Welcome to the first in a series of interviews with some of the legends of comic books. In this series I will be interviewing some of the top writers and artists of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. First up is one of the most prolific comic writers in history, Steve Englehart. In a career that has spanned nearly forty years, Steve has written for just about every major comic book including: The Avengers, Captain America, The Defenders, The Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange, The Hulk, The Silver Surfer, Batman/Detective Comics, Luke Cage, to name just a few. He wrote for Marvel, DC, Valiant, Topps Comics, Warren Puplications, Malibu Comics, Eclipse Comics, and more.
He’s written for TV, animated series, children’s books, and designed video games. And as you will see below, Steve’s plots and ideas were largely the basis for the first Tim Burton 'Batman' film as well as the recent film 'The Dark Knight'.
Mania: Steve, what was your earliest professional comics work? I know I recall you did some work for Creepy magazine in probably the late 1960s?
SE: Close, but my earliest work was as Neal Adams’ assistant on a job for Vampirella, published Mar 1971, so done sometime in the fall of 1970. I then went on to do my own stuff, with Neal’s guidance, for Eerie and other black & white mags. Then I became Bob Oksner’s background inker of Supergirl and Jimmy Olsen. Then I got a chance to be a Marvel editor and writer…
Mania: You were part of what I consider maybe the greatest generation of Marvel writers who all got their start in the late 60s and early 70s. There was Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Gerry Conway, Steve Gerber, Doug Moench, Bill Mantlo, I know I’m probably missing a couple, but you were the guys that really guided Marvel out of the silver age and through the 70s and 80s. Did you have a feel for how historic that group was and what was the camaraderie like with the other writers?
SE: I think we all knew comics were as good as they’d ever been, that we were all on the crest of a wave. I don’t think we ever considered that waves eventually crash. But we knew it was a great time to be in comics, having complete creative freedom, at the most popular comics venue. We knew we were a generation, as you say - the first to come into comics having not done anything else beforehand (work-wise) - the first that was essentially college kids, for whom Marvel was very much designed, and who now had the chance to write and draw for people just like us.
One of the great things about comics then was, you had to live in or near New York to do them. So everybody in comics knew everybody, and partied with them, and rode the subway at dawn with them, and read each other’s stuff and saw each other the same day to comment on it. It was a very tight group, and it included our generation and people like Bill Everett and Wally Wood — everyone in comics, of whatever age or level of success. The link was comics.
Mania: While at Marvel you worked on almost every major title: The Avengers, Captain America, The Fantastic Four, The Defenders, The Hulk, Dr. Strange…which was your favorite title to write and why?
SE: They’re all my favorites, depending on how I look at them. I loved CAP, DOC, AVENGERS, DEFENDERS, HULK — really, it’s for others to say which ones they liked best, but I liked each and every one. I wanted whichever one I was writing to be the best it could be, and satisfied myself (and evidently readers) often enough that I had a wonderful time at it. The only two I ever deliberately gave up at Marvel were DEFENDERS, because I didn’t want to write two team books and I had AVENGERS (tho I still loved DEFENDERS), and CAP, because I was offered a THOR black & white mag that offered a whole new challenge (tho I still loved CAP). “Love” is a word that comes up often in my memories of Marvel then.
Mania: One of my favorite story arcs of the 1970s was in Captain America where you had Cap quit because he was disillusioned at the corruption in the government. This kind of foreshadowed the events in the Civil War storyline a few years ago. Was that just a story or did it reflect your own views of the government, as this was right around the time of the Watergate Scandal?
SE: Well, I never wrote Steve Englehart’s story, I wrote Cap’s story, or the Hulk’s, or whatever — but it seemed to me that Cap could not let Watergate pass by with no reaction to it. Watergate was enthralling the country, and Captain America would just fight supervillains? No. Cap was based on America. Anyone else could ignore Watergate, but Cap couldn’t. So then I wrote what I was seeing into what Cap had to deal with.
A point well worth making is, that sort of corruption in America was unheard of in 1973; that’s why it enthralled the country. Between 2001 and 2009, we had corruption that made that look silly, and it was continuous and relentless, so the context for modern times is very different from the context then. Cap’s (not my) standing up to Nixon’s corruption was a very big deal.
