Steve Englehart became one of the first major post-Silver Age superhero writers with his character-and-action-heavy runs on such characters as Captain America, Batman, Dr. Strange, the Avengers and more. In addition to his groundbreaking superhero work, Englehart was also one of the first Bronze Age creators to break into such media as novels and video games. Now, he’s returned to the world created in his first novel – and launched a new epic tale.
First published in 1981, Englehart’s novel The Point Man was a modern-day pulp thriller about a Vietnam vet drawn into a conspiracy that introduced him to the world of magic. Nearly three decades later, the novel’s been reissued as part of a new series that’s already earning raves from top writers. With publication of the first sequel, The Long Man, we talked with Englehart about the series, his career, and whether he’ll ever return to comics.
Longman Cover Courtesy Tor BooksNewsarama: Steve, congratulations on the book coming back into print, and on the sequel. How long have you been developing the series?
Steve Englehart: Well, on the one hand, you could say I was developing it since the mid-’70s, but as a series, it’s been the last five years. I wrote The Point Man after the Batman “Dark Detective” run, and I considered it a one-shot thing. It was supposed to be “everything I want to say about magic that I can’t say in comic books.”
I finished it, and I said, “I really don’t want to write the continuing adventures of a guy who’s stumbled into magic.” So I went on to other things. But about five years ago, I thought it would be interesting if the guy had actually done what he did in 1980 when The Point Man came out. In that book, he comes across a guy who’s lived for 500 years, an immortal character.
I thought, “What if that guy who was so innocent and mortal in the 1980s has become immortal himself?” He has to come to grips with all the usual problems – his friends are getting older and he’s not, that sort of thing –in this day and age, it’s not that easy to get a new identity and drop off the radar.
That led me on to the concept that in this day and age, in the 21st century, the government is monitoring emails and listening to phone calls – around 2004, things were looking a bit dubious – and contrast that with this guy who is definitely a product of 1980. Things were different in 1980, there’s no doubt about it. Let’s plop this guy in the 21st century, and force him to try to lead a secret, immortal identity in the age of information.
What I’m doing in this series is that every book is set very definitely in the time it’s set in. The Point Man takes place in 1980 – AM radio, and certain types of cars and rock music and so on and so on. The Long Man takes place in Halloween 2007, and there’s certain types of music and media, though AM radio has obviously gone away.
What’s fascinating to me is watching this guy travel through time. This guy is developing internally and growing over time, but outside, he is passing through distinct periods of time. And as this series goes along, you’ll have the 2007 book and the 2009 book, and the 2011 book, and the 2012 book, because I’ve got to get in on the end of the world.
So that’s what’s unique – every book is the same guy, but time has passed.
Nrama: Stylistically, you’re looking at a different market for SF/Fantasy pulp adventure than when The Point Man came out. What challenges did you have getting the book to an audience, both then and now?
Englehart: Well, the challenge for me has always been “playing in different ballparks,” working in different media. Having done half-a-dozen different types of writing, each one has required me to get a feel for the ballpark. That there’s a left field wall is a fact – it’s about how you play against that wall.
The Point Man was my first novel, and when I wrote it, my theory was “it’s just a longer story than what I’m used to telling in comics.” And as I wrote, I learned it was not just longer, but wider and higher and exponentially larger in all directions. And that was something I had to get a feel for.
After The Point Man, I sold another novel to Dell, but I was also hired by Atari to write games. And I wound up giving the money back to Dell and taking the Atari job. So it had been a long time since I wrote novels. Coming back into it, on the one hand, I didn’t have to learn those things again, but on the other, I hadn’t been playing balls off that wall for a long time.
It was a matter of getting a feel for doing the long-form material again. A lot of my work has been taking things that have been done in the past and moving it into the present and making sure that it was a smooth move. All those things are skills I learned over time.
In this case, this was about taking a guy I hadn’t seen in 20-odd years, grokking who he was, and who he might be after all these situations and things that had happened to him. I have a detailed timeline about him and the people he knows, and an idea of what happened when and what was going on in the world at that time.
The challenge was making The Point Man, which was a stand-alone novel, work as an entry to The Long Man and The Plain Man and The Box Man, as I’m calling it at the moment. I have a four-book contract, but I’m envisioning this going on…for immortality (laughs). I intend to write these as long as it’s feasible.
Tor, my publisher, has a lot of faith in this, and they bought the rights to reprint The Point Man, and three books on top of that.
