Back in the 1970s, Steve Englehart made a name for himself at Marvel writing such books as The Avengers and Doctor Strange. His specialty was in telling character-driven stories with plots that often used the unique histories of the characters and the Marvel universe. Moreover, with Dr. Strange, he took the trouble to actually research the history of Western and Eastern magick, familiarizing himself with the practices of Aleister Crowley and Cornelius Agrippa as much as he did with the Eastern mysticism that Stephen Strange studied in Tibet under the tutelage of the Ancient One.
Not being a Marvel fan when I was a kid (or now), I never read any of his work until he moved to DC and brought his research-oriented, character-driven approach to Justice League of America, Mister Miracle, and Detective Comics, the latter two in collaboration with Marshall Rogers. Unfortunately, after fulfilling his one-year agreement with DC, Englehart “retired” from comics to write novels.
Within a few years, his first novel came out, The Point Man, a brilliant book about a Viet Nam veteran and radio disk jockey named Max August who becomes entangled in a plot by sorcerers to destroy the United States. In the novel, August meets Cornelius Agrippa (still alive and kicking after 500 years) and learns of his own nascent magickal abilities through Agrippa’s tutelage. Again, Englehart uses his strength of telling new stories that rely on history and his willingness to research.
However, after the appearance of that first novel, Englehart seemingly vanished off the face of the Earth. Actually, he went to work for Atari writing computer video games (or something). I missed his work during that period, either in comics or in novels. He was one of my favorite writers when I was a kid, and when I wrote stories in high school I would often pull out The Point Man or his Mister Miracle and Batman stories to “see how Englehart would do it” (i.e., tackle a particular narrative problem).
When he finally returned to comics a decade or two later (and on a limited basis with a mini-series or story arc here and there), the thrill was gone. Oh, they were still good stories, but not “great.” Even his recent collaboration with Marshall Rogers on Dark Detective left me thinking that it was a good story that was better than most but not as great as their work on Batman 30 years earlier.
I alternately thought one of two things: Either that Englehart’s time had passed and that his skills as a writer were no longer as sharp, or that my view of the work he produced 30 years ago was clouded by my own nostalgic childhood memories: that he really wasn’t that great back then but that I only thought he was because he was one of my writing idols when I was an impressionable kid. Fortunately, with the release of Strange Westerns starring The Black Rider, both of those possibilities have been laid to rest. This new collaboration with Marshall Rogers for Marvel’s series of one-shot westerns is Englehart at his best. He crafts an intriguing and compelling story that brings the Black Rider from Texas to New York to investigate a Chinese prostitution ring, and he does so by pulling from the history of New York, the history of the character that Jack Kirby created, and “new history” that Englehart adds to the Black Rider’s background.
For instance, we learn that the father of Morris “Doc” Masters originally left New York for Texas to try to find a Chinese woman with whom he was in love (that’s the “new history”). We also learn that Doc Masters trained his powerful and lightning-fast horse, Satan, to act like a broken-down old nag, and incredibly Kirby had shown Doc Masters training his horse this way before he (Doc Masters) ever thought of assuming the identity of the Black Rider. That strange fact that was in Kirby’s origin of the character that most writers would simply dismiss as a storytelling error becomes something for Englehart to use; he exploits it as a character point in the story’s final scene (although Doc Masters talking about training his horse that way for no reason causes the scene to lose some of the effect that Englehart stated in interviews that he was attempting to achieve; it was the one off note in an otherwise masterful composition).
Oh, speaking of the final scene, the story actually ends with a prologue set 100 years later to reveal a connection to the contemporary Marvel universe that you might not see coming if you hadn’t read all the spoilers on the Internet (which I had, unfortunately). Again, Englehart’s ability to weave a character’s (and a company’s) history into his stories without simply making them a Roy Thomas-styled rewrite of old tales is one of his strengths, and in this story Englehart also manages to weave in the history of the Chinese prostitution trade in old New York with a Marvel character whose “true identity” is revealed in that “100 years later” bit at the end of the story.
For those readers who believe that they don’t like westerns (and why the heck don’t you?), you’re in luck because this story doesn’t really come off as a western. It’s set in late 19th century New York rather than in “the Old West.” Yes, the Black Rider rides around on a horse (he wouldn’t be much of a “rider” if he didn’t), but Englehart’s story owes more to such pulp characters as The Shadow or The Spider (albeit on horseback) than it does to The Lone Ranger or Marvel’s Rawhide Kid and Two-Gun Kid.
Finally, I should also mention that Marshall Rogers (my second favorite illustrator when I was a kid, after Neal Adams) is also on top of his game. The truth is that Rogers hasn’t impressed me much in most of his sporadic work in comics during the past decade (though parts of his work on Dark Detective showed flashes of his brilliance). Here, however, Rogers is engaged in the story. He is paying attention to detail the way he did when he worked on Batman with Englehart in the 70s and on Doctor Strange with Roger Stern after that.
Strange Westerns starring the Black Rider is truly Rogers and Englehart’s collaborative return to greatness. They’ve said in interviews that they want to continue to tell Black Rider stories at Marvel by combining the character with other 19th century Marvel characters (creating a sort of 19th century Defenders or League of Extraordinary Marvel Characters). Here’s to hoping they get to do so because if they can keep up the quality that they displayed here, their new series would quickly become a comic book classic.
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