In part one of our feature on Marvel Comics’ “Strange Westerns Featuring the Black Rider,” CBR News spoke with writer Steve Englehart about the tale which brings Marvel Comics dark avenger of the Texas plains to the streets of 1880s New York City. In part two of our coverage we speak to Englehart’s legendary collaborator Marshall Rogers about bringing the action in the alleys and avenues of the late 19th century Big Apple to life.
Rogers affirmed what Englehart told us in part one of our feature, that when Marvel saw they were going to work with the creative team most famous for their legendary run on “Detective Comics” they offered the pair a chance to chronicle a new tale of their darkest Western character. “I had been working for [Editor] Mark Paniccia and I was saying I want to do more work for Marvel,” Rogers told CBR News. “Marvel had the Western event coming up and said, ‘Would you be interested?’ I said sure. I had been talking about wanting to work with Steve again. So they said, ‘Englehart and Rogers? Hmmm . . . Dark character!’ and for some reason we ended up getting assigned the Black Rider.
“I wasn’t familiar at all with the Black Rider,” Rogers continued. “When Mark had first mentioned Marvel Westerns to me, he said, ‘Would you be interested in doing this?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ Then a couple of weeks later he got back to me with what the assignment would be. So, when I first said yes, Kid Colt and the Two Gun Kid were the first characters that popped into my mind because they were the ones I had read as a kid.”
When Rogers found out he was going to be working with the Black Rider, he and Englehart sat down and discussed what they could do with the character. “We talked about who this character was,” Roger said. “He didn’t really have anything distinctive about him except the character sort of had a Clark Kent complex. He was this adventurer running around and whenever he was in public he was wearing glasses and he was a milquetoast. We didn’t carry that element of his stories over. There we’re no dictates put on us. We took the character and ran with it and it sort of came together for us. We’ve got an eastern Western and I sort of think of the character more as the Shadow working through the shadows of the city as compared to a traditional western.”
To bring to life the non-traditional Western, Rogers employed his usual artistic style with a new twist. “The basic style is the same,” Rogers explained. “The storytelling is the same, but I tended to use a little more line work on the job to sort of evoke old illustrations.”
Rogers referenced a number of old illustrations and photos while working on “Strange Westerns.” “One of the elements that I really enjoyed about the story was all of the reference and the different time period,” Rogers stated. “A long time ago I had picked up a reprinted Sears-Roebuck catalog. So, I’ve got this great wealth of information on what lanterns looked like and sink basins, and little period things, which are a little bit more dated than the period our story is in, but they were applicable to the time.”
Rogers’ was also aided by his reference library in the rendering of the buildings of New York City circa the 1880s for the story. “There have been very few landmarks that have survived from that time,” Rogers explained. “I referenced my New York library and there is a shot of a very iconic building. I believe it may have been the Lord and Taylor building. I don’t recall right now, but only the people who have the same reference books that I do would recognize it because it’s not a presently standing building. It’s been demolished.”
Depicting the buildings that made up 1880s New York was one of the many enjoyable aspects of “Strange Westerns” for Rogers. “There’s the opportunity to fill the graphics with a lot of old buildings,” Rogers said. “One of the things I like about drawing old buildings is I don’t use a ruler. It helps them to look old and less precise than a newer building would look.”
Rogers enjoyed drawing the urban elements of “Strange Westerns,” but he also had a great time illustrating the Western genre elements in the story. “I ended up finding out that while it wasn’t a traditional Western, I really enjoyed the genre,” he said. “I like the belts, the buckles and the strapping down of the hardware. As a matter of fact I ended up adding more weaponry to the character. Besides having two guns strapped to his hips, he’s also got two guns strapped under his armpits. Steve and I talked and one of the story elements that I would be adding is more and more armaments to the character because two guns with a Winchester on his horse was enough out in the old west for the few and far between baddies that he would run into, but in the middle of New York City there’s so many bad people that he would be arming himself to the teeth.”
In addition to arming him to the teeth, Rogers also made another design change to the Black Rider. “Something about him that would vary from issue to issue in his original days was that sometimes he had a cape and sometimes he didn’t.” Rogers explained. “I felt that the cape was too Zorroesque. I didn’t want to evoke that image with the character, yet I wanted him to wear something more than black pants and a black shirt. So, he’s wearing a poncho which gives some cape effect, but it also gives an overcoat type effect. I use it in different ways throughout the story. I’m a big Eastwood fan and as a matter of fact, I got some reference from the Sergio Leone films, just to see how a poncho would fall.”
