Remembering Mark Gruenwald

Twenty years ago this week comic book writer & editor Mark Gruenwald passed away.  He was only 43 years old.

A longtime comic book reader, Gruenwald was active in fandom during his teenage years. In 1978 he was hired as an assistant editor at Marvel Comics, where he would remain for his entire career.  He was the editor on Avengers, Iron Man and Thor in the 1980s.

During his tenure at Marvel, Gruenwald worked on a number of projects. A master of comic book continuity, he conceived the encyclopedia-like Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, with extensive biographies & descriptions of powers for many of the company’s characters.  Gruenwald had decade-long run writing Captain America, which began with issue #307 (July 1985) and lasted until issue #443 (September 1995), missing only a single issue during that time.  He also had a five year stint on Quasar, and wrote the well-regarded Squadron Supreme miniseries.

Captain America 322 cover

Gruenwald also occasionally worked as an artist. In 1983 he both wrote and provided pencil breakdowns for a Hawkeye miniseries, with Brett Breeding & Danny Bulanadi doing inks / finishes.  It was in this story that Hawkeye first encountered the lovely ex-SHIELD agent Mockingbird, and the miniseries ended with them tying the knot.

Growing up, Gruenwald was one of the first comic book creators whose work I followed. In 1985 my father got me a subscription to Captain America.  That happened to dovetail with the start of Gruenwald’s stint on the book, working with penciler Paul Neary.  That year’s worth of comics that I received in the mail were read by me over and over again.  They definitely played a major role in my becoming a lifelong fan of the character.  Four years later, when I began going to the comic shop on a regular basis, Captain America was one of the first comic book series that I collected religiously.

There were some great storylines written by Gruenwald during his decade on Captain America. He penned a lengthy arc that lasted from #332 to #350.  Steve Rogers, rather than become an agent of the shadowy government entity known as the Commission of Super-Human Activities, resigned as Cap.  The Commission recruited the glory-seeking, egotistical John Walker, who was already operating under the guise of Super-Patriot, to become the new Captain America.  Now literally walking in Cap’s shoes, manipulated by the Commission, and facing numerous deadly foes, Walker came to realize just how difficult the role was.  Becoming mentally unstable after his parents were murdered, Walker finally decided he wasn’t cut out to be Cap.  He turned the costume back over to Rogers, having developed a grudging admiration for him.  Walker would soon after adopt a new identity, U.S. Agent.  Over the next several years he and Cap would continue to butt heads over tactics & ideology.

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In 1989 Gruenwald penned the action-packed, globe-trotting storyline “The Bloodstone Hunt,” working with penciler & co-plotter Kieron Dwyer, who was just beginning his career in the biz.  A year later, now paired with penciler Ron Lim, Gruenwald wrote the seven issue “Streets of Poison,” which had Cap becoming embroiled in a drug war being fought between the Kingpin and the Red Skull.

Gruenwald revamped the Red Skull from a scheme-of-the-month Nazi war criminal. Taking on the trappings of a late 1980s uber-capitalist, operating out of Washington DC itself, the Skull sought to destroy America from within by financing numerous subversive and terrorist organizations.

While he was updating Cap’s arch nemesis, Gruenwald also set out to expand the Sentinel of Liberty’s rogues gallery. His most notable creations were super-villain trade union the Serpent Society, the anti-nationalist Flag-Smasher, the fanatical vigilante the Scourge of the Underworld, the reactionary militia group the Watchdogs, and the brutal mercenary Crossbones.

Gruenwald also introduced Diamondback. A member of the Serpent Society, Rachel Leighton was a magenta-haired bad girl from the wrong side of the tracks who found herself unexpectedly attracted to Cap.  At first merely hanging out with Cap in the hopes of convincing him to have a roll in the sack, Diamondback came to develop feelings for him and she began to ponder going straight.  Likewise Cap, who originally considered Diamondback to be a major nuisance, eventually came to appreciate & care for Rachel.  Gruenwald chronicled their extremely rocky relationship throughout his time on the series.  “Cap’s Night Out” in issue #371, with artwork by Lim & Bulanadi, which has Steve and Rachel going out on a date, is one of the best single issues of Gruenwald’s run.

