This was still pre-internet, so the cutting edge of media was CD-ROM. They’d produced a CD-ROM with flashy graphics that came in a kitschy wooden box with some vaguely African-safari-type paraphernelia. Since The Phantom was cut from similar cloth, they wanted to put something like that together.
Understand, whatever this was going to be, the general public would never see it. It would be limited to investors, licensors, and anyone else who could help get the movie funded. I was there to help them conceive and execute such a project, which was a pretty good gig for someone like me with both comic book and print media experience.
The first thing that popped into my head was a super-deluxe, large-format presentation book like a program you’d get from a 1930s movie palace. Something BIG. The kind of souvenir album that (sadly) nobody seems to make any more. (Though I would find out many years later that Japan makes movie program books for EVERYTHING, and they’re fun to collect.) The staff liked that concept right away and asked me to put a mockup together so we could price it out. I drove home excited about this new project, completely unlike anything I’d done before, and decided the first thing I had to do was learn some things about The Phantom. (Which I’d never read.)
Created by artist/writer Lee Falk, it debuted as a newspaper strip in 1936 as a sort of cross between Indiana Jones and Black Panther. Falk kept at it for over 60 years, all the way to his death in 1999. Others continue the strip today, although I can attest that I have never once seen it in any newspaper. (Read more about it here.)
It was August 1994 and Comic Con was coming right up, so I used it as a chance to gather up some collected reprints. They were very dated, of course, but definitely good enough to start from. I was given a copy of the shooting script to identify moments that could be illustrated, and the illustrations would be in a super-wide landscape format, like Cinemascope.
We went back and forth a few times, and the project came together very smoothly. The book would be 16 full color pages on heavy 11 x 17” paper, opening up to a gigantic 11 x 34” width. Coming out of the relatively low-budget comic book industry, I was amazed at the money they were prepared to spend on this thing. My bill came out to a whopping 13K, the most I ever got paid for any print media project.
When they asked me to suggest a gimmick for the cover, I suggested a hologram, which was a big comic book trend in the 90s. They looked into it and approved it without fuss, so that gave me a whole new thing to design. I thought the best subject would be an image of the hero that transformed into his signature ring. A specialist was hired to make and capture it, and I learned that he would sculpt it in clay to match my drawings. The rest of his process was opaque to me, but it was another cool thing I got to do for the first (and only) time.
So, if everything went so smoothly, why didn’t I get more assignments like it? Well, there was a point when we had to figure out how the book would be bound together, and that was an aspect I hadn’t grappled with. Apparently that was an unforgivable sin, even though it got solved and everyone was happy with the end product. I remember a conversation that took a sudden antagonistic turn, and I remember overhearing some grumbling about how “this always happens when we work with subcontractors.”
Well, I thought to myself, if you can do it better on your own, good luck.
The book got done, the check cleared, I received a few copies (that looked AMAZING) and I went back to my freelance life drawing comics and RPG books and other stuff that interested me. Meanwhile, things sort of went south on the movie. The book indicated that Joe Dante would be directing and the film would be out in 1995. I don’t know what happened with that, but someone else ended up directing and the film took an extra year to come out. It failed to light the world on fire and was soon written off as another of those middling 90s comic-based movies that all kinda blurred together.
Anyway, that’s all ancient history. It was a terrific project to work on, and I’m still very proud of it. I wouldn’t change a single thing about it today. Here it is, from start to finish.
My first thought was to present the origin of the character in classic comic strip style.
Later it was decided to drop the words.
There would be three super-wide “cinemascope” type scenes. Nailed the first one in one try.
The second one (Phantom’s cave) took two tries; they wanted to see more stuff, so I went for a higher angle.
The third scene was harder to get. It took a few tries…
…and a change of plane style to match the script.
The final choice was a vertigo-inducing doozy that we all loved. I’m still super proud of it today.
To my eternal regret, I only have a damaged and scuffed copy that is irreplaceable. But anyway…
The credit reads: Graphic Design and original illustrations in this book by Tim Eldred.
Color by Albert Deschesne (a friend who I worked with many times, sadly no longer with us.)