Gone Too Soon: Remembering Da Gru

It’s time once more for another trip in the Wayback Machine, this time to the year 1987. Teenaged Scott (I must’ve been either a sophomore or a junior in high school, I’m thinking) is on the way out the door to class one morning when the phone rings. My mother picks it up, speaks for a minute, and then hands me the receiver: “Phone for you. It’s Mark,” she says, assuming it’s a friend of mine, having asked who’s calling.

“Hello?”

An unfamiliar voice began: “Scott? This is Mark Gruenwald. I’m an editor at Marvel Comics.”

I didn’t need the explanation. At the time, Gruenwald was editing most of my favorite comics, including all three AVENGERS series, as well as writing CAPTAIN AMERICA, which was in the middle of what was, for me, the best storyline the series had seen in years. But why the hell would Gruenwald at the Marvel offices in New York be calling my parents’ house in California?

Confession time: this column isn’t the first time your humble professor has written publicly about comics. No, back in the day, when I was just a fledgling teenaged fanboy, I was a full-on comic-book letterhack, with fan letters appearing in the letters pages of all kinds of Marvel and DC books. (The morbidly curious among you can look in late ’80s issues of comics like AVENGERS, WEST COAST AVENGERS, CAPTAIN AMERICA, INCREDIBLE HULK, FLASH, SECRET ORIGINS and many others for examples of the Li’l Prof’s far-from-deathless prose.)

“Uh, hey, Mark. What’s up?” I kind of mumbled.

“So we just got your letter about the Hawkeye series, and I just wanted you to know that I’ve got Mark Bright in my office right now, and he’s redrawing the art for the next issue, putting notches on all the arrows.” I could hear the sound of laughter in the background.

Notches on the — and then I remembered. I had just written a letter to the SOLO AVENGERS letter column, and in it I had been a wiseass about the fact that Hawkeye must be having some difficulty firing his arrows, since there were no nocks at the ends of the shafts for the bowstring to rest in. Hey, cut me some slack — that’s what passes for cleverness when you’re 16 years old, and besides, in my defense, artist Mark Bright used to draw these arrows really large in the panels — it was like Hawkeye was firing bowling pins, and you couldn’t miss the fact there was no notch for Hawkeye to nock the arrow.

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Gruenwald and I chatted about Marvel comics for a few more minutes, and then before I knew it, the call was over. I really don’t remember much of what else was said that day, to be honest — I was just so stunned to be getting a call at my house from Marvel over something as petty as Hawkeye’s arrows. I’m sure that’s why Gruenwald made the call. Based on what I know about him from our numerous subsequent conversations, as well as everything I’ve read, the sheer randomness of such a phone call no doubt appealed to his wicked sense of humor.

This was how I first “met” Mark, the man who would become for me the face of Marvel Comics. I would get to know him better over the years through continued correspondence and our annual meetings at conventions, until his tragic and far too early death in 1996. The summer convention season always makes me think about “Da Gru,” the comics he wrote, what made him a good editor, and generally what an all-around decent fellow he was. With your indulgence, we’re going to break format this week, so I can share a few facts, stories and recollections about a good man gone too soon: “Marvelous” Mark Gruenwald.

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Born June 18, 1953, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Mark Gruenwald fell in love with comics at an early age, buying most of the early Marvels off the rack when they were first published, and forming an affection for Gardner Fox’s JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA comics that would continue throughout his life, showing itself prominently in his most acclaimed work, SQUADRON SUPREME (more on that later). Mark graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, in 1975 (with, naturally enough, a degree in Art and Literature), put together a portfolio and set off for a visit to New York to break into comics. After being rebuffed by both Marvel and DC, Gruenwald decided that the only way to make this happen was to pick up and move to New York, with no job and no prospects. (Not so coincidentally, I did the same thing after college, moving to Los Angeles to build a career with zero leads and no job prospects, a move much inspired by Mark’s. Worked out quite well for me, too.) Taking work as a file clerk in a bank to pay the bills, Mark and fellow comics superfan Dean Mullaney (who would later start his own comics company, Eclipse, and these days shepherds the LIBRARY OF AMERICAN COMICS imprint at IDW) began publishing a fanzine called OMNIVERSE, which explored the notion of “reality” and continuity in comics, and which Mark hoped would show off his writing, editing and design skills. Clearly, the plan worked, as in 1978 Mark was hired by Marvel’s then-new Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter as an Assistant Editor.