Nrama: When you started doing The Point Man and your videogame work – we’re now at a point where comic book writers have a fan base that will follow you from medium to medium. But at that point in time, I’m guessing it wasn’t heard of for a comic writer to do novels and video game work.
Englehart: It wasn’t. When I had the opportunity to the videogame work, I told my wife I had this opportunity to do something new, but I had this book contract. And she said to me, “If you don’t go through the door, you’ll never see what’s on the other side.”
That’s been my sort of watchword ever since. I went through the door into videogames, then animation and live-action and the rest of this stuff. I love to explore. I had a wonderful time doing comics, but I wanted to see what else was out there that I could do.
It was my hope at the time that people who liked my comics would check out the video games or whatever, but there was – around 1980, I think the San Diego convention was still in the old hotel, and we were so far from the cross-media world we’re in now, and there wasn’t much crossover. If I did all that today, it would probably be much more touted, but back then, it was just “go through that door and see what happens.”
Nrama: You think maybe the Internet has made that crossing over easier?
Englehart: Yeah, probably so. When we founded the Malibu Ultraverse back in the 1990, that was when things like that were just getting started.
When we did the contracts for Malibu, they were very good and very open, but it was my agent Mike Friedrich who said, “Let’s cover the multi-media rights.” That was a completely new concept to me at that point!
Thinking “How is this going to work if this becomes a TV show?” was very foreign. The Image thing had just happened, and the idea of moving your idea out of comics and into other media was something new. Then when they made the Night Man TV show, I was very glad we had addressed that. (laughs)
So in the last 20 years, since the Tim Burton Batman film, we’ve had this. But before that, people just put stamps on letters and mailed them (laughs). That’s how you communicated in those days.
Nrama: Well, if the world ends, it could be that way again, like that Kevin Costner film The Postman…
Englehart: Or The Book of Eli! I keep seeing these apocalyptic stories everywhere.
Nrama: It’s a big thing these days – everyone seems to expect the end of the world.
Englehart: And that’s actually something my character, Max August, takes on in the book. It’s kind of an oppressive time right now – not a happy time. And a large problem with that is the way the world is being run, and Max is kind of a Robin Hood character. He’s the guy who’s fighting to make things better, and it’s a one-man crusade – a few-man crusade, as it turns out, and he’s the guy who has the power to make his few guys’ actions matter.
But it’s not Killraven, not about a couple stragglers out there on the plains. It’s about America and the world now, and Max is trying to turn things around in the real world we’re all living in. And over the course of the books, we’re seeing that plan unfold. I’m writing about the 21st century – about this great sense of depression and malaise that has settled over people.
Nrama: You got some major endorsements when The Point Man originally came out, notably Ted Sturgeon –
Englehart: Yeah, it was at San Diego Comic-Con – it wasn’t what it is today, it might have still been at the original hotel, but I went there, and this little old man came up to me and said, “Hi, I’m Theodore Sturgeon, and I love your stuff.”
My reaction was, “No! This can’t be!” It turned out he was a fan of my comics, and I was obviously a fan of his stuff. So we got to be pals – this, again, was pre-Internet, so it was just when we saw each other or when we wrote back and forth.
It was the same for him as it was for me or anyone else in this business – you put your stuff out there and hope people like it en masse, or that you at least don’t get fired. Same deal with Michael Chabon and Brad Meltzer in the new edition.
Nrama: And those are novelists who went on to do comics, and were drawn to your novel because of your comics work –
Englehart: Yeah, they were both reading my comics as they were trying to figure out what to do with their lives…and decided they didn’t want to do comics (laughs), at least not right away, though they did want to do storytelling.
From a book publishing standpoint, you can’t get published unless you get quotes – well, that’s not a hard and fast rule. I’m learning about the book publishing industry right now, but one thing I’ve learned right away is that some people somewhere are impressed by the books. (laughs)
Nrama: And for this edition, you’ve gotten your name changed from “Stephen Englehart” to “Steve”…
Englehart: Yeah, I was just doing comics when I wrote The Point Man, and I thought you needed something more formal for books, so I went with “Stephen,” because Stephen King had broken those doors down…the minute I saw it in print, I went, “This isn’t me. That’s not my name.”
No, I never was happy with that decision once it was locked down, and since then, I’ve been Steve Englehart. That name in that form is a lot better-known now than it was then.
