Because It’s Right: Ethics and the Work of Mark Gruenwald

When editor and writer Mark Gruenwald was first beginning his writing career for Marvel in the early 1980s, it must be remembered that it was a very different culture than today’s hot-writer-driven, company-exclusive comics scene. (And in more ways than one: the comic book we’re about to discuss, which was by no means a best-seller, boasted an average circulation of 119,159, according to its STATEMENT OF OWNERSHIP; a sales number that only the very top titles today reach.) While popular artists were a hot commodity and often jumped back and forth between the publishers, writers were generally cultivated in-house, through the editorial departments. Accordingly, the best way for would-be comics writers to break into the business was to find work as an assistant editor, and then slowly build credits by writing fill-in issues and one-shot stories on some of the company’s less popular series. Such was the case with Gruenwald, who found some of his first work teaming with fellow assistant editor Ralph Macchio on MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE (a perennially unremarkable series that featured the Thing teaming with a different guest star every month) and on Marvel’s anthology series WHAT IF?, which would postulate every issue how things might have happened if a certain incident in Marvel’s history had turned another way. Gruenwald demonstrated an affinity for looking at the big picture in WHAT IF? #32, “What If the Avengers Had Become Pawns of Korvac?”


Here Gruenwald used as a starting point the climax of “The Korvac Saga” from AVENGERS #167-177, in which the omnipotent time-traveller Korvac, who planned to reorder reality itself under his perfect control, barely held off an attack from a small army of Avengers before succumbing to despair when his lover Carina demonstrated a moment’s doubt in the rightness of his cause. Korvac weakened and was defeated, and as a final act of mercy restored to life the Avengers he had murdered.

However, in this alternate retelling of the tale (written and with layouts by Gruenwald, finished by Greg LaRoque and inked by practically every artist who was then working for Marvel), Carina demonstrates no doubt, and a confident, renewed Korvac slaughters the last of the Avengers. Alarmed by this turn of events, Uatu the Watcher (one of a race of intergalactic observers that has sworn never to interfere in the affairs of others) decides to interfere in the affairs of others and tries to get the rest of his bald-headed brethren to go along.


When they refuse, he summons a council of the great cosmic powers of the universe, including such luminaries as the Stranger, the Gardener and the Collector, floating-head types Master Order, Lord Chaos and the Living Tribunal, and even the Devourer of Worlds, Galactus himself.


When Galactus and the Gardener agree to attack, Korvac resurrects the Avengers and puts them to work as his private army, but Galactus remains too much for them, prompting Korvac to resurrect the most resourceful Avenger, Captain America, and send him to steal that most dangerous of relics, the Ultimate Nullifier, which Reed Richards used to drive off Galactus back in FANTASTIC FOUR #50.

Here’s where things really get interesting.


Galactus scoffs at a mere human pulling the Nullifier on him again, and pretty much tells Cap to take his best shot. Cap pulls the trigger, and for the first time we see the Nullifier in use, and discover what’s so ultimate about it: both the wielder and the target are nullified right out of existence, making it not a weapon to be pulled lightly.


After repeated attempts on his life by even more of the universe’s cosmic powers, Korvac notices the enemy’s final gambit: a massive armada of millions of starships from every spaceworthy race in the universe. Marshalling his forces, Korvac absorbs the life force of every living being on Earth, and, now grown to enormous size, perches casually on the planet itself and stares down the armada, Ultimate Nullifier in hand.


Over the last pleadings of the Watcher, Korvac pulls the trigger and nullifies the universe itself, bringing an absolute end to, well, everything.


Gruenwald’s ability here to take stories and concepts well past the general conventions of the genre, and drive them in a completely unexpected but completely logical direction, is something we’ll see again and again, especially in his longer works. Gruenwald’s first significant solo project came in 1983, with his 4-issue HAWKEYE miniseries, which he both wrote and pencilled.


The story introduced Hawkeye to Mockingbird, a relatively minor Marvel spy character who unwittingly spurs Hawkeye to discover foul deeds afoot at Cross Industries, a techno-industrial firm that had been employing Hawkeye in a cushy gig as their head of security. In short order, Hawkeye has lost his job, his home and everything but the clothes (and arrows) on his back.


As Hawkeye and Mockingbird further investigate the mysterious item that Cross is building for a secret client, the two begin to develop feelings for one another, despite Hawkeye’s recent betrayal by his Cross-employed girlfriend, which is making him unwilling to trust anyone just yet.


