Creation In Comics
Mark’s brain was filled with ideas. He claimed that most of what he was writing in comics when I knew him, up to his death were ideas that he had when growing up. He dreamed up a lot of super powers. Mostly he had already made up what are now called story “arcs.”
Or, he wrote to a fairly specific purpose… such as when in college he got involved writing for the campus radio end of the theater department. Specifically to get several young ladies naked…
Concept Radio Theater… c. 1974– that’s Mark, in B&W and not much else, on the far left/right in a Ditko half crouch! Young lady and other fellah, unknown. Also an example of Mark’s abilities as a logo artist… not bad for a kid, but he only had that one style in his brain.
Mark created storylines that still resonate today— attempting to address some “real world” consequences of super-hero-ing such as the Hawkeye Limited Series, or the far-sighted Squadron Supreme and then, D.P. 7—easily the best of The New Universe’s “Lost Boys.”
New Universe’s best effort at ‘new.” I don’t recall if the series was ever collected in a trade paperback, it’s worth it to seek out the original books. All new super-powered people, all dreamed up at various times in Mark’s life, cherry-picked for this title. For those that don’t know, the New Universe books were an interesting experiment by E in C Jim Shooter, to “start over” with entirely creator-owned characters. There were huge pressures in and around the making of the books themselves, involving politics and money, and the entire line sort’a died on the vine. But D.P. 7 still stands out as the best and freshest ‘new’ comic at that point in time. Eminently readable and enjoyable to this day.
He wrote Captain America for just shy of 10 years, a massive accomplishment (not quite beating Stan’s run on Cap…). I must note that on his monthly desk calendar, at the bottom of April, 1976 is “”What If” comic as parallel earth”—this was not terribly long before the first What If was published in mid-77 (yes, he was living in Manhattan then and in regular touch with Roy Thomas, who wrote the first story…) All that on top of corralling and encouraging dozens of comic professionals within the office—feeding storylines and plot turns on an almost daily basis. Trying to codify how to do good and moreover, consistently good work, he organized and prepared a “curricula” of sorts for the Assistant Editors. Anything that smacked of a classroom at Marvel was anathema, but the need for some kind of standard was deemed useful. As disruptive to the assistants’ week of idly scratching as it might have been, I think I’ve heard several of them say it was worthwhile. Never mind his inventing a non-comic-book format that persists to this day: The Official Handbook Of The Marvel Universe. “OHOTMU” (go ahead say it, “Oh, hot moo,” Mark reveled in funny acronyms). Or, when speaking quickly, “MU!”
Mark never threw out any idea. He kept a Dream Diary, writing in it almost every morning upon waking. It is a hallucinogenic read, but every once in a great while, one’s name pops up… Mark said he got several plot ideas out it. He never seemed to have an idle moment—even watching TV shows was considered “work”—work which was debated, scheduled and watched with precision! Mark wrote up his daily activities on a large desk blotter-style calendar. (He did employ a variety of shorthand which changed and flowed—and sometimes is impossible to understand…) Mark was usually busy at something. His organizational passion kept him at various comic projects all the time.
Before MU was Contest of Champions. When Mark worked as Tom DeFalco’s assistant, he dreamed up a nightmare scenario of having a huge number of Marvel characters appear in a far-off arena. The particulars of this contest are not pertinent here, what is is that each character was penciled by the artist most closely associated with them! The whole page was drawn by yet someone else with “holes” left in it for the characters. This daffy organizational mud-hole was right where Mark lived! Most artists were delighted at not having to draw an entire book, what with its backgrounds and overall “acting” concerns. Drop in a super-hero doing whatever for a nice piece of change… okay!
This Limited Series was seen as a precursor to OHOTMU, but I say that was only for softening up the paper handlers upstairs. Mark pretty much had to convince everyone that these two projects were, indeed comic books. (Remember, next to Editors, the Marvel business infrastructure was filled with the most unimaginative people in the biz and when I say the “biz” I mean the industry.)
A story to that point revolves around the late Carol Kalish. She was a surprisingly powerful person in charge of selling all the books to distributors and retailers (soon made a Vice President of all that, much to Jim Shooter’s consternation as she was made VP before him). Her phone call could make a huge difference to who bought what, where. This was at a time when Marvel Comics pretty much sold everything it printed, but there could still be successes and failures, even if they were relative. The Marvel Universe was not a traditional comic book. Certainly not on the face of it: strange cover, stranger interior—no people running around in a story. The art was not quite “pin-ups” that were kind of stiff, formal like they were showing off their costume. And words… lots of words.