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In hindsight, there are aspects of Gruenwald’s work on Captain America that do not hold up too well. To a degree Gruenwald’s sensibilities were rooted in the early Silver Age, and his conception of Cap was of a “man in a white hat,” extremely ethical and scrupulously honest.  At times I feel Gruenwald overdid this, such as his insistence that, despite having served in the armed forces during World War II, Cap never ever killed a single person.  I realize that Gruenwald very much wanted to draw a line in the sand between Cap and such hyper-violent anti-heroes as Wolverine and the Punisher who were starting to become very popular, and I do appreciate his intentions.  I just feel that at times he wrote Cap as someone given to too much moralizing and hand-wringing.

The last few years Gruenwald was on Captain America were hit & miss. There was “The Superia Stratagem,” which saw the militant feminist Superia organize an army of female villains as well as attempt to transform Cap into a woman.  This was followed a year later by “Man and Wolf,” which saw Cap actually transformed into a werewolf.  Neither story was well-received by readers, although I do have a certain fondness for Capwolf.

Captain America 405 cover

Towards the end, it appears the changes taking place throughout the comic book industry were affecting Gruenwald’s outlook. The whole “grim & gritty” trend became prevalent throughout superhero books.  Hot young artists with flashy styles who were weak in storytelling & anatomy were now superstars.  Marvel itself was much more corporate, making a number of decisions to drive up short-term profits, something that would eventually lead to the company into bankruptcy.

All this seemed to be very much reflected in Gruenwald’s final year and a half on Captain America. Paired with penciler Dave Hoover, Gruenwald wrote “Fighting Chance,” which saw Cap succumbing to a complete physical breakdown as the Super Soldier Serum finally wore out.  As the dying Cap sought to take down his cutthroat adversaries, he found himself at odds with brutal vigilantes who mocked him as naïve and ineffectual.  In Gruenwald’s final issue, Cap lay on his deathbed, overcome with despair, believing that he had not fought hard enough to make the world a better place.

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A year later, on August 12, 1996, Mark Gruenwald passed away. It was already a dark time for the comic book industry, and his death made it all the darker.  Yes, Gruenwald had made certain missteps, both as a writer and in his role as an editor.  But it was clear that on the whole he was very talented and intelligent.  Gruenwald possessed a genuine love of comic books, and he was committed to ensuring that the work he and his collaborators did was of a high quality.  His loss certainly left the industry much poorer.

Twenty years later, many of the characters & concepts introduced by Gruenwald are still in use in the Marvel universe.  More importantly, as the anniversary of his passing approached, it was readily apparent by the kind words of his friends & colleagues that he was still both highly regarded and much missed.

Remembering comic book artist Paul Ryan

Comic book artist Paul Ryan passed away on March 6, 2016 at the much too young age of 66. Ryan was a prolific artist whose career spanned from 1984 until the time of his death.

Fantastic Four 358 cover

A lifelong comic book fan, Ryan did not made his professional debut until the age of 35. He submitted a story to Charlton Comics which was originally scheduled to see print in the anthology title Charlton Bullseye, but the company folded before it could be published.  Much of Charlton’s unused inventory was acquired by AC Comics head honcho Bill Black, and Ryan’s debut finally saw print in the AC title Starmasters #1.

Shortly after Ryan met professional artist Bob Layton at a comic book convention. Layton had recently moved to the Boston area and was looking for an assistant.  Layton recounted on his Facebook page

“I trained him as my apprentice, inking backgrounds for my various Marvel projects. All that time working together, Paul worked on his penciling samples for Marvel.”

Eventually accompanying Layton on a trip to the Marvel Comics offices in Manhattan, Ryan was introduced to the editorial staff. This led to Ryan receiving assignments from the company.  His first job was inking Ron Wilson’s pencils on The Thing #27 (Sept 1985).

Shortly afterwards Ryan was tapped to take over as penciler on the 12 issue Squadron Supreme miniseries written by Mark Gruenwald.  Ryan penciled issue #6 (Feb 1986) and then issues #9-12.  Ryan was paired with inker Sam De La Rosa, and also had the opportunity to work with his mentor Layton, who inked four of his five covers.

After completing Squadron Supreme, Ryan again worked with Gruenwald, co-creating D.P. 7 which debuted in November 1986. D.P.7 was considered one of the high points in Marvel’s very uneven New Universe imprint.  Ryan was the penciler for the entire 32 issue run of D.P.7.  It was on D.P.7 that Ryan was first paired with Filipino artist Danny Bulanadi as his inker. I really appreciated the rich, illustrative quality that Bulanadi’s inking gave Ryan’s pencils.  They made a great team.

During this time, in 1987, Ryan penciled Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21, the historic marriage of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson.

Avengers 330 cover signed

After D.P.7 came to an end, Ryan became the penciler of Avengers with issue #305 (July 1989). He was teamed with writer John Byrne and longtime Avengers inker / embellisher Tom Palmer.  After Byrne departed, Ryan worked with succeeding writers Fabian Nicieza and Larry Hama.  Ryan and Hama introduced the African American teenage hero Rage who, after a short stint as an Avenger, joined the New Warriors.

In late 1989 Ryan also penciled the first six issues of the ongoing Quasar series written by Gruenwald. Ryan was inked by Bulanadi on these.

Ryan was an incredibly fast artist, and in 1990 at the same time he was penciling Avengers he was also working on the Avengers West Coast spin-off series. Ryan inked Byrne’s pencils on issues #54 -57.  He then penciled issues #60 – 69, working with writers Roy & Dann Thomas, with Bulanadi once again inking him.

After departing AWC in early 1991, Ryan was once more paired with Byrne, this time on Iron Man. Bob Wiacek inked Ryan on these issues.

Later that year Ryan & Bulanadi joined writer Tom DeFalco to become the new creative team on Fantastic Four. Their first issue was #356 (Sept 1991).  Two months later, in the giant-sized FF #358, the series celebrated its 30th anniversary.  Among the numerous features contained in that issue, Ryan & Bulanadi illustrated an amazing double-page pin-up featuring many of the heroes and villains of the Marvel universe.

In an 1997 interview Ryan stated that FF was his favorite Marvel title.  He had bought the very first issue when it came out back in 1961 when he was 11 years old, and was “very excited ”to be working on the series 30 years later.

Fantastic Four 358 Marvel characters

Ryan began co-plotting Fantastic Four with DeFalco beginning with issue #260. He remained on the series until issue #414 (July 1996). He penciled 59 consecutive issues, one month short of a full five years.  Ryan would undoubtedly have stayed on FF even longer if he and DeFalco had not been given the boot to make way for “Heroes Reborn.”

Reader reaction to DeFalco & Ryan’s time on Fantastic Four was decidedly mixed. I personally enjoyed it, but I understand why others were less enthusiastic.  Looking back, it is obvious that DeFalco & Ryan wanted to emulate the classic Lee & Kirby era, but they were also attempting to make the book competitive at a time when X-Men was Marvel’s hottest property, and everything else was falling by the wayside.  They wanted to give FF a retro Silver Age feel and make it appealing to teenage readers, i.e. sexing up the Invisible Woman and making her more ruthless, giving the rest of the team a more gritty look, generating numerous long-running subplots & mysteries, introducing a younger “next generation” of FF-related heroes, and tossing in lots of stuff involving time travel & alternate realities.  At times perhaps those styles did not mesh well, but DeFalco & Ryan were clearly giving it their all.

Understandably annoyed at being tossed off Fantastic Four, Ryan left Marvel and went to DC Comics. He worked there from 1996 to 2000.  His main assignments at DC were the quarterly Superman: Man of Tomorrow and the monthly Flash series.  He also penciled issues of Superboy, Aquaman and Batman: Gotham Knights, as well as a four issue Legion: Science Police miniseries.

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One of my favorite DC issues that Ryan penciled was Superman: Man of Tomorrow #9 (Fall 1997), written by Roger Stern and inked by Brett Breeding. As Superman is busy adjusting to his new energy powers, Jonathan & Martha Kent recollect on their son’s life.  This provided Ryan & Breeding with the opportunity to illustrate many of the key moments in Superman’s post-Crisis history up to that point in time.