Complicating things also is Hawkeye’s stubborn pride, as he refuses to go to the Avengers for help, even after assassins blow up Mockingbird’s apartment, and the two are so strapped for resources they wind up taking the subway in the course of following their investigation.

Gruenwald comes up with some fun new opponents for Hawk & Mock, including the stealthy assassin the Silencer and the evil juggler Oddball, before revealing the tale’s true heavy: Crossfire, who has been behind Hawkeye’s travails from the start.


The secret Cross device, it turns out, is the Undertaker Machine, which hypersonically affects the rage center of the brain, forcing all exposed to it to lash out mindlessly at each other. Crossfire’s plan? To kill Hawkeye and leave his body to be discovered, and then subject all of his superhero associates to the Undertaker Machine at the funeral parlor, thinning their ranks substantially, and shaking the confidence of the public in the survivors. All things considered, it’s a pretty good plan, especially the rationale for choosing Hawkeye as the bait:


“You are the weakest, most vulnerable known costumed crimefighter in town.” Ouch. That hurts. Naturally, Crossfire decides to test out the machine first on Hawkeye and Mockingbird, and the two work each other over pretty good, with Hawkeye’s greater upper body strength making up for Mockingbird’s superior unarmed fighting skills. During a break in the action, Hawkeye gets the bright idea to activate his hypersonic arrowhead, which he hides in his mouth, hoping the frequency will block the Undertaker Machine’s sonic waves.


It works, but not without a cost, almost completely destroying Hawkeye’s hearing. Hawk manages to kayo Mockingbird and then confronts Crossfire, who plans to kill him with his own weapon. However, it’s not quite as easy as Hawkeye makes it look…


With Crossfire unable to pull the 250-pound bowstring, the concussive arrow explodes at his feet, knocking him out, and allowing Hawkeye to tie him up and call the police for cleanup. Much to Hawk’s relief, Mockingbird survived the beating, but his pride again does him in, preventing him from admitting he’d lost his hearing in the battle, and as a consequence leaving him completely oblivious to Mockingbird’s advances. Luckily for him, Mockingbird doesn’t take no for an answer, and sure enough…


Gruenwald’s HAWKEYE series is probably one of the more underrated books Marvel published in the ’80s. Finally giving the long-popular bowman a proper moment in the spotlight, Gruenwald for the first time really made Hawkeye a well-rounded character, focusing just as much attention on his faults and shortcomings, yet making them endearing traits in the context of a regular guy accustomed to living in the shadow of his much more powerful teammates in the Avengers.


There’s also a lot of good character bits established here, including the first appearance of Hawkeye’s jet-cycle, which later became a West Coast Avengers trademark, and the concept of Hawk’s modular arrowheads, which went a long way towards explaining how he could have just about any kind of arrow he needed at a moment’s notice (and which got a star turn in Joss Whedon’s AVENGERS film). The addition of Mockingbird as a permanent fixture in Hawkeye’s life was also a wise move, as it gave the character an additional dimension that many of the other Avengers characters lacked, and elevated him from just being the “hot-tempered archer” guy to a man who’s really matured thanks to his time with (and away from) the team, and set him up nicely for his eventual stint as chairman of the Avengers’ West Coast team, a period which stood as a high point for the character for years, until Busiek’s clever use of him in THUNDERBOLTS, and his current renaissance thanks to his unexpected film career.

I always thought it was a shame Gruenwald didn’t devote more time to penciling — while his work isn’t flashy like a Perez or Byrne, Gruenwald demonstrated an innovative sense of layout and page design, and a sturdy grasp of anatomy and panel-to-panel storytelling. For example, for a sequence in which Hawkeye and Mockingbird are trapped at the bottom of a chemical waste storage silo, the panels are long and skinny, subconsciously mirroring Hawkeye’s sense of being trapped down below.


Here’s another: Gruenwald’s layout for the imagined funeral of Hawkeye, showing his assembled friends paying their last respects, and their subliminally inspired self-slaughter, all behind the gloating smile of Crossfire. Good stuff.


It was only a year and a half later in July 1985 that Gruenwald took the reins on CAPTAIN AMERICA, beginning a mammoth 106-issue run that would last over 10 years, a remarkable achievement in itself.

But we’ll get to that next week…


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