August 12, 2011 marks the 15th anniversary of the death of Mark Gruenwald. Mark, as most longtime comic-book fans know, was a writer and editor at Marvel Comics for nearly 20 years. His accomplishments were many, and his memory lives on for his many fans and friends. I proudly place myself in both of those categories.
As an editor, Mark (or “Grueny,” as he was known around the office) guided such classic runs as the Walt Simonson period of THOR and the Roger Stern/John Buscema/Tom Palmer era of THE AVENGERS—just to name a couple. As a writer, he was responsible for the landmark SQUADRON SUPREME limited series and a 10-year-long, fondly remembered, groundbreaking tenure on CAPTAIN AMERICA. Again, that’s barely scratching the surface. Mark was also second-in-command to Tom DeFalco, Marvel’s Editor in Chief from 1987 to 1995, as well as Continuity Cop for the Marvel Universe. That’s a damn impressive resume, to be sure. And I think it was because of all those accomplishments, and the degree of respect that Mark had achieved (and earned) from staffers and freelancers alike by the time I arrived at Marvel in July 1992, that made me feel a bit intimidated by him in my early days there.
Mark certainly hadn’t done anything in particular to make me feel intimidated. That was more DeFalco’s modus operandi (Hi, Tom!). The fact is, at the time, I was a bit intimidated by pretty much anyone in authority, and by that time in Marvel’s history, Gru was definitely high up in authority. Adding to it was the fact that Mark was a hard guy to get to know—at first. He was pretty quiet, very reserved, maybe a little standoffish. At least, that was my initial impression of him.
But Grueny was also Marvel’s self-appointed “schoolmarm,” meaning that he led a weekly assistant editors’ workshop. And it was through this workshop that I started to get to know him a little better. Each week, Grueny would teach the art of writing and editing comics to the group that he referred to as the “future editors of America.” Mark had put together an entire course curriculum, one that would get us through an entire year. Each session began with him saying, “Media shower,” which meant that we would spend the next few minutes going around the room discussing movies or TV shows we’d seen, or books or comics or magazine articles that we’d read since the previous week. The idea was to discuss what could be learned from these other forms of media in terms of storytelling or communicating ideas. It was a very useful exercise, one that I’m not sure we all appreciated at the time.
I remember one session in which Mark enthusiastically praised radio personality Howard Stern for his ability to effectively recap past events related to the radio show. Grueny started off by asking, “Ever listen to the Howard Stern show from beginning to end?” Being a longtime Stern fan, my answer was an unequivocal “Yes.” Grueny then asked: “Ever notice how if Howard makes reference in the 9 o’clock hour to something that happened in, say, the 6 o’clock hour, he’ll go out of his way to give a full recap?” Again, my answer was “Yes.” Grueny went on to ask, “Ever wonder why he does that?” To be honest, I’d never really given it any thought. Mark then said, “The recap is not particularly useful for someone who’s been listening to the show since 6 o’clock, but what about the people just tuning in at 9? They’d be lost if Howard only made vague references to something that they completely missed. Howard is very adept at filling in listeners on what they might have missed, while still moving the show forward.”
Mark connected this back to comics: he pointed out that every issue of a comic is some reader’s first issue, and while there’s nothing wrong with extended story lines, you have to play fair with new readers. You have to give them enough of a recap so that they can pick up on what’s been going on—but do it in a way that’s not frustrating to the regular readers. I took that lesson to heart, and always kept it in mind whenever I edited or wrote a comic book. I also came to understand Howard Stern's show even better than before.
There were so many other lessons I learned from Mark about writing and editing, far too many to get into here. Suffice to say that he took his role as a “shaper of young minds” very seriously, and it was a pleasure—and an honor—to be one of his many “disciples.” Those lessons have stayed with me to this day, and I’m grateful to Mark for being such an effective teacher.
Grueny also took it upon himself to be Marvel’s “morale officer,” which involved trying to cheer everyone up and inject as much fun as possible into the office when Marvel’s financial woes started to take a very dramatic turn. One stunt he did was make dozens of black and white Xeroxes of a head shot photo of Marvel editor Ralph Macchio, and then tape them all around the company. You’d come in one day and see Ralph’s face on the trashcans, on the photocopy machines, on the posters that decorated the walls—Ralph’s head on Doctor Doom’s body, or the Green Goblin’s… you get the idea. We’d see stuff like that, and we’d know that Grueny had been at it again when no one was looking. It was during this period, the beginning of Marvel’s darkest days, that Mark and I really got to know each other better. Unfortunately, it would only be during the last two years of Mark’s life—but I’m very grateful to have gotten to spend as much time with him as I did.
After several major downsizings, Marvel’s editorial staff was a lot smaller than it had been when I first joined the company. As a result, some staffers who didn’t interact with each other all that much when the staff was large now saw each other a lot more often, maybe found that they had similar interests, and became much friendlier than before. That was certainly the case with Mark and me. I remember the times when we loaned each other CDs of bootleg Beatles recordings (please don’t tell the authorities). And how we discussed at length “Lifehouse,” a legendary unfinished rock opera by Pete Townshend. And the friendly disagreements we had on whether or not George Lucas should do new, “Special Edition” versions of the original Star Wars movies. (He was in favor of it, I wasn't.) I felt like I had found a new friend, even though it was someone I already knew.
