From Comics to Cosmic, Part 10: It Will Always Be the Same Old Story

“From Comics to Cosmic” is a series from noted comic book writer/artist Steve Englehart. Read about the intense and often unbelievable ups and downs of his experience working in the comic industry. Previous installments of “From Comics to Cosmic” can be found here.

So I used to write comics, and then I wrote a novel called The Point Man that Dell published…and then I designed video games, and wrote more comics, and live-action TV, and animation…and there was some twenty-five years before I came back to novels. With a real-time sequel to The Point Man called The Long Man that Tor published. Now, why did I put twenty-five years between novels?

One reason is simple: I had no plans for a sequel when I wrote The Point Man.

Two is velocity. Comics writing was fun, and most of all it was speedy. Novel writing was also fun, but it was not speedy. The vast amounts of dead time compared to what I was used to drove me back to comics, frankly—and to video games and TV. If your entire experience is in novels, those rhythms may be just and normal to you, but for me it was like stepping off the people mover.

Three is money. Comics pays much better for time spent.

So then, why in the hell did I come back?

One, creative freedom. Books still allow the writer to write what he wants, and try things out. There are parts of The Long Man that I won’t revisit in future novels, but I was encouraged to follow my muse and learn what worked and what didn’t my own self. That is gone from comics.

Two, ownership. Without ownership you can get worked over pretty good.

Three, scope. I still miss the speed of comics, and I could certainly do multi-issue epics that told very large stories over there, but a novel is by definition a very large story all in one package, with an internal structure not available in multi-part packages. It’s fresh and new, which I find fun.

If you’ve concentrated on novels yourself, you may find that latter list staggeringly obvious. But it’s really pretty rare in the 21st century. And whatever the challenges, it’s nice to be writing novels.

I’d love to tell you how the book publishing business of today differs from the business of 1980, but I don’t really know all that much. I do know it was a time of great transition, from an old worldview to a new. I met with various editors at various companies back then as my agent attempted to sell my book, and I had one particularly memorable confab when an editor at a house I honestly don’t remember called and asked me to come in.

When I got there, she asked, “Why did your agent send this to me?”

“Um,” said I, “because he wants to sell it to you.”

“But you’re a COMIC BOOK WRITER.”

“Well, did you read the manuscript?”

“I don’t have to. You’re a COMIC BOOK WRITER.”

Oddly enough, that perception was the one I thought I’d broken for good a year before with Batman, but it was still the way people outside of comics generally thought about comics, and I was caught in it.

But I was trying to tell you about the book biz.

Well, I remember clearly that most editors (the previous one was an exception) felt they were literary people helping literary people, with gut feeling being more important than raw sales—the way it always had been—but even then, conglomerates were buying up companies and an outsider like myself saw things changing. (Even though not all editors did, as yet.) But things did change, and while editors are still literary people helping literary people, they have a lot more on their plate now. That’s not really news.

I’d been renting in New York when I was dropping into editors’ offices. Soon, though, I left the daily process to my agent and drove back out to California. From Santa Fe, New Mexico, I called in and learned the book had been sold to Dell. I didn’t meet my editor in person until a year later, when I brought the first draft to New York—which I only did because I wanted to meet him. There was no email then, or internet, or even faxes. I typed the first draft, and when I revised it, I typed all 350 pages over again.

That’s not news, either, because things always change. But through it all, humans don’t, which is what keeps me doing what I do.

People ask if my worldview has changed, over the years and genres. Certainly it has because the world I’m viewing has changed, and I’ve changed. But have you ever noticed that in any story we have from history, going as far back as we can, human beings are recognizably human beings? We don’t have stories where we say “That was some prototype human.” No, in our history, humans may not know as much as we do, may have vastly different circumstances, but they love and hate and fight and flight just like us, which is why we can understand their stories.

It really is “still the same old story.” Things that mattered then don’t matter now, and vice versa, but the nature of humanity has not changed. And I’m a humanist. In my series here, as in real life, it’s obviously the differences between established reality then and established reality now that most fascinate me.

Steve Englehart is a novelist, comic book, film, television, and video game writer known for his work on high profile titles, including Marvel’s Captain America, The Hulk, The Avengers, Dr. Strange, DC’s Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, and many more.


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