In the late 1800s, outlaws on the Texas-Mexico border quaked in their boots when they ran afoul of the mysterious avenger known as the Black Rider. This August, the Black Rider will set his six guns on the criminals of New York City as he follows a lead that takes him from Texas to the Big Apple of the late 1800s in the pages of the special “Strange Westerns Featuring the Black Rider” from Marvel Comics by the legendary creative team of writer Steve Englehart and artist Marshall Rogers. In part one of our feature on “Strange Westerns,” CBR News spoke with Englehart about the book, which could serve as a springboard for a series of adventures set in the Marvel Universe of the late 19th Century.
When the Black Rider’s return ride became a reality, Marvel offered the reins to Englehart and Rogers. “They called us up and asked us,” Englehart told CBR News. “Marvel and Marshall and I had been talking about doing something and this is what they offered us.”
Some readers might not be familiar with the Black Rider. “He has been a sort of dark rider of the plains,” Englehart explained. “Doc Masters was his secret identity and when injustice rode he decided to put on an all black outfit and go after it. The interesting thing that I found looking at his story was that his horse has a secret identity. He was called Ichabod when he’s pretending to be an old broken down horse. Doc Masters rides around on Ichabod, which is this sad looking horsem but when Doc Masters turns into the Black Rider, Ichabod turns into Satan, who is this magnificent stallion.
“The interesting thing in the original story is Doc Masters taught Ichabod to have a secret identity before he ever thought of having one,” Englehart continued. “His idea of becoming the Black Rider comes after he’s trained his horse to pretend to be an old broken down mare and that got me thinking as to how sane Doc Masters was. Why would a sane person teach his horse to act that way? That gave me this whole other slant on the thing, without undoing the fact that he’s done good things and goes out and fights injustice. I begin to look at this guy as not playing with a full deck and that was an interesting take.”
Some of the strain on Doc Masters psyche might come from the conflicting dual roles he plays in society. As Doc Masters, he’s a physician who saves lives. As the Dark Rider, he’s a vigilante who often takes them. “That’s the point Jack Kirby made in his origin story,” Englehart said. “In his origin when he was a kid his father was gunned down by outlaws. By the time he grew up, he taught himself to be good enough to go out and kill those outlaws. When he killed the outlaws he was brought up on trial, but the judge understood his story and gave him a suspended sentence if he would do something better with his life. He decided to become a doctor and that’s why when later on he decides he has to fight injustice he doesn’t do it as Doc Masters because Doc Masters swore that he would never kill anybody again.”
Englehart isn’t sure the exact extent of the Black Rider’s psychosis, but he doesn’t believe the character’s dual identities are a symptom of his malady. “I don’t know that I’ve totally figured that out, but I don’t think that he’s schizophrenic by any means,” Englehart explained. “When he’s Doc Masters, he talks like an educated cowboy; he drops his ‘G’s, but he seems pretty educated as a doctor coming from Leadville, Texas. When he becomes the Black Rider, he definitely becomes sort of a less educated persona; someone who’s more of a cowboy. I don’t think of him as schizophrenic. I think it’s more adapting the personality.”
Some fans of Englehart and Rogers’s run on “Detective Comics” and their follow up mini-series “Batman: Dark Detective” might feel that Marvel offered the pair this assignment because the Black Rider’s adapted personality traits bear certain similarities to Gotham City’s protector. They would agree with those fans. “I think that’s why Marvel offered us this project,” Englehart said. “I’m sure they said, ‘Oh Englehart and Rogers. Let’s give them the dark guy.’ Which is fine. We like that. The character we were handed is not the Batman on a horse. There are differences in tone and what they do. Batman is more intense, more moment by moment and this guy is a little more a product of the wide open spaces. Marvel gave us the dark guy and we said, ‘What can we do that will be different and interesting?’ We’re not interested in doing the Batman again at Marvel. That doesn’t entertain us and hopefully doesn’t entertain you. That’s why we decided, ‘Let’s take him out of the West. Let’s put him in New York.'”
The Black Rider comes to New York to find the roots of a criminal conspiracy that stretch all the way to his hometown in Leadville. “Doc Masters has uncovered a Chinese prostitution ring out in Leadville,” Englehart stated. “They’re running prostitutes in and out of this border town. When Doc Masters discovers this, he uncovers a lead that takes him back to New York.
“That’s significant to him because that’s where his father came from,” Englehart continued. “In fact his father was the son of a very wealthy family back there who drove the father out. The father fell in love with a servant and they weren’t going to stand for that. So that’s why the father went west back in the day.”
