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…

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.

Magneto vs. the Red Skull round one

The current Marvel Comics crossover Avengers/X-Men: Axis sees the Fascist mastermind the Red Skull gaining the devastating powers of Onslaught, threatening the entire world. A key aspect of this storyline has been the conflict between the Skull and Magneto, the mutant Master of Magnetism.  But this is certainly not the first time those two have encountered one another.  For that we must look back to late 1989 and the “Acts of Vengeance” crossover.

Captain America 367 cover

It is actually a bit surprising that it took Magneto and the Red Skull so long to meet. In certain respects they have much in common; in others they are complete opposites.

Magneto, the long-time ideological opponent of the X-Men and one of their greatest foes, spent his early years as a one-note mutant supremacist. He was almost a Hitler-like figure, a ranting, sadistic conqueror who wanted to crush humanity and rule the world in the name of mutant-kind, who he saw as their superiors.

Then throughout the 1980s, in the pages of Uncanny X-Men, writer Chris Claremont developed a back-story for Magneto. He was a Jew from Eastern Europe who had spent much of his childhood imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps, who lost his entire family in the Holocaust.  At the end of World War II the barely alive Magneto fled to Russia with the gypsy Magda, who he married.

Eventually, as seen in Classic X-Men#12 by Claremont and artist John Bolton, when Magneto’s mutant powers began to manifest, a fearful mob attacked him, preventing him from rescuing his daughter Anya who was trapped in a burning house. Magneto lashed out in anger, slaying the mob.  Magda fled from him in fear, and he never saw her again.

The death of his daughter, the loss of his wife, and the actions of the mob brought him right back the horrors of the Holocaust. Magneto became convinced that it was inevitable that humanity would attempt to destroy mutants in a new genocide.  Between his overwhelming fear of a mutant Holocaust, and an unfortunate side effect of his powers creating severe emotional instability, Magneto became a violent revolutionary determined to protect mutant-kind by conquering humanity.  In effect, he became very much like the Nazis who he hated.

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The Red Skull’s real name is Johann Schmidt. In the back-story originally set down by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, and developed in detail years later by J.M. DeMatteis, Paul Neary & Roy Richardson in Captain America #298, we learn that Schmidt was born to an alcoholic father and his abused wife in a small German village.  When the mother died giving birth the drunk, angry father attempted to murder his newborn son.  He was prevented from doing so by the delivering physician.  The distraught father committed suicide soon after, leaving the infant Johann Schmidt an orphan.  Although only a newborn when all this occurred, the Red Skull claims to remember these events with crystal clarity.

Schmidt spent his childhood and teenage years as an outcast and a vagrant, ostracized by his peers. One time the daughter of a Jewish shopkeeper showed the coarse man kindness.  Schmidt responded by clumsily attempting to woo her, and when she spurned his violent advances, he responded by beating her to death, taking out on her all the rage he felt at humanity as a whole.  The experience filled him with “a dizzying joy such as I never suspected existed!”

Years past, and eventually Schmidt was working as a bellboy at a German hotel. One day Hitler and his advisors were staying there.  By chance, Schmidt was bringing refreshments into Hitler’s chambers right when the Fuhrer was berating the head of the Gestapo for letting a spy escape.  The fuming Hitler was despairing at ever having anyone competent enough to carry out his vision.  Motioning towards Schmidt, Hitler declared “I could teach that bellboy to do a better job than you!”  Glancing at the young man, Hitler was startled to see the look in Schmidt’s eyes.  Within them Hitler recognized a bottomless capacity for hatred and violence.  The Fuhrer realizes this was someone who he could transform into the ultimate Nazi, a being who would mercilessly advance the cause of the Third Reich.  Thus was born the Red Skull.

Captain America 298 pg 14

It is interesting that circumstances both led Magneto and the Red Skull onto a path of violence and conquest, each driven by the belief in their own superiority, by the desire to punish the world for the harms inflicted upon them. The difference, I think, is that if young Magneto had grown up in a different place & time, and never lived through the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust, he might very well have grown up to be a normal, happy, well-adjusted figure.  In contrast, one gets the feeling that Johann Schmidt, even if he had been raised by loving parents, was of possessed some form of anti-social personality disorder and would have inevitable become a cruel, unpleasant individual.  He simply might have become something slightly more socially acceptable, such as a corporate executive or a politician!

