Guardians of the Galaxy and Romance Comics' Common Thread - Interview with Steve Englehart!
Yesterday over at the Sequential Crush Facebook page and Twitter, I teased today's post with a picture of Chris Pratt. You may have asked yourself, what possibly could Chris Pratt, Star-Lord have in common with romance comics (besides the fact that he's an intergalactic hunk)?! The answer is -- this man:
That's right, Steve Englehart! For those not familiar with Englehart, he is probably best known for his superhero work, such as Star-Lord, but he was also a contributor to the romance comics of both DC and Marvel in the 1970s as a writer and illustrator. Steve was kind enough to take time out of his schedule and answer some of my questions about his early days in comics.
Most bios of your career start with your time at Marvel. However, you did some work for DC Comics first. How did you get involved with the romance comics? Those three “Do's & Dont's of Dating by Page Peterson" must have been some of your first pages in comics -- did you have a choice or were those pages assigned to you? When you then went to Marvel, were you assigned romance work because of your DC romance work?
When someone started in comics back then, you broke in doing little jobs in the non-superhero realm - getting your feet wet while being evaluated. I was assigned the one-pagers, in romance and "mystery," at DC, and the same genres at Marvel, where they didn't have one-pagers, so I got short stories (about 8 pages). I don't think the DC work had anything to do with the Marvel work; they were both seeing what I could do in the areas they used for such things. I liked doing Page Peterson, and I liked the short Marvels, and I would guess that DC, being stodgy, was still thinking about what I could do while Marvel was continuing to give me stories, and so my "career" went in that direction - which was good for me because I liked Marvel better than DC.
In “I Can’t Love Anyone!” you were able to capture the frustration that some young women felt when it came to sticking with traditional gender roles – this story very much seemed to “get” what the Women’s Movement was about. Do you remember anything in particular about this story and how it came to be?
Well, I've always been interested in people - why they do what they do. That means all people, so I was paying attention to the women's movement, and when asked to write romance stories, I tried to draw upon whatever I knew about women of the time. Even then (early '70s), romance comics were somewhat of an anachronism, because of the women's movement, so I tried to write something that would work in the times we were in. (Semi-related: sometime around then, another Marvel writer told me "The only characters we can really write are white men," and my instinctive reaction was to say "No, a writer should be able to write anyone" - and I tried to do that - not only with romance, but with black characters, and so on). So I think I have a decent empathy and appreciation for people who don't look like me.
Tell us about “Anne Spencer.” What made you use that nom de plume? Did you feel using the name lent legitimacy to your voice as a writer of comic books intended for women? Were you going off your own romantic experiences or did you draw on the experiences of women in your life?
My sister's name is Anne, and she was dating a guy from Spencer, Indiana - et voila! I wasn't required to have a pseudonym to write romance stories, but since nobody knew who I was anyway, I figured a female name would be best. I guess it sounded more legit (assuming I could write credible women), but it was really just me exploring the options of this new field I was in. In the same vein, I certainly drew upon my experiences, and other people's, but mostly I was putting together what I hoped would be a good story. Without experiences, I obviously couldn't write romance, but I understood that my male experiences were different from female experiences, and I was trying to work with what I understood about the female experience - in the context of Marvel romance books. All of that came together for the final product.
What was the general feeling among you and your colleagues at both Marvel and DC concerning the romance comics? Were they looked down upon (as far as being assigned to them), in comparison with the superhero titles?
I think the general feeling, at the time, was - romance and Western books were legitimate magazines - they weren't looked down upon - but the superhero books were where the action was. Given a choice between romance/Western and a superhero, anyone would choose the superhero. If you didn't have that choice, then you put your energy into r/W, and I certainly didn't feel put upon for doing so. The problem, as I said before, was that women's lib was rendering romance books to the scrapbin of history, so their days were numbered. But while they still existed, they were "real" comics. (Another digression: before I became a pro, I was a fan…of comics. And comics didn't cost very much. So I collected romance books and Westerns and everything else alongside the superheroes. I was a big fan of the soap-opera era of Patsy Walker and Patsy & Hedy - and the soaps that DC got into at the same time. That's why, when I wrote my first superhero (The Beast), I brought Patsy into that realm. I knew Patsy, and I liked her.
