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.

Captain America 371 pg 1

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.

Super Blog Team-Up 8: Captain America vs. Wolverine

Welcome to the eighth edition of Super Blog Team-Up! Since the movie Captain America: Civil War is now out, our theme is “versus” as the various SBTU contributors spotlight famous comic book battles and rivalries.

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I’m taking a look at the volatile relationship between two of Marvel Comics’ most iconic characters, Steve Rogers aka Captain America and Logan aka Wolverine.

Although Wolverine made his debut in 1974, he did not meet Captain America until a decade later. In 1980 there were tentative plans by Roger Stern & John Byrne to have Cap and Wolverine meet and for it to be revealed that Steve and Logan actually knew each other from World War II.  Unfortunately Stern & Byrne left the Captain America series before they could tell that story.  Cap and Wolverine did not run into each other until 1984, in the first Secret Wars miniseries, and they did not have their first extended one-on-one meeting for another two years, in the pages of Captain America Annual #8 (1986).

Captain America Annual 8 cover

“Tess-One” was written by Mark Gruenwald, penciled by Mike Zeck, and inked by John Beatty & Josef Rubinstein. The story opens with Logan hanging at a dive bar in northern Westchester County.  Logan’s boozing is interrupted by a huge brawl, as several thugs attack a large figure who they believe to be a mutant.  This turns of to be Bob Frank, aka Nuklo, the intellectually-challenged son of the Golden Age heroes the Whizzer and Miss America.  Nuklo was cured of his out-of-control radioactive powers, but still retains enhanced strength, and he wipes the floor with his bigoted assailants.  Logan is intrigued, and stealthily follows Bob after he leaves the bar.  He is surprised when Bob is suddenly attacked by a giant robot, Tess-One.  Wolverine leaps to his rescue, but the robot flies away, controlled by a costumed figure.

Several states west, Captain America is investigating a mysterious hole that has appeared in the middle of a parking lot. Going underground, Cap navigates a series of death traps, eventually coming to an empty chamber.  Looking at the machinery and the giant footprints in the dust, Cap deduces that the chamber’s previous occupant “must have been some sort of robot.”  And if you can see where this is headed, faithful readers, then feel free to award yourselves a No-Prize!

After rushing the critically injured Bob to the hospital, Wolverine begins tracking down the robot and its human master. The trail leads to Southern New Jersey, specifically Adametco, “the nation’s leading manufacturer of adamantium,” the Marvel universe’s near-unbreakable metal alloy.  Tess-One and its human controller Overrider have forced a truck driver making a delivery to Adamentco to smuggle them in.  After they arrive, Overrider knocks out the driver, but he recovers enough to contact Captain America’s emergency hotline.  Cap arrives at Adametco just as Wolverine is sneaking in.

At last Cap and Wolvie meet, and they are immediately off to a rough start. Cap is upset that Wolverine is trespassing in a high-security area.  He also expresses serious doubts about the X-Men as a whole, given their recent association with Magneto… and, yes, if you were not actually reading Uncanny X-Men over the previous few years to see Magneto’s efforts at redemption, you could be forgiven for thinking the team had thrown in with an unrepentant terrorist.  Y’know, I’ve always said that what the X-Men really needed was a good public relations manager.

Captain America Annual 8 pg 23

Wolverine, who back then was still very much a temperamental loner with little respect for authority figures and a seriously short fuse, quickly has enough of Cap’s attitude. Before you know it, sparks are literally flying, as Wolverine’s claws meet Cap’s impenetrable shield.  The two spar for a couple of panels before they are interrupted by the arrival of Tess-One, now coated in adamantium.  The already-formidable robot is now even more dangerous.  Cap and Wolverine are unable to prevent Overrider from escaping with it.

Realizing they are working on the same case, Cap apologizes for his earlier attitude and asks Wolverine to work with him.  Wolverine isn’t thrilled at the idea, but he wants another shot at Tess-One, so he grudgingly agrees.

Cap heads to Washington DC to search government records on Daniel Schumann, the now-deceased owner of the property underneath which Tess-One had been hidden. Cap discovers that back in 1939 Schumann proposed the creation of an army of robots as a failsafe in case the super-soldiers created by Project: Rebirth ever revolted.  The subsequent murder of Professor Erskine meant that Steve Rogers would be the only successful super-soldier to be created, and so Project Tess (Total Elimination of Super-Soldiers) was shut down.  Tess-One was the only robot ever produced.

Wolverine meanwhile utilizes the mutant-detecting Cerebro device to learn that Overrider is Richard Rennselaer, a former SHIELD with the ability to control machinery. Rennselaer’s son Johnny suffers from “nuclear psychosis,” a fear of the nuclear bomb so overwhelming that he has withdrawn into a catatonic state.  Overrider, desperate to cure his son, wants to destroy America’s entire nuclear arsenal, believing this will end the international arms race.

The next day another member of Cap’s emergency hotline spots Overrider transporting Tess-One to the nuclear command base at Offut Air Base. Tess-One attacks base security, enabling Overrider to sneak in.  Cap and Wolverine arrive via Avengers Quinjet, but are immediately at each other’s throats again, with Logan balking at taking orders from Cap.  Despite this they manage to finally defeat Tess-One, as Cap uses his shield to hammer Wolverine’s claws into the robot’s neck.  Cap, in spite of his dislike for Wolverine, has to admit that the X-Man is one tough cookie to have endured the excruciating pain required by this plan.

