Steve Englehart Interview
Steve Englehart, Writer
"I hated what was being done to me, and mostly I hated what was being done to Marvel. I still hate it."
Steve Englehart was the writer behind issues #304-333 and two annuals. Creating a brand new line-up, with Crystal and Ms. Marvel joining Ben and Johnny, the run had some behind-the-scenes frictions that impacted its direction. In October 2005 Steve granted Headquarters its first interview to discuss his run.
It strikes me that you got one of the most perfect set-ups ever to come on board the title: a Fantastic Four that arguably hated each other more than any other point in history, and with John Buscema/Joe Sinnott on art. Not only that, but you kept the combatants - Ben and Johnny - and moved Reed and Sue out of the frame. Were those first few months of issues as good to work on as you'd hoped?
Very much so. I really felt that the 4some had become very stale, and my prime goal was to reinvigorate the title. Back when it started, there was plenty of intergroup tension, even as it was clear they all liked each other on one level or another. It seemed to me that they best way to get where I wanted was to take Reed and Sue up on their oft-stated desire to spend more time with Franklin, so off they went, leaving Ben in charge for the first time, along with his buddy Johnny. How would Ben handle leadership? How would Johnny handle not having his big sis around? It was archetypal FF, I thought, but all-new and all-different. What more could I want?
Forgive the impertinence of the question, but you were actually the oldest of the regular writers when you were given the assignment. Although Walt Simonson broke this record immediately afterwards, and Stan was also entering his forties when came up with the book, up to that point the Fantastic Four had averaged a writers' starting age of 31. Do you think with the extra life experience it helped you write more rounded characters - Ben in particular?
Sure. Like Stan, I've never lost interest in the things I liked when I was in my teens, but I've added all the things I've learned since then. My goal, modest as it is, is to be a good writer, and to be a good writer you've got to understand as much as possible about as many people as possible. So sure, my Ben was informed by my own life experience in the adult world, as well as what I got out of him when I was 18. I tried to write an older, world-conscious guy - a guy who'd gone through more than early Lee-Kirby allowed for, a guy who was really slightly older than the norm - with the spark of early Lee-Kirby. And I took exactly the same approach (my experiences along the line married to my love of prime Marvel) with my young husband Johnny, my unsatisfied wife Crystal, my withdrawn Ms Marvel, my megalomaniacal Dr Doom. I want my adults to be adult, my monarchs to be monarchical, my teens to be teens...
If one thing marks the book out (at least when "Steve Englehart" was writing it) it's that the events are seen through the eyes of Ben, we're privy to his thoughts and doubts all the way through. How far would you have let Ben take his "new FF"? Did you have plans to replace members, or did you see Crystal-Sharon-Johnny as the line-up for many years to come?
When I shake up a group, be it FF or Avengers or Green Lantern Corps, I put together a group that I think will be fun to live with for a while. Eventually, I've told all (or most) of the stories I can work from them, and then comes a new shakeup. But until I reach the point where I want a change, I don't think about the people I might change to. And I wasn't on the FF long enough to reach that point. So Ben/Johnny/Crystal/Sharon was my group for the duration. I had plenty more to do with them. So then the question is, what was that? And the answer is, I let the characters point the direction they want to go. I'm still around, as the pro writer who's got to make it all come together in a satisfactory way, so I'm not just along for the ride, but each step in Sharon's journey, to take one example, led to the next step. That's the case for all of them. Thus, as the "John Harkness" issues showed, I had various superhero plotlines figured out, but the character stuff would have unfolded for me as for you, monthly, and would certainly have affected how those plotlines played out. But I was cut off too early.
I was still in my teens when your run started, and there is a certain amount of "innocence lost" to them. It makes reading them as I enter mid-30s a little easier, but did having a member of the FF the victim of sexual abuse potentially turn away the core audience?
There was some resistance to the run, but whether it was due to sexual abuse, changing the team, a she-Thing, or just my ugly face, I dunno.
Sticking with the sexual abuse, this is perhaps the most troubling element of the run. Despite going through a harrowing ordeal, the Thing thinks of Sharon that "She's just hopeless, darn it! Hopeless!" and she finally gets over her ordeal with a cry of "no more moaning!" (Both #312). I have to say, this came over a little shocking, given that what she'd been through was treated so insensitively by Ben and disregarded by Sharon. Victims of sexual abuse reading the issues may have been a little upset by it - would you tackle it differently if you were doing it now?