Carol was a huge comic person in her own right, she was a major collector whose inventory went back to Marvel #1. (–1938 (!)In the odd history of Marvel Comics, the first book was titled “Marvel” and soon after was changed to something else. This was a reflection of the complex lower-priced mail rates, which mandated the work-around of having different publishers creating different comic titles. Something to do with the presses needing something to print no matter what. I think. Better men than I have written about the “second-class mailing privileges” involved here. To wit:
Not just a comic fan’s book, a corking good read. This book could have been twice as long. Yes, I contributed to this one. Despite that you should pick this up!)
Ahem, so Carol was a big influence in comics and she didn’t seem to care much for MU, likening it to Contest of Champions. Now, to my understanding, it’s not that she didn’t like either title. It seems to me that she was merely trying to get the comic distributors to understand what this other book, MU, was like. But it was a bad call as, again to me, either book stood quite on its own. Introducing a man who needs no introduction: Peter David. Young Peter was Carol’s assistant back then (roughly 1983 or so). We now know him as a gifted writer/genius but back then he worked for Carol. Peter did this one good thing: when we had the first 20 pages of MU, Vol “A” completed, he cranked out copies and sent them off to the various distributors. He got in trouble for this with Carol; perhaps for going over her head. I know because my typesetter’s office was right around the corner from their offices—we all affected Wall Street hours back then and so in the relative quiet of 8AM, I could hear her yelling at poor Peter.
But Peter David is the Champion of Comics as far as we were concerned! Mark especially. We didn’t know Peter that well, but Mark’s tone of respect was unmistakable.
Let’s Talk OHOTMU
Mark had been organizing, collating, tabulating and cross-referencing comic characters and stories since his childhood.
The MU continuum is an interesting window on the “true” Mark Gru. Le’me explain… Mark liked lists and organization. He was a collector of things, not so much as them, themselves, but of their essence. Hence the ephemeral lists. It could be said he spent a leeetle bit too much time on such things…
This sort of multi-world weirdness is what intrigued and motivated Mark. This chart was made around the time of his first fanzine, Omniverse—perhaps 1976. So you see, he’d been warming up for OHOTMU for quite a while. Such an example of minutiae suggests Mark read a lot of comics already. A lot… okay; all of them! As well as books, movies… stuff!
This is not meant to address the question of who originated the idea of such a thing as OHOTMU. Remember, I was there but I wasn’t everywhere. I was not in Shooter’s office when the idea was floated. Pointing out that Contest of Champions or the diagram above came well before that meeting only suggests who said what first. For all I know, Jim could have said I need a sliding scale of super-hero strength. Perhaps Mark answered we need an encyclopedia of all the super-heroes! Or vice-versa… In my opinion, it was “time” for something like OHOTMU. What no one knew was that it would last this long, stay this strong as a brand.
©Marvel Entertainment, LLC
Okay, so here’s a typical page from #1. If you peruse the page you will immediately note a pleasing balance of art to text. All the information fits in a few paragraphs… Tersely written, dense but appealing– readable even!
©Marvel Entertainment, LLC
Jump ahead to MU#3 and here we see:
©Marvel Entertainment, LLC
Yeah… we went a little crazy. It seemed like there was a whole lot more that needed saying. I’m not even going beyond #3 as it got outright ridiculous. I think Captain America’s entry ran to two pages. (I’m afraid to look, might be three…) It was around this time that I fully exploited my typesetting computer’s ability to generate type to a tenth of a point size. For example, I didn’t have to settle for type that 10 points with 12 points of leading (which is the space figured out for the next line of type, it affects the look of the paragraph), I could have 7.3 on 7.7… yeah, that sounds about right for the average page around #8…
The first book took 6-7 weeks of hard labor. We knew the first book had to have the “look.” That took some time. To the best of my knowledge, it was Mike & Mark who designed that look. It stood the test of time and text inundation. But in that first month or so, we all went home, cooked our own food, slept in our own beds and brushed our own teeth… We also realized that had to end.
OHOTMU was a monthly. So if we took 7 weeks to do one book, we had to stuff that amount of work into oh, gee, 3.5 weeks (Shooter needed to go through everything and maybe make some changes). Then, as can be seen, when we started writing with our minds fixed on War And Peace, we had to stuff yet more time into ah, 4 weeks… ahh… 4.2 weeks… Truth be told, considering that a decade later, every book being “late” was normal, we never missed our deadline.
How did we do it?
Long Hours, No Showers!
Yep. Both Mike and I found that we could send in a time sheet that reflected the number of hours we spent working in the building. Mark, as an executive, could not. That is how I know that my record was a 153 hour “week.” But, Eliot, you may be thinking, there’s only 168 hours in a week! Yep, that means for 15 glorious hours I got home perhaps once or twice that week, did whatever mