I think it’s safe to say, that in the 1970’s, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more diverse, determined, and dominant writer. From The Avengers, to Batman, and Captain America, Steve Englehart wrote stories that were interesting, thought-provoking, humorous, and socially significant. Among these treasures was his work on Dr. Strange.
Along with collaborator Frank Brunner (and later artwork by Gene ‘the Dean’ Colan and others), Steve spun a web involving just about every major villain the Doc had up until that point in the characters history. He also molded Clea, (apprentice/ lover of the Doc) to be more important, and not just a wallflower. The original run began in the pages of Marvel Premiere, and continued on in the Doc’s solo series. I spotlighted that run not too long ago (click here for that one), showing the mind-blowing artwork of Frank Brunner.
Alright, now that the pleasantries are done with, let’s get on with the interview!
Billy: Did you read and/or draw any motivation from the Lee & Ditko work for your Doc Strange run?
Steve: Very definitely. Ditko’s Doc was legendary, and everyone thereafter tried to emulate him to some degree. Ditko’s Spidey got completely overwhelmed when Romita took it over, because Johnny was much better at the people and world that Spidey inhabited – but Ditko’s Doc remained a touchstone of “Strangeness” for everyone who followed on that strip. I had read all of it, just as I’d read all of Marvel, being a fan. I took my own approach to what I did with it, of course, but Ditko’s Doc was always the one I was fleshing out.
Billy: What was the impetus for your Dr. Strange stories? And did you approach editorial with the ideas or did they ask you (what was the process)?
Steve: Frank (Brunner) was taking over the strip full-time and did the then-unusual thing of asking for a specific writer. We knew each other only casually, socially, but he liked what I’d done on other books, so he asked that I be assigned. I had written Doc in DEFENDERS, but figured I’d need to get more mystical for his own book, so I started reading up on magick, which turned out to be interesting on its own, and my reading increasingly shaped my understanding of a sorcerer supreme. I could do this because editorial left each writer to do his job and figure out how to approach it on his own.
Billy: How tough is it juggling multiple titles on a monthly basis?
Steve: I enjoyed it. I loved all the characters, I loved working with artists…there was no real downside to it. I could do a book a week so I did four books a month, and there was always something new going on. Fun!
Billy: Did you guys use the “Marvel Method” or fully flesh out scripts together?
Steve: We did them together. Every two months we’d have dinner at his place or mine, and then talk late into the night putting the issue together. I always had concepts I wanted to explore and he had concepts he wanted to draw, and we’d make something that was more than the sum of those parts, until I, as the writer, was satisfied we had a solid issue. That was the most collaborative of any relationship I ever had with an artist.
Billy: Was killing the Ancient One something you felt fit the story (did it feel organic) or was it something you wanted to do from the get-go?
Steve: That evolved in our first late-night session. I thought Doc had been a disciple for quite a while now – and we’d inherited Shuma-Gorath and knew we had to resolve that at some point, preferably ASAP – and by the time we were done, it all came together (image below- the death of the Ancient One- Marvel Premiere #10, 1973).
Billy: Can you speak about the whole atmosphere/work environment at Marvel at the time (other creators you enjoyed working with, etc. in the 1970’s)?
Steve: It was just a time of complete freedom. Everyone working there was assumed to be competent to handle his own titles and was not held back in any way. If you proved yourself _unable_ to handle your titles, they became someone else’s titles, but there was no micromanaging from editorial. Thus, if you _could_ handle your titles, you could be, and were encouraged to be, as creative as possible. And this was all taking place with everyone living in the New York metro area, so pretty much everyone else in comics, at every company, was someone you knew personally. When I moved to New York, as you had to do in those days, I felt from day one like I had three hundred new friends to work and party with. Both of which we did.
Billy: When did you and Frank find out about Dr. Strange becoming an ongoing or was that known from the beginning?
Steve: The book took off with us on it, and we knew what that would lead to, but we didn’t know when. The problem, as it turned out, was that Frank couldn’t do more than a bimonthly book, so when it became an ongoing series that was monthly, he struggled and then dropped off.
Billy: You inserted many of the best villains from Dr. Strange’s rogues gallery into your stories (Shuma Gorath, Mordo, Silver Dagger, Dormammu, etc.), what was the process like for combing thru them to choose which one you’d use?
Steve: I’d always think of character concepts, then go looking for a villain to cause the story I wanted to do. With Doc, Frank and I started, and then I continued, the idea of several-issue arcs exploring a particular concept, so then it was just a question of looking back through my collection. I took every character as real within the Marvel Universe, so I knew them personally you might say, and when I wanted somebody to a certain thing, I could usually go straight to him.
Billy: I’ve read that Frank’s (Brunner) style really wasn’t conducive to the rigors of a monthly title. Is that the reason he left the book?
Steve: Yes. Even on the books he did do, you’ll occasionally see a page or two by another artist. Art was not a slap-dash thing for him.
Billy: Obviously, transitioning to a legendary artist like Gene Colan, who had previously worked on Dr. Strange, wasn’t too bad of a draw, but was it intimidating at all?
Steve: Not really, because I knew Gene’s approach intimately, from having been a fan and then having worked in the same environment. Nobody intimidated me by then; I just saw the possibilities his more photographic approach would open up, after the more designy work by Frank. I consider them equally great at what they did, and Frank’s Doc is legitimately legendary in its own right, but Gene offered new worlds to explore. (And Gene didn’t want to be involved in the stories, so I was also taking that on completely – and that was fun, too.)
Billy: Gene is my favorite artist of all time, but I never got the chance to speak with him. Could you talk about him not only from a professional stand point, but also the man himself?
Steve: As a pro, he drew what you asked him to draw, exceptionally well, without any complaint – what a writer hopes for, and usually gets from pro artists, but not always. There was nothing that stood out in the work process, which is a good thing. (The only caveat was, he wasn’t great at pacing his stories, so writers generally broke their plots down page by page for him – a minor flaw, easily corrected.) As a person, he was just a sweet guy. He knew he was good but he never acted like it, and in fact, he told me that after many years of freelancing, he never assumed that he’d get another job once he turned the current one in.
Billy: Lastly, could you speak about having Roy Thomas as an editor, and what he brought to the table?
Steve: Roy brought the gift of freedom. It was his decision to let us be as creative as possible, without his interference, and I’m forever thankful for that.