Englehart's 1980s Fantastic Four
Most fans say Englehart was great in the 1970s, but not as good in the 1980s. The worst disappointment was his Fantastic Four run, so the story goes. The Fantastic Four is the series I know best, so let's have a closer look, shall we?
Englehart's Fantastic Four came at the time when the Marvel Universe was being systematically destroyed from above. His run saw the end of Fantastic Four continuity. It was doomed from the start.
Englehart's power is in making fresh and relevant stories, involving real change, and natural developments that flow from characterization. But writers since the 1980s have been effectively banned from making real time references. He was then banned from making any meaningful changes to characters. And his natural plot developments were interrupted by forced inappropriate guest stars, and in one case (annual 21) his dialog was changed after he wrote it, resulting in a story that made no sense.
Hiring Steve Englehart under these conditions is like asking the Fantastic Four to save you, "But no stretching; hitting, burning or forcefields OK? And stop that thinking, Reed, we don't want any of that.") And people wonder why his FF run didn't set the world alight!
Well, see for yourself.
304-305: A two issue arc that also works as single issues. Quicksilver reacts to his wife's affair, Ben takes over the FF, Torch versus Thing, and a dramatic end that leads to the annual. Great stories and real long term developments. Worth reading.
NOTE: "One thing to note is that the writer has nothing to do with the cover; that's the province of the editor, and shows what he thinks of the book. So even though I started a radical new storyline as per usual, the early covers in this run remain pretty uninspired, even generic."
Covers get better by 308, but within four issues the book was suffering from far worse editorial interference.
Annual 20: A fantastic self contained story, with several major events, rich characterization, battles, and everything. One of my two favorite FF annuals (the other being 1998, though 2,3,6 and Byrne's cows come close). This is Englehart at his best. Wonderful stuff!
Actually, some people claim that Dr Doom is written out of character in these issues: he is defeated by Kristof! However, the very best Doom stories (Lee/Kirby, 200, 236, etc.) always show him to be less perfect than he imagines. It is the later stories that are out of character, taking his claims of perfection at face value, making him a one dimensional caricature.
306-307: Another arc that also works as single issue stories. Characterization is excellent (old one dimensional Ms Marvel suddenly has new depth and problems I've never seen before in comics), plus the team gets a new member, and Reed and Sue leave to raise Franklin as they've been promising to do for twenty years. And there's still time for some great battles. Superb.
308-10: Fasaud. This is the arc that a lot of people hate: its only crime was being ahead of its time. Had it been written three years later, at the time of the first Gulf War, it would have been seen as highly relevant. The real problem is that the art gives Fasaud completely the wrong treatment. That's hardly Englehart's fault.
These issues have plenty of romantic developments, issues that make sense on their own, and a major development for Ben. The stories move forwards, and that's what sets Englehart apart from other writers. Let's contrast another famous writer, John Byrne. Byrne ignores previous writers since Lee and Kirby, and expects other writers after him to do the same, retconning his changes. Byrne and other embrace "back to basics" and "the illusion of change." Englehart is different. He respects all previous writers and looks for real, natural, permanent change.
The new look Ms Marvell, the She-Thing, was certainly a surprise. When people criticize these issues they always mention Fasaud and the She-Thing. The She-Thing only felt wrong because after twenty years some readers had grown unaccustomed to new ideas. But to me she was a breath of fresh air: a superhero who wants to die, an ugly female, a way for the Thing to see how other see him, a superhero who's life goes horribly wrong, all these ideas were new and fresh. Englehart said he had some long term plans for these new characters, and I wish he had been able to bring those plans about.
311-312: Black Panther and Dr Doom. The first issue is a self contained story (good!) but is clearly an in-between stage on a journey. Here we have something new and fresh: the Black Panther behaving like a monarch. And we get real changes (a new member of the Fantastic Four) and real character development (Sharon's life turns around). Englehart's books always feel like they are going somewhere new and interesting.
Warning! Editorial interference! For issue 312, Englehart's editor said "thou shalt have the new X-Factor team." It made no sense to the story, but he had no choice.
