Steve Englehart: Pay Attention Fanboy!
An interview conducted by Dimitris Sakaridis and Elias Katirtzigianoglou
Edited by Dimitris Sakaridis
He's undoubtedly one of the most influential writers that worked in mainstream comics in the last three decades. During his career he's created new, original characters like Shang-Chi, Mantis and Coyote, but he's also breathed new life in existing characters, creating instant classics in the process, the most acclaimed of which is his masterpiece run in DETECTIVE COMICS with Marshall Rogers.
Now that he's back working on the Caped Crusader with the new limited series DARK DETECTIVE, COMICDOM talks with Steve Englehart about his career, his opinion on the definitive Batman and his future plans.
COMICDOM: Watching your career carefully and taking note of the times you left and re-entered the industry, I'm starting to feel that you almost always get out of comics, just before a big crash hits the industry. Is this some sort of intuitive power you have developed through the years or would you say that it's completely coincidental?
STEVE ENGLEHART: I'd say it's coincidental. My main motivation personally is to avoid burn-out. The great thing about writing comics is you're writing lots of stories, so you get feedback, learn, and grow. The bad thing about writing comics is you're writing lots of stories and after a while your brain turns to cheese. So when I feel I've done enough for a while, I leave and take up other pursuits. That's my motivation, and it has nothing to do with where the industry is going. On the other hand, when I left in the late 80's, I was pushed out, because Marvel had developed an idea that the characters were now so popular, it didn't matter who wrote or drew them, so why pay big-name creators big bucks? That attitude led them to bankruptcy four years later. So that was more that they were on the road to a crash, and I was the canary in the coal mine. [If that reference makes no sense: early miners used to take a bird down into the mine, because birds are more sensitive to gasses; if the bird died it meant the men should get out. So a "canary in a coal mine" is an early warning signal.]
COMICDOM: In the early 70's you wrote what is considered by many people to be, the definitive CAPTAIN AMERICA run. You slowly introduced many social and political elements in the stories, which gave a new dimension to the character and the concept. What was your ultimate goal with the conclusion of the storyline? Were you trying to make a particular political statement or were you just shooting for a good story?
ENGLEHART: Both. My main goal in almost all of my writing, is to sell it; that's what I was expected to do when I started so that's built in. But there are various ways to sell stories, and politics, at the time of Watergate, with President Nixon going down in flames, was a very popular subject. Since I am very interested in politics, I was more than happy to add them to CAPTAIN AMERICA and make my statement. With CAP, that specifically was that he represents what everyone thinks of as the "good things" about America: freedom, justice, opportunity. The other stuff -racism, domination, cheap culture- exists alongside the first things, which is why America is a complex place, but Cap represents the good stuff, and needed to say so, at a time when America's ideals were being tested.
COMICDOM: Did you have any problems with either your higher-ups at Marvel or the fans, when you were writing that particular storyline in CAPTAIN AMERICA? I mean, you had the bad guy turning out to be a high-ranking member of the government, I'm sure some people must have been a bit disappointed or worried.
ENGLEHART: I had no problems. Marvel at the time was all about being as creative as possible, exploring as many avenues as possible, and we knew our market included a lot of people with brains (But we always kept in mind we were writing for people of all ages, with brains or without; comics were for everyone.). In any event, I, myself, decided that calling Nixon by name might be going too far, so I myself decided not to do that - so we'll never know if Marvel would have objected. As it happened, they didn't object to what I did. (And to be clear: a high-ranking member of the government was turning out to be a bad guy; it wasn't some gratuitous attack on my part.)
COMICDOM: Around that time, you created the main characters for the MASTER OF KUNG FU series. After all these years, can you recall how you came up with the characters?
ENGLEHART: We absolutely were inspired by a TV series called KUNG FU. Jim Starlin and I (and a lot of people) were mesmerized by it, and asked Roy Thomas, our editor, if we could work up out own take on it. He agreed, but he was not all that taken with the concept, so he asked up to put Fu Manchu in it, and that led to the particular world of Shang-Chi. I was also familiar with the Fu Manchu stories so I could merge the two worlds easily; Dr Petrie came from there.
People regularly argue that Fu Manchu is a racist stereotype. I won't argue that he isn't, but I will say that he's not evil because he's Chinese; he's evil and happens to be Chinese. He could be Latverian and it would make little difference. But in the context of MASTER OF KUNG FU, I could explore the contrast between his "China as an empire" and Shang-Chi's more enlightened world-view.
COMICDOM: Since you have worked extensively in the past on both the AVENGERS and the WEST COAST AVENGERS titles, I was wondering what your opinion is (assuming you have one) on the current NEW AVENGERS title that Brian Michael Bendis writes.
ENGLEHART: Sorry; I just don't comment on other people's work.
COMICDOM: In the early 90's you were one of the founding fathers of the ULTRAVERSE, which was one of the most promising new superhero universes that came out at that time. Tell us a bit about that time. How were you approached by Malibu and what was, in a nutshell, the method you guys used to create this universe out of whole cloth?
