Tuesday, April 22, 2008

JLA Satellite Interview with Steve Englehart

sgSteve Englehart only wrote a year's worth of JLA stories, but what a memorable set of stories it was! Steve got to add a new member, bring back an old one, kill Superman(!), give frequently under-used members Aquaman, the Atom, and the Elonagted Man an adventure all their own, and if that wasn't enough, give the JLA a whole new origin!

Steve was generous enough to take some time and chat me with about his time writing for the World's Greatest Super-Heroes:

JLA Satellite: How did you end up writing JLA?

Steve Englehart: I had been doing The Avengers and The Defenders, and all this other stuff for Marvel, and then I quit Marvel, and I had no plan other than to Quit Marvel; that was the extent of it. But right at that point Jenette Khan had taken over at DC and she got in touch and said come on over and do stuff for us.

I said, well, I'm planning on leaving the country in a year and go to Europe and travel around, so I can only do it for a year. And she said that's fine, we need you to revamp The Justice League, we need to bring the Justice League up to speed with what Marvel is doing and you're obviously the guy, having come off The Avengers, to do it.

So we had lunch in New York and I said I'd be happy to do it, but I want to do Batman specifically, and that led on to me doing Detective. But the original concept was, fix the Justice League--y'know, give all these characters character, and so forth.

The other significant thing about all that was, once I thought about it, and if I'm supposed to give every one of these guys characterization and tell a story, I can't do that in a regular-sized book. I need something larger and I came up with this idea for a double-sized book so I could tell what turned out to be fairly expansive stories and get to spend time with each individual character as they showed up.
The final thing about that is, years later, Marvel asked me to do basically the same thing with the Ultraverse. They wanted to bring the Ultraverse back and some point and they wanted me to reintroduce all the main characters and it was the exact same situation so I wanted to use the exact same solution--a double-sized book.

Marvel said that would be completely impossible, and their reasoning was wonderful--they said that anybody who could draw that many pages a month is someone the fans don't want to see; anyone they want to see can't draw that many pages per month.

JLA Satellite: What was it like working with Dick Dillin? Did you have a lot of communication with him?

SE: One of the great things[about the book] was that I had Dick Dillin, and you know, Dick Dillin probably couldn't get arrested today, in today's market. But I totally enjoyed working with Dick, I always loved working with the guys who were around before I came along, that was roots.

And you know, you could say anything to Dillin--it's going to be twice as long, it's going to have all these characters in it, and we're going to this, that, and the other thing, and he'd say "fine", and he'd draw it! It was the old-time comic book approach to things--he was a journeyman in some senses, but he was also a guy who could do what was necessary to turn out that book.

As I said, I enjoyed working with him because of who he was, and because he gave me such nice pieces of artwork every month and told the story I needed to tell, and all in all, the book was a lot of fun to do.

For many years, Batman was the thing I did that everyone remembered, not the Justice League, and I remember doing interviews where I'd say "Now don't forget I did the Justice League, because that was kind of cool." It seems now with the JLA animated show, with the JLA getting its own series, the JLA has become more visible in people's minds...

JLA Satellite: Yeah, outside of comics.

SE: So now I do get asked about the JLA--still not as much as the Batman--but it[the work] has returned from obscurity.

JLA Satellite: I was amazed at those issues because, they were twice as long, and Dillin was still drawing all of it! He was on that book for something fourteen years, every single month, it's just an astounding run. And he did other comics besides that!

SE: The first major series I did was Captain America with Sal Buscema, and Sal is another guy who, you know, could draw anything well, no matter; he could have done the same thing--give him another twenty pages a month, and Sal could've done it.

And Joe Staton, who I did Green Lantern Corps with, was another guy. There are just some guys--I like all their art, I like every one of those guys--their Comic Book Artists. You say "this month, the book is twenty pages longer", and they'd say ok.

I do believe these days if you went to pretty much anybody, any artist, and say this book is going to be twenty pages longer, they'd drop off the book. People don't want to do that kind of stuff anymore, but Dillin was Old School. And you know, for everyone who says Old School sucks, I say no, man, I liked Old School.

