Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Jim Shooter "Victim" Files: Steve Englehart

This essay is adapted from a longer article that appeared at The Hooded Utilitarian on October 23, 2013.

For the introduction to "The Jim Shooter 'Victim' Files" series, click here.

Jim Shooter and Steve Englehart, at the 1982 San Diego Comicon

Born in 1947, Steve Englehart broke into the comics business in late 1970. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology from Wesleyan University in 1969. He also served for a time in the U. S. Army. He started as a freelance artist for various publishers, but quickly shifted to scriptwriting. Long runs on Marvel’s Captain America and The Avengers made him one of the field's most admired scriptwriters before he left for DC in 1976.

Before getting into the specific circumstances of Englehart’s departure from Marvel, I would like to discuss at length how Englehart’s situation has been exploited to attack Jim Shooter. It’s a good study in the tactics Gary Groth and Sean Howe, Shooter’s most conspicuous detractors, have used in efforts to defame him.

Given the prominent role Groth and The Comics Journal have in shaping perceptions of comics history, his portrayal of Shooter's dealings with various comics personnel will be discussed in each instance. For the same reason, Sean Howe's treatments in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story will be examined as well.

In Groth’s 1987 editorial about Jim Shooter’s termination as Marvel editor-in-chief, he included Englehart in a list of “the vast number of creators fired or otherwise driven to leave Marvel by Shooter” (TCJ #117, p. 6). This reference should have struck a discordant note with any knowledgeable reader.

The most immediate reason was that, at the time of Shooter’s firing in April 1987, Englehart was working for Marvel. He was the regular scriptwriter on three ongoing company-owned titles: Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, and West Coast Avengers. He had been writing at least two titles a month for the company’s various imprints for the previous two years. He began regularly publishing new work through Marvel again in February of 1983, when the first issue of his creator-owned series Coyote shipped to retailers.

Beyond that, it was well known in comics circles that Englehart quit Marvel in 1976 because of conflicts with Gerry Conway, who was then the company’s editor-in-chief. One reason it was known was an interview with Englehart in The Comics Journal #63 that Groth helped conduct. Englehart discussed his problems with Conway at length. His statements gained additional notoriety when Conway responded with a letter, published in The Comics Journal #68, that may well be the single most intemperate, vituperative, and outright nasty piece of writing the magazine has ever published.

However, Groth and the Journal never printed a correction of the Englehart reference in the editorial.

But Groth apparently recognized the statement was erroneous at some point. In his 1994 anti-Shooter screed, “Jim Shooter, Our Nixon” (reprinted at in 2011), he changed his tune somewhat on Englehart’s departure. The reader is still presented with an inaccurate view of the situation; Groth just didn't shoehorn Englehart into his attack to the same degree. Englehart is described in the essay as a creator “who also left under Shooter’s regime at Marvel” (TCJ #174, p. 18).

By itself, that reference may seem pretty benign. But it's a very slick bit of rhetorical spin. In the context of the essay, it’s very effective in falsely casting Englehart in the role of one of Shooter’s alleged victims.

First, note the falsehood of the word “regime.” An honest observer in command of the facts would say that Englehart left during Gerry Conway’s “regime,” not Shooter’s. Shooter was Marvel’s associate editor and Conway’s subordinate. But characterizing this period of Shooter’s employment as part of his “regime at Marvel” leads the reader to assume that Groth is speaking of Shooter’s tenure as editor-in-chief. This completely deflects attention from Conway and his exclusive role in Englehart's departure.

Second, note the presence of the word “also." This falsely identifies Englehart with the creators and staffers whom Groth describes at various points in the essay as “fired, driven off, fucked over, or otherwise insulted by Shooter”; whom Shooter “was routinely violating the professional dignity of” and “imprudently alienating”; whom “Marvel lost […] often because of an unresolvable dispute between the creator and Shooter”; and who “occasionally went on the record stating his unequivocal disdain for Shooter’s ethics and professionalism.” (TCJ #174, pp. 17 and 18)