As he confronts the New York City based prostitution ring in the guise of the Black Rider, Doc Masters will also have to face the added difficulty of getting to know his long lost family. “He’s coming to new York to meet this family that he has never seen that disdained his father who was then killed by outlaws and that shaped his entire life,” Englehart said. “So, there’s a heavy personal overlay to his coming to New York. He gets there and sees it for the first time and starts to track down the Chinese prostitution ring from the Chinatown end of things. Then we’re off into the story.”
When The Black Rider arrives in Chinatown he meets a person that will be familiar to fans of Marvel’s master of the mystic arts, Dr. Strange. “He goes to Chinatown and meets this interesting Chinese guy,” Englehart said. “We decided that it would be the Ancient One albeit before he was ancient because it’s 100 years earlier in time.
“We were unaware of the ‘Epic Anthology’ story where he was called Yao,” Englehart continued. “We came up with this fabulous idea that the Young Ancient One should be called Yao. We did that and then I heard about the Epic thing. I then e-mailed those guys with the e-mail I found on their website. I said, ‘We didn’t know you guys had done this. We would be happy to change the name if you would like us too or we could tie it into your continuity. What ever you prefer.’ I never heard back from them. We didn’t intend to step on their toes. Great minds think alike.” [Editor’s note: Subsequent to this interview “Young Ancient One” writer Rob Worley reports that he and Englehart did get a chance to chat. “I was quite honored that he took the time,” Worley said. “I certainly have no claims to the name or anything else about our favorite Curmudgeon of the Mystic Arts, so there were really no toes being stepped on, but it was quite a nice gesture.”]
The Ancient One’s future prize pupil also makes a cameo in “Strange Westerns.” “We see Dr. Strange and Clea at the end when we discover who the Ancient One is,” Englehart stated. “They’re not going to be in this book but both Marshall and I enjoyed touching on Dr. Strange again.”
The Black Rider’s adventures in New York won’t be solely confined to Chinatown and his encounter with the future mentor of Dr. Strange. “I like the idea of a cowboy in New York,” Englehart explained. “It opens up a lot of stuff. It’s an opportunity to explore and get to know that New York. It’s a Metropolis, but it’s lit by gas. It’s not the gleaming concrete canyons that we know today. Telephones had just been invented.
“It’s done in the 1880s and people were still riding around on horses in New York,” Englehart continued. “Cars weren’t invented yet. People were still riding horses up and down Fifth Avenue and we establish that the civilized part of New York only goes out so far. Marshall had done the research on this and originally told me it went to 97th Street. We changed it to like 125th Street or something. At a point the city ended and there was just the rest of the island which was wilderness. So a cowboy in New York is sort of a fish out of water, but at the same time it’s not unusual to be riding your horse around or chasing people on horses.”
If “Strange Westerns Featuring the Black Rider” does well Englehart and Rogers would love for the Black Rider to have many adventures chasing foes down the streets of New York on horseback. Only this time the Rider wouldn’t be adventuring alone. “I started thinking about who else might be in New York? What other weirdoes might have been in the city during those days?” Englehart said “So, we meet a couple of them in this first thing.”
One of the familiar weirdoes The Black Rider encounters in “Strange Westerns” is the previously mentioned Young Ancient One. The other weirdo Englehart kept cryptic about. “We see another proto member of this group, but we don’t know who it is in this issue,” Englehart hinted. “When you see him you’ll know that’s got to be the guy, but we don’t get to him in this story.
“We would like this to become an ongoing concept,” Englehart continued. “You meet a couple of the people he will be hanging out with in this issue, but the long term concept for us here is this crazy cowboy banging around in New York City and he meets a couple of other people. My idea is more like the Defenders in that it’s not like they form a team, but more like there would be a number of weirdoes in New York in the 1880s that would get together on an ad-hoc basis.”
Englehart would love to use this group of 19th Century Defenders to explore and expand upon the Marvel Universe in those times. “There is an established Marvel Universe for this time frame and there were proto supervillains,” Englehart explained. “When Marvel superheroes really started taking off, the Marvel Westerns all of a sudden started having guys who were the supervillains of their time. The challenge is that there is not a full range of supervillains. There’s no Dr. Doom. People don’t have radioactive monsters. I’m sure though that we would develop in that direction within the context of 1880s technology. So, you might see people you’ve seen before but I think mostly we’ll be coming up with new people.”
Englehart has chronicled the adventures of a host of A-list heroes from both Marvel and DC Comics. He’s aware that, “Strange Westerns Featuring the Black Rider” might not have a big name protagonist, but he feels he’s crafted a tale featuring a hero just as compelling as any of the major characters he’s worked on in the past. “The Black Rider doesn’t leap to mind as the greatest character of all time, but I try to take anybody I do and make them the greatest character of all time,” Englehart stated. “Secondly what he’s become is just very interesting.”
Saddle up with CBR News again tomorrow for more coverage of “Strange Westerns” as we chat with artist Marshall Rogers.