I should mention that that’s one of very few changes I made to The Point Man. The only thing I did to change the book was that the main character was originally 33 years old in 1980, and I thought, “If we’re gonna follow this guy over time, we’re going to want to figure out where he is by birth, even though he doesn’t age.” So I thought it would be easier to make this calculation if he was a round number of years. So now he’s 30 in 1980 and 35 in 1985, and so on.
There were maybe 20 word changes throughout the book based on that. I didn’t try to modernize it or clean anything up beyond that, it’s part of the whole story of Max August. It’s a time capsule of 1980, in a sense. And hopefully, I’m currently writing an accurate representation of the world in the 21st century.
Nrama: Do you have any comic book projects coming up?
Englehart: No, no comic projects.
Nrama: Would you like to have any comic projects coming up?
Englehart: Well, I’m completely committed to the books at this point. DC ripped me off for a movie at the end of my comic book career; I’m not excited to do comics under the way they’re currently done.
There’s a number of things; one is I got ripped off, and two is that comics are very different from the old days – I hate to call it that. Back in the Bronze Age, people had complete freedom to do comics the way they wanted.
The last stuff I did for Marvel and DC had way too much editorial back-and-forth. Once upon a time, editorial said, “These are your books, do whatever you want to do.” The story I’ve told a zillion times is that Roy Thomas said, “We’re giving you Captain America – if you can make it sell, we’ll keep you on, if not, we’ll fire you and we’ll get somebody who can.”
That was the sum total of the editorial influence! What I did and what Steve Gerber and those other guys did came from that. Now, editorial says “Here’s what we’re going to do with the line and the major books, and we’ll just get people to fill in the blanks.”
It’s not interesting to me. Particularly, here I am writing novels, where I get to do what I think is entertaining for people, and nobody says I can’t. The editorial approach I get at Tor involves a lot of very good comments, but they leave it up to me whether I take the comments or not.
I love comics; I grew up wanting to do comics; I got to do comics. It was almost always fun. But the world that happened in isn’t here anymore.
Not to run that back to the novel, but the novel’s about what the world’s like now. It’s no different from when I did Captain America and the Watergate thing back in the day. I love fantasy, and I love reality, and I love to do writing that touches on both of those worlds.
To answer your original question: If somebody came to me and said, “You can do comics the way comic really were done well in the Bronze Age,” I could entertain something like that. But I don’t see it, and I got a lot on my plate as things stand.
Nrama: We’re still seeing the influence of your work today – the current Captain America storyline has him battling the 1950s Cap, and the backup has a new Nomad fighting the Secret Empire.
Englehart: Right. In terms of comics, that’s just par for the course. You put something in a comic, it’s there for the next writer or the writer 20 years later to draw from. That’s a fact, and I have no problem with it.
Nrama: Do you read any contemporary comics?
Englehart: No, I really don’t. When I walked away from comics, I was walking toward novels, and pretty much all my reading now is novels.
People will hand me things sometimes, and I will read them, but I am focused forward rather than backward at this point. I’m not denigrating comics; I was able to tell very large stories in comics, but in this case, I don’t have to do it over the course of 17 issues or something. I can do it over a book, or over a series of books.
I’m in a new ballpark, and I’m having a good time in this ballpark. It’s not that I dislike comics, I’ve just found something else I enjoy as well.
Nrama: Any projects beyond the Max August series?
Englehart: I got some other novels. Novel-writing takes a while, and I’m new enough at it…at this point, I’m editingThe Plain Man, which went more quickly than The Long Man. The Long Man was about bringing Max August through time and working out how I would handle this series, and by The Plain Man, a lot of those things were decided.
I can see myself getting faster as I go, as I no longer have to create from scratch. I liken it to any comic series I ever did. The first issue was always about establishing things, hopefully in an entertaining fashion, and with the second book, you’re taking that boulder you’ve put there and it’s starting to move, and with the third book, it’s rolling.
The Max August series is basically a very large epic. Each book stands on its own, but Max’s plan is a long one, and we learn more about the people he’s dealing with in each new story. At this point, I figure it’s taking the bulk of my time to write Max August.
But I suspect, as we move forward, there’ll be other things that show up. That’s still on the board for the future.
Nrama: Anything else you’d like to talk about?
Englehart: The Point Man went on sale on March 2, and The Long Man two weeks later. It’s been a lot of fun, and I hope people will check the books out.