ENGLEHART: They came to me and the other guys at the San Diego convention to create individual characters and the shared universe. Later that fall, they flew us all to a resort in Arizona, where we spent four days doing that. It was extremely fun, because it had been a while since the Marvel days when I was asked to be as creative as possible, with no real restrictions; Steve Gerber and I talked about that a lot. But we would meet in a conference room, we would have informal sessions around the pool, we would eat dinner... and over time, we did what we needed to do. Each person's characters were run past everyone else, so any insights from other people were included, and so we could go forward knowing that our creations had passed muster with the group of creators. That gave us a lot of confidence, but mostly, we had a lot of confidence because we saw that we were creating something very special.
The process was, somebody would float an idea, and everyone else would weigh in on it - always with good will. There was no partisan sniping, so clash of egos; we were all committed to making the Ultraverse a positive and successful enterprise. So every idea was given as much energy as we had to give, and every creator felt he was part of the whole. That lead to our working so well together as we went forward.
What we couldn't have foreseen was that Marvel would tumble into bankruptcy and take everybody else down with them - or that Marvel would eventually buy Malibu and shut it down.
COMICDOM: Let's move on to BATMAN: DARK DETECTIVE. How did the deal for the series come to be? Did you approach DC with a specific proposal or did they come to you first?
ENGLEHART: They came to Marshall and me.
COMICDOM: Was the decision for the whole team (you, Marshall, Terry Austin, John Workman) something that came out of DC or did you ask for it specifically?
ENGLEHART: Marshall and I asked for it. It seemed obvious that Terry should be involved; his inks had played a major part in the first run. It was not obvious that John should be involved, since there were several letterers on the first run, but he had been the main letterer. We discovered that DC was no longer using "live letterers" (as opposed to using computers), but Marshall does a lot of sound effects as art and really wanted someone who could do that end of things, so Joey Cavalieri, our editor, made it happen. Basically, we did it together the first time, so why shouldn't we do it together the second? But I know that's not always the way people think.
COMICDOM: What is Marshall Rogers like, as a collaborator? Do you feel that after having collaborated a few times with him in the past, that you have a better grasp of his strengths and weaknesses (assuming that it is possible for an artist like Marshall Rogers to have any of the latter) than other writers have?
ENGLEHART: Oh, I don't know if I'm better than other writers in that regard, but I do know what to expect from him and work with that. The first time, as is well known, I didn't know who'd be drawing my BATMAN, but as you say, we've done COYOTE, SCORPIO ROSE, and SILVER SURFER since then. (I might mention that the COYOTE and SCORPIO ROSE are available in a trade paperback from Image.)
COMICDOM: I assume you agree that Batman as a character has changed considerably in the years since your original DETECTIVE COMICS run. What one easily realizes reading your work, either in the original run or in DARK DETECTIVE, is that you view Batman as a much more human character and essentially, a perfectly logical person. He might be driven by his demons and passion, he might be extremely methodical, sometimes a bit cynical and even distant, but he's still a "normal" person, which is -obviously- something that not many writers agree with. I'm not going to ask you how you feel about the way the character has been handled in the last couple of decades, since I feel that you've already answered through DARK DETECTIVE. I just want you to tell me how you think the younger readers will respond to your Batman, who is, in many ways, a very different character than the one they've been used to.
ENGLEHART: I didn't know how they'd respond, but the reviews and letters now show that they like this version a lot. Despite the fact that other writers -even DC in general- have tried to push the less-human version, ours remains the one most people in the wide world know. The first and most popular movie in the previous cycle that began in 1989 was an adaptation of our first run, so that image was worldwide. Then the various animated series took off from that. And once DARK DETECTIVE came out, the vast majority of letters and reviews said (a) they liked this version, and (b) they didn't like the regular DC version. So DC has now changed their approach back to match ours. We're not doing a monthly book because I don't want to be just one of the seventeen regular BATMAN titles, but we continue, after all this time, to be -for want of a better word- the definitive version.
COMICDOM: I think that your handling of the Joker was essential in the development of the character. It was in your issues of DETECTIVE COMICS that we first had a glimpse of the true madman that the Joker is, that we saw the truly "evil" Joker. Was this approach intentional on your part, or did it develop as a result of the story which demanded a psychopathic villain?
ENGLEHART: Oh, it was absolutely intentional. The Batman's arch nemesis is the Joker, and if I were going to do the "definitive" Batman -meaning, doing the character with every bit of insight I could bring to him- I had to do the "definitive" Joker as well. With both of them, I went back to the earliest stories, to get a feel for them in their primal state - and with the Joker, I saw that he had once been a "truly evil" character. As time passed, he became just another bad guy, the Clown Prince of Crime, but that's not what made him the polar opposite of the Batman (at least, as I saw the Batman). My Batman, as you said, is very logical, and my Joker is very illogical. I love writing his stream-of-consciousness rants, where one thing always leads to another, but not by the routes you and I would use. I see him as having no filters whatsoever; anything that comes into his brain can come out again, at any time.
