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.
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.”