One of the joys of having returned to the comics convention scene this fall was seeing old friends and industry comrades again after too many goddamn years – Walter and Louise Simonson, Marv Wolfman, Fabian Nicieza, Timothy Truman, Jim Salicrup, Dave Gibbons, Cat Staggs, and Jill Thompson, to name just a few – and to have a chance, at last, to meet, face-to-face for the very first time, a woman whom I’ve wanted to meet for a very long time, a woman of immense talent and of immense class…
The first time Gail and I communicated it was through Facebook, by which she reached out to me to apologize for all the press she was getting about her assignment to write Wonder Woman, i.e., “Wonder Woman Gets First Female Writer” and so forth, and that she wanted me to know that she kept trying to correct the press.
I said something like this: “But, Gail, if they print that, if they call you the second ongoing Wonder Woman writer, there’s no story.”
Of course, Gail went on to write one of the best ever run of the Amazon’s adventures.
Anyway, that led to Gail asking me to participate in her “Five Questions with…” site. Check it out. I just reread it – it’s one hell of an interview!
Gail and I continued to communicate via social media, but we still remained only “Facebook friends” until…
At this year’s NYCC, knowing Gail was there, I walked up and down the aisles until I finally found her booth. She was off at a panel, but I was determined to make time to at last meet one-on-one. So at timely intervals I kept walking over to her table – it was about the fourth time that I knew that she was back because the crowd and line around it snaked up and down the aisle. I stood off a little bit watching her talk to fans and sign her work until there was a (very) momentary break – I slid in, with apologies to the fans at the front of the line (“Justwant to say hello for a quick second”) – and felt like a complete idiot. I finally had a chance to meet Gail, and I was tongue-tied.
It felt like an eternity; but it was probably a maximum of three seconds, until I said, “Hi, Gail, it’s Mindy Newell.” (Like I was on the phone or something.) I think I stuck out my hand for a shake and said, “It’s so nice to finally meet you.”
She just stared at me. I thought I had done something wrong, so I think I said, “Well, I don’t want to hold anybody up,” and left.
Then, yesterday, I found this on my Facebook page:
It was lovely to meet the legendaryMindy Newellbriefly at my table at NYCC.
She’s the REAL first acknowledged writer of the Wonder Woman ongoing title
(something I get routinely, but incorrectly, credited as being).
She’s a huge inspiration and a lovely person, and when she came to meet me at my table I was too overwhelmed to do much more than just gasp out a hello.
But she’s a legend and I adore her!
Honestly, guys, the last thing I think of myself as is “legendary.” Legends in the comic books industry, to me, are people like Stan Lee, or Jack Kirby, or Steve Ditko. Or Neil Gaiman, or Marv Wolfman. Or George Pérez, or Alan Moore, or Karen Berger. (And yes, you, too, Mike Gold, as I kiss up to my editor here at ComicMix *smile*.) To me, it is absolutely incredible that I even know these people. Or worked with some of them. Or can call so many of them, and others, friends. Or that I knew and worked with Julie Schwartz, whom my daughter still remembers giving her pink sucking candies from the jar on his file cabinet in his office. Or Len Wein, who actually invited me to a poker game where sat around the table people who had only been names on a splash page before. Or Mark Gruenwald, who always made me laugh and actually hired me to work at Marvel.
I’ll tell you a secret.
Sometimes I feel like a fake. A fool. An illusionist.
Someone who didn’t try hard enough. Someone who gave up too easily.
Yeah, it’s easy to say, “I suffered, and still do, from chronic depression syndrome.” It’s easy to say, “I had a daughter to raise.” It’s easy to say, “I needed a job with benefits and a regular paycheck.” It’s easy to say, “I didn’t have any support.”
One of the most frustrating things to learn when you’re trying to break into the comics business is that you can be doing everything right – you can be skilled in your craft, pro-level, ready to go, with genuine audience pleasing work – and you still don’t get the job.
Even more, you can go back, show the same work again, get an even better response to it – and you still don’t get the job.