Well, let's see - I picked Sharon up from her run in MS MARVEL, so there had been some off-stage healing before she got there. I don't think she disregarded it at all; she had partially buried it, but that's not the same thing. And once she got a body that couldn't and wouldn't be abused, she was almost fanatically glad to have it. As to Ben - he's a sensitive guy down deep, as we know, but he puts on the tough-guy act - and now he had the whole weight of the FF on his shoulders. He'd asked to be the leader for a long time, and if he blew it now, it would be a bad thing. So he was a little too much "Sgt Fury" about his team. Then he had Sharon not wanting to get into her rape, so his very sensitivity kept him from going there. Then, he was in love with her, and feeling "love" was a sore subject with her (pun not intended). I think they could have sat down and talked about it quietly, just as I think Crystal could have talked with her about it, but as with many things on this run, I was cut off too early.
You made good use of Marvel's myriad of characters to create new scenarios for the team, including bringing over some of your own inventions from West Coast Avengers. However, the one original villain you created specifically for the title - Fasaud - was one of the most interesting experiments you did. A living television signal that came from a fictitious Arabic country, a billionaire from the sale of oil. Such a concept is even more satirical now than it was at the time, particularly with the country's title - Aquira - bearing more than a slight anagramic resemblance to a certain other Arabic country regularly in the news. Was this is a high point for your run?
It was the first of them, certainly. It all started with the villain's name: first I thought of "Fasaud," which led to Saudi Arabia, and to the TV way of justifying the "facade" angle. I had recently read an article about how the successful men of the area hated being depicted in burnooses when they actually wore western business suits, so I asked in my plot that Fasaud not wear a burnoose, and was unhappy when they gave him a burnoose anyway. But those germs led to the Thing-changes, which I hope nobody saw coming. The cover to #310 is one of my all-time faves.
I think it's fair to say that in terms of Marvel, you're most famous for your work on The Avengers. One thing I noticed is that with your Avengers stories a lot of them were character-based, whereas your FF - in your second year on the title, at least - were more plot and concept-based. Did you see the title as being more of a "cosmic" title?
Not really. I felt that if Ben were continually upset with his team he'd want to fix it by changing the players, so they had to settle down after a while, but there was still his horror at Sharon's happy acceptance of her Thing-form, when he'd taken his hate for his for granted for so long. However, early in the second year my plans for Johnny/Crystal were truncated (in the Annual) and suddenly that part was out the window. Then the editor asked me to trash the Beyonder (though I ended up honoring him), so I was beginning to be hemmed in by outside forces. But as for being cosmic, I'd rate the two books pretty equal. The FF has a history of it - in fact, I got the job because it was felt that one of my rivals for it was too "meat and potatoes" for the cosmic aspects - but so did the Avengers. I'd have to say that the Avengers approached the cosmic as a great adventure while the FF (Reed excepted) saw it all from a more personal standpoint.
From the mid 80s to mid 90s Marvel seemed to become constrained by having as many cross-references as possible, culminating in a fourteen-part multi-annual story in 1989. How many of the many referenced series in the Beyonder epic (#313-#319) were your ideas, and how much of it was enforced editorial input?
I would imagine most if not all of them. I still believed in a serious continuity back then. But it was the beginning of forced editorial input, so I'd have to go through the issues to see if any refs were from someone else.
It's perhaps uncharitable of me to say so, but I felt the first sign of the book's standards dropping was when Romeo Tanghal took over the inking. Not counting the two annuals you did, Tanghal actually inked half of your output, and all of a sudden it lacked the dynamism and... the female Thing suddenly developed a pair of eyelashes! What did you think about the changeover in the art team while you were writing it?
I had editorial problems by then so I was happy to get the book drawn at all. Seriously, I come from an era where artists were just assigned to you, so I didn't worry too much about art in general, and didn't need to add that to my battles.
On the subject of art, did you go for Stan Lee's old method of "Marvel plot" or did you write full scripts for the artists to work to?
