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.

Captain America 350 pg 44

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.

Captain America 443 pg 20

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.

Happy July 4th from the Avengers

Here’s wishing everyone in the United States a very happy July 4th.  For those of you elsewhere in the world, I wish you all the very best, as well.  I hope that one day “liberty and justice for all” truly becomes a reality no matter who you are or where you live.

To celebrate, I am posting a scan of this wonderful Avengers pin-up.  It was published in the Avengers: The Ultron Imperative special that was released in late 2001.  Described on the credits page as an “Unused Avengers promotional drawing,” it depicts Avengers members Hawkeye, Captain America, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch celebrating American Independence Day.

I think it’s worth pointing out that Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch are immigrants from Europe who came to the United States in search of freedom from intolerance and the opportunity for a new beginning.  So they definitely deserve to be here as symbols of the American Dream.

Avengers July 4th Don Heck

The pencils on this piece are by Don Heck.  A good, solid, often-underrated artist, Heck worked on numerous comic book titles in a career that stretched over four decades, from the 1952 to 1993.  Among his credits were stints penciling Avengers for Marvel Comics in the 1960s and 70s.  Yes, that includes the time period when “Cap’s Kooky Quartet” were the headlining members of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

Heck passed away at the age of 66 in 1995, so this drawing was obviously done a number of years before it was published.  Given the subject matter, perhaps it was left over from the Bicentennial in 1976.

Inking / embellishing this pin-up is the ever-amazing Jerry Ordway.  As I have mentioned a few times on this blog, I am a huge fan of Da Ordster.  Ordway has gone on record with his appreciation for Heck referring to him as “a truly underappreciated artist.”  I expect that he enjoyed having the opportunity to ink this piece in 2001.

The coloring is by Tom Smith, who was the regular colorist on the monthly Avengers series at this time.  He definitely did a very nice, vibrant job on this piece.

Thanks for taking a look!

Super Blog Team-Up 6: Top Ten Avengers Sketches

Welcome to Super Blog Team-Up 6!  Has it really been three months since the last SBTU?  I guess time flies while life’s kicking you in the gut!  Seriously, lately things have been insane.  I’m grateful that I have this blog as a creative outlet to help me unwind.

The theme of SBTU 6 is “Top Ten.”  All the contributors have come up with cool comic-related Top Ten lists.  I must thank Karen Williams of Between the Pages for suggesting that I do a list involving my hobby of collecting comic book convention sketches.  Since a number of SBTU 6 bloggers are doing Avengers-related lists to tie in with the release of the Avengers: Age of Ultron movie, I decided to assemble my top ten Avengers sketches.

Avengers Assemble title page by Richard Howell I’m a long-time fan of the Avengers comic book series published by Marvel Comics, and I started an “Avengers Assemble” themed sketchbook in 2007.  Okay, I’m not too enthusiastic about some of the stories from the last ten years or so.  But there are many classic stories that have been published in the decades before, and numerous amazing characters have been members of the various Avengers teams.  The Avengers are the perfect subject for a convention sketchbook.

Narrowing it down to ten picks was difficult.  I’ve gotten over fifty sketches in this book so far.  There are a few that just missed the cut.  If you asked me again next month I might come up with a different list.  I also didn’t include a couple of pieces that were commissions, where the artists has the sketchbook for a few days and created detailed illustrations.  I will probably spotlight those in some other post in the future.  If you are an artist who contributed to this book and did not make the list, please don’t be offended!  I also posted these in chronological order because I couldn’t make up my mind which one was the best. Without further ado, here is my list of top ten Avengers sketches:

1) Scarlet Witch by Richard Howell Scarlet Witch sketch by Richard Howell Once I decided to start an Avengers sketchbook, I knew that I wanted Richard Howell to start it off with a drawing of the Scarlet Witch.  As a teenager who saw Wanda drawn by Howell in the pages of Marvel Comics Presents #60-63, I thought it was the sexiest version of the character I had ever seen. Of course, Howell had also penciled the twelve part Vision and Scarlet Witch miniseries a few years before which I later read via back issues. To this day, I still consider Richard’s depiction of Wanda to be one of the most beautiful in the character’s history.