When designing the look of the Young Ancient One, who the Rider encounters in “Strange Westerns” when his investigation sends him to Chinatown, Rogers stayed simple. “He was just a character of the time. He wasn’t necessarily a person who tried to stand out,” Rogers said. “I had done a little bit of reading prior to working on this and the Chinese were a much picked on society in the Americas at that time. There was a terrible bias towards them. They were also being signaled out for wearing nationalistic clothing, but whenever they tried to dress more western they were picked on for trying to disguise themselves as westerners.
“So, when I drew the Ancient One, it was just a simple western suit with a collarless shirt,” Rogers continued. “He’s wearing a cloth and leather Americanized shoe. He wasn’t the type who looked to stand out in a crowd. So it’s a very simple costume.”
The looks of costumes, and other details are often discussed when Rogers and Englehart have their initial meeting about the project they’re working on. The two have been collaborating for many years and usually sit down and discuss certain elements of an assignment before they begin work on it. “Steve likes to work in full scripts these days, so we’ll talk over story elements and then Steve will write a full script,” Rogers explained. “I have a tendency to come in and make suggestions even after that process. Maybe he would have a person walking into a lit room and the conversation would begin, but I see a visual angle where maybe we see a black silhouette in the room and then a silhouette in the door. So, rather than the characters recognizing each other immediately there would be a, ‘Hello. Are you there?’ kind of thing. I will add that in and mention it to Steve. If he really objects to it for some salient story point I will say, ‘I see. Okay.’ Then we’ll keep everything lit. Otherwise we’ll make subtle changes of that nature.
“Something else that happened, specifically in ‘Black Rider,’ was after we talked about different story elements and finally came down with the major points in the story, which included a scene down by the wharves,” Rogers continued. “We’re in 1880s New York and at that time the maximum height of buildings is six stories because they hadn’t started to build up at that point. So, we’ve got fairly flat rooftop scenarios and not a lot of vertical elements, which I like to work with when doing city scenes. I was cooking that in my brain and I thought of the wharves and piers, which have got a lot of masts and things and it prompted me to ask Steve to write the story down to some docks during the sequence. That worked well for him.
“After I had drawn everything and Al Vey did a terrific inking job, I got a chance to color this job. So, it’s going to be my pencils and colors on this. I got to this one scene and it’s night time and things are starting to get pretty dark and I wanted some way to bring light into the scene. It struck me that, while it wasn’t drawn that way originally, a thunder storm could work really well in this sequence; flashes of lightning and bright panels down to dark panels and alternating like that. So, while there was no rain initially, I created a thunderstorm in the coloring. So we have neat special effect going on in the color.”
Whether adding special effects or drawing action scenes on the waterfront, it’s the flow of the story that Rogers keeps in mind when he’s brining a script to life. “I have a tendency not to want to try to make large images on a page-by-page basis just for the sake of drawing a big picture,” Rogers stated. “Storytelling is more important to me. The flow of the story tends to dictate the images rather than looking to do a large shot of a beautiful lady or a dynamic picture of a character jumping. I like creating the visual flow of the story and trying to guide the reader’s eyes through the page. It may not always be your standard left to right tier one, left to right tier two, etc. I’ll have them move their eye left to right and then down, diagonally and then flow across the rest of the page and within this story there are a couple of pages where that plays out very obviously.”
Like we previously mentioned, both Rogers and Englehart are hoping that “Strange Westerns Featuring the Black Rider” will serve as spring board to a Western “Defenders” style series. “When we get together to talk story ideas, we have a tendency to branch off into sidetracks and different ideas grow along these vines,” Rogers said. “That is something we have talked about. We could take this character and we could build a miniature world around him and it would be a lot of fun.”
Rogers hopes that readers of “Strange Westerns” have as much fun with the book as he and Englehart did working on the project. “Please everyone go buy a copy,” he said. “I hope that you enjoy it and would like to see more and if you do let Marvel know. The bottom line is both Steve and I hope you have a good time and enjoy yourself while you’re reading the story.”