Steve Englehart is one of the great, unsung heroes of the Bronze Age. Englehart got his start as a member of the Crusty Bunkers (a team of largely uncredited artists who helped out at Neal Adams’ studio), where his official role was as a proofreader, although Englehart has said he coscripted stories for Eeire as well as Marvel work like Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, Iron Man, and The Incredible Hulk.
Here are just a few highlights from his early career at Marvel
- Launched The Defenders with Sal Buscema, adding Valkyrie to the team
- Brought Patsy Walker over from the romance comics into the main continuity
- Fixed Captain America’s convoluted continuity as well as wrote the “Nomad” arc
- Made Doctor Strange the Sorcerer Supreme
- Co-created Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu with Jim Starlin
Englehart on Batman
In 1976, Englehart had a falling out with Marvel’s new Editor in Chief, Gerry Conway, and planned to quit comics altogether. But somehow, DC publisher Jenette Kahn convinced him to switch sides and pick up Justice League and Batman.
Englehart brought Batman back from the goofy, 60s TV show aesthetic, bringing it back to its pulp roots with Batman as a hard-boiled detective and Joker as a homicidal maniac, plus a little sci-fi thrown in to pay homage to Batman’s roots, all of which I’ll lay out in my overview for the four volumes of his (recently leaked) Dark Detective saga. To keep things simple, I’m going to do my best to keep to the main story of each book. This means I’ll be leaving out a lot for the time being, but I’ll try to sneak it back in the end.
Professor Hugo Strange was one of those mad scientists types that were all over comics in the pre-war era, spending three issues making “monster men” for Batman to fight before he was killed off. And Strange stayed dead for nearly 40 years until Englehart rescued him from the dust bin of comics history, gave him a makeover, and turned him into one of Batman’s most dangerous foes.
In Dark Detective, Strange returns to Gotham, capturing its rich elite in order to… turn them into monster men. This is expected, as is Bruce Wayne’s eventual capture. The twist comes when Strange learns Wayne’s secret as the Caped Crusader, making the Professor the first villain to crack the code. During the day, Strange impersonates Wayne, draining his stock portfolio and ruining his reputation. At night, Strange makes plans to auction Batman’s secret identity off to the traditional rogue’s gallery – Joker, Penguin, Two-Face – as well as new addition Rupert Thorne, the crooked city councilman who’s out to get Batman.
There’s also a new love interest in this story by the name of Silver St. Cloud, who also deduces Batman’s secret identity. Tragically, her doing so means she leaves Wayne, as his life as a superhero is too much for St. Cloud to shoulder.
Dark Detective II
Silver St. Cloud returns to Gotham with a new fiance, Evan Gregory, who’s running for Governor of Gotham. These two facts, along with Gregory’s platform of legitimizing Batman, bring about Wayne’s attention and get him mixed up in the campaign. They also bring about the ire of another political opponent… the Joker.
The story gets more interesting when Two-Face decides to support Gregory, believing that Joker is making a mockery of state office (a thing Harvey Dent still respects from his time as D.A.)
The book makes several abrupt turns in the final pages of the last issue, ultimately resulting in Batman driving Silver St. Cloud into the arm of Evan Gregory.
Dark Detective III
(This book mostly exists as scripts, with only issue one being fully penciled before artist Marshall Rogers’ untimely passing. This means we’re mostly interpreting scripts and have to make some assumptions as to what would ultimately appear on the page.)
This book picks up right where the last one left off. Batman attempts to escape his heartache by traveling to London to apprehend Killer Moth.
This naturally leads to Batman… trying to cure a vampire. We’ll get to that.
The rest of the story is spent with him fighting Deadshot before teaming up with him. The two then try to stop The Penguin, who has been masterminding this whole affair as part of a plot to infect Long with Bird Flu (naturally).
Dark Detective IV
(This exists only as an outline. There are no full scripts or artwork provided in the release.)
