When director Michel Gondry’s Seth Rogan-starring film “The Green Hornet” opens this December, it’s doubtless that many fans will see the picture while fondly recalling the Van Williams/Bruce Lee Hornet TV series of the 1960s. And Moonstone Books is counting on that. In June, the publisher best known for its comics focusing on “The Phantom” and “Captain Action” will publish “The Green Hornet Chronicles” – a prose anthology containing over 300 pages of hard hitting heroic fiction set within the world of the original TV series. And on top of contributions from writers like Robert Greenberg and Greg Cox as well as an introduction by the Green Hornet himself, Van Williams, the “Chronicles” anthology will feature an unlikely crossover: the first meeting of the Hornet and the Phantom as written by science fiction legend Harlan Ellison…
CBR News spoke first with the award-winning author and longtime comics enthusiast about how he became involved with Moonstone’s prose anthology (slated for both softcover and limited edition hardcover treatments), what his Green Hornet/Phantom story started out as and why he ultimately turned the tale into an expansive essay explaining why he choose not to finish it.
CBR News: Harlan, this isn’t exactly your typical contribution to a prose anthology because, while you do have a full story in mind, it’s not finished. Talk about how this began and how it ended up never being completed and why.
Harlan Ellison: Well, it’s a story essay, a very long essay, about 4,000 words. Apart from “The Spirit” story that I just finished for Joey Cavalieri at DC Comics, it’s the most recent thing I’ve written. This really is an example of my background in Ohio and being beholden. I always take my debts seriously; especially the kind when I’m pretty much in their pocket. Ruben Procopio is a sculptor who did the most astonishing Green Hornet/Kato statue a year or so ago. Because he was a fan of my work, he brought it to me, he also brought me The Shadow, and they’re right up there with the very best that Randy Bowen does. So, he gave it to me, we sat and talked, and I felt very grateful, but there was nothing I could give him. One of his best sculptures I have in the house is for The Phantom, and with him just giving me the Green Hornet statue I said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if the Phantom crossed paths with the Green Hornet?” Well, he leapt on that, as most older fanboys will, and I was being a fanboy myself so we sat there and thought it was just a wonderful idea. So then he called [Moonstone Books Publisher] Joe Gentile and said, “Harlan can do a story that will cross the two over!” The next thing I knew I was embroiled, without much forethought, in the story thinking “Wouldn’t this be cool?”
I began writing, but I had a very bad month of December and January – bad, bad health, and every night I would go to sleep thinking about doing this story and every morning I would wake up sicker than I was the day before but knowing I had to do this story. I have no trouble writing, even at my age now. I just sit down and do it. So I got the idea of what I would do in general with the story. It’s called “The Soul of Solomon.” I started to write it, but I got through a couple or three pages and it was like some sort of a serious sitcom, along the lines of Lucy in the candy factory. It began mounting on itself, twisting and turning, and the further in to it I got, the more complex it got until I was expending a lot of time in writing and thought and research to pull out all the arcana I needed to make this story work.
Early on I had decided one of the things that would happen would be Britt Reid would commit suicide, which got everybody’s knickers in a twist.
I can imagine.
And at the end, the Phantom would have turned over his pedigree to his son, who would be the new Phantom. That was just the by-product of what had to happen and what was going to be a very big plot. Not a very big, complex, dopey plot like most of the DC Comics “The Phantom” arcs, where nothing was logical, but all of it very logical and all of it based on one fantasy premise.
Well, I got pretty far down that cobbled path before I suddenly stopped and I had, quite literally, an epiphany. The epiphany was that there is some stuff in this world that really should not be done. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. So, I suddenly drifted from the story and began writing the story of how I was not going to write the story. The essay is called, “What Is, Is; Sometimes, Perhaps, What Ain’t Shouldn’t Be.” This is one of those things. Just because we can think of something doesn’t mean that there’s any point in doing it. There was a man who decided to write a Victorian novel without using the letter “e,” and he did it, but that’s like a whistling pony. What else does it do? It just stands there and whistles! I realized what I was trying to do was too much a fan geek project and that I’m too old, too far along the trail, and the few things I’ve got left to do are of more significance to me than indulging the fan geek in me. I look at an awful lot of projects and I think, “Why? Why? Just because you can?” But what the hell is the point of it? “Well, man, it would be cool!” No, it wouldn’t be cool. It would be geeky and stupid. If I wrote “The Soul of Solomon,” it would be – and I say this with as much level headedness as I can – I think it would be a dynamite story, but there’s no point to writing it. It would be too complex, require too much time and too much back and forth. It would be like trying to park a dumpster in a handicapped parking spot. So, I just decided that this didn’t need to be. There is no reason for the Green Hornet to meet the son of The Phantom. They’re perfectly happy in their two different worlds.
So, I sat down and wrote this essay, which is actually a seriously considered essay on what the obligations of an artist are to the work and the necessity of producing that work; that sometimes the work you think you need to produce is not the work you should be producing at all.
I know you’re a life long Phantom fan and would like to talk about that a bit. When did your fascination with the character begin and what was it about the Phantom that drew you in?