Notably, Ryan was one of a number of artists to work on the Superman: The Wedding Album in 1997, penciling 11 pages of this giant-sized special. By his involvement in this, he had worked on both the wedding of Clark Kent & Lois Lane and the wedding of Peter & Mary Jane.

I was glad to see Ryan receive work at DC.  I was a regular letterhack back then, and I wrote in to the Superman editors with the following…

“Paul Ryan is a superb penciler, and I’m glad you guys got him to work on this book. It’s nice to see that you guys can appreciate true talent.”

Yes, that was something of a swipe by me at Marvel for their treatment of Ryan the year before.

After his time at DC concluded, Ryan penciled a handful of fill-ins for CrossGen.  He worked on several issues of Crux and Ruse.

Phantom newspaper strip 04 13 2007

In 2001 Ryan began working on The Phantom comic books published by the Swedish company Egmont. This was the start of an association with Lee Falk’s legendary comic strip hero that would last for the next decade and a half.  Ryan was tapped to take over The Phantom weekly comic strip in 2005, working with writer Tony De Paul.  Two years later Ryan also assumed the art duties on the Sunday comic strip.

Ryan was a longtime fan of The Phantom.  He produced quality artwork on both the comic books and the newspaper strip.  He was still working as the artist on the daily strip at the time of his passing.

(For fans of The Phantom, the comic strip is archived online going back to 1996 on The Phantom Comics website.)

I really feel that Ryan was an underrated talent who was too often eclipsed by the “hot” artists of the 1990s.  Unlike many of those guys, Ryan was a very good penciler with strong sequential illustration skills, an artist who turned in quality work while consistently meeting deadlines; in other words, a true professional.

Paul Ryan 2000 photo

I was a fan of Ryan’s work ever since I first saw it in the late 1980s. Over the years I corresponded with him by e-mail on Facebook.  I was fortunate enough to meet Ryan once, back in 2000.  He was a guest at a major comic convention held at Madison Square Garden that was organized by Spencer Beck.  Ryan drew an amazing color sketch of Beautiful Dreamer for me at that show.  I had always hoped to one day meet Ryan again so that I could obtain another sketch from him.  Sadly that is no longer possible.  But I am grateful that I had that one opportunity to meet him all those years ago.

Shannon Carter is living the American Dream

The last couple of years for the Fourth of July I’ve blogged about the most prominent patriotic comic book superhero, Captain America.  This time I wanted to do something a little different.  I’m taking a look at a character who was inspired by Cap: Shannon Carter aka American Dream, who was created by Tom DeFalco & Ron Frenz.

A-Next 4 cover

American Dream was introduced in A-Next, one of the titles that comprised the short-lived “MC2” line at Marvel Comics.  These all spun out of What If #105 (Feb 1998), the debut of May “Mayday” Parker, the teenage daughter of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson in a reality where she was rescued after being abducted by Norman Osborn.  What If #105, which was set approximately 15 years in the future, had Mayday becoming Spider-Girl.

What If #105 was a big hit, and in late 1998 the MC2 books started.  Most of them unfortunately did not last long, although the Spider-Girl series written by DeFalco had a very lengthy run.

A-Next introduced “the next generation of Avengers.”  In this timeline, after a catastrophic battle in a parallel reality (yeah, another one) the Avengers disbanded.  A decade later, due to the scheming of the Asgardian god of evil Loki, a new team of Avengers assembles.  Yipes, that is always happening to Loki!

Shannon Carter is first briefly seen in A-Next #1 by DeFalco, Frenz & Brett Breeding as an unnamed tour guide at Avengers Mansion.  Two issues later we learn her first name and see her assisting Edwin Jarvis in setting up the support network for the new Avengers.  At the end of that issue Shannon returns to her apartment where three figures wait in the shadows.  She tells them “I have good news, my friends! Our long wait is over! We’ll make our move tomorrow – and these new Avengers will never know what hit them!”