Picking up immediately after the events of the previous book. Batman and Silver St. Cloud fight through a cadre of villains to try and get to City Hall before Evans – and by extension Two-Face – can be declared the new Governor.
The plan was for the story to be plotted like the show 24, each issue being one hour long with the entire book taking place between midnight and dawn. It would be continued in Dark Detective V. No outline has as of yet been leaked for V.
Why didn’t DC publish III & IV?
Before we get into this, I want to say unequivocally that Steve Englehart is one of the most influential writers on Batman, the series and the character. “The Laughing Fish” (Detective Comics Vol 1 #475-476) is an absolute classic and was adapted masterfully for Batman The Animated Series. Hugo Strange’s story for Dark Detective I was adapted for both Batman the Animated Series and influenced the Batman: Arkham City video game. His Dark Detective series heavily influenced Daredevil: Born Again, Batman: Year One, and both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies (as we’ll see later).
When it comes to story ideas and concepts, Steve Englehart is undeniably a genius. Unfortunately, that’s not all he is.
A Problem Employee
By all accounts, he was a difficult employee at Marvel. Steve is on record saying that he dropped acid at work. He — along with co-conspirators Gerry Conway and Len Wein — wrote and published an unlicensed, unofficial crossover between Marvel and DC. Conway (Marvel’s EoC at the time) goes so far as to say that Englehart’s Avengers “was perennially late to the printer, which was costing Marvel a lot of money,” which would be more than enough cause for termination (if true.) But before that could happen, Steve pulled a “you can’t fire me, I quit” and left. And it’s what he took with him that’s the most infamous Steve Englehart story of all.
Englehart had an important run on Avengers, injecting new emotion, new politics, and new life into the team. He also added a new character, Mantis. So when Gerry Conway took over as Editor in Chief and took Engleheart off the book, Steve took it personally. He also took Mantis with him over to DC.
Allow me to repeat that: Steve Englehart, a work-for-hire contractor, took Marvel’s IP over to their competitor. Sure, he changed the name and skin color, but it’s the same voice, same powers, same character. And Steve made sure everyone knew. Willow’s origin and introduction reads like the literary equivalent of an older sibling saying “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you!”
And if that weren’t enough, Steve would ultimately take the character with him when he left DC, having her appear in two other incarnations for other publishers.
Make no mistake, this all makes him my hero. As a fan, I want to party with that dude. But as an employee or even a coworker, he sounds like a nightmare.
Englehart’s ideas are often dynamite, but his execution is wildly inconsistent. Sometimes this manifests as stylistic issues, like the oppressive alliteration, confusing sentences, and jokes that have no structure and don’t land.
Some of these things can get passed off as harkening back to The Shadow radio plays or simply 70s comics style.
But then there are the actual mechanical issues. The majority of his plot threads are resolved through some contrivance (lightning strikes feature heavily), wild leaps of logic, concluded off-screen, or are left dangling entirely. His characters are wildly inconsistent in terms of voice and their actions are often both made and reversed in a single page, leading us to wonder why they did anything at all. Sometimes major characters are forgotten entirely (as is the case with Joker and the Two-Face clone).
The Vampire Problem
Dark Detective II, for all its missteps, was still trying to be a tense story about the intersection of Batman and Gotham politics. So how it’s sequel came to be about London vampires is anyone’s guess.
The entire vampire part of this story is confusing from beginning to end. The vampire, Dala, is apparently the last “person” that Batman killed before his one rule went into effect. You know, the no killing rule? The same rule he made when his parents died? That one.
Batman takes Dala, who is apparently his last victim, to a clinic where she’s treated with pig’s blood. Batman visits her before every sunrise so they can see if she’s cured yet, which seems like an enormous risk given he’s trying to save London. Also because also she’s extremely flammable.
Now comes the confusing part.