These two men finally come face-to-face during “Acts of Vengeance,” when the Norse god of evil Loki brought together several of Earth’s greatest villains and criminals to organize a series of attacks directed at destroying the Avengers. At first Magneto thinks that this is a different Red Skull, believing the original died some time before, not realizing the Skull’s consciousness was transferred into a new body cloned from none other than Captain America.  Nevertheless Magneto cannot put the matter out of his mind.  In Captain America #367 written by Mark Gruenwald, with excellent artwork Kieron Dwyer and Danny Bulanadi, Magneto breaks into the Skull’s office in Washington DC, demanding to know the truth.  The Skull admits he is the original.  He attempts to convince Magneto that the two of them are in fact very much alike, hoping to trick the Master of Magnetism into lowering his guard.  This fails, and the Skull is forced to flee.  (Click on the below image to enlarge it for the full details of their exchange.)

Captain America 367 pg 8 & 9

Despite the fact that the Skull now resides in a body that possesses the Super Soldier Serum, he has never bothered to undergo the extensive regular training that Captain America himself engages in which has made the Sentinel of Liberty one of the world’s greatest fighters. Instead the Skull still relies on lackeys such as Crossbones and Mother Night, and on the advanced technology & robots developed by the Machinesmith.  So rather than possibly having a chance of at least holding his own against Magneto, as Cap probably would, the Skull quickly finds himself outmatched.

Soon enough Magneto captures the Red Skull. He spirits him away to a subterranean bomb shelter, leaving him with nothing more than several containers of water.  Magneto tells the Skull “I want you to sit down here and think of the horrors you have perpetrated.  I want you to suffer as you’ve made others suffer.  I want you to wish I had killed you.”  With that Magneto leaves, entombing the Skull in darkness.  Dwyer & Bulanadi definitely draw the hell out of this page.  That look on the Skull’s face in the final panels, as he silently fumes in a mixture of defiance and horror, is genuinely unnerving.  And you are really not sure if justice has been served, or if you actually feel perhaps the slightest bit of pity for the Skull for not having been given a quick, clean death.

Captain America 367 pg 22

The Skull spends a lengthy period of time imprisoned in the bomb shelter. Eventually he begins to hallucinate.  In Captain America #369, in an eerie sequence written by Gruenwald and drawn by Mark Bagley & Don Hudson, the Skull sees his father, Hitler, and his daughter Sinthea berating and belittling him, urging him to commit suicide.  We see that beneath the Skull’s belief that he is better than everyone else is a horrible fear that he is an insignificant nothing, and that everyone is looking down at him.  The only way he can prove that wrong is to trample the whole of humanity beneath his heel, demonstrating his superiority.

Eventually of course the Skull is located by his underlings. Weakened and dying, his burning hatred of Captain America gives him the strength to keep living and recover.  Even when Cap attempts to offer him the slightest bit of concern and sympathy, all the Skull can react with is venomous contempt and malice.  As far as the Skull is concerned, kindness equals weakness, and only hatred will keep him strong.

Captain America 369 pg 29

Much time passes by. The Red Skull dies and is resurrected at least a couple of more times.  Presently he has been revived within a copy of his own original body in its prime.  As seen in the events of Uncanny Avengers and X-Men: Legacy, the Skull has stolen the body of the recently deceased Charles Xavier.  He has ghoulishly had Xavier’s brain grafted onto his own, gaining the immense telepathic powers of the X-Men’s founder.

In the aftermath of the “Avenge the Earth” storyline written by Rick Remender, Kang the Conqueror’s sprawling Xanatos Gambit to wipe out all future timelines save for the one where he rules and to seize the power of a Celestial, becoming a literal god, was thwarted by the narrowest of margins. It was also a most pyrrhic of victories: Havok was horribly scarred in his final battle with Kang, the young daughter who Havok and the Wasp had in a now-erased timeline is a prisoner of Kang’s in the distant future, Sunfire’s body was transformed into an energy form, Wonder Man’s consciousness is trapped in Rogue’s mind and, as usual, people still hate & fear mutant-kind.

Uncanny Avengers 23 pg 21

Uncanny Avengers #23 by Remender and artist Sanford Greene shows that the vengeful Kang, seeking to rub salt into these wounds, has dispatched Ahab, the cyborg slave-master from the “Days of Futures Past” reality, to assist the Red Skull in his plans for mutant genocide. Thus is set the stage for the Axis crossover, and for Magneto to once again confront the Red Skull.  I will be taking a look at that encounter in the near future.  Stay tuned.