Let me offer myself as an example.
1989. Summer. Batman had been in theaters for six weeks and I was at the San Diego Comic-Con. My first, their 20th. I was 20, so it seemed fair. The show was still in what they now call the San Diego Concourse, with the Masquerade in the Civic Theatre, and it was the biggest convention I’d ever seen, bigger than all the New York shows I’d been to – why, there were eleven thousand people there!
(We pause for a moment of laughter – nowadays, that’s the line for Hall H. Onward.)
And there was a panel there called (more or less) “The Mighty Marvel Pitch Session.” You would get up on stage and pitch your plot to Executive Editor Mark Gruenwald and Historian / Archivist Peter Sanderson, who would listen and critique you to the audience, and give you a thumbs up or thumbs down. I went. And I had nothing, really, except for a She-Hulk story that I’d written up and mailed to editor Bobbie Chase in the wake of John Byrne’s leaving the book, who rejected it.
Heck, I didn’t even have a copy of the plot, just the memory of it. But it was what I had. And so I went up, to face the judgment of the duo doing Siskel & Ebert.
I don’t have the space here to recap the plot, but trust me: I killed.
The audience was laughing hysterically at all the right places, and Mark and Peter were right along with them. By the time I got to the point where She-Hulk was arguing with the new voice in the narration box, wanting to talk to Byrne, and the narrator explaining Byrne wasn’t there because he wanted to have She-Hulk shave her legs with her heat vision –
“ – I don’t have heat vision!”
“Yeah, we know. Messy, ain’t it?”
Mark turned into the gale force of crowd laughter, exclaiming, “Does everyone know this story???”
I finished the story to rapturous applause, and got the only double thumbs up of the panel.
Afterwards, Mark came up to me. “That was a great story! Why don’t you submit it?”
“I did. It was rejected.”
“Really? Who did you send it to?”
“Hmm. That’s weird. Why don’t you send it to me, and I’ll bring it over to Bobbie and see what’s going on with it?”
An invite to submit a story to Marvel? To the Executive Editor who already likes your story? “Yes, sir, I’ll send you a copy as soon as I get back to New York!”
And so I sent it off, and waited.
I waited through August, and just as I was packing up to head back to my Junior year of college, I got a reply – which I just found this weekend in my files and reproduce for you here.
Good story, amusing story – just not usable anymore.
By that time, school had started up again, and I got busy and didn’t end up pitching again – you know, just got caught up, had to finish school, had to pay the bills, had to move, yadda yadda yadda. My next time writing Marvel characters would be almost seven years later in a prose anthology, The Ultimate X-Men.
So, is there a moral here?
Yes, and it’s this: Don’t give up.
Every writing manual tells you not to get discouraged, just keep at it, and eventually it’ll break for you.
And it will, but it does take effort. It takes time to find a voice, a groove, a point of view. The only thing that moves that process along is output.
And even when you’re ready – the shot may not be there. Even crazier: the shot you take may miss.
And that’s okay.
Don’t take it personally.
There will be other chances, other places, other things that inspire you to create.
But also, this: Talent and skill does not necessarily correlate to career opportunity.
That’s a tougher one to handle; realizing that no matter how good or bad you are, your career will hinge to a completely unknowable level on blind luck and happenstance.
But that’s okay too.
Because then when you realize it, all you have to do is put yourself out there, and all you have to be… is ready.
Even though it’s Independence Day today, I am going to talk about Flag Day. It was a couple of weeks ago, and on that day Geek Culture paused to remember the passing of a favorite son. It was a day to celebrate the legacy of Mark Gruenwald, taken away too early twenty years ago. And for a guy who loved Captain America, it was fitting that his birthday was on Flag Day.
Catherine Schuller organized a wonderful tribute to her late husband celebrating the passion and humor with which he lived his life. By just looking at the crowd in the funky New York City club where it was held, you could tell his passion was infectious and long lasting.
