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Cartoonist relishes his super job

'Phantom' artist draws on his childhood dreams


For more than two decades, Paul Ryan has made people fly, given children the strength to bend steel, and banished villains from the earth.

As a syndicated comic artist, Ryan has breathed life into such characters as Superman, The Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and Batman. Since 2005 he has been drawing the Phantom, which runs daily in hundreds of newspapers nationwide and internationally, including those in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Australia.

Ryan, 55, collaborates with writer Lee Salk to produce the strip, working from his Hudson studio. On average, Ryan said it takes around four hours to pencil a strip and three hours to ink it in, crafting lighting and shadows. It's important, he says, that a comic strip artist be able to produce visual prose.

"I find that while I'm illustrating a story I become so focused that I feel as if I'm [actually] in the story, taking the part of each of the characters as I draw them," Ryan says.

Throughout history, society's idea of beauty has dictated what body type is in vogue, so it's not surprising that Ryan has witnessed the metamorphoses of the superhero physique.

"In the early days of Superman, he was rather squat," says Ryan. "And then along came a fellow named Wayne Boring who made him a barrel-chested 6-footer."

Since then, Ryan says, artist Curt Swan made Superman look more realistic and most recently, John Byrne gave him an enormous chest.

Ryan's work reveals his anatomical knowledge, with superhero muscles defined at every angle. He keeps volumes of medical books in his studio for reference but says for the most part, he's learned about the human body from observation; looking at magazines and real people. In fact, many real people, including family and friends, have made cameo appearances in his comics, as have some shops in Hudson.

His daughter Heather had a scene in the Flash comic series, and various Spiderman strips have included his parents and the front of the Hudson salon Lucille's Hair Place, now called Scissors Edge.

A few years ago, while chatting with some fellow artists, Ryan had an epiphany, realizing they really do see the world differently from others.

"Whenever I'm in any situation, I'll constantly try to memorize things. I'll memorize a face, a room, and actually mentally outline everything." He says he looks at shadows as well, and is especially drawn to older faces that exude character. "You see so much history in the face. And that's something I try to bring into the work, too."

Ryan began his training as a child, growing up in Somerville. He'd park himself in front of the television each night to watch George Reeves and the "Adventures of Superman." When his family spent time on Cape Cod, he'd tie a towel around his neck and jump off sand dunes pretending he was Superman. A highlight of his youth came at the age of 7, when his parents bought him an official costume.

Ryan admits he was teased sometimes by the neighborhood kids -- like the time he climbed a tree wearing his cape and someone set off a cherry bomb beneath him -- but for the most part, he said, he wasn't hassled.

More traumatic was the day he returned home to find his parents felt he was too obsessed with fantasyland and had given away all of his comic books. Decades later, Ryan did some research and learned that the first year of the Fantastic Four, issues 1-12, which he had owned, was worth thousands of dollars to collectors.

Soon after young Ryan's comic books were sent off, Interstate 93 was built through his neighborhood, and the family moved to Medford. After high school, he attended the Massachusetts College of Art and learned there were many others who saw the world as he did.

After graduation, Ryan served with the National Guard; spent two years doing statistics for a securities research company; and took a job as a graphic designer for an engineering firm. The work was steady, but he wasn't too excited creating color pie charts and graphics for water-treatment plants. Fed up, he looked in the telephone book and found the number for Marvel Comics. He asked for the editor-in-chief, and when he got him on the line, Ryan asked him how to break into the business.

"He told me to do some sample drawings, which I did, sent off, and of course, got a rejection slip."

A few years later, Ryan learned that a company in Connecticut was offering opportunities to amateur comic artists. By then, he was pushing 30 and had a low-paying job.

Ryan created a science fiction character that was half human and half alien, and shipped it off, beginning a brief relationship with the company. During that time he met Marvel comic artist Bob Layton, who had moved to Boston and was looking for an assistant. Ryan worked at Marvel for 11 years, eight of those under exclusive contract. After an editorial shakeup, he found work at DC Comics.

Looking back on his climb to the top, Ryan recalled when his son Jason was 7 and asked him to draw a picture of Spiderman. Flattered, Ryan made two versions, one with Spidey standing and the other with him hanging from a ceiling. Ryan later found out that his son -- now 31 -- had photocopied the pictures and sold them at school.

Ryan's daughter Heather, 28, still gets a kick out of her father's career.

"To this day," she says, "I hear grown men say, 'Your dad draws comics? That's so cool!' "

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