JLA Satellite: When you sent the scripts to him, did he need further input, or was he so used to--I mean, he had drawn like a billion pages of JLA by then--did he immediately grasp what you were doing and run with it? Or was there a lot of back and forth?

SE: No, I don't remember if I even even spoke to the guy. Again, that's Old School comics--it was perfectly usual to send stuff in to the editor, like Julius Schwartz, who would then send it to the artist, and Julie would be the traffic coordinator.

Scripts are supposed to tell the artist everything he needs to know to draw the book. There are some people who say "they fight for the next five pages, you take it", and then you've got Alan Moore's scripts, which are like phone books. I lean more towards the former. Hopefully I gave Dick everything he needed; I think I did because I don't recall every hearing from him or Julie saying we need more explanation here. But I never wanted to put the artist in a straight-jacket by giving them too much to follow.

JLA Satellite: How much was Julius Schwartz involved in the plotting? I've read that in the 60s when he was working with Gardner Fox, he was almost co-plotting it, was he that involved by the time you got there?

SE: No. And you know, everything I knew about Julie at that time, was that--I mean, that's not all I knew, but that was his reputation. So I said to Jenette, if I'm in charge of these characterizations, and since I come from Marvel, where I was given free reign to do what I wanted to do, it doesn't make any sense to put me in a straight-jacket, and is that going to be a problem with Julie, and she said no, and then there wasn't.

Julie acted as a good advisor. On Batman, there was a situation I wrote where I had Hugo Strange beaten to death on-camera, and Julie contacted me and said I think this would be better off-camera, and so we did. And that's the one instance I can remember Julie coming in as an edtior, but that was his general approach, and I don't ever remember that happening on JLA.

There was never any problem between me and Julie, and we became good friends, and he went on to live another 107 years[laughs]. We were buddies, but I think everyone was buddies with Julie.

JLA Satellite: There were a couple of things you did, like when you added Hawkgirl[to the team], that was a permanent change that would presumably go past your year. Was that Julie's idea, where he said we want to add this character, or did you say, maybe we should add this character, or was it a collaboration?
SE: No, it was my idea. I was coming in as a professional comic book writer, and as a fan. The DC Universe was all new to me, in terms of writing it, but I'd always been a fan. And there had been letter columns, asking "why isn't Hawkgirl in the Justice League?" and the answer was always "well, we don't have people who have the same powers" but I was coming at it from my usual stand-point, which is characterization.

I'm like "These people are married. They came here from another planet, they're living together, they're married, he gets to be in the group and she doesn't get to be in the group, that's bullshit!" I was trying to look at these people as who they were, trying to build them into something better than they had been, characterization-wise, at least, so I thought she should join.
I thought having a married couple in there was a good thing to do, because you had Green Arrow and Black Canary in there, as the "dating" couple, so there were parallels, so I thought having her in there worked from a storytelling standpoint, and also made sense from the idea to reinvent these people, so they can stand up and be on the same level as The Avengers.

JLA Satellite: As a fan, I should formally thank you for that, because I always liked that they added her, I was thought it made sense, it gave a lot more to the book.

SE: I got a letter once when I was doing Green Lantern [Corps] asking, how can you write characters when everyone has the same power? And, to me, it's not the powers, its the character, and whose using the powers, that's important to me, certainly.

And so I can see on a formalistic basis, you can't have two Hawk-people, but it's like, it doesn't matter, since they're two different people, that's the important thing.

JLA Satellite: You introduced a new character into the book, the Privateer. When took over the book, you said you only intended to write it for a year, did you almost write that whole year out with that in mind? Did you plan it out like, we'll introduce him, we'll bring him back, and then we'll have him betray the team, ior did you just start it and say, we'll see where it goes? Maybe he'll join, or was it more mapped out?

SE: No, it was pretty organic. The way I tend to do stuff is, some parts of my story I've thought several issues ahead--I'm never more than a few issues ahead, I don't start off thinking "I'm going to do this twelve-part epic". A lot of it is done on the fly, I'll be writing a story and I'll go, this thing here would be really interesting, and I trust myself to know what to do later when it has to payoff.
So that's pretty much what that was. I did the Manhunter story[JLA #'s 140-141], and at the end of it the Privateer says "I was wrong, I'm going away" and that was the end of that story. Then a couple issues later, I reintroduced him. I have to plead not remembering exactly, but if I had brought him back I must have had an idea about what I was going to do, because I didn't need another character...