Click here to proceed to round two in the war between Magneto and the Red Skull.

Remembering comic book artist Dave Hoover

I was reminded by Facebook that today, May 14th, would have been the birthday of artist Dave Hoover.  Tragically, Hoover passed away on September 4, 2011 at the much too young age of 56.  I was always a fan of his artwork, and so I wanted to write a few words to remember this talented individual.

Hoover, who came from an animation background, entered the comic book field in 1987.  One of his first assignments was for DC Comics, where he penciled Wanderers, a spin-off from Legion of Super-Heroes written by Doug Moench which lasted 13 issues.  After that, Hoover had a year-long run on Starman, paired with writers Roger Stern and  Len Strazewski and inker Scott Hanna.Captain America 437 signed

Moving over to Marvel in the early 1990s, the character who Hoover probably became most identified with was Captain America.  He penciled the Star-Spangled Avenger’s monthly title for a year and a half, drawing Mark Gruenwald’s final stories on the title.  Unfortunately, I think that Gruenwald, after nearly a decade on the book, was running out of steam at this point in time, and these issues of Captain America are not especially well regarded.  Nevertheless, Hoover’s art on these was certainly good.

Starman 27 coverHoover also drew Cap in the pages of a four issue Invaders miniseries.  This was an exciting World War II adventure penned by original Invaders scribe Roy Thomas, and Hoover’s artwork was a perfect match for it.

While at Marvel, Hoover also drew the Night Thrasher: Four Control miniseries, as well as numerous fill-in stories.  He worked on issues of Wolverine, Punisher, Quasar, and Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, plus stories featuring She-Hulk and Iron Fist in the pages of Marvel Comics Presents.

In an animation-inspired style, Hoover was the penciler on several issues of Uncanny Origins, wherein he got to recount the early histories of several of the X-Men, as well as Firelord and Venom.

One of my favorite issues penciled by Hoover was Excalibur #40, “The Trial of Lockheed.”  Writer Scott Lobdell revealed the previously untold origin of Kitty Pryde’s little purple alien dragon.  Hoover’s art style was perfectly suited for this whimsical story.Excalibur 40 cover

After the comic book industry had its major downturn in the mid-1990s, Hoover returned to the animation field.  He still occasionally worked on comic book material, such as “The Parchment of Her Flesh,” a story that appeared in the fantasy anthology The Forbidden Book, published in 2001 by Renaissance Press.  Hoover also drew a number of illustrations inspired by the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

In the mid 2000s, Hoover very effectively remade himself as a “good girl artist,” drawing numerous cute, sexy illustrations of women which he posted in his gallery on Comic Art Fans.  I really enjoyed his work in this vein.  Unlike a lot of “bad girl” artists, Hoover drew beautiful females in a tasteful manner.  There was a charming playfulness to his pin-up drawings.

Along those lines, Hoover was the artist on the first few issues of a comic book based on the Charmed television series that Zenescope published in 2010, along with a handful of stories for their Grimm Fairy Tales anthology.  He also worked on Paula Peril, a series about a sexy, intrepid reporter who always seemed to get tied up by the bad guys during the course of her investigations.

Courtesy of Dave Hoover’s gallery on Comic Art Fans, here is an example of his good girl art, a jungle girl pin-up drawn in 2009…

Dave Hoover jungle girl

I was fortunate enough to meet Dave Hoover on a few occasions.  He was a guest at the 2001 Pittsburgh Comic Con, and a few years ago made a surprise appearance at one of the Big Apple shows here in NYC.  I’m glad I had the opportunity to tell him how much I had enjoyed his work and get one of his Captain America issues autographed.  I also purchased a nice pin-up he had drawn of Cap with his teen protégé Free Spirit, as well as one of the original pages of artwork from his run on the series.  I really wish I’d been able to get a commission done by him, maybe of Cap’s girlfriend Diamondback, who he drew so well.  But the opportunity just never seemed to come up.

In any case, here is a scan of that Captain America & Free Spirit illustration I acquired from Hoover.  Sorry I don’t have a better quality pic of it.Free Spirit Captain America Dave Hoover

If you are not familiar with Dave Hoover’s amazing art, I certainly urge you to seek his work out.  His Invaders miniseries was collected as part of the Invaders Classic Vol. 4, and most of his Captain America issues are contained in the two Fighting Chance trade paperbacks.  You can find pics of many of his pin-up drawings online.  And it’s well worth a search through the back issue bins to search out some of the other comic books that he illustrated.