My first exposure to Mark Gruenwald came from his visionary fanzine. Omniverse was published long before the Internet provided an infinite number of virtual spots for fans to gather together to deeply discuss various aspects of their fandoms. The fanzine explored comic continuity (i.e., the internal mythology) in a detailed way that so many fanboys, myself included, had only wished existed. It was exciting and fun and thoughtful and invigorating!
Mark’s work on fanzines would lead to a long career at Marvel. He loved creating, writing, and editing stories. He got the chance to do those very things while at Marvel. After debuting on Spider-Woman, he enjoyed a long, groundbreaking run on Captain America, explored group dynamics with The Squadron Supreme mini-series and shepherded Quasar’s series from start to finish.
I attended this tribute event with my local friends Scott Kearny (Hero Cam) and Patrick Riley (The Adventures of Electrolyte), but there really was an impressive assembly of comic creators including Denny O’Neil, Tom Palmer, Fabian Nicieza, Danny Fingeroth and more.
Highlights of the event included a Captain America shield cake courtesy of the Cake Boss, DJ’s, dancers, photographers, an art exhibit and a unique type of autographed mini-posters. Limited quantities of these mini-posters are still available for sale and proceeds go to the scholarship fund. (Fans can contact Catherine here.)
One of the high points was when Mark’s daughter, cosplaying as Dazzler, took the stage with her stepmother Catherine Schuller.
Several comic luminaries spoke, each with their own take on this creator.
Tom Brevoort, currently Marvel’s executive editor, spoke with great humility. Even though he is a man of great accomplishments within the industry, he let it be known that he felt honored to be speaking amongst the other professionals at this tribute. Tom went on to provide great insights into the authenticity of Mark Gruenwald’s professional career.
Tom DeFalco talked about Gruenwald’s famous practical jokes, while Bob Budiansky and Elliot Brown talked about the extreme measures that Gruenwald would take to deal with corporate deadlines. Brown painted a picture of Mark as a cross between M*A*S*H’s Hawkeye Pierce and Groucho Marx. With great affection, Carl Potts also shared a few stories about all the practical jokes.
In his tribute, Denny O’ Neil explored what makes a legacy. In a very moving remembrance, the noted writer talked about the enjoyment of blazing new creative paths with Gruenwald and the respect he had for the Gruenwald’s “big shoulders”, i.e. the responsibility he would assume, even when it was unpleasant.
O’Neil revealed that one creative endeavor they were pursuing was actually experiencing strong negative criticism within the company. Interestingly, Gruenwald had protected O’Neil from it in order that “Denny could do his job,” unencumbered by these slings and arrows. Denny O’Neil also revealed that if the roles were reversed, he wasn’t sure he’d have the fortitude to protect Gruenwald in the same way.
Brevoort had an excellent observation. He pointed out that in old Bullpen Bulletins editorial pages Stan Lee was able to paint a picture of a fictional reality where a bunch of zany creators collaborated in a bullpen, making Marvel Comics with madcap fun. In reality, that was not the way it was in most cases.
But during his tenure at Marvel, Mark Gruenwald was an example of that fiction come to life. He was zany and madcap and mischievous. Despite the fact that this is an industry filled with so many introverts, folks loved this fiction and loved being a part of the culture that Gruenwald was bringing to life.
Catherine Schuller is an entertaining woman who clearly still has deep affection and love for her deceased husband. She was able to create an event that was respectful and outrageously loopy at the same time. And it all reminded us how lucky we were to have known Mark Gruenwald, or at least his work.
Mark was a visionary, and his quote from an old issue of Amazing Heroes magazine about a John Walker (a Marvel Character first called The Super-Patriot and later U.S. Agent) could easily apply today’s politics:
“He believes the American Dream is to make a mint and then retire. He says, “Yeah, I’m looking after number one. Why is my country so good? Because it’s given me the opportunity to make a lot of money. That is it’s [the American Dream’s] corrupted essence.”