Mark rose through the ranks quickly, becoming a full editor on books like AVENGERS, WEST COAST AVENGERS, IRON MAN, SPIDER-WOMAN and many others. After thriving in that position for many years, Mark was later promoted to Executive Editor in 1988, a post he held for several years, before being finally promoted to Editor-In-Chief of the Marvel Heroes line in 1995, at a time when Marvel divided its publishing output into five separate imprints, with each group of titles having its own Editor-in-Chief.

For most of this time, Mark was Marvel’s resident “continuity cop,” acting as the primary in-house source for information, history and current status for Marvel’s characters. This no doubt led him in 1982 to create, edit and co-write THE OFFICIAL HANDBOOK OF THE MARVEL UNIVERSE, an exhaustively researched reference series that listed all of Marvel’s characters, concepts, locations and technology from A to Z.

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Starkly designed and with limited illustrations, conventional wisdom was that a primarily prose magazine with no story and no action would fail spectacularly on the shelves. Mark knew better, though. He knew that this kind of obsessive attention to detail and strict adherence to a sense of reality was what the fans wanted. After all, Mark was the biggest fan of them all. Together with collaborators Peter Sanderson and Eliot R. Brown, Mark produced a remarkably complete, intricately detailed volume of reference — literally thousands of pages of backstory, history, pseudo-science and diagrams that explained and clarified the Marvel Universe to the tiniest degree, without ever limiting it for future stories.

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Some have claimed that the degree to which Mark and company defined the characters put straightjackets on future creatives, a charge which is pure bunk. Mark always took pains to state that the information in MARVEL UNIVERSE was merely the most recently reported data, and all entries were subject to change. And there were plenty of bad stories published by Marvel during and after the publication of the HANDBOOK that contradicted the character entries, so clearly not everyone was considering it gospel. The copy, written in a deliberately dry, encyclopedia-like historical style, still managed to be clear, concise and enjoyable, and Eliot Brown’s precise and faux-scientific technical drawings were always a highlight. For example, check out this breakdown of Hawkeye’s arrowheads, or the schematic of the Falcon’s wings.

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Almost 30 years later, these books are still used to this day by comics professionals as reference material, and complete sets remain a hot commodity on the convention circuit.

Mark was also active creatively throughout his time at Marvel, writing such books as MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE, HAWKEYE, D.P. 7, SQUADRON SUPREME and a lengthy, world-record run on CAPTAIN AMERICA, spanning some 136 issues — over 10 years on the series. We’ll talk more about some of Mark’s fine writing in a bit, but it’s his work as an editor that had the most impact on me personally. From the outside looking in, it’s impossible to realize what makes an editor good at his job. All I knew was that I tended to enjoy the books he edited more than the rest of Marvel’s line. More than that, Mark, having been a fan himself, realized that part of his job as editor was to connect with fans, get them excited about comics, and more important, get them excited about Marvel. For Mark, the best way to go about this was through the comic conventions, where he would go out of his way to transform the traditionally stodgy panels and discussions into things far more fun and memorable.