I was thrilled that I was able to kick off the sketchbook with this lovely portrait by Howell.  He also drew / lettered the “Avengers Assemble” title page for the book that appears at the top of this post.

2) Black Widow by Hannibal King Black Widow sketch by Hannibal King Hannibal King is good at illustrating tough, sexy women.  When I asked him if he’d draw the Black Widow, he smiled and said “You just made my day.” Obviously he’s fond of the character, which was good news for me. King proceeded to create this stunning pencil illustration. While King was drawing this, I looked through his portfolio. He had done some incredible pieces featuring Captain America, Nick Fury, Val Fontaine, and Hydra. Someone at Marvel ought to give him a S.H.I.E.L.D. story to illustrate ASAP!

This sketch was later printed in Back Issue #26.  Head over to the TwoMorrows Publishing website for information on that magazine, as well as other quality comic book-related publications.

3) Wasp by Brian Kong Wasp sketch by Brian Kong Brian Kong drew a whole heap of very cool Avengers sketch cards, including several of the Wasp.  When I asked Kong if he’d do a drawing of the Wasp, he asked “Which costume?”  Because, oh lordy, Janet Van Dyne had had soooooo many different costumes over the years!  One of my favorites was the one George Perez drew her in during the early 80s, and again in the late 90s. I asked Kong if he could draw the Wasp in that, and he grinned, responding “I was just about to suggest that one.”

I’ve seen Kong at a number of NY area conventions over the years, and obtained several sketches from him.  This one of the Wasp is probably my favorite.  He did an amazing job on it.

4) Warbird / Ms. Marvel by Taki Soma Ms Marvel Warbird sketch by Taki Soma Back in 2008 Taki Soma was also drawing Avengers sketch cards, and so she had a book full of Marvel reference on hand. I flipped through the Avengers chapter, saw there was a profile on Ms. Marvel, and asked Soma if she would be able to do a sketch using that. I was very happy with her depiction of Carol Danvers. Soma is definitely a talented artist.  In the last few years she’s collaborated with her husband Michael Avon Oeming on several projects.

5) Jocasta by Andy MacDonald Jocasta sketch by Andy MacDonald It was his excellent work on NYC Mech that caused me to ask Andy MacDonald to sketch Jocasta.  He draws incredible robots and sci-fi tech.  I just knew he’d do a great job rendering “the bride of Ultron.”  I always liked the character, and in the past wished she’d been an Avengers member for longer (I was thrilled when Dan Slott featured her in the Mighty Avengers series).  Jocasta has such a distinctive visual, as well as an unusual backstory (inspired by Oedipus Rex, naturally).

MacDonald really captured the character of Jocasta, both in terms of her look and her personality.  It’s a very expressive piece.  This is another sketch that was published in Back Issue, appearing in Jarrod Buttery’s article on Jocasta in the robot-themed issue #72.

6) Black Panther by Sal Abbinanti Black Panther sketch by Sal Abbinanti Atomika creator Sal Abbinanti was drawing some amazing, rather surreal color sketches at the 2008 MoCCA Art Festival. He certainly did a great job on this one. Not even having a fire alarm going off and he building getting evacuated by the FDNY when he was halfway done with it threw him off his game. I suppose you could say Abbinanti was “on fire” with this one!  He really went all out, and it shows.

7) Patriot by Ben Granoff Patriot sketch by Ben Granoff I really did enjoy the various Young Avengers miniseries, even if they did come out infrequently.  The team had some cool characters, including the current Patriot, Eli Bradley.  I saw independent artist Ben Granoff‘s work on the small press series We Were The… Freedom Federation published by Bag & Board Studios, and I was impressed.  Indeed, he drew an amazing illustration of Patriot.  This one totally surpassed my expectations.