What Groth is doing here is what I call “plausible deniability” writing. It’s a sleazy, manipulative rhetorical method that eschews direct statement in favor of juxtaposition and other forms of associative construction to make its points. In short, it implies its smears rather than states them. (Richard Nixon was fond of this deceitful rhetorical technique when it came to attacking his political opponents. Groth's "Our Nixon" title seems quite ironic.) One benefit of “plausible deniability” writing is the protection it would likely give Groth if, say, Shooter had sued him for libel over the essay. In this instance (and it's just one of the piece's numerous misrepresentations), Groth’s lawyer would probably just point out that Groth never directly said Englehart left Marvel because of Shooter’s allegedly shabby treatment. All he specifically wrote was that Englehart left Marvel “under Shooter’s regime.” Everything else was ambiguous at most. If readers wrongly inferred that Englehart left Marvel because of conflicts with Shooter, well, that’s the stupid readers’ fault, not Groth’s. He would probably say he is not responsible for erroneous interpretations of ambiguous statements or context. And that claim, in a court of law, is likely correct. He would likely prevail in a libel case because the individual statements technically aren’t false for the most part, and where they are false, they’re not specifically defamatory. Keep in mind that I'm not an attorney, but from what I know, this is what I'd expect.

Oh, and this probably goes without saying, but in the “Our Nixon” essay, Groth again made no mention of the fact that Englehart was working for Marvel at the time of Shooter’s termination, much less that he’d been regularly publishing new work through Marvel for the previous four years.

Note: Steve Englehart was sent a draft of the account that follows. He wrote back to say he had no corrections, and that he stands by what he has said over the years. Gerry Conway could not be reached.

With Shooter’s dealings with Englehart during his time as associate editor, two minor disputes are known.

The first was with the origin of The Shroud character that was published in Super-Villain Team-Up #7. Englehart deliberately appropriated the origin of Batman for the character. In Shooter’s testimony in the Marv Wolfman v. Marvel trial (click here), he recounted what came next:

It was plagiarism. And I thought that was a very bad idea. Steve Englehart was a very important writer. So I called him, and I said, "Steve, you seem to be doing the origin of Batman here." And he said, "Yes, I am." And I said, "You can't do that." And he said, "Yes, I can." That conversation was getting nowhere. I thought, let me talk to Marv about this. I went to Marv and I showed it to him. And he asked me to change it as little as possible because we wanted to not offend Steve any more than absolutely necessary but to make it so it wasn't plagiarism. So I did the best I could to alter it to, you know, to meet that standard.

As near as I can determine, Englehart has never publicly complained about the revisions to the story.

The origin of Batman.. or The Shroud? From Super-Villain Team-Up #7. Script by Steve Englehart (with unspecified revisions by Jim Shooter). Penciled by Herb Trimpe and inked by Pablo Marcos.

The second dispute occurred after Gerry Conway replaced Marv Wolfman as editor-in-chief. It related to the erroneous flagging of a story inconsistency in Super-Villain Team-Up #8. Judging from Conway and Englehart’s accounts, the dispute appears to have been far more with Conway than Shooter. But in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Sean Howe characterized it as a “blow-up” solely between Shooter and Englehart (p. 185). The incident is used as the principal support for a tendentious narrative that effectively blames Shooter for turning the editorial environment of Conway’s tenure, which lasted less than a month, “inescapably toxic.” Apparently towards that goal, Howe omits Conway from the dispute. The source or sources for Howe’s treatment are not included in the book’s endnotes, but it appears to be derived from Englehart’s interview in The Comics Journal #63 and Conway’s letter responding in TCJ #68.

Here’s what Englehart said happened:

In the same three-week period, when Conway was the editor, [...] a lot of people went out at that time. It had gotten to the point where a lot of people just didn't feel it was what they had signed on for. [...] It was a strange three weeks [...] the first week Conway and Shooter--his Assistant Editor, or the right-hand man--called me up and said, “We really don’t like the Super-Villain Team-Up you just wrote because you said the Sub-Mariner’s father did or didn’t do something.” It’s on page two of issue six or seven or something. I don’t even know what it is now. But they said, “You did this.” I said, “No, I really didn’t.” And they said, “We know you did, because we were told by whoever proofread that you did it.” I said, “I’ve got the script right here, and I didn’t say that.” And it was like, “Yes, you did, and you’re gonna pay for it. You’re really in trouble for doing this kind of stuff.” So I took my Xerox copy of the script and I Xeroxed off the page and I sent it to them.