Mania: I know that a couple of writers followed you on Captain America but did you leave because Jack Kirby was returning to Marvel from DC and was he just handed the reins to Cap?
SE: No, I left to do the THOR B&W (which then didn’t happen, unfortunately). Jack’s return happened later, and I would imagine taking on CAP was part of the deal (whether he asked for it or they asked him to do it), but there was no connection to my situation.
Mania: Having written Captain America for as long as you did, what were your feelings on Cap being killed in Civil War?
SE: I love (there’s that word again) the guy I wrote, but comics moves on.
Mania: You took over the Avengers in I think 1972 from Roy Thomas. Thomas had been on the book for something like six or seven straight years. Was it intimidating to step into those shoes?
SE: Yes and no. Yes, in that of course I knew I was following a legend, on what I considered Marvel’s best book. No, because I had confidence in myself. I soon learned that confidence was not enough; I had to buckle down and find my own actual way into that title.
Mania: During your run on Doctor Strange with Frank Brunner and later Gene Colan (one of the best in the title’s history by the way), Strange faced several creatures that seemed inspired by the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Were you a Lovecraft fan?
SE: I was and am. But I think the HPL stuff was an idea Roy had had for the relaunch of the title, and Gardner Fox had run with it. When I took over, I went more for cosmic stuff.
Mania: You made Doctor Strange into more of a dark fantasy/horror title as opposed to a super hero title, even having him battle Dracula. Was there any pressure from the editors to make Strange more mainstream with the other heroes?
SE: Not at all, and that comes back to an earlier answer. We had complete creative freedom, with no editorial edicts. Roy or whoever might suggest an idea, but he never insisted on it. His famous words to me were, “If you can turn the book in on time and make it sell, you can keep doing it; otherwise, we’ll find someone else who can.” And that was it. So since I did that, to the extent of having STRANGE sell so well as to go monthly for the only time in its life, I could do whatever I wanted. And I did.
Mania: Steve, you mentioned having complete creative freedom. It certainly seems as if guys had a LOT more freedom than today’s writers. With Marvel and DC doing those huge annual cross-over events every year, I would think that would severely handcuff a writer’s creative ability.
SE: Me, too.
Mania: One of your longer runs at Marvel was on the Silver Surfer on-going series. Everyone knows that this was a character that was near and dear to Stan Lee’s heart. Did you ever get any feedback from him on your work on that title or was Stan pretty much out of the comic side by that time?
SE: When Marvel offered him to me, I said that as far as I knew he was saved for Stan, and they replied that they were running the place now. I imagine Stan wasn’t pleased with this turn of events, but it WAS ten years or so since he’d left and I imagine, as a former editor, he had some understanding of the company’s reasoning. In any event, if he was pissed, he wasn’t pissed at me.
Mania: Why did you make the jump from Marvel to DC or were you freelancing for both?
SE: In the 70s, I left because the new editor took AVENGERS from me and DEFENDERS from Steve Gerber because he had the power to do so and the desire to write books we had made high-profile. It was not the way Marvel had operated previously, so I left, though I had never expected to be anything but a Marvel writer. Ironically, I did not want that experience to taint my experience of comics, so I went to work for DC for a year to do other things. One of those things was creating the Batman that became a tremendous franchise, and (as we’ll see below), that ended with DC treating me far worse than Marvel did then, so I end up with a tainted experience after all.
In the 80s I worked for both companies because both asked me to, and both had series I wanted to write, so that was pure freelancing.
Mania: What were the biggest differences between working for Marvel and DC back then?
SE: Marvel had offered complete freedom. DC hadn’t, but I insisted on it when I went over, and got it. In general, Marvel was loose and DC was corporate. Marvel generally used the “Marvel style” of plot / art / dialogue in that order, while DC used the “full script before the art” method. I used to write my DC scripts AS IF I had art in front of me - just writing the dialogue - then going back and writing out all the panel descriptions.
Mania: While at DC, you teamed with artist Marshall Rogers to create what many consider the definitive Batman during your run on Detective Comics. You took Batman back to his darker, pulp-era roots, and this was a good decade before Frank Miller and Alan Moore would come along with their takes on Batman. Were you looking to reestablish the character or were you just looking to tell a good story?