313: Mole Man. I'm biased here, since MM is one of my favorite characters, but I love how Englehart returns to the disappointing issue 296 and gives it a more satisfying conclusion. 296 was one of those comics where they promise huge changes -a triple sized special where Ben is hideously scarred and goes to live with the Mole Man - then the changes were reversed and it was business as usual. It started so well, so I felt cheated. It was a perfect example of what turns me off comics. But Englehart gives it an emotional dimension and a lasting significance. We see the loneliness of the Mole Man and what happens when his followers leave. I love it when we see real emotion, new ideas to characters, and real respect for what went before.
314-315: Warning! Editorial interference! This is a confusing couple of issues. All kinds of characters are involved: Various villains, gods, heroes, monsters, aliens, and even a vampire, underground and in space. It doesn't seem to flow naturally. They just turn a corner and another random character appears. Personally I love underground exploration and tying in continuity from all over, but this really doesn't flow in the way that Englehart's stories normally do. It's like a grab bag of stuff forced unnaturally together. The X-Men villain for example seems to appear purely to get a link to the hot X-Men book of the time. In my email to Englehart I asked about this issue in particular. He confirmed that there was "lots" of editorial interference.
316-319: Warning! Editorial interference! The Beyonders arc. Englehart never intended to use the Beyonder in the book, it didn't fit with his plans, but was instructed to from on high. The Beyonder was a very major character, so he decided he really needed to spend several issues on this. I like how he handled it, but this run does not flow from the previous work as well as it should.
Annual 21: Warning! Editorial interference! The editors decided for their own reasons to re-write the dialog in the annual, so it's basically a mess. Don't blame Englehart for that. Despite all this, Englehart gave us something we almost never see in Marvel comics: real developments! Not the illusion of change, but real change!
320-321: Things versus Hulks. These are classic issues! Englehart takes an old topic (yawn, the Hulk versus Thing) and gives it a new twist. And he has two issues that have satisfying self-contained stories (Thing beats Hulk; She-Thing and She-Hulk versus Dragon Man), but also form part of a larger story that promises to move the bigger story on again. I love stories that work on all three levels (single issue, larger story, long term), and these issues are perfect.
322 onwards: Warning! Editorial interference! Warning! Editorial interference! Warning! Warning! Warning! At this point the editors decided that the changes should end. Reed and Sue should return to the Baxter Building, and everything should be as it always was: stale and predictable, with dwindling sales. Englehart is very unhappy with what he had to do from issue 322 onwards, and soon started writing under a pseudonym. He's spoken about this in interviews, and in an open letter at the time, so I won't discuss it much here.
The only real Englehart issues were 304-311, 313, 320-321, and Annual 20.
These included one of the best annuals ever, the best Hulk versus Thing fight ever (because the Thing won!), a superior conclusion to the much hyped (and disappointing) 296 anniversary issue, and all kinds of genuinely new ideas, real character development, and real new directions for the FF (not just "the illusion of change" that other writers provide).
All of that in just twelve issues. And all of this was done with one arm tied behind his back because he was not allowed to use his trademark real world references. I'd say that Englehart was on good form. As usual.
Real time comics: how to do it right
Steve Englehart shows us how
I'm a Steve Englehart fan. Everything I want to say about real time comics can be seen in Steve Englehart's work.
"Englehart in many ways invented modern comics. His is the forgotten revolution, between Stan's and Chris Claremont's, where, as always in Marvel, the realism and characterization were cranked up a notch to keep pace with the world." - Paul Cornell (Marvel writer)
Englehart pretty much invented the giant crossover event with the Avengers-Defenders conflict. Along with Jim Starlin he created Shang Chi (Englehart named him), who became "Marvel's most popular character for years thereafter." Englehart was the first person to make the Silver Surfer sell well (by insisting that he leave Earth). Captain America was being considered for cancellation, and within 6 months he made it Marvel's Number One Title. Dr Strange went monthly with #13 instead of bimonthly "the only time this title has sold that well. It fell back to bi-monthly as soon as this run ended."
I first noticed Englehart's work on his early Hulk stories: nearly every issue was one of my all-time favorites. Years later I noticed that all my favorites had the same writer. It was even later that I noticed that the the stories are full of real world references.