I remember one year at WonderCon in Oakland, attending what was listed as a “Marvel Q & A Panel.” (This was back when Marvel still attended the smaller conventions, a move which I think works miracles for creating lifelong fans.) As Mark came out to greet the crowd, he was holding a brown paper sack. Questions would be asked and answered, Mark revealed, but the only way to ask a question was to first receive: “The Bun of Inquisition!” Mark then dramatically reached in the bag and slowly withdrew a bran muffin, much to the excited gasps and murmurs of the audience, completely playing along with the gag. Mark then proceeded to huck that muffin around the room for the next hour and a half, hurling it in turn at each potential questioner, who would need to pluck the slowly disintegrating muffin from the air in order to ask their question. I think it was two or three questions after I had thrown it back that the muffin finally disintegrated in mid-air, with the dejected crowd moaning at the sight, only to break into a wall-shaking roar, when Mark reached back into the sack and thrust a second muffin into the air, as if he was pulling Excalibur from the stone. It seems like such a small thing, but I’ve never seen a crowd leave a panel in a better mood, in all my years at the cons.

Another year, Mark held a Marvel trivia contest, only with a catch: it was Multiple Choice Mob Trivia. All the chairs were cleared away, and designated areas on the floor were listed as “A,” “B” and “C.” With each question, contestants would run to the spot on the floor where they thought the correct answer was. It sounds like a horrible, dangerous idea, I know, but Mark trusted the fans to take care of each other, and what followed was one of the funniest trivia contests I’ve ever seen, with crowds of fans running like chickens with their heads cut off to get to where they thought they needed to be. I distinctly remember surviving down to the final five contestants, and then getting the boot because I didn’t know the name of the King of the Lava Men. Curse you, Jinku!

Even the more routine panels about what was happening in the Marvel books were a lot more exciting with Mark in charge, as before the panel began, while the crowd was still filling the seats, Mark would get up onstage and do this bizarre maneuver that my girlfriend still refers to as “the stompy dance,” where he would stomp on the wooden stage with what seemed like a giant shoe, over and over and over and over, with his elbows jutting out at an odd angle, and this insanely loud stomping noise getting the crowd more and more fired up until soon they were clapping and stomping along, and just worked into an absolute frenzy, and by the time the guests were announced, it didn’t matter who was coming out; it could have been the letterer on POWER PACK, and the crowd would have roared as if it was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby flying in on jetpacks.

In comparison, the DC panels at the time were mind-numbingly dull affairs with one or two DC editors clicking though an endless slideshow of images and covers. I remember sitting in these for only a few minutes before the girlfriend would whisper, “This is boring. Where’s the stomping guy?” Mark just made the conventions fun.

It was after Mark’s surprise call to the house that we got to know each other better, as the following year at WonderCon I was looking through the preview issues at the Marvel table when Mark approached, noticing the name on my badge: “Still checking the arrows?” It was also clear he knew who I was past the single phone call, as he mentioned characters and stories I’d liked and disliked, and had written to him about in numerous fan letters, some of which had been printed, and some not. Every year after that Mark and I would meet up at Wonder Con and discuss the previous year’s books, what I liked, what I hadn’t, the things he thought had worked and the things he thought could have been improved. Mark would without fail hassle me for my favorite characters: “Look, Hank Pym is staying retired, and you’re the only one asking to see Stegron the Dinosaur Man again.” My suggestion for a no-doubt best-selling Yellowjacket/Stegron miniseries went untaken, needless to say. One year, I stopped by the Marvel booth and Mark was immediately on the attack: “Buy any Ant-Man comics yet?”, only to mime being outdrawn, gunfight-style, when I pulled a Silver Age TALES TO ASTONISH out of my bag, which I’d purchased just minutes before.