The emergence of the "She-Thing" was one of the most contentious elements of your run, but I personally never had a problem with it (even if her eyelashes did look a little silly!). In the 350th issue Walt Simonson had Doom saying the dialogue "What writer would dare to have drawn the line of coincidence so casually?" Were you disappointed that this is the element that your era seems to be most remembered for?
Not at all. I was trying to shake things up (pun intended), remember. I just wish I'd been able to play it all the way through instead of leaving it incomplete.
A completely trivial question, but one I've always been curious about... #324 features the time-travelling Kang, whose ship fires out blasts with the sound effect "TARDIS!" Were you or any of the team paying a little tribute to Doctor Who there?
Absolutely. I write the sound effects. :-)
In a paperback released this year, "Comic Creators on Fantastic Four" Ralph Macchio claims of you that "I liked a lot of his run, but I didn't like the way he wanted to go so I made a change [of writer]." Was there no opportunity to compromise or are you glad you took the direction and stand you did?
If I took a stand, it was for traditional Marvel values of being as creative as possible so long as you sold the book and got it in on time. The editorial stand was for something entirely new and unwelcome, which gutted Marvel creativity, was completely un-compromising, and quickly led to bankruptcy. It certainly wasn't some difference of story-telling philosophy.
You actually beat Prince by over three years in changing your name due to creative disputes with Marvel. So we had 23 Steve Englehart issues, plus a couple of very good Annuals. Then it changed to "S.F.X. Englehart" for a couple, before finally ending with an eight-month run as "John Harkness". What's interesting is how much resentment and deliberate in-jokes are in those issues. Looking back, was it fun creating such a deeply personal statement in the title?
It was slightly fun because it was a challenge to tell the readers what was going on as best I could, but overall, it was not fun at all. It was the end of an era that I had very deeply believed in and led for two long stretches. I hated what was being done to me, and mostly I hated what was being done to Marvel. I still hate it.
Forgive me for saying so, but at the time - being ignorant of behind-the-scenes events - I believed "John Harkness" to be a real author and wondered why he had taken the writing off Steve Englehart and down toned it. Suddenly the group (particularly in the Frightful Four battle) become more blasé and wilfully generic. Was there a conscious ploy to make the writing of "John Harkness" inferior to your own?
The writing "John" was able to do WAS inferior to my own, which was why I took my name off it. It was like being a spy, in a sense - I had to get as much as I could across without alerting the authorities, so I was both constrained in subject matter and having to speak obliquely rather than straight out. Beyond that, that constraint directed that I make the characters more generic (which is why I had the real FF put to sleep to dream their big dreams while the generic FF was definitely...generic).
I wouldn't dream of stoking any fires here, but did you ever follow the book after you'd left it, particularly when Tom DeFalco took it over as writer? He wrote the book for five years, a period which, in my opinion, was the creative nadir of the title.
I rarely follow books after I leave them, because I've been living in what I, at least, felt was the optimal world of those characters. Almost anyone else's version will seem unsatisfying to me. But in this case, I had no interest whatsoever in what Marvel was becoming. And finally, the feeling was mutual; they very quickly trashed pretty much everything, in all my Marvel books, that stood out from the generic. So why would I want to witness that?
Two of the characters you'd worked on went head-to-head at the cinema this year: Batman and the FF. Did you see the Fantastic Four movie, and if so, what were your thoughts on it?
I liked it a great deal. I thought they really caught the spirit of the early FF: now we have powers, how do we deal with that? In any of these movies people can quibble about details (Doom didn't get powers at the same time!), but I'm much more interested in character than details. I'm the only person in the world who liked the Hulk movie because it _felt_ like the Hulk to me, even if almost all of the details were wrong. :-)
Finally, if you had the opportunity to write the title again, would you take it? And what ideas would you have for the series?
I'd like to, yes. Naturally, I'd like to find a way to finish what I started back then. But I also believe that when I take over a book, I take it over wherever it is, and if I want to move it somewhere else, I take the characters on that journey - rather than just say "Now it's mine; everything changes overnight." So if I got to do the FF I'd start with wherever they were at the time, think about where they COULD go from there, and then let the journey unfold for me as well as you.
Steve Englehart, thank you very much.