COMICDOM: I'm sure you've been asked this question many times, but I'll ask it anyway. How do you feel about the fact that since you completed your original run, no writer has ever used Silver St. Cloud again. Do you think this shows respect to you as a creator or is it perhaps fear of ruining a character who is considered to be "perfectly developed"?
ENGLEHART: There is, sometimes, a code of honor among writers, that if one writer is particularly associated with a character, other writers will leave her alone. Beyond that, she was as fully developed as the Batman and the Joker, so it could be daunting to try her on. Over at Marvel, I had a similar situation with Mantis, and everybody who used her in the times I wasn't around, screwed her up - so much so that I was specifically asked to "fix" her in the AVENGERS: CELESTIAL QUEST miniseries. Fortunately, that never happened to Silver.
COMICDOM: There is a great sequence in issue #2 of DARK DETECTIVE, with the Gotham City Commissioner and an police officer in a crime scene, which I think Marshall handles with just the right amount of manipulation for the readers. In the first panel he just shows the legs of the two men so that we can see the police uniform of the officer and the Commissioners trenchcoat without seeing their faces. The officer calls him "commissioner" or "sir" and I have to admit that, for a brief moment, I was expecting to see Jim Gordon in the next panel. What I mean is that, the way the story is presented, its pretty easy for the reader to become lost in the classic sensibilities of the writing and artwork and start believing that he's reading an old Batman tale. And in the next panel the new commissioner appears and it felt to me like you guys saying, "no, this is in the here and now - pay attention, fanboy!". Was it in anyway intentional or am I just reading too much into what was simply a non-descript scene?
ENGLEHART: The way it was presented was mostly Marshall, but the "pay attention fanboy" approach was mine. I think DC came to us with the idea that we'd do some nostalgia-fest, but that was never our intention. I learned my craft in the 70's but I'm not a "70's writer", any more than Marshall is a "70's artist". We're living in the 21st century using whatever we've learned along the way, and I wanted to make that clear from the get-go. Yeah, a lot of what we do has been lost over time -which is why readers were so appreciative of seeing it again, or for the first time- but good stories are timeless.
COMICDOM: In what ways do you handle Batman and the supporting characters differently in DARK DETECTIVE and what new elements do you want to add to them? Essentially, what is your true purpose with this limited series, either than telling a good story, of course?
ENGLEHART: Our true purpose is not to have to wait 30 years to do the next run.
Seriously, we love this strip, and our overall purpose is to continue to find things in it and its characters that haven't been found before. We all hope we get asked to do another run soon; we already know that the villains will be Catwoman, Killer Moth, and Deadshot. But it's always up to DC.
COMICDOM: Do you follow the current comics output? Are there any books or creators that, in your opinion, stand out at the moment?
ENGLEHART: Again, no comment. I don't want to praise or damn anything anyone else is doing.
COMICDOM: How does it make you feel when you realize that a large number of the things you've written are considered classics by the vast majority of comic fans?
ENGLEHART: It feels good. I was just a fan myself, who wanted to give to others what I got from the guys before me. Things fell into place and I got the chance. But I remember thinking "I'm the only AVENGERS fan in the world who doesn't get to be surprised every month!"
COMICDOM: Do you have any contact with your fans, either personal (in conventions, etc.) or through the internet?
ENGLEHART: Sure, both. I know that I wouldn't be able to be a writer if people didn't want to read what I write, so I'm grateful to my readers. I hit as many cons as I can, and my website has got my email address right on the front page.
COMICDOM: Do you believe that the current comics readers are seeking good comics as actively and passionately as they did in the past?
ENGLEHART: Absolutely. That never goes away. I point again to the enthusiastic welcome DARK DETECTIVE received, even though neither Marshall nor I was a household name for new readers.
COMICDOM: Your website is designed in such a way that anyone who visits can have instant access to the whole of your work, which is a very large amount of material. For example, in the comics section you have uploaded all the covers from the books you've done and you have also supplied some special presentations for every period. What are the motives that led you take on such a time-consuming task?
ENGLEHART: For years, people have been asking me for a complete list of what I've done, and for years, I had a Word document that I sent them. But with the advent of the Internet, it was simpler to develop a site - and if I was going to do that, I might as well provide everything I could. I created the whole thing myself because I know how, and kept it as straightforward as I could, to make pages load as fast as possible. It's designed to let people just wander around, wherever their interests take them.
COMICDOM: You've written for a variety of media, including comic books, animation, children's books, screenplays, games and novels. Which one do you feel represents you more as a writer?
ENGLEHART: At the end of the day, I'm probably primarily a comics writer, but the skills I learned there have stood me in good stead in all the other realms. I like to write heroic adventure, whether that be the Batman or the Wright Brothers or TRON.
COMICDOM: What are your upcoming projects after BATMAN: DARK DETECTIVE is completed?
ENGLEHART: I'm doing a JLA CLASSIFIED and a JSA CLASSIFIED for DC, some stuff not yet nailed down for Marvel, the trade paperbacks of COYOTE for Image, with some new stuff not yet nailed down for them and there are a few other things, including non-comics work, out there. And I hope there's another DARK DETECTIVE run around as well.
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