Our annual meetings continued through my college years, as I’d make the trip from Santa Barbara to Oakland every spring for the Wonder-Con. When graduation neared, I wrote to Mark and asked how the employment outlook was there for an assistant editor’s position. Mark replied with the blunt, but honest truth: business was bad (this was just as the investor’s market had collapsed), they were in the middle of layoffs, and he wasn’t even that confident about his own position. He left his office number, and we talked about it some more on the phone. Mark tried to be positive about possibilities down the road, but it was clear that Marvel wouldn’t be doing any hiring any time soon. Still, I applied the Gruenwald formula for myself, moving to Los Angeles instead of New York, but that’s another story…

When Marvel reorganized after the bankruptcy, giving up their separate-imprint structure, and Mark was passed over as Editor-in-Chief, I thought (and hoped) that he’d head over to DC, where his old assistant Mike Carlin was currently in charge, and where he’d get the chance to finally work on so many characters he’d never had the opportunity to write. Instead, Gruenwald and Carlin wound up working together on a project literally decades in the making: DC VS. MARVEL, a miniseries that would pit all of Marvel and DC’s heavy hitters against each other, with the fans voting to decide the outcomes.

Just as DC VS. MARVEL was hitting the stands, tragedy struck, with Mark’s shocking and unexpected death from a heart attack at the age of 43. To be completely honest, a big part of my desire to work in comics died with him. I had planned on waiting a couple of years for Marvel to get back on its feet, and approach Mark again with a little work experience under my belt, but I honestly lost all desire to do so after the news of Mark’s passing. Don’t get me wrong, I still loved comics as much as ever (and still do), but in my mind, after years of conversations, meetings and correspondence, Mark Gruenwald was Marvel Comics. With him gone, it just didn’t feel the same.

Mark had a special request that some of you might have heard about: he requested that his body be cremated, and the ashes blended with the printer’s ink used in the production of a comic book. His widow Catherine and Marvel carried out the request, and in 1997 a trade paperback collection of Mark’s critically acclaimed SQUADRON SUPREME series was published, with the ink containing, as his wife put it in the book’s Foreword, “actual particles of the Gru.” Although some found the request odd or macabre, I thought it perfectly in character, reflecting both his love of comics and his often completely chaotic and unpredictable sense of humor.

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The summer following his death, a memorial panel was held at the San Diego Comic-Con for Mark Gruenwald. It was a packed room, with probably a couple hundred people in attendance, with many of Mark’s friends and fans getting up to speak. I’m pretty sure I told the phone-call story. I think it was Marvel editor/writer Tom DeFalco who told the story of the time he was flying back from a convention with Mark, and as he was going through security, noticed everyone growing very nervous and looking at him strangely. He looked up at the X-ray screen and saw the perfect outline of a handgun appearing in his luggage. Naturally, he was pulled aside and his luggage searched, only to find a piece of cardboard cut into the shape of a pistol, wrapped in aluminum foil, tucked between two of his shirts. Sensing that he’d been the victim of a practical joke, airport police let DeFalco go, who soon met up with a smirking Gruenwald, who had naturally had no problem getting through security.

Mark’s widow Catherine brought us all a gift that day: video footage taken of Mark from his years at Marvel and from a local-access sketch comedy TV show that Mark and a few other Marvel cohorts did for a couple of years. We all got to see Mark one more time, see some of his legendary office stunts like filling the office with crumpled paper floor-to-ceiling, or building a three-foot-tall platform beneath his desk and chair, so that he towered over all who entered; see his equally famous quirks, like his insistence that absolutely nothing be left on the surface of one’s desk (even the telephone was tucked away in a desk drawer); mostly we just got to see Mark again.

As we got ready to leave that day, Catherine had a favor to ask: we’d all seen on the video this odd, silly walk that Mark would do from time to time just to get some easy laughs, a kind of mix of a laid-back saunter and a John Cleese-style high-step. She thought Mark would like it if we would all walk out of the room that way, and not tell any of the people waiting to come in for the next panel what we were doing. Sure enough, about two hundred people came lurching out of that room one at a time, and not a word was said.

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Catherine passed out to all of us that day a list of Life Lessons that Mark had written for his column in MARVEL AGE magazine, and looking through it now, Lesson #168 strikes a bittersweet note:

Someday the universe will tire of me and will break me down into the components I came from. Right now I’d mind if that happened, but when the time comes I imagine I will welcome no longer being separate from the rest of reality.

That may be, but the rest of us are all the poorer for it.

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