8) Hercules by Chris Giarusso Hercules sketch by Chris GiarrussoI’m a fan of Chris Giarrusso, creator of Mini Marvels and G-Man.  He seemed like the perfect choice to draw Hercules, the mythical and mirthful Avenger who is never more happy than when he’s busting heads together, or knocking back a large flagon of mead, often doing both at the same time!  The reference I had for Hercules had the character grimacing, but I asked Chris to draw a smiling Hercules, adding “Pretend he’s just left the bar or something.”  Chris literally ran with my suggestion, and here we see Herc with a frosty mug of beer in hand, having a grand old night on the town!

9) Hawkeye / Kate Bishop by Ed Coutts Hawkeye Kate Bishop sketch by Ed Coutts Here’s a great sketch of Kate Bishop, another member of the Young Avengers, and co-star of the Hawkeye ongoing series featuring her teamed up with the original avenging archer Clint Barton.  This was drawn by Ed Coutts, a very talented artist.  His work has appeared in a number of issues of Femforce from AC Comics.  He renders very beautiful women.  I’ve met Coutts at a number of conventions and acquired several nice sketches from him.

10) Ant-Man / Scott Lang by Jacob Chabot Ant-Man Scott Lang sketch by Jacob Chabot Scott Lang, the second Ant-Man, is drawn by Jacob Chabot. This is the costume & helmet Scott wore when he was a member of Heroes for Hire, and when he first officially joined the Avengers (I wasn’t a fan of his “gas mask” helmet that briefly followed). Chabot he drew a very cool sketch of the character. I love the inking on this piece.

Scott Lang has a new solo comic book currently running, and he’s scheduled to make his cinematic debut in the upcoming Ant-Man movie.  That gave me yet another good reason to include this great sketch in this top ten list.

11) Ultron by Chris Duckett Ultron sketch by Chris Duckett Ultron, that murderous mechanical menace, arch adversary of the Avengers, and current star of the silver screen is superbly rendered in this pencil illustration by the talented Chris Duckett from the Bronx Heroes team of creators.  If you ever meet Duckett at a convention, I recommend getting a sketch from him. He does fantastic work.

What’s that, you say?  This was supposed to be a top ten and not a top eleven?!?  Bah!!!  Ultron laughs at you humans and your silly rules!  And soon Ultron will rule the world, humanity will be destroyed, and every single entry on this list will be a different incarnation of his mechanical brilliance!  Until that day inevitably comes, weak creatures of the flesh, you will have to learn to accept that there is an extra entry to spotlight the supreme genius of Ultron 🙂

Super Blog Team-Up 6 continues below I hope everyone enjoyed this top ten (um, top eleven) countdown of Avengers convention sketches.  You can see scans of the entire sketchbook at Comic Art Fans… http://www.comicartfans.com/galleryroom.asp?gsub=43066

Be sure to also visit the other fantastic blogs participating in Super Blog Team-Up 6…

  1. Longbox Graveyard: Top 10 Super-Dogs
  2. The Unspoken Decade: Top 10 Avengers Moments of the 1990s
  3. Legion Of Super-Bloggers: Top 10 Who’s Who Legion Entries
  4. The SuperHero Satellite: Top 10 DC Comics Titles That Ended Before Their Time
  5. Flodo’s Page: Top 10 Green Lantern Ring-Slings …That Don’t Appear In Modern Continuity
  6. Fantastiverse: Top 10 Avengers Greatest Super Battles
  7. Mystery V-Log: Top 10 Avengers Covers
  8. Idol Head Of Diablou: Top 10 Most Important Martian Manhunter Villains
  9. Marvel Superheroes Podcast: Top 10 Avengers Age Of Ultron Tie-In
  10. Chasing Amazing: Top 10 Favorite Moments Of The “Chase”
  11. Between The Pages: Top 10 Wackiest DC Comics Covers
  12. Bronze Age Babies: The Top 10 Bronze Age Characters (x2!)
  13. Too Dangerous For A Girl!: Top Ten Worst Heroic Haircuts
  14. Vic Sage Via The Retroist: Top Ten Comic Character Deaths
  15. I’m The Gun: The 10 Best All-Star Squadron Covers

Two thumbs up to Charlton Hero for organizing this whole shebang.  As always, it’s been a blast!

Comic book reviews: Captain America & Hawkeye #629-632

I never thought I’d see the day when I would decide to drop Captain America from my monthly comic book reading list.  As I’ve said before, I am a huge fan of the character, and I have not missed an issue of the series since 1989.  But I have just gotten weary of Ed Brubaker’s decompressed writing on the main series.

The second Captain America ongoing book has the original numbering but now features a rotating co-star each story arc.  I believe that, to tie in with the Avengers movie, Marvel is going through the team membership.  Hawkeye was featured in issue #s 629-632, and Iron Man comes on-board next month.  Unfortunately, I’ve likewise been underwhelmed by the last few issues of this title.

There are also financial considerations at play here.  Right now I can’t really afford to purchase too many comic books.  I would much rather save my funds for Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon and Supreme, and a few other independent titles that I’m enjoying more than the majority of the material from Marvel or DC.

Anyway, what exactly did I think of Captain America & Hawkeye #s 629-632?  Well, to be fair, this four issue arc written by Cullen Bunn did have a lot of potential.  Cap and Hawkeye are in the San Andreas Mountains, searching for a missing group of environmental activists.  The two Avengers come across a government research facility named Damocles which is acting in an extremely secretive manner.  Despite a hostile reception from Damocles, Cap and Hawkeye continue their search in the caves underneath the base.  There they encounter an army of reanimated dinosaur skeletons, brought back to life by an insidious parasitic life form, one that is seeking to expand its control to living human beings.

Captain America & Hawkeye #632
Captain America & Hawkeye #632

Bunn is drawing on some near-forgotten subplots here, specifically material written by Chris Claremont and Bill Mantlo in the early 1980s.  Bunn does put it to good use, though, giving those decades-old storylines from Ms. Marvel and ROM Spaceknight an interesting twist.  As a fan of the books those plot strands were originally featured in, I enjoyed seeing something unique being done with them.  If you’re going to recycle the past, you ought to put a unique spin on things.

The problem with Captain America & Hawkeye is in the execution.  We basically get four issues of Cap and Hawkeye fighting Dire Wraith-dinosaur hybrids.  The story feels extremely decompressed.  It could easily have been told in the space of three issues, rather than four.  Conversely, at the exact same time, the readers are given no answers as to the mysteries of what Damocles is really up to, and the identity of their mysterious benefactor.  Some of the space that Bunn devoted to the Avengers / dinosaurs slugfests could instead have been utilized to explain what was going on behind the scenes.

Perhaps Bunn is intending to develop this further in upcoming issues of this title.  I would not have minded that as much if, again, this opening arc of his had been more tightly plotted.  This is the major problem a lot of writers have when it comes to writing for the trade paperback, in that they just do not have enough material to their stories to fill up the space.

I don’t mean to say that this story arc was bad.  There was a lot to it that was fun & entertaining.  It just needed some serious tightening up in the plotting department.

I did enjoy the artwork by Alessandro Vitti.  Admittedly it was at times somewhat unclear as to what was taking place in some of the action sequences.  But Vitti’s style was extremely well suited to the horror content of the story.  In an arc like this, it makes sense to not have Cap or Hawkeye look too clean-cut, to make them slightly more shadowy & gritty.  And I was especially struck by Vitti’s renditions of the dinosaur parasites spawned from the shape-shifting Dire Wraiths.  It really captured the gruesome, alien quality of the original Wraiths seen in the pages of ROM Spaceknight.

Captain America & Hawkeye #629 features a beautifully painted cover by Gabriele Del’Otto, while for the next three issues the cover art is from the talented, underrated Patrick Zircher.  I’ve enjoyed his work since his days penciling New Warriors.

Right now, I still haven’t decided if I am going to pick up Captain America & Iron Man.  It really depends on what else happens to be on sale a month from now and, more importantly, how much money I have in my wallet at that time.

It’s strange, because for a long time I thought Captain America would be the very last comic book series I would ever stop reading.  But times change, and so do people, and I guess I’m just more interested in other material right now at this point in my life.