Captain America Annual 8 pg 35

The pair head inside the base to confront Overrider. Neither of them is able to talk Overrider down, and finally Cap uses his shield to knock him off his hover platform, hoping he will be too stunned to trigger the nukes.  Cap orders Wolverine to catch the falling Overrider; Logan, however, has other ideas, and pops his claws, ready to skewer the plummeting foe.  At the last second he decides to split the difference; he doesn’t kill Overrider, but neither does he catch him, letting him hit the ground hard.  Overrider is seriously injured but still alive.

Cap, disgusted both by this particular act, and by Wolverine’s general attitude, goes off on him…

“As for you, mister, you’d better hope the X-Men never get tired of putting up with you, because I guarantee you the Avengers would never have you.”

Captain America Annual #8 is interesting if you look at it as part of Mark Gruenwald’s decade-long stint as writer on the series. During his time on the book, Gruenwald would often contrast Cap to the violent anti-heroes who were becoming more and more popular in superhero comic books.  Gruenwald obviously favored the more traditional heroes of the Silver Age, and he sometimes overcompensated by making Cap too much of a humorless, overly-moral boy scout.

Keeping this in mind, it’s surprising that when Cap meets Wolverine, Gruenwald offers a rather nuanced depiction of the later. Yes, he shows that Wolverine is a very different type of person from Cap, someone who is unpleasant and quick to anger and who regards killing as a perfectly reasonable solution.  But Gruenwald also depicts Logan as a very competent individual who will endure hardship & pain to achieve his goal.  He shows Wolverine risking his life to rescue Bob Frank from Tess-One.  On the last page of the story, after gets chewed out by Cap, we see Logan visiting Bob at the hospital to make sure he’s okay, demonstrating that there’s more to the man than just attitude and berserker rages.

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I am not a fan of creators who have guest stars show up in books they write just so they can be completely humiliated by the title character.  Garth Ennis writing the Punisher teaming up with pretty much anyone is a perfect example of that sort of thing.  In contrast, you have this annual.  Gruenwald has Cap remaining very much in-character and expressing grave reservations about Wolverine.  But at the same time Gruenwald also writes Logan in a manner that was respectful of the work Chris Claremont had done with the character.  It’s a delicate balancing act, and I appreciate that Gruenwald made the effort.

One of the reasons why this annual is so well remembered, in addition to the Wolverine appearance, is that it is penciled by former Captain America artist Mike Zeck, who does an amazing job. His pencils are ably embellished by John Beatty and Josef Rubinstein, two of the best inkers in the biz.  Certainly the action-packed cover of Cap and Wolverine fighting is one of the most iconic images that Zeck has ever penciled.

This annual was a really expensive back issue for a long time. I missed getting it when it came out, and I had to read someone else’s copy at summer camp.  For years afterward every time I saw copies of this annual for sale at a comic shop or convention it was $20 or more.  In the late 1990s I was at last able to buy it for a mere three bucks.

“Tess-One” would not be the last time we would see Captain America and Wolverine side-by-side. Four years later, in 1990, we would finally see that first time Cap and Logan met during World War II, although it would be recounted by Chris Claremont, Jim Lee & Scott Williams in Uncanny X-Men #268.

Adamantium claws would collide with unbreakable shield several more times throughout the years as Cap and Logan would find themselves at odds with one another. One of the more unusual of these was courtesy of Gruenwald himself in the 1992 storyline “Man and Wolf” with artwork by Rik Levins, Danny Bulanadi & Steve Alexandrov.  This time Cap and Wolverine ended up fighting each other because Logan was hypnotized.  Oh, yes, and Cap got turned into a werewolf.  Yep, that’s right, this was the epic introduction of Capwolf!

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Truthfully, Capwolf looked less like a werewolf and more like a Long-Haired Collie. “What’s that, Capwolf? Timmy fell down a well? I tell ya, that’s always happening to that darn kid!”

Despite Cap’s promise on the final page of Annual #8, years later Wolverine did indeed become an Avenger. To be fair, it was Iron Man’s idea to have Logan join the team, and at first Cap was dead-set against it.  Not surprisingly, as teammates Cap and Wolverine would continue to clash over tactics and methodologies.

Eventually, after they had to team up with Deadpool to prevent North Korea from using the technology of Weapon Plus to create an army of super-soldiers, Cap and Wolverine would grow to respect one another. Later, when Wolverine died — he’s not only merely dead, he’s really most sincerely dead… at least for now — Cap was genuinely saddened.

In the special Death of Wolverine: Deadpool & Captain America by writer Gerry Duggan and artist Scott Kollins (December 2014), Steve Rogers and Wade Wilson get together to mourn Logan, as well as prevent AIM from creating a clone of him. Thinking back on their tumultuous relationship, Cap briefly recounts the time he and Wolverine fought Tess-One.  When Cap gets to the “I guarantee you the Avengers would never have you” part, naturally enough Deadpool bursts out in hysterical laughter.

Death of Wolverine Deadpool Cap pg 8

Y’know, I really would like to see a live action face-off between Captain America and Wolverine, with Chris Evans and Hugh Jackman reprising their respective roles. Unfortunately at this point in time it doesn’t seem like Disney and Fox are able to iron out their differences enough to enable that.  Well, in the meantime at least we have the actual comic books where more often than not Cap and Logan will inevitably end up butting heads over one thing or another.

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Thanks for reading my entry in Super Blog Team-Up 8.  Be sure to check out the pieces written by the other fine contributors…