The second week I got a call from Conway saying, “We’re really sorry. We were misinformed. I see your script, you’re right. I went back and looked at it, everything you said was true, hey look, no hard feelings, huh, I’m just getting started and I don’t really know how to do all this shit and let’s just let bygones be bygones.” (TCJ #63, p. 270)

Here’s what Conway had to say in his response:

When I became editor[-in-chief] at Marvel, I expected some problems with, among other people, Steve Englehart [...] Steve was well-known at Marvel as a balloon-headed egotist with a short fuse. [...] He states rightly, that I called him up concerned about an error in his script--not a minor error as he asserts, but a major continuity error. He told me it wasn’t his doing; on the information I had, I thought he was lying. (This may come as a shock to those of you fresh from the egg, but yes, Steve has been known to bend the truth just a tad now and then.) He did indeed send me a Xerox of his script, though of course this proved nothing since scripts can be retyped; but I checked it out, found out I was wrong, and as Steve tells you in his interview--I called him and apologized, admitting my mistake. (TCJ #68, pp. 23-25)

Sean Howe, though, erroneously portrays the dispute as if it was only with Shooter. As can be seen, in Englehart’s statements, which were part of a larger attack on Conway, he says the specific dispute was with both Conway and Shooter, although it is not clear that he and Shooter ever spoke directly about it. Conway, in his response, describes the dispute as only between Englehart and himself. Shooter isn’t mentioned.

One also notes that Englehart deeply resented Conway due to this and other disputes during Conway's tenure. With Shooter, he held no grudge.

Howe apparently believes that if a conflict occurs in Jim Shooter's vicinity, it is automatically Jim Shooter's fault, and only Jim Shooter's fault. This is regardless of how the others involved see the situation. It is one example among many of Howe's nasty bias against Shooter, and the defamatory treatment of him in Howe's book.

As for Englehart’s departure from Marvel, he left after Conway took away a scripting assignment for The Avengers. Englehart said that Conway removed him from the series, and further claimed Conway said he wanted the assignment for himself (TCJ #63, p. 270). Conway said the removal was just for the story in that year’s The Avengers Annual, not the monthly series. The reason was because of Englehart’s missed deadlines, and not because he wanted to take over as the series’ scriptwriter. (TCJ 68, p. 23). Jim Shooter, in a 2011 blog comment (click here), more or less confirmed Conway’s account.

As for Englehart's career afterward, he immediately moved over to DC, where his most notable effort was a Batman run in Detective Comics with artist Marshall Rogers. He worked at DC on various titles before quitting over a payment dispute in late 1978 or early 1979. He left the field for three years, reemerging in 1982 with his author-owned feature Coyote. It was originally published by Eclipse, and Englehart took it to Marvel’s Epic imprint a few months later. He resumed working on company-owned titles for both Marvel and DC in 1985. He stayed at DC through 1987, and was removed from his Marvel assignments in 1989 after conflicts with Tom DeFalco, Jim Shooter’s successor as editor-in-chief. In 1992, he worked on the X-O Manowar and Shadowman titles under Shooter at Valiant, but left after a few months due to differences with Shooter about editorial direction. Englehart says the parting was amicable (click here). Shooter says otherwise (click here), although he still holds Englehart’s ability in high regard (click here). Englehart spent the next several years doing scriptwriting work for various publishers, including Marvel and DC. He left the comics field for good in 2006.

Related posts:
  • The Jim Shooter "Victim" Files
           -- Introduction
           -- Tony Isabella
           -- Gerry Conway
           -- Mary Skrenes
           -- Len Wein


  1. I've been thinking whether there would be a point in commenting on this. It's a non-issue, really. But I understand why you had to write it. Otherwise, these urban legends get accepted as truth. And even history-minded comic book fans have a tendency to accept urban legends as complete truth if it makes for a good story.

    Hopefully this will be the most "Snopish" of all articles in the "Shooter victims" series, and we can get back to actual problems on the next one.

  2. Englehart planned to stay a year or so at DC after leaving Marvel in 1976. He would write 36 or so scripts and then leave for Europe and tour there for 9 months or so, while writing his first novel, with the idea of leaving comic books behind. The salary dispute with DC happened after he returned from Europe, sold his first novel and was between books, so he dipped back into comic books briefly by writing a few comic books for DC.