In one memorable story the readers helped Strange defeated Dormammu. The comic itelf is shown several times, and is the actual comic where the story takes place, with the cover illustration, Marvel banner and price, and the reader's hand is clearly visible!
Marvel Time killed these stories
These stories could not be told today. Modern fans find these references and are startled! Shocked! They don't know how to react!
Jason Schulman wrote on an other forum:
I must ask — why did Steve — and other Marvel writers of the time like Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart — refer to past events in the Marvel Universe as though they happened in real time (it was “four years” ago that Hank Pym last became Yellowjacket in the story reprinted in GIANT-SIZE MARVEL). Deliberate mocking of convention for the hell of it?
haven o'terrorism replied:
The conventions you speak of (all brainchildren of Roy Thomas, if I am not wrong) didn’t really exist in a strong form in those lazy hazy crazy days when Captain America had only missed twenty years of his life, and there was no reason then not to have Marvel Time happen in NEAR-REAL TIME. Like Numbered Issue Time or something. Lord, that was fun when that was happening! No rules, man! Just action!"
So what happened? I emailed Englehart to ask, and he explained:
"When I started writing in the 70s, Marvel was very aware, as a company, of the surrounding world, so there were oblique references to, say, social changes. I was on that wavelength until Watergate, when Cap had to pay even closer attention to the real world, and so I did what I did, and liked doing it - so I tried to keep CAP involved with contemporary themes.
"However, by the 80s, there was the sliding scale, which was adopted because characters were now <gasp> 20 years older than when they started, and Peter Parker would be in his late 30s, and so on. Plus, the Marvel continuity was 20 years old, and the first fears that new fans wouldn't understand references to the distant past began to arise. I did not like the abandonment of the living, breathing, contemporary Universe, but I did understand why it was a problem. So in the MU, I moved away from current events."
I asked, "do fans want real change, or just the illusion of change?"
"I think 60s and 70s fans wanted change, but later fans don't. Mainly because they haven't seen the other. My watershed moment was the FF, oddly enough. I changed the group to get back to the original feel of the book, where real things happened to real people and the FF was dealing with life on the fly - and people complained bitterly that I wasn't doing the stuff they'd gotten used to. That was a surprise."
In his later work, Englehart avoided real time references, but still tried to introduce some real changes. E.g. into the Fantastic Four: He writes:
"The FF was always the "real life" adventures of superheroes, but as the series atrophied many people forgot about the real life part; growth and change went out the window. I identified the hermetically-sealed group of Reed & Sue & Ben & Johnny as a main reason the book has grown stale - and Reed & Sue had been saying for years that they should pay more attention to their perpetually 6-year-old son Franklin - so I let 'em. Thus, Ben & Johnny had to find two new members and do new things."
As noted, some fans were unused to change in comics, and complained. The editors stepped in and demanded that Englehart change everything back again. He writes:
"The editorial stand was for something entirely new and unwelcome, which gutted Marvel creativity, was completely un-compromising, and quickly led to bankruptcy. ... 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."
Because he hated writing like that, he began using a pseudonym, John Harkness.
Englehart refers to this time as "a period of civil war inside Marvel ... Marvel continued with its plan to end innovation across the line, but they retained some people they'd otherwise have ditched to make it less obvious ... four years later, Marvel was bankrupt."
Put simply, "Marvel started trying to close down the House of Ideas."
Most fans (at least the ones I have heard) say that Englehart's 1970s comics were among the best comics ever. But they also say that his 1980s work was not as good. The reason, the policy that forbids change and relevance, can be called Marvel Time.
Englehart, like any good writer, lives and breathes relevance and change. Without these things he suffocates. Look at his 1980s run on the Fantastic Four for examples.
For one of the best known examples of real world issues in comics, see Englehart's run on Captain America. It dealt with Watergate, racism, America's self image and other hot issues of the time. It's still considered one of the greatest Captain America runs ever.
Another of Englehart's many classic runs was with Gene Colan and Frank Brunner on Dr Strange. Once again the real world references were everywhere: