Herald of the Bronze Age: Celebrating Steve Englehart
Steve Englehart was born on this day in 1947. By his mid-twenties, he was reshaping the Marvel Universe. At thirty, he was reinventing Batman. Englehart is easily one of the greatest comic book writers of all time, and probably the definitive writer of the 1970s.
One of the interesting things about Englehart is that he doesn’t get credit for creating that many interesting characters. In fact, he’s probably most strongly associated with Mantis, a character he introduced in Avengers and held onto (in an incognito form) even when he moved to Justice League of America and beyond. But while Englehart certainly created some peculiar characters, what he was really great at was perfecting characters that already existed.
Take Hank McCoy for example. The Beast had been basically a human-looking science nerd in the Silver Age X-Men, one whom Gerry Conway and Tom Sutton had transformed into a creepy monster in Amazing Adventures #11. When Englehart took over for Conway with #12, he began refining that transformation, keeping the monster but removing the creepy. By the time he brought Hank into the Avengers during his run on that book, Englehart had shaped the Beast into the bouncing blue good-natured guy that we’ve known him to be ever since.
During that Amazing Adventures run, Englehart also brought Patsy Walker, a former teen humor character, into the same world as the superheroes. He eventually added her to the Avengers as well, where she got the chance to become a superhero herself,as the Hellcat. The Trish Walker character who appeared on Netflix’s Jessica Jones, and the Patsy who currently has her own book, would never have existed without Steve Englehart.
As the writer on The Defenders, Englehart introduced Valkyrie, who had only sort of existed before. Roy Thomas had introduced a character with the same name and appearance in The Avengers (and later brought her back in The Incredible Hulk), but that version was just a straw-feminist who only existed as a trick of the villainous Enchantress. Englehart’s Valkyrie became a real superhero, and ultimately a real person, for the first time. Again, the name and costume predates his work, but Englehart is responsible for the enduring character who makes her big screen appearance in Thor: Ragnarok.
But it wasn’t just character that Englehart reinvigorated, it was the whole notion of superhero storytelling. The Stan Lee era popularized superheroes with personal problems, but Englehart pushed that to the next level, and also brought in his own leftist politics, which made his comics feel contemporary and real on a level that was unprecedented. His Avengers, with Vision, Scarlet Witch, the Swordsman, and Mantis, caught in a love quadrangle even as Mantis struggles with the mystery of her father’s identity, set the stage for the kind of superhero soap opera that Chris Claremont brought to X-Men a few years later.
He also had a run on Captain America, which dealt with politics to a surprising degree for that time. He established that the virulently anti-Communist Captain America of the 1950s wasn’t Steve Rogers, but an imposter whose toxic right-wing views drive home what a Roosevelt Democrat Steve has always been. In the Watergate era, Englehart had the leader of the Secret Empire, a costumed terrorist organization, turn out to be the President of the United States. This so disillusioned Steve that he abandoned his patriotic identity and spent time as Nomad, a name he would later pass on to other characters.
After a move to DC Comics, Englehart had a similarly reinvigorating effect on Batman and his villains. During a Detective Comics run with Marshall Rogers, Englehart shook off the last of the goofy '60s by deliberately taking Batman back to the Golden Age, reestablishing him as a pulp-inspired hero and reintroducing or revitalizing his earliest villains. “The Laughing Fish” made the Joker seem far more dangerous than he’d been in years, and he only got more deadly from that point on.
And then of course there’s Deadshot. Englehart rebuild the forgotten top hat-wearing Golden Age villain as a deadly assassin, while Rogers gave him a memorable red and silver costume. This is the Deadshot who would go on to star in Suicide Squad in the 1980s, played by Will Smith plays in the 2016 Suicide Squad movie.
The so-called Bronze Age of Comics is often looked at as a transitional period. The weird magic of the Silver Age gradually gave way to what looks much more to us like modern storytelling. Steve Englehart played a huge role in that. As he moved from book to book, and from company to company, he ushered comics along to the next level of their potential. He deepened characters, made stories more complex, and built a more realistic world for them to exist in. If any one writer embodies the Bronze Age, it’s him.