As part of my ongoing series exploring today’s creators’ reactions to their comic creations’ successful crossovers into other media, this week I reached out to Steven Grant. His impressive career includes reviving Marvel’s The Punisher, creating characters like Whisper and writing the long running comics industry column, Permanent Damage.
Ed Catto: Your 2 Guns comic was a hit movie in 2013. Can you tell us a little about the process of bringing your comic to the movies, from your perspective as the writer?
Steven Grant: Getting a film made from a comic is generally a much longer and more arduous process than most people seem to think. I wrote 2 Guns somewhere between 1998 and 2001, and I had the idea for it much earlier than that. I’d tried selling it for years to various comics publishers, but selling a straight crime comic with no other genre aspirations is a very difficult thing. Finally I had a lull in my schedule and just didn’t want to let go of the notion, so I wrote it anyway. It took a long time. Still couldn’t sell it.
Finally, around 2006, Ross Richie, who I’d known for years, launched Boom! Studios, and he asked if he could publish it, though he couldn’t pay me for it at the time. I wasn’t doing anything else with it, so I said sure. I wanted to see it in print. It was published in 2007. This was right at the time Hollywood started paying a lot of attention to anything published in comics, and Hollywood was somewhat more open to the material – once it had seen print. Prior to that, I’d never been able to rouse any Hollywood interest in the story either, and I had tried – than comics was.
I wasn’t actively involved in any of this, but Ross kept me regularly apprised. Interest grew, studios got involved. I’m told there was something of a bidding war between Fox Atomic – I think it was Fox Atomic, it was one of the Fox sub-brands of the day – and Universal that Universal won, then the person who was involved in that at Fox ended up at Universal so everyone was happy. But even something like that doesn’t guarantee a movie.
A Hollywood deal is basically an unsecured promissory note. Putting a movie together these days is a complicated game requiring the right assemblage of what are now called “elements”: concept, a good production company (established track record preferred), a script by preferably a studio-approved screenwriter that’s good and interesting enough to attract actors with a reputation for “opening” a film (i.e. selling a lot of tickets the first weekend).
Prior to founding Boom! Ross had spent several years working in Hollywood and studying the mechanics, so with some help he was able to navigate the waters. Even at that, the script, cast and crew went through several iterations, and the studio came close to dropping the project a couple of times for Hollywood reasons that had nothing to do with the project itself. Things are always touch and go in Hollywood, even after filming starts.
I think ultimately that 2 Guns got made – and I’m not trying to diminish the many people who worked diligently throughout, like Adam Siegel and Marc Platt of the Marc Platt Co., our production company, who like Ross were also key and ceaseless champions of the project – came down to Mark Wahlberg, who we were lucky enough to land in one of the key roles and who made it his mission to get the film made, bringing in both additional financing when some of our financing fell through (also an incredibly common occurrence in Hollywood) and the wonderful Baltasar Kormákur when the previous director bailed. Baltasar brought such a great visual and stylistic tone to the film. It finally filmed in 2012, four years after the “bidding war,” and hit theaters a little more than a year after that. Trust me, if you’re invested in a film project based on your project, invest in a lot of Maalox because it’s a very bumpy road, and the road to 2 Guns was smoother than a lot of them.
EC: When you saw the movie, were you happy the finished product?
SG: I love the film, but why wouldn’t I? From the beginning, Ross, Adam and screenwriter Blake Masters, who’s a great guy, by the way, were determined to stick as close spiritually to the material as possible. There were changes of course, but you can do so much more in a film than you can on the comics page that I’d’ve been pretty disappointed if they’d stuck strictly to what’s in the book. I do think they kept everything that was important in and to the story. Blake in particular (and Baltasar later) picked up on 2 Guns being a very deadpan comedy. That’s how I always thought of it. Ross and I would have long arguments about that, but I wrote it so of course I was right. I think Blake did a wonderful job. Like I said, I love the film, and considering how many comics guys crab about what Hollywood did to their work, I can’t tell you how happy I am to be able to say that. I didn’t see the film until the premiere, and was terrified I’d have to lie my ass off about liking it afterwards, but thankfully it never came to that. I not only love the film and still find it tremendously watchable, I like their ending better than mine.