After several issues of this holding “dawn visits” pattern, Batman misses one day and the Vampire — who had been making progress up until now — simply reverts to full-blown evil. Not just “mad,” but “trying to make a vampire army mad.” Remember, 12 hours ago she was on the path to recovery and now we have a potential apocalypse scenario. Naturally, she kidnaps Batman and Deadshot. Finally, she’s killed by one of her vampires.
That whole plot arc — good to supervillain to dead — takes around five pages I think. And it does nothing for the main plot.
Why did Englehart ask us to suspend so much disbelief on this vampire? Why did the story spend more time watching boring sunrises with her than seeing her make a vampire army? How did this series go “no vampires, vampires, no vampires?” Where is marketing and editorial in the decision to kill off this character?
What is happening?!
Worse yet, it wasn’t even a sequel in tone. After becoming famous and celebrated for bringing Batman to his roots, Englehart tries to reclaim that 60s magic. The result is a stylistic mess of a book.
Sometimes it’s so campy that one could easily imagine Adam West and Burgess Merideth duking it out on a sound stage. For instance, Penguin’s whole scheme is obviously comedic. Cobblepot starts by enigmatically dropping charm bracelets over London. “Charm,” we learn, is an anagram for “march.” As in “March of the Penguins” the film that apparently exists in this world. If that weren’t enough, Cobblepot has an army of penguins set to march with egg-bombs filled with bird flu.
Sometimes it’s abruptly violent. Like how the above plot gets foiled when Deadshot shoots the birds in their faces. This happens after he killed a gorilla in an unrelated incident. (The script specifically says he shoots it in the heart.) He also kills the penguins before he disfigures the vampire by shooting her in her face. This means he kills or severely injures at least a dozen endangered species during the course of this book (10 emperor penguins, 1 gorilla, and 1 vampire.)
Gregory and St. Cloud are still technically in this story, but their drama is wildly outclassed by the blood-drinking, bird-murdering spectacle elsewhere on the pages. The book seems to know it, too, as it continually cuts to them at the end with these bizarre “Days of Our Lives” style narration boxes.
But that looks like opus compared to the short-shrift paid to Joker and Two-Face. The bad Two-Face clone brakes Harvey out of prison, only for us to lose sight of both characters until the last issue. Joker spends the whole book convalescing for a total of maybe a dozen pages.
I can’t figure out how DC would begin to sell this book. It’s not funny enough to be a comedy. There’s not enough action to be a drama. Fan favorites are sidelined. No important events happen, at all.
And the outline for IV looks somehow even more dire. It’s a “ticking clock” story written by a guy who’s just delivered 6 issues of dead air? And he needed another book after that? I can see why DC would cut bait here.
Why do we think this was leaked?
The Complete Dark Detective leak contains two pages which detail his grievances and gives us some evidence:
- Englehart feels Dark Detective I & II should not have lapsed from print
- He feels deprived of writing credits on the Batman film franchise
- Englehart feels he’s owed his share of adulation for Batman’s modern success
It is true that both the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan movies contain similar plot elements to Dark Detective I, II, and III.
- The films contain pulp and noir elements as well as political overtones, all of which Englehart famously brought back to the character.
- Batman, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight feature love interests who deduce Batman’s secret identity, just like The Dark Detective series
- Both films feature key scenes in which the Joker appears on television to threaten people, reminiscent of the infamous scene from Dark Detective I & II.
But the strongest bit of evidence is how the first two Nolan movies contain a Bruce Wayne / Rachel Dawes / Harvey Dent love triangle feels very reminiscent of the Batman / Silver St. Cloud / Evan Gregory plotline in Dark Detective I & II.
The first three feel either incidental or are more strongly tied to other runs. Runs, like Frank Miller’s Year One and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween, which may have been inspired by Englehart’s work but are distinct in their own right. So it’s the love triangle connection that feels like the best evidence of Englehart’s claims. This brings us to the following question…
Is there support for a claim of “adaptation” or “strip mining?”
