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Steve Englehart Interview

Steve Englehart has written numerous comics during his career including Justice League of America and The Night Man for Malibu, and Avengers Dr. Strange Silver Surfer and the recent Hellcat mini-series for Marvel. This month, he pens Fantastic Four's Big Town a story of a Marvel Universe that might have been. Worlds of Westfield Content Editor Roger Ash recently spoke with Englehart about Fantastic Four's Big Town .

: What is Fantastic Four's Big Town?

Steve Englehart: The whole thing that Marvel is built on, and I think it was certainly a good way to go, is that reality didn't really change when the super heroes came. It was still our reality and the super heroes were living their secret identied lives amongst normal people. But I thought, once Reed Richards and Tony Stark started inventing giant machines to fight off Dr. Doom and repel Galactus and things like that, there would not only be the psychological change, in the fact that Galactus nearly ate New York and people would react to that, but on a more practical level, there would be all these advances. It's like they always say, if you do the moon shot, you get real useful things out of it. If they had invented all this stuff, if they had gone so far out beyond the cutting edge in order to accomplish what they were doing, that stuff would feed back into the general population. To come to the bottom line, once Reed Richards took his girlfriend, his best friend, and his girlfriend's brother into a rocket and went to space and came back with super powers, the world started to change at that point. Big Town begins 10 years to the day after that, because the general conceit these days is that the entire history of Marvel took place in ten years. So, New York has become the focal point of the world because the super heroes are there. The FF is there, the Avengers are there, Professor X and Hank Pym are there. There's a street gang in New Jersey called the Mutts, which is short for Mutants, and it's basically the original X-Men. Because of all of this, there never was a Silicon Valley. Everybody who was interested in that kind of thing came to New York because that's where Reed Richards and Tony Stark were. The entire history of the world has been reshaped by the fact that these people exist. What I'm saying is, here is the Marvel Universe if that had happened. It's extrapolating from the original Marvel thing, but going in this direction rather than the one that they took. Some people have said, "Is this an Elseworlds?" I'd say it's The Road Not Taken. It's called Big Town because it's this huge city. Physically, New York is now three times the size that it was. It encompasses a good chunk of New Jersey, a good chunk of New York state, and a good chunk of Connecticut. All of it has been rebuilt because there's been so much money and so much technology. The technology was a good thing; everybody really got into it. Which isn't to say there aren't bad parts of town still, but it's the Marvel ethos that super heroes are good and do good, taken in this different direction. The other meaning of Big Town is that it's like going to the "big town." It has that glamour. And it does have the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers, and the original X-Men, and a few random other people, all living in this same place and so they interact. It's not a question of that this is the Fantastic Four's book and maybe the Avengers might guest star. No. They all live in this place so they all hang out together and they get into adventures together.

Westfield: What's the story of the mini-series?

Englehart: Reed always thought that if he invented something that would be useful to normal people, he would find a way to manufacture it and get it out to them. Inadvertently, he became extremely rich and extremely famous, more so than he is in the regular Marvel Universe. Which is very embarrassing to him. In the first issue, because this is the 10th anniversary, people are continually kissing his @$$. He's going, "Look. I did what I thought was the right thing to do. Don't worry about it." But there's a major corporate empire based in the Baxter Building and there are thousands of people who work for them. Among them, down in the computer room, was a computer programmer named Sally Juárez. She was cute and Johnny Storm was walking by one day and saw her and now they're about to get married.

But, if this had happened, and if the whole axis of the world had shifted to New York, where does that leave Doctor Doom and Magneto? Despite the fact that they each want to rule the world, and each therefore has very little use for the others, Doctor Doom, Magneto, the Red Skull, Ultron, Prince Namor, and the Hulk have all banded together to stop this. Each has his own reason. Doom is defending Latveria. The Sub-Mariner is defending Atlantis. But they feel that if they don't hang together, they will hang separately and history will completely pass them by. Over the course of the limited series, you've got the personal story of the Fantastic Four which happens to be right about the time that these guys are going to launch an attack on the city and try to bring it down.

Westfield: Will the series be focused mainly on the heroes, or will we be seeing some of the average person's perspective of what's happened?