Well that sounds ominous!  However, in A-Next #4 by DeFalco, Frenz, Breeding & Paul Ryan, we find out that these four actually intend to join the Avengers.  For the first time we see Shannon in costume as American Dream and properly meet her comrades Freebooter, Bluestreak and Crimson Curse.  This is also where we find out Shannon’s last name, and it is immediately apparent that she is intended to be a relative of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter.

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DeFalco & Frenz intended the “Dream Team” to be a tribute to the “Kooky Quartet” introduced way back in Avengers #16 in 1965.  The cover to A-Next #4 is even a nice homage by Frenz & Breeding to the Jack Kirby cover of that classic issue.

By the way… Bluestreak really needs watch those wandering hands!  Maybe the Avengers should be required to attend a seminar on sexual harassment in the workplace?

I immediately took a liking to American Dream.  Frenz did a superb job designing her, effectively modifying the classic style of Captain America’s uniform into an eye-catching, dramatic costume for a female character.

So who exactly is Shannon Carter?  A few issues later DeFalco confirms that she is a relative of Sharon, who at this point is deceased.  DeFalco would briefly touch upon her origin in Spider-Girl #32 (May 2001) before elaborating upon it in detailed flashbacks within a five issue American Dream miniseries (2008) illustrated by Todd Nauck & Scott Koblish.

Shannon’s father was a cousin of Sharon Carter.  When she was only a child Shannon’s parents were killed in a horrible car accident, and Shannon herself was seriously injured.  The orphaned Shannon was adopted by her aunt, Sharon’s older sister Peggy.  Peggy, hoping to motivate the mourning, depressed Shannon, gave her Sharon’s diaries to read.  Shannon, inspired by reading the experiences of Sharon and her boyfriend Captain America, finally entered physical rehabilitation and began the long, arduous road to recovery.

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When she could once again walk, the diaries also motivated Shannon to train relentlessly, and she eventually became a skilled athlete.  Shannon wanted to follow in the footsteps of both her Aunt Sharon and Captain America.  Seeing her niece’s determination, Peggy introduced her to Clint Barton, formerly Hawkeye, who began instructing her.  It was at Clint’s dojo that Shannon would meet the other future members of the Dream Team.

Clint originally envisioned Shannon taking on the identity of Nomad, but she informed him that she wished “to evoke the image of Captain America.”  Clint warned her that “Wearing the flag is like painting a bullseye on your chest” but Shannon was undeterred.  She assumed the role of American Dream, which would soon lead to her joining the new Avengers.

Back in the present (well, the MC2 present, which is a decade and a half ahead of the regular Marvel Earth, but whatever) in the pages of A-Next #4, on their first mission as Avengers, the Dream Team encounters the Soldiers of the Serpent.  A new incarnation of the white supremacists the Sons of the Serpent, the terrorist Soldiers are as fanatical as their predecessors in their racist mission to “cleanse” the country.  American Dream proves herself a worthy successor to Captain America, defeating the Serpents’ leader while delivering a passionate rebuke:

“It’s over, Serpent! You’ve lost! Your cause is a sham, and you’re a disgrace to this country! You preach hatred, claiming to represent true Americans, but nothing could be further from the truth! America has always embraced its diversity! Our very differences help make us all stronger! I, for one, am proud to help defend this country from monsters like you!”

It is definitely a stirring speech worthy of Steve Rogers himself.  DeFalco’s scripting for Shannon in this scene is of course still extremely relevant to our country, especially in light of the events of the past month.

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American Dream quickly becomes a mainstay of these new Avengers.  Several issues later, in A-Next #10-11 by DeFalco, Frenz & Al Milgrom, the team journeys to the dystopian nightmare world where the original Avengers fought their final battle.  In this reality the Red Skull assassinated Hitler and led the Nazis to victory in World War II.  In the present day the Skull’s successor Doctor Doom seeks to expand this fascist empire to all other alternate realities.

After helping to thwart Doom’s plans a decade before, Captain America stayed behind to organize a resistance movement against the totalitarian regime.  At first Cap is unhappy to meet these new Avengers and orders them to return home, fearing they will be killed.  American Dream and the rest of the team refuse and they join Cap in his assault on Doom and his super-human Thunder Guard.