You worked with some great folks during your time on the romance comics -- Jack Abel, John Romita, Stan Lee, and Holli Resnicoff to mention a few. Do you have any memories of working with them on the romance stories?
I remember that my pencils were still the product of a new artist, so I was damn glad to have someone like Johnny Romita ink things and show me how they should have looked. Ditto Jack Abel. They both worked primarily in the Marvel offices, and comics is a collegial business, or was at the time, so they, too, did their job with their full measure of professionalism, and in the process showed me what I could do better. Holli also worked in the Marvel offices, and we plotted the stories we did together, together. She became a good friend, and later, after I moved to California, she came out and visited. We partied a little around the Bay Area. She was a good person.
Would you have liked to have kept working on the romance comics or were you ready to move on?
I have to confess, I preferred the superheroes, and progression up the ranks at Marvel meant moving on to superheroes, so I was happy to go there. But Patsy Walker in the Beast, and then again in The Avengers - and the Western heroes in The Avengers - shows, I think, that my affection for the non-superheroes was a real thing.
Though you never got to see Star-Lord on through to what you had originally envisioned (an ambitious series of planetary-themed issues with art by the likes of romance great Jay Scott Pike), do you feel that working on the romance comics influenced that concept or any of your other work in comics?
Yes, wouldn't doing a job with Pike have been great? And if I hadn't been a romance fan, I wouldn't have known who he was - a sound argument for finding quality work wherever it may be. So yes, when I envisioned a romance story on the planet Venus, I was very clear that he, or someone equally good, was who I'd get. As you say, that never panned out, but I can guarantee you I'd have written a good romance story for that issue. I think any comic I ever enjoyed helped shape what I did with comics, and if called upon to write romance, I'd have been fully ready.
What are you working on now? Do you go to any conventions? Please feel free to plug any current projects!
I’d have to say I'm semi-retired now. :-) I still write, but my wife and I are also doing a lot of travelling, and one of our sons is getting married and the other's about to have his first kid, so I'm not writing full-time. I still enjoy it, and I'm putting together a novel (series?) I'm very happy with, but I'm not pushing to meet any deadline. As for cons, due to that travel bug I mentioned, I tend to accept cons overseas, but not too many in the States - it has to be someplace I haven't already been or have some other attraction besides the con. Nothing against cons, but I've done a lot of them by now. As for plugs, my Max August trilogy is still out there, and though the touchstones are politics and magick, Max and Pam, and Max's once-dead wife Val, are locked in a good romance triangle. :-)
Anything else you’d like to share with romance comic fans?
I'm glad to see that they exist. I'd hate to think I was alone.
Steve Englehart Romance Comic Checklist
- Falling in Love #125 (August 1971) “Do's & Dont's of Dating by Page Peterson" (Pencils)
- Young Romance #174 (September 1971) “Do's & Dont's of Dating by Page Peterson" (Pencils)
- Young Romance #177 (December 1971) “Do's & Dont's of Dating by Page Peterson" (Pencils)
- My Love #16 (March 1972) “Puppet on a String” (Pencils)
- My Love #16 (March 1972) "Loyalty...or Love!" (co-writer with Holli Resnicoff)
- My Love #19 (September 1972) “I Can't Love Anyone!" (Story -- as "Anne Spencer")
- Our Love Story #15 (February 1972) “One Fleeting Moment” (Pencils)
- Our Love Story #16 (April 1972) "As Good As Any Man!" (co-writer with Holli Resnicoff)
- Our Love Story #18 (August 1972) “I Failed at Love!" (Story -- as "Anne Spencer")
For a full look at the range and depth of Englehart's work, be sure to check out his website!