EC: In the ‘90s you created a character called X for Dark Horse Comics. What sparked the creation of that character?
SG: I didn’t create X. For several years, Dark Horse had been quietly developing a superhero universe concept in house, and X was one of their linchpin characters. What happened was a guy named Jonathan Peterson was an editor at DC and asked me to write some Deathstroke issues for him, then I started doing other work for him as well. DC was big into “reimagining” old characters, and they had one called Americommando in the ‘40s that I thought was both one of the greatest and worst names in the history of comics, so I created a political thriller concept around it that was probably a bit more left-wing than DC would’ve been comfortable with.
Then Jonathan left and, as is often the case, the projects he’d been setting up, including several of mine, evaporated. I retooled the concept, retitled it Patriot X and pitched it to Dark Horse, which had recently picked up the Badlands project I’d started at Vortex Comics before they hit the skids. Mike Richardson really liked the Patriot X concept, but asked if I could name it something else because they had this character X they were doing for their superhero universe. So I retitled that project Enemy, then Mike asked me to write X as well.
EC: I always remember X being called “the Batman from Hell.” Was that a fair assessment?
SG: Sort of. I didn’t create X but I did kind of recreate it. Their original concept for the character was – and this is badly bowdlerizing it into convenient shorthand – Batman dressed as a Mexican wrestler. I tuned him up into the relentless, fixated psychopath of the first X series. I don’t recall whether the “Zorro” gimmick – one strike as a warning, the second strike (completing the X) as death sentence – originated with me or with Mike, Randy Stradley and Chris Warner, the original architects of the character. Anyway, yes, Batman was key to their conceptualization of the character, but I tried my best to keep specific parallels to Batman beyond the unavoidable out of it.
EC: At one point it looked like X was headed to the Fox Network for a TV series. Can you fill us in on what happened and what where your reactions to that then?
SG: If X was ever a Fox pilot, I never heard about it. They were trying to get it done as a film for a while that I wrote a very bad screenplay for (I really didn’t know what I was doing at the time) that was quickly trashed. You might be thinking of Enemy. David Goyer and Columbia approached Dark Horse about getting the rights for a potential TV series after the book came out. I think it might’ve been David’s first producing job, whereas previously he’d just been a screenwriter. I could be misremembering. Mike was involved too as an executive producer, since he’d already had The Mask as a TV series. They pitched it to Fox, which paid for the pilot. I’ve seen it; I’ve got a copy around here someplace I’m not supposed to have. It’s okay. I’m not sure what happened. I know it was on Fox’s schedule for at least a few days prior to them announcing the schedule, but when they announced it wasn’t. I’ve heard various explanations from different people. It basically boils down to “It’s Hollywood.” Things are go, then they’re suddenly not go. Nothing’s real until it’s real.
Of course, I was thrilled they wanted to make a series. I had nothing more I especially wanted to do with the character. It was one of the first times I thought completely in terms of the story rather than a franchise, so a TV show meant I could make lots of money from it and they’d be the ones worrying about a franchise.
I doubt I’d’ve been very involved in it. Network TV didn’t pay much upfront then – not sure what the terms are these days but I doubt they’ve changed much – then you get a little chunk of change for every episode that airs (with some restrictions I forget), but as creator you don’t make a lot of money until the show goes into syndication, meaning it had to stick around for five to seven years, which are slightly better odds than winning the lottery, but not by a lot. But I would’ve liked to have seen it on TV in any case.
As it turns out, Mike and I have recently been in discussion and I’m probably bringing back Enemy at Dark Horse next year.
EC: You also created the Marvel super heroine, Mockingbird. What’s the ‘secret origin’ behind her creation?