SE: Oh, I was definitely looking to reestablish the character. I had loved the Batman all my comics-reading life, right up through the O’Neil/Adams era, but I felt the whole “dark” aspect had never been done the way I wanted to see it; he did things in the night but he wasn’t a dark character. In addition, despite O’Neil/Adams, the general public still thought of him as the camp character on TV. I determined to give him the vibe he needed and to make him a fully-formed man. The trick there was to give him a fully-formed woman. Having sex was not only unheard of in comics at the time; it was unthought of. Nobody had ever gone there before, but once it happened, the movies could be made, and everything since has flowed from that. It was what made the general public pay attention.
Mania: You and Rogers then team-up for the sequel in the six-issue Dark Detective Two storyline and this is where some controversy begins. You mention on your website about the many plot and character similarities between Dark Detective II and the recent blockbuster film, Batman: The Dark Knight. Specifically you talk about the Evan Gregory character from your story and Harvey Dent in the film. Both were handsome politicians with a strong moral backbone; both became the love interest of one of Bruce Wayne’s former loves; Dent has the left side of his face horribly disfigured as a result of an encounter with The Joker while Gregory lost his left arm and left leg; and both were visited in the hospital by a villain. In the film it was the Joker, in your story it was Two-Face. This obviously goes beyond mere coincidence but you seem to have taken it in stride. Was there any consideration to taking legal action against DC and Warner Bros.?
SE: Marv Wolfman’s and Steve Gerber’s experiences on that road don’t lend themselves to a lot of hope there.
[Note: Read more about the Dark Night Controversy at SteveEnglehart.com]
Mania: Dark Detective III was completely scripted but Marshall Rogers passed away before he could supply the art. Do you think the series will ever see print?
SE: No. Having used it for the film, why would they print it now?
Mania: You moved from comics to writing novels. You recently completed “The Long Man” a sequel to your 1981 novel “The Point Man” and it will be out this Summer from Tor. They liked it so much that you were contracted for two more sequels. Tell us about the series?
SE: When I wrote The Point Man, I thought that was it for my hero, Max August. I had nothing more to say about him. But without thinking, I had left a hook, in that his mentor, Cornelius Agrippa, who had lived for nearly 500 years, only had five years left. And a few years ago, I thought, what if Agrippa had taught Max the secret of immortality before he died? Stories about immortal guys are almost always about guys 500 years old, but what about a guy just 20 years into it, coming to grips with the reality of reimagining himself, because the people who know him are getting older and he’s not? And that immediately led me to want to do the two books in real time: The Point Man did take place in 1980, Max became immortal in 1985, The Long Man does take place in 2007, and Max is only five years older, and will stay that age forever. I don’t have to pretend that some “undetermined time” separates the two like I did with Dark Detective. And that led me to make each book - the first one inadvertently, but the new ones deliberately - a snapshot of its time. I’ll have the 2007 book, and the 2009 book, and the 2011, and so on, with all the little details of the time - because Max never ages, while the world around him does.
Now, the Max of 1980 got involved in magick because his enemies were the Russians, who had, in actual fact, tried to make magick an espionage skill in their attempt to rule the world. In 2007, the KGB was defanged, and the people out to rule the world were the Neocons, who were in actual fact tapping everyone’s phone, reading everyone’s email, and taking anyone they wanted and sending them to Guantánamo, or worse. Instead of an external enemy coming to America, the enemy ran the American government, which obviously complicated the life of an American hero out to stop them. He became, as the woman in his life calls him, an “alchemist with a gun.” So all in all, that original closed chapter of the Max August story opened up and kept opening up, and Tor liked all the possibilities, and here we are.
The Long Man comes out this July, debuting at San Diego. The Point Man will be reissued with a few minor changes but otherwise untouched in 2010. The Plain Man, the third book, will also be out in 2010. It’s an exciting time for me, very much because it’s an exciting time for the world, and Max is right in the middle of it.
Mania: Are novels what you intend to concentrate on now? Do you foresee writing comics again?
SE: Not for DC, certainly. More generally, the answer is no, I don’t foresee it, but being a novelist seems to be the key to being a comics writer these days. :-) Really, I like writing novels, so I’m good where I am.
Mania: Steve, thank you so much for your time. I’ve admired your work for over thirty years and look forward to the novels.