SDCC '08 - The Knaufs Bring the Phantom to Sci Fi

Moonstone vs. Dynamite Over the Phantom

As costumed crusaders become further entrenched in mainstream entertainment, Sci-Fi Network is hoping to update one of the oldest comic heroes, The Phantom, for television. (Newsarama Note: The Phantom's current and upcoming fate in comics has been in the news recently - check the links below for Newsarama's coverage)

Created even before Superman in comic strips of the '30s, the Phantom is being translated for TV by screenwriters Daniel Knauf (of HBO's Carnivale) and his son, Charles Knauf. The writers said they've turned in a script for a four-hour Phantom movie that is waiting to be greenlit, with the hopes of an eventual series for Sci-Fi.

"Sci-Fi's saying, you know, let's take another look at this Phantom guy," Daniel Knauf told Newsarama during this weekend's San Diego Comic-Con. "A lot of people are responding to superheroes, obviously. Just look at Comic-Con. And Phantom was one of the first costumed superheroes. He's a little bit more hardcore than other superheroes in that he packs guns and has martial arts training to kill, military style."

While this is their first co-venture into television, the two have been co-writing costumed heroes for Marvel Comics for the last two years, including Iron Man and the Eternals. In the case of the Phantom, however, the Knaufs said they had to create a more modern version of the pulp hero.

"We upgraded everything so that it's a modern-day Phantom," Charles Knauf said. "In the tradition of the Phantom, it's going to be a great adventure story. It's going to be action and car chases. He's still got a purple costume, but we upgraded it. We made it tougher. And he's got both rings, and they mark you, just like the original story. But we're updating everything to make it more modern."

The Phantom, which has been published in various comic formats since it was created by Lee Falk in 1936, is the story of the legendary "Ghost Who Walks," the hero who protects the innocent with the help of his Jungle Patrol in the fictional country of Bangalla. A character who has been the subject of TV shows and movies in the past, the Phantom character is seen as immortal by the people of Bangalla because the mantle has been passed down through generations since the 16th Century, with each son replacing his father.

"In our story, we have a break in the lineage. The 22nd Phantom, the one we all know and love, his wife and his son died in an automobile accident. So when he died, there was no one to take over," Daniel Knauf explained. "But it turns out the son survived and has been raised by a foster family and has no idea who he is. They find him through a fluke when he's arrested on a trespassing charge, and he ends up getting his DNA into CODIS [the national DNA database]. The people in Bangalla who are still part of the Jungle Patrol -- which we call Bpaa-Thap (which literally translates to 'Jungle Patrol') -- they find him and decide to bring him in and train him. So it's a whole new game for this kid. So he's very conflicted, as far as who he was and who he thinks he is."

The villain from the Phantom comics, the "Singh Brotherhood" that killed the first Phantom's father, have also been updated for TV. "They've evolved into this huge corporate entity. After the death of the 22nd Phantom, which takes place 14 years before our story, that gap without a Phantom led to everything horrible that's happening today. It's the Singh Brotherhood behind it," Daniel Knauf explained. "Their whole thing is that if they can keep people at war, they'll make money. They're fomenting distrust between various nations and factions, and just making sure that there are always bad things happening. But our lead bad guy is Raatib Singh, and he's a corporate animal."

"You'll see something deeper to him that makes him much more twisted than your average corporate bad guy," Charles Knauf added. "Like when somebody gets into an argument with him, instead of doing something like spreading rumors about him sleeping with another guy's wife, he'll shoot him in the face. He's a really twisted character. He's a psychopath."

Daniel Knauf said he originally thought he wouldn't have the time to dedicate to the Phantom, but working with his son lightened the load. Knauf is working on an HBO "mockudrama" series called Honey Vicarro, a four-hour movie for ABC about the end of the world called Exodus, and the feature film, House of Cain for Will Smith. So at first, he turned down the opportunity to write The Phantom for Sci-Fi.

"I passed. I was booked. I was completely booked," he said. "And then Charlie comes home and sees this outline sheet about The Phantom on my desk. And he said, 'Oh, you have to do this. You're doing this.'"

"I walked in and I saw the sheet, and I said, 'Is this the Phantom I know and love?'" said Charles Knauf, who grew up reading Phantom comics. "And it was indeed The Phantom. And I said you have to do this! This is great!"

The Knaufs said what attracted them most to the project was that the Phantom is one of the pulp fiction "mystery men" from the '30s like the Shadow and Sandman, so he doesn't necessarily play by the same rules as other superheroes. "He's a straight-up pulp hero. This was before everyone was copying Superman and Captain Marvel. The Phantom was a much earlier character," Charles Knauf said.

"You know what sold me? Charlie said he carries twin 1911's [Colt pistols]. I said, he carries guns? He said, yeah. I said, oh, well, we're doing it. He kills people," Daniel Knauf said. "And we updated the guns. We actually have them chambered for .44 Magnum bullets."

"But it's also pure superhero because there is good and there is bad. This isn't an anti-hero. It's black and white for him. This is the Phantom, and he does what's right," Charles Knauf added. "I think part of why Sci-Fi is interested in the Phantom is the success of the Batman franchise. You don't necessarily have to have someone with superpowers; you just have to have someone who's heroic."

Daniel Knauf agreed that the Phantom is first and foremost a hero, but he said the story is also one of revenge. "I think, in a sense, that what [the Phantom's story] speaks to is that it's a confusing time to live. What we're kind of saying with this is maybe it's time for somebody who has a clear idea of what's right and what's wrong," he said. "And the Phantom has always been, and in our script it very much is, a revenge drama. It's about a victim of crime. Back in the 16th Century, the Phantom's father is murdered by pirates, and he thinks, you know what? I don't want anybody else to feel the way I do right now. And so I'm going to make sure this never happens to anybody again. And really, our character goes through what I would say is a worse situation. We have a line in it that says, 'This isn't about revenge. It's about justice.' And the Phantom says, 'Revenge IS justice.' And so it's got a darkness around the edges."

For now, the Knaufs are waiting for the project to be greenlit because they just turned in the first draft of the script. "We haven't gotten our first set of notes yet. It's still got a long way to go upstream. I kind of equate it to a salmon, and you hope this one spawns," Daniel Knauf said with a laugh. "We're hoping this one makes it, because we're in love with it. It's a very, very cool project."


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