SG: That was one of my early on things, when I first arrived at Marvel. When you go to a company like Marvel, everything’s niched. It’s very difficult to find something to put your stamp on. I wanted my own characters to play with, and to do that I had to create them. Mark Gruenwald, who I quickly became friends with because we both originated in Wisconsin, was assistant editor of Marvel Team-Up at the time – that book jumped back and forth between editors like crazy, if I remember correctly – got me assigned a bunch of fill-in issues. Marvel traditionally struggled with deadline problems, so they regularly assigned fill-in issues. I couldn’t get a regular book there but fill-ins kept me alive and taught me versatility, if nothing else.
Mark and I concocted a mini-series within Marvel Team-Up (which largely specialized in isolated stories) set in Los Angeles, and to wrap up that arc. Influenced by the mid-‘70s House investigations of illegal activities by the CIA, I’d pushed several times without success for a Nick Fury Vs. SHIELD idea, and wanted to incorporate that in a story suggesting SHIELD might not be quite the good guys they’d been made out to be. Despite my own failure, this obviously wormed its way into the creative psyche up there, as Nick Fury Vs. SHIELD was done some time after I was mostly divorced from the company.
I’d run across the Huntress character who’d briefly appeared in a Marvel magazine, but by then DC had a character named The Huntress, so Mark and I rechristened her Mockingbird and I retooled her shtick into something I could work with. The main response was fan outrage that Marvel Team-Up had debuted a character rather than team Spider-Man up with an existing one.
EC: I’m anxious to hear your reactions to seeing Mockingbird on the television show, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
SG: I’ve only seen the first couple episodes she was in – I have the rest on DVR but haven’t had time to watch – but loved her first appearance. Adrienne Palicki works fine in the part, and I thought the shtick was great, very much in keeping with the espionage angle I always wanted for her that Marvel had mostly abandoned. I take it all as vindication, especially if ABC puts her in her own series, which I understand is still a strong possibility.
A funny thing: when I created Mockingbird, I came up with the interlocking staves as her key weapons that could be used in various ways: individually as two-fisted clubs, as climbing picks, locked together as a vaulting pole, etc. I can’t swear by it but don’t recall that being a thing before her.
Now Mark, at heart, was always a DC Comics fan first, and had this dream of creating a Marvel Comics analog of The Justice League. In that scenario, he envisioned Mockingbird as Marvel’s Black Canary, and hooked her up with Hawkeye (Marvel’s Green Arrow) at the first opportunity. I don’t especially like the whole concept of analogue characters (re: X) and tried to keep away from it. So a TV version of the Black Canary shows up on the second season of Arrow, and what do I see? Her key weapons are interlock staves that can be used in various ways: individually as two-fisted clubs, etc… They lifted Mockingbird’s bit and gave it to the Black Canary. Full circle.
EC: Gerry Conway has detailed his frustrations with the corporate policies dictating recognition and compensation for characters he created for DC Comics. Can you reveal your own experiences, specifically as they relate to the Mockingbird character?
SG: They were nice enough to start crediting me on every episode she’s in, though they kindly don’t mention what anyone’s credited for. I haven’t seen any checks yet. Those are my experiences so far. We’ll see what happens. But I don’t question that Marvel/Disney own the character. I’m not sure yet what their policy on these things is.
EC: Do you feel today’s creators are better prepared to deal with creation of their characters and their possible success in other media?
SG: Probably not, unless they’ve had a lot of personal experience. I’ve noticed by and large comics talent all think they’ll be the exceptions, and don’t seem to get what a minefield media is. It can be navigated but in general it’s all hard choices and risk, and most don’t understand the process and have wildly unrealistic expectations to both extremes.
I’m not suggesting people should start out cynical – that’s as good a way to kill of good opportunities as any – but it pays to educate yourself on the risks and pitfalls, and find out how things are really done rather than swallow the snake oil usually peddled as “how Hollywood [or anything, really] works.” A good education in the workings of whatever field and realistic expectations are the best shields against disappointment and bitterness anyone can get, and the best ways to increase the odds of success.
EC: Great insights and stories. Thanks for your time, Steven.