It started as a kid, on a Sunday morning, when the Cleveland Plain Dealer paper would arrive. I’d run out in to the snow, grab the paper, get it before it got wet, brought it in, pulled out the comics pages and lay on the living room floor reading the Phantom. Who would not love a guy who has a horse and a wolf and runs through the jungle in a costume beating the shit out of pirates and never dies? I’ve got Phantom tchotchkes all throughout the house. I have a great Phantom painting that was done for me by John K. Snyder that’s really beautiful. I’ve got another that Ruben did for me and a couple of sculptures. When I went down to Australia, I was pleased to discover that the Phantom is as popular there now as he was in America in the ’30s. The Phantom is huge in Australia and New Zealand. I still read him and still like him.
Do you have any idea why it is that the Phantom would find such an enthusiastic audience in Australia and New Zealand, whereas here in the United States his popularity is a fraction of what it once was? Any idea what’s behind that?
We’re fickle. And we’ve always been a fiercely anti-intellectual nation. I mean, electing someone like George W. Bush or considering someone like Palin as a viable candidate for the Presidency of the United States, the concept alone is beyond the wildest fantasies of when Ronald Reagan announced he was to run for President. We can’t wait to plow under our past so that we can put up the newest, latest thing and nothing has any generational weight anymore. Kids really do think they know everything, and even I’m sure I thought I was pretty smart at that age.
Yesterday on some Q&A television show they were asking a 23 or 24 year old college graduate to name five north-eastern states. She got Rhode Island, New York, Connecticut and then she said Canada. I just think people…with all the information available to them now, there’s nothing but distraction. I don’t mean this to include you and your site, but the Web is, as far as I’m concerned, not only a good implement for knowledge and gaining knowledge, it is also at the same time the most terrible double-edged sword for the procreation of stupidity on Earth.
Harlan, while I hope we don’t contribute to that stupidity too often, you won’t get an argument from me.
You can no longer trust data or information when facts are played hob with like Wikipedia or when everyone on the web who reads an opinion and treats it like fact. Back in the day, an opinion was something ventured with caution and usually with great thought and deliberation by someone who knew something. Now, it’s just the shit that pours off these mountains of lava of stupid remarks. I’ve led a terrific life and really have no complaints, but boy am I glad I’m not going to have to live through much more of this.
Let’s bring it back to the characters here. As a lifelong Phantom fan, do you have a favorite iteration of the character in print, radio, film, what have you?
Let me answer that question as if you asked me which version of Sherlock Holmes I liked best. Let’s see, when I grew up, they were doing the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes, and I liked some better than others, but when they did the BBC series with Jeremy Brett I found, for me, the perfect version. I read the books when I was very, very young, and they are my touchstone. I am drifting toward the iteration of the Phantom, but it’ll be the same answer as I’m giving you as Sherlock Holmes. I don’t need 62 different versions of Sherlock Holmes. People want to make remakes because they can use special effects now, but that doesn’t add a God damned thing to it – that isn’t what the Sherlock Holmes movies are supposed to be about. They’re supposed to be about thought, rational summation and being so smart you’re able to figure out a situation. When they did the Jeremy Brett series, I said this was it. The books and this are the definitive version. The only Sherlock Holmes I would add to the cannon is a movie called “They Might Be Giants” with George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward. George C. Scott was born to play Sherlock Holmes. He had the face, the mannerism, the commanding presence, and it’s one of my all time favorite movies. As a movie, it’s now considered one of those secret classics. It’s brilliantly done. The acting is astonishing. George C. Scott as Sherlock Holmes, you’ll never see anyone better.
So now, The Phantom. I went to see “The Phantom” movie, and I liked it. I thought it was good, good fun. How could a movie with Catherine Zeta Jones not be? That was the first I had ever seen her, and I thought she was astonishing to look upon. Billy Zane was a very, very good Phantom. There are some things that you learn eventually just don’t translate. “Dick Tracy,” for example – interesting and fun movie, visually exciting, but not such a terrific movie. It took me two or three times to get used to “The Shadow” movie. The first time I saw it, I hated it. Then I saw it on one of those little Kotex-sized box television sets on a Virgin Atlantic flight going over to England, and I watched it six times! I loved it! Particularly the Alex Baldwin scenes where he’s in the makeup with the cape is blowing behind him. That’s pretty much how every kid pictures the Shadow, and I pictured the Shadow pretty much the way he was in the movie. He was good, muscular, jumped on horses, dove out of planes and saved the hapless maiden.
So, my favorite iteration of the Phantom is, I suppose, the one that’s in the original strip by Lee Falk and Phil Davis. That one I read as a child. All others are good or bad depending on how good or bad the writer writing it is.
I took a stab at it, but at some point I realized this was a job nobody should do. There are hack writers who would jump on it in a second. I have no idea what the response will be [to my essay] because it is a mutant. The pages of the story, I think, are super duper, and Procopio is doing fantastic illustrations, but I think the essay will confuse the shit out of people. Again, it says basically just because in this life we can do something doesn’t mean we necessarily should do it. We shouldn’t get what we want, we should get what we need, which I think may be a bit too philosophical for the venue, but that’s where it went. I’m in the stage of my career where I write only for myself now. I’m not interested in writing teenage vampire stories or movies.
Harlan Ellison’s work will be appearing in Moonstone’s “Phantom Chronicles” #2 and “The Green Hornet Chronicles” #1, on sale in comic shops everywhere in June. Look back to CBR next week for a talk with Moonstone publisher Joe Gentile and Art Director Ruben Procopio on the project.