Novelist David Liss & Marvel's Phantom Reporter

David Liss Talks Phantom Reporter

Novelist David Liss may be known for his historical thrillers, but he’ll soon be known in the comics world as the man that gave the Phantom Reporter his definitive origin.  Spinning out of The Twelve, the Daring Mystery Comics 70th Anniversary Special allows one of the bright lights in contemporary fiction to cast some illumination on the heroic past of the truth-seeking mystery man.

If you aren’t familiar with Liss, he’s been building a sterling reputation this decade.  In 2000, his  A Conspiracy of Paper was released; it was named a New York Times Notable Book, and garnered Liss 2001 Barry, MacAvity and Edgar awards for Best First Novel.  The follow-up, 2003’s The Coffee Trader, was also named a New York Times Notable Book and was selected by the New York Public Library as one of the year's 25 Books to Remember.  Since then, he’s published three more novels, and has another new one, The Devil’s Company (also featuring his recurring protagonist Benjamin Weaver) due for release later this year.

Bill Rosemann, the Marvel editor at the reins of the project, already counts himself a Liss fan.  He says, "If you've been lucky enough to have enjoyed David's award-winning historical thrillers -- I happily recommend you run out now and devour A Conspiracy of Paper, A Spectacle of Corruption, and The Coffee Trader to begin your journey -- you know he's a natural fit for comics. His Benjamin Weaver, a fast-witted boxer turned private investigator, reminds me (in a good way) of Luke Cage, but transplanted to 18th Century London. Combining humor, action, magnetic characterization and the ability to bring historical events to shocking and captivating life, David is a true fan of comics who will wow readers with his talent, passion and heart.”

In terms of the Phantom Reporter character, Rosemann is equally effusive.  Putting on a bit of salesman hat, he says, "Crusading cub reporter by day...scourge of the underworld by night! What's NOT to love about that idea? The medium may be shifting from traditional newspaper to a paperless delivery system, but the honest and exposing bright light of journalism will always be needed. Without the watchdogs, the lie-spewers and greed-mongers will gleefully push around and take advantage of the Little Guy. The Phantom Reporter is the romantic symbol of the crusading journalist splashed large across the rain-slick rooftops of The City, looking down upon honest citizen and evil fat cat alike, wielding his ever-watchful gaze, wicked right cross and quick-firing pistols! Whether he stalks the gin joints of the 1930s or today's mean streets, let evil doers fear the righteous power of the Phantom Reporter!"

But what of Liss himself?  Fortunately, we were able to catch up to the author before the official announcement to discuss the project.

Newsarama:  How did you get involved with this project and Marvel?

David Liss:  Several years ago, after my first novel came out, Bill Rosemann at Marvel contacted me and asked if I might be interested in doing projects with Marvel.  I was interested, but at the time I was also still trying to figure out how to write novels and I didn’t really have the creative energy to put into learning how to work in an entirely new form.  I let things slide, but then Bill contacted me again last fall with this specific project in mind.  Having then completed six novels, I was much more comfortable with what I was doing, and I was very open to working in comics.  This project in particular seemed like a perfect entrée for me.

NRAMA:   What's it like for you to make the transition from novelist to comics?  Can you explain some of the nuances or challenges that you possibly didn't expect?

DL: The main challenge for me was brevity.  I love writing scenes with lots of dialogue that, over time, nuances and develops characters.  In comics the imperative is to be much briefer.  I also had to learn to think about art direction and a more visual style of story-telling.  At times I felt like I was taking a sequence that would go on for ten pages in fiction and turn it into two or three panels the comic script.

NRAMA:   How does your background in historical fiction come into play for this particular tale?

DL: This story is set in the late 1930s, and I approached it very much as a work of historical fiction.  I did some reading on the period, I read books written in the period.  I wanted to infuse it with a late 1930s aesthetic and feel.

NRAMA:   What makes a character like the Phantom Reporter relevant for today's audience and social climate?

DL: The thing that interested me most about this character is that he is both a journalist and a vigilante – and what that combination implied.  We tend to believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant – that if the media exposes a wrong-doing, then that is the first step toward inevitable justice.  So many times in the past few years we’ve seen journalists expose corruption, crime, malfeasance and any number of outrages and either nothing is done or no one is punished.  I wanted to write about a reporter who is a true believer in the power of journalism, and yet bumps up against the limitations of this institution in which he believes.  What does he do next?  Well, if he happens to be a rich and a first-tier athlete, he puts on a costume and kicks some wrong-doing butt.

NRAMA:   Going back to your background a bit, are you a long-time comics fan?  Have you always wanted to take on a comics project?  If you're a regular reader, what kind of work appeals to you?

DL: I am a narrative junkie.  I love story-telling in all forms: novels, movies, television and comics.  I grew up reading comics, but because of the demands of my work, I had been away from them for a while before hooking up with Marvel for this project.  Writing about the Phantom Reporter has brought me back into the fold.  Right now I am spending most of my comic-reading time trying to catch up with the Marvel continuity.  I just finished reading the entire run of the New Avengers, and I’ve started on volume 5 of Captain America .  I’ve been a fan of J. Michael Straczynski’s since Babylon 5, and I loved his work reviving the Phantom Reporter in The Twelve.  I also read and enjoyed much of his work on The Amazing Spider-Man.  Outside of Marvel titles, I’ve been loving Robert Kirkman’s series Invincible and Walking Dead.

NRAMA:   There's quite the trend of prose authors translating their work into the graphic form.  Is that something that you'd like to do?  Is there a particular book of yours that you'd like to "translate", or would you create a new project?

DL: I don’t [know] that I need to see any of the novels I’ve already written transformed into graphic novel form.  I am not against it, but none of them cry out to me that they need to exist in this other form.  However, I do have idea for stories that I think would work better as graphic novels than prose novels, and I would love to pursue those projects in the future.  

NRAMA:   What's it like taking a character like The Reporter and crafting a definitive origin?

DL: It is cool.  I love origins stories in general, and the chance to create one was a real blast.  I also took the project very seriously, weighing everything we know about this character and then trying to figure out what would make him turn out this way – what would make someone who has a career, money, privilege do something as crazy as put on a mask and fight crime.  I wanted to come up with something that made real psychological sense.  

NRAMA:   When it's all said and done, what do you hope that the audience takes away from the tale?

DL: Mostly I hope they will walk away with a desire to read more comics written by me.  Other than that, I hope that readers will find this an exciting, compelling self-contained story.  My goal was to write something that worked as a noir mystery, but also had the excitement and wonder of a golden age comic book, and to do it all with a modern sensibility.  Besides the basic nuts and bolts of character and plot, this is also a story about the limitations and demands of power and knowledge.  Those are, of course, heavy topics, and if there is one thing I’ve learned about story telling, it is that if you want to write about deep topics, it’s always a good idea to punctuate the serious stuff with a hero who beats the crap out of his enemies.

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