JLA Satellite: [laughs] Right, yeah...

SE: It wasn't like throwing Mantis into The Avengers, or bringing in the rest of the Green Lantern Corps, so I may well at that point have said I've got five issues to go, where would I go with this? I honestly don't remember, so I can't say definitely, yeah that's what I was doing, but it seems most likely that's what I was doing, when I brought him back I had an idea of what I was going to do.

Even then, I'm sure I didn't know exactly how that was all going to work out. I remember coming up with the idea of the android, Red Tornado, understand it because an android would when nobody else would. I thought of that when I was doing that issue, how am I going to pull this off? Oh, this is how I get from here to there, and it's a good bit for Reddy.
That's always the stuff I'm thinking about, what's the story I have to tell, and how does that affect the characters. And as I worked through the year, I did what I was supposed to do--I did my Aquaman story, I did the Elongated Man, the Atom; all these people that hadn't been that important--I worked my way through the Justice League and hadn't done, you know, "The Ultimate Red Tornado Story" at that point, so that was a good way to tie that up.

JLA Satellite: I loved the fact that Aquaman, the Atom, and the Elongated Man got their own story[JLA #142], and it was, ok, let's focus on these guys and have them talk about that their not as "useful" as the other guys. So that was a character-based thing and "let's explore these guys for a little bit?"

SE: Yeah, well I did it everybody, and I came to this knowing what I knew about the guys in the DC Universe, so I knew that Aquaman, the Atom, and the Elongated Man were sort of the second tier of the group, and it would seem to me that they would know it, and yet one of the things I tried to play up in the Justice League was this sense was that...if you were a member, you were a member.

Nobody ever looked at Aquaman and said "You're second-rate"--he might have thought it, and if you hang out with Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman, you might think it, you know, so that's why he thought it.
I definitely said I'm going to do an Aquaman, Atom, and Elongated Man story, so that was one thing, and somebody said to me at the San Diego [Comic] Convention, "Are we ever going to see Mantis again?", so I thought "I can put her in the Justice League! That'd be bizarre."

So that's how I work--I think I gotta do this, I gotta do that, I gotta do this other thing; that leads me to this fourth idea, then I sort of throw them all together into something hasn't been done previously and go from there.
I focused on everybody, but I thought that was a particularly successful story, becaue you got to focus on them, and by bringing Willow into it, it kind of made it a special kind of story, so those guys got to star in a special kind of story, which they didn't often do, so it was kind of organic.

JLA Satellite: Was writing JLA fun? Obviously, when you got the Batman assignment, which you pursued, you really went to town and it's become a legendary run. But was it just as much fun writing something you didn't necessairily go after?

SE:Yeah, it was fun. Even though Batman was what I wanted, I liked the Justice League. And I basically felt what Jenette felt, which was they had been sort of marble statues. I think in the early days--Brave and the Bold, the Gardner Fox days, they were all sort of treated like these demi-gods who were somewhere off the Earth a little bit, in terms of anyone actually relating to them, but they were all stiff and marbleized.

Along the way, Denny O'Neil had taken his run at it, and Len Wein had taken his run, and there had been some loosening up, but they were still kind of off in the distance, I thought, so I really wanted to get in there and do what I do, which is characterization, and that's what Jenette wanted.

So taking each one and looking inside of these DC characters and figuring out how to make them viable was the kind of stuff that I as a writer like to do, so I mean there's no question I enjoyed quite a bit doing the Justice League. I mean, I wouldn't say any of those characters speaks to me on an attavistic level as the Batman, Batman is just this thing I really have a vibe for. Superman? Let's just say I have less interest in Superman, but I'm going to try and write the best Superman I can write. And try and write the best Justice League I can--think about Wonder Woman, think about Black Canary.