Doom is narrowly defeated, with Crimson Curse apparently sacrificing her life.  Before returning home, these new Avengers are finally given a nod of approval by Cap.  America Dream gains the shield of that Earth’s Cap, who was killed decades before by the Skull.

A-Next ended with issue #12, but American Dream has continued to pop up since then.  Like many other denizens of Earth-982, she and her teammates would show up from time to time in Spider-Girl.  One noteworthy story was the six part “Season of the Serpent” by DeFalco, Frenz, Pat Olliffe, Al Williamson & Sal Buscema that ran in issue #s 54-59 (Jan to June 2003).  During that arc Spider-Girl, who has been fighting against the Soldiers of the Serpent and their leader the death-god Seth, joins American Dream on a brief trip back to the alternate Earth to enlist the aid of Thunderstrike and the original Captain America.

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American Dream is among the numerous characters to appear in the miniseries Last Hero Standing (2005) by DeFalco, Olliffe & Koblish, and its follow-up Last Planet Standing (2006).  She is one of the heroes who plays a vital role in preventing Galactus from destroying the entire universe.  This led into the Avengers Next miniseries (2007) by DeFalco, Ron Lim & Koblish.  Months before, during Last Hero Standing, Captain America had been killed by Loki, and Shannon finally realized the enormity of following in his footsteps.  A major theme of Avengers Next is her uncertainty if she and the rest of the team are capable of living up to the original Avengers.

A year later Shannon received a solo outing in the aforementioned American Dream miniseries, which I enjoyed.  DeFalco did a good job delving into Shannon’s past.  He also showed her present-day attempts to establish a private civilian life while also serving as an iconic member of the Avengers, something that Cap himself also struggled with often.

I know that among certain readers DeFalco’s writing is an acquired taste.  He has a very Silver Age style to his work.  At times he tries a bit too hard to make his dialogue humorous or dramatic, resulting in rather corny or stilted scripting.  Nevertheless, considering how many writers want to do superhero comic books that are “realistic” or “dark,” often with variable results, there is definitely a refreshing, fun quality to DeFalco’s more traditional approach.

The art by Nauck & Koblish on American Dream was fantastic.  I was already a fan of both artists before this miniseries came out, so it was great to see them work together.

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American Dream has also popped up in stories by other writers.  She was one of the literally hundreds of alternate reality Avengers to make cameos in the sprawling, epic twelve chapter Avengers Forever series (Dec 1998 to Feb 2000) by Kurt Busiek, Roger Stern, Carlos Pacheco & Jesus Merino.

A decade later Stern had the opportunity to write a story that properly co-starred American Dream when Captain America Corps was published in 2011.  It was illustrated by Phillippe Briones with covers by Phil Jimenez.  This five issue miniseries featured several incarnations of Cap from various time periods, namely Steve Rogers from 1941, U.S. Agent and Bucky Barnes / the Winter Soldier from the present day era, American Dream from Earth-982 and Commander A from the 25th Century.  The Elder of the Universe known as the Contemplator gathered them together in order to thwart Cap’s old foe Superia, whose reckless attempts to alter history threatened to unravel all of reality.

I have always enjoyed Stern’s work on Captain America.  Stern’s short run with John Byrne & Josef Rubinstein on Cap’s solo series is justifiably referred to as classic, and his longer run writing Avengers in the mid-1980s is also extremely well-regarded.  Since then Stern has occasionally had the opportunity to return to the character, such as in this Captain America Corps miniseries.  It was a really exciting read.  It was great to see Stern team up American Dream with Steve and Bucky.

Captain America Corps 4 cover

Offhand I don’t recall if American Dream has appeared in the last several years.  Hopefully at some point she will show up again.  I would certainly be happy if DeFalco had another opportunity to write her and the other Avengers of Earth-982.  Of course, sooner or later Marvel ends up reviving any & every character that they have ever published (just look at all of the parallel universes and old crossovers that are being revisited within the current Secret Wars mega-event).  So cross your fingers that one day we will see Shannon Carter return.