And Mark was indeed a good friend. He looked out for people. He always tried to do the right thing—and the compassionate thing. Shortly before he died, he did something on my behalf, something I didn’t ask him to do, that I’ll never forget. For personal reasons, I decided to give up a promotion to associate editor that I had recently been given at Marvel and asked to be returned to my previous status as an assistant editor. Mark was one of the first people I told, and he was utterly shocked. His eyes bugged out in that hilarious, cartoonish way of his. “In the entire history of the company, I don't think anyone has ever done that before,” he told me incredulously. “Well, I guess I'm a trailblazer,” I replied with a sad grin. Grueny feared that my decision would put me in a bad spot with our editor in chief at the time. So, completely on his own, without my knowledge, Mark went to the EIC, said that he understood why I did what I did, and implored the EIC not to hold my decision as a black mark against me. I found out about it after the fact, and I was deeply touched by this gesture. (Incidentally, I was “re-promoted” a year later—another Marvel first, I guess!)
Grueny was a terrific host, too. Each summer, he opened his beautiful summer home in upstate New York to all of us “comics industry irregulars” for a big party that usually lasted into the wee hours. People from both Marvel and DC showed up and mingled with each other. I have very fond memories of the last party Mark threw, in the summer of 1996. Late that evening, I sat on the front yard with Grueny, Ralph Macchio, assistant editor Mark Bernardo, inker extraordinaire Tom Palmer and some others, and we were shooting the breeze, trading stories old and new, and just enjoying each other’s company. Whenever I talk to Tom Palmer these days, we never fail to mention that night, and how great it was. Of course, we had no idea at the time that it would be the last time that all of us would be together like that.
The day Mark died was one of the saddest days of my life, and I know that many, many other people feel the same way. It was so sudden, so unexpected. And we never got the chance to say goodbye to him. In an instant, he was just… gone. It was at his memorial service that I really got a sense of how much of an impact he’d made on so many people’s lives. He had been so respected, so admired and well liked, by… well, by everybody. I don’t know of anyone who has an unkind word or thought about him. I remember thinking at that memorial service that that this was the kind of legacy I would like to leave behind.
After Mark’s death, I wrote and edited a special memorial edition of the Marvel “Bullpen Bulletins” page, which focused on his life and his many achievements. It was one of the toughest things I ever wrote, because it was something I never would have wanted to write. But I was determined that it be as close to perfect as possible, because it was so important. Not just to me, but to Marvel and everyone at the company. This was to be our official tribute to Grueny, and I remember how nervous I was while putting it together. I called some of the biggest names in the comics industry to ask them to provide quotes for the piece, and the outpourings of affection and admiration for Mark were extremely touching. I remember how Mike Carlin, who had been Mark’s first assistant at Marvel and had become one of his closest friends, called from California, where he was on a business trip, just to leave me a message with his quote, so that he could be included in the tribute. To this day, that edition of “Bullpen Bulletins” is one of the things I’m most proud to have worked on.
And, to shift into a somewhat darkly humorous vein, I can now reveal that Grueny and I became close—very close, in fact—even after his death. You may recall that his ashes were sprinkled into the ink for the trade paperback collection of his SQUADRON SUPREME limited series. It was an idea that Mark would have loved—in fact, I think he may have suggested it while he was alive. As his wife Catherine had pointed out, it was often said about Mark that he really put himself into his work, and now that statement would be taken literally.
Tom Brevoort and I were the editors of the SQUADRON SUPREME trade paperback, and during the period in which we planning it out, and making the arrangements to put Mark’s ashes into the ink, Catherine Gruenwald dropped off the ashes in our office. The ashes were stored in a plain, black, plastic container. I felt that just wasn’t good enough for our man Grueny, so I took a color Xerox of a photo of Mark dressed up in a tuxedo (scroll all the way up and you’ll see it) and taped it to the side of the box so that anyone coming into the office would know what—would know who—was inside. And there the ashes sat, for a period of about three months. And each morning, I’d come in to the office, sit down at my desk, look at the box, and say, “Hi, Mark!” Ralph Macchio also joined in, often picking up the box and carrying on complete conversations with the remains of his old friend. Demented? Maybe. Funny? Definitely. And somewhere, Mark was watching it all and laughing up a storm. (By the way, Tom Brevoort still has the box in his office, and the photo of Mark that I taped to its side is still on it.)
I’ve written this particular column to do my part to keep Mark’s name alive, to give people who only knew him as a name in a comic book—or who didn’t know of him at all—at least a glimpse of the Mark Gruenwald that I knew. I still think of him very often, and I’d like to think that our burgeoning friendship would have only gotten stronger had he lived. It’s not often that you meet someone who can enrich as many lives as Grueny did. He certainly enriched mine.
© All content copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2011.