Englehart: Both, but mostly on the heroes. I was aware of Marvels and Astro City, which took it from a normal person's perspective and looked at the heroes upward, but I had so many heroes, all in the same city, that that was a driving force. Still, the spine of the story is Johnny marrying a normal girl. When we first catch the Fantastic Four in the first issue, they're going to dinner to meet her family for the first time out in the rebuilt Bronx.

Westfield: Who are you working with on the series?

Englehart: Mike McKone and Mark McKenna. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted, visually, as I was thinking this out because there are a lot of themes. Because it was taking the original Marvel and taking it to this big, successful point that wasn't on the original trip, I naturally came back to the most successful part of that trip. But this is not a case of wanting to replicate the 60s. Around FF #50 when Galactus was arriving and the Inhumans were showing up and the Black Panther first appeared, there was a period there where Stan and Jack were at the height of everything they could do and it pointed the way for a lot of what Marvel would continue to do for a long time. I wanted to capture that SPIRIT. So I went to my local comic book store and I started looking through the racks and talking to the guys who own it. I said, "I've got this image, and I want somebody who can draw this big, open, expansive, optimistic kind of thing." They suggested people and it didn't work. I kept looking and eventually I got to some Mike McKone Iron Man stuff, and that was it. I wanted somebody who could do people, because I do people, and I wanted somebody who could draw cityscapes, because that's what a lot of this is about. And he did all of that. So we went out and tried to get him and were fortunate enough to do so. He generally works with Mark McKenna, so we got lucky there, too.

Westfield: You've also been working on some TV projects. What's the difference between writing for comics and writing for TV?

Englehart: Primarily space considerations. I always like to pack as much story as I can into the space available. That's always been something that I wanted to do - to give people full value for their money. I took that with me into television, where you think in terms of four acts in 43 minutes. Then, when I came back to comics, 22 pages was not very much anymore in terms of trying to get stories as I envisioned them. Big Town has a lot of pages over its length, but it was tough getting my vision into them.

Westfield: I've been enjoying the Hellcat mini-series you're writing. Are you planning to do more with the character or would you like to?

Englehart: Tom Brevoort, Kurt Busiek, and Fabian Nicieza brought her back in the Avengers and Thunderbolts Annuals this past summer. Big Town had already been approved by this time, but Tom came and said we've got a three issue Hellcat mini-series which will come out sooner that I'd like you to do. It was a lot of fun. Norm Breyfogle and I really enjoyed working with each other and enjoyed working on her. You'll notice in the two issues that are out thus far, I rarely call her Hellcat. I keep calling her "Patsy" because it's about this GIRL. She keeps saying "I'm just a normal girl," and she is. It's about a person who just happens to have all these powers. When it got done, I was hoping she would not fade back into limbo. Now Marvel's announced this project that Kurt and Erik Larsen are doing, the Defenders, which has the main group, which is Dr. Strange, the Hulk and the Sub Mariner, I guess, and then people like Hellcat and Valkyrie and others who are kind of like on call. My impression is that Hellcat will not be appearing regularly, but that could change at a moment's notice. Our series seems to be attracting enough interest that it may come to that. I would have loved to have done more with her, but I don't have a venue for it. I am talking with Tom Brevoort, and through him to Marvel, about another limited series in which I would expect her to guest star, but that's not approved yet, so I don't know if I'll have that chance there or not.

Westfield: Do you have any upcoming projects?

Englehart: That's it at this point. This reconnection between me and Marvel seems to have gone well on both sides. I really enjoyed doing Hellcat. They enjoyed working with me and Norm. The book is a three-issue series about an obscure character, so it isn't going to rival the X-Men, but it's doing well for what it is. They're happy with that. The Big Town thing after that, everybody's very happy about that, so I would expect that there would be more. The caveat being that the industry is sort of shrinking all the time so it's not as easy as it once was to say "we like you, do something". It's all got to go through profit and loss analyses and all this kind of stuff. It's not necessarily a writer/editor decision about this kind of stuff, but I would like to do more. I've always liked doing comics, but unfortunately the business isn't as robust as it once was. That's the nature of doing them now.

Westfield: Any closing comments?

Englehart: I've always liked exploring new territory. If you give me an established character, I'll try to find something new. With Hellcat, I didn't want to revisit her; I wanted to find where she was NOW after all that she had gone through. It's fun doing Big Town because it's another way to do something that I haven't done before and, in fact, nobody's done before.

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