It’s true that the love triangle acts as a through-line in both works, but the utility of it is vastly different. Whereas St. Cloud is a socialite who relies on Batman for her character’s meaning, Rachael Dawes has her own agency and actually furthers the story independently of Batman. St. Cloud represents Batman’s emotional openness and embracing a future while Dawes represents a link to Batman’s past and a chance to for him to give up the cowl and actually become Bruce Wayne.
These changes mean that the love triangles are actually wildly different and represent incredibly divergent interpretations of the Batman story.
To put it another way, SIlver St. Cloud is as different from Rachael Dawes as Jack Nicholson’s Joker is from Heath Ledger’s.
This brings us back to the question: “is this enough to support these claims?”
I have to say “no.” Englehart’s run is important for the character. And in that specific way, it inspired the movies. But 90% of his content doesn’t make it onto the screen and the 10% that does is radically different.
A Pattern Emerges
Artists deserve credit for their work, full stop. Steve Englehart especially deserves respect for the fact that he very early on defined the bronze age of comics.
But all of this feels different from that.
From the very beginning, Steve claimed he — proofreader at the time — “coscripted stories for Eeire as well as Marvel work like Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, Iron Man, and The Incredible Hulk.” Then he made allegations that Avengers was “stolen” from him by his Editor in Chief.
Englehart constantly moved around from publisher to publisher, which means he wasn’t on an exclusivity deal, which is almost unheard of for a talent his size.
He stole IP he didn’t own and leaked materials to which he did not own the IP (the latter of which he claims were “strip-mined” from him).
It forms a pattern of a brilliant writer who wanted more and could not handle not getting it.
Steve is owed his rightful place as one of the best writers of the 70s. Maybe even one of the most influential Batman writers in history. There is no debating that.
I will even go so far as to say that DC should give him a writing credit or thanks for his contributions to the Batman movies. It would be nice for DC to acknowledge their talent, even when they’re not at all legally required to do so.
And yet I don’t think these books should not have been leaked. Not for legal or economic reasons, but for ones much more complicated:
These books are classics and hugely influential classics. But they’re also not very good.
What Steve’s Not Saying
Look again at his declarations in The Complete Dark Detective and note what’s missing: The animated series and the video games.
Both are much closer adaptions of his works, with the Animated Series episodes being almost one-to-one translations. And neither of them credit his books. So why doesn’t he list them?
If I had to guess — and this is only a guess — it’s because both the cartoons and the games are better than their source material. They have better dialog in most cases, tighter pacing, and stronger resolutions.
Both the cartoons and the games have benefited greatly from a collaborative process. One that there’s anecdotal evidence to suggest didn’t happen with the Dark Detective series.
Other Unfavorable Comparisons
Then there’s the issue of his contemporaries. Batman: Dark Detective II was published in 2005. The same year as Batman & Son by Grant Morrison. There are a lot of parallels to draw between the two books, from the way both evoke gold and silver age motifs to shadowy figures from the past to how Batman deals with love.
But most notable of all is that point-by-point, Morrison does all of those better. That’s not a matter of style or taste; I mean Morrison delivers on the promise of his story better. Morrison’s characters have arcs that close without divine intervention. His villains have menace and purpose. Characters are consistent in voice and jokes work within their context rather than strain against it.
There are no dropped characters or threads in Batman & Son.
DC isn’t to blame for not releasing Dark Detective III. Nor can they be blamed for letting I and II lapse from print. Perhaps they think that the definitive versions of those stories now exist in other formats.
If they didn’t before, they surely do now, as this leak only puts Englehart’s work into a more negative context. His classics are reduced to bootlegs while the work he’d have you think is beholden to him has the distinction of being officially released. Steve’s work is too important to leave behind forever (in fact, I believe it was available through official, digital channels before this event took place), but now it will show up alongside this hissy fit.
Which is a shame, as the man should be remembered for better than this. Any of this.