JLA Satellite: Were you privy at all to the sales? I know DC and Marvel generally kept that info away from the writers and artists, but did anyone say "Hey, there's been an uptick in the sales since you went on."?

SE: I did when Dick Giordano was in charge ten years later. Back in those days--DC in particular, Marvel in those days made no secret of the fact that sales were going up all the time. They didn't go out of their way to tell you what sales were, but it was generally understood.

DC took an opposite approach. DC's approach--and I know this because Neal Adams told me about it, because the same thing happened to him, before I came over there--DC's approach was "sales suck, you're lucky to have a job."

JLA Satellite: What a wonderfully creative atmosphere.

SE: Well, yeah, the only thing I remember from that era involving the Justice League and sales--although if it had done poorly, they wouldn't have continued to do it as a double-sized book, so obviously it was working out on its own terms, whatever that may mean--but I did go to Europe, so it wasn't until a year later that I came back to discover how well the Batman[run in Detective Comics] had done, so I went to Jenette and said "How about a bonus?"--I know it wasn't in my contract, but howabout a bonus for having done so well with the Batman, and she said "Oh, that stuff never sold."

JLA Satellite: [Laughs]

SE: So that afternoon, Marshall [Rogers] and I looked at each other and said "You know, for a book that didn't sell, it sure seems like everybody's got a copy." But that was DC's attitude, so nobody ever came to me and said sales are doing great, until Dick Giordano later said our Green Lantern sales had done really great.

JLA Satellite: One last thing I wanted to ask you about--the one issue you wrote where its the revised origin of the Justice League [#144], which as a kid I went "What the hell?" because it seemed like such a strange story--was that your bid to write a Gardner Fox-type story?

Because it reads like that--it's very old school, in the middle of a very different JLA book; you've got all these guys in it like Congorilla, and the Vigilante, etc. As a kid, I didn't understand that, but going back as an "adult", it reads like an homage to that earlier style. Was that what was in your mind?

SE: Absolutely. It was the "Untold Story" and I thought it would be fun to throw in everybody from the fifties, and since one of those were the Blackhawks, that was for Dick Dillin.

I tried very much to be true to those characters as they had been in the fifties and write them in that style--it was supposed to have taken place in the Brave and Bold era, so it definitely was an homage to DC in the fifties--not so much Gardner Fox, but DC in the fifties.

I really appreciate the legendary Steve Englehart, who has written so many comics I've loved over the years, took the time to talk to me about such a brief part of his career. It was a thrill to get to talk to him and get his thoughts on his memorable time with the Justice League. Thanks Steve!


Unknown said...

Really good interview there Rob (BTW, thanks for answering my post yesterday). Always interesting to read the "behind the scenes" of stuff I read back as a kid. Good job!

Adama said...

Way to go Rob!

Anonymous said...

Great stuff, Rob - thanks!

You too, Steve.

-Craig W.

Anonymous said...

What a great bonus! Thanks to Rob for conducting the interview & to Steve for doing it!

rob! said...

thanks guys! steve was very fun to talk to and i think its one of my best interviews, in terms of the final result.

i have one or two other interviews tentatively lined up, we'll see what happens.

rob! said...

btw, i will ask anyone that's even remotely connected to Dick Dillin what it was like to work with him.

even tho as a kid, nobody beat George Perez's JLA, its Dillin's I see in my mind when i think of the team, since he did the book for so long.

its such a shame he died long before all this massive fandom kicked into high gear, so he could've seen and felt all the adoration he'd suredly get now.

Unknown said...

That bit about Dick Dillin bring a smile to my (small) heart Rob. I know it's not for me, but I will say Thank You for doing it.
I hate to, but I do agree with Mr Englehart about Dillin probably couldn't get arrested in the comic world of today. Not trying to call out anyone's current favorite artist, but I read about guys getting high profile jobs and then can't even do a monthly book, I just wonder. Definitely the good version of "old school".

Anonymous said...

Fantastic interview! How can you not like a writer that brought Hawkgirl into the JLA. His views on the inner workings of DC comics (regarding sales) were very interesting. Also it was nice that he gave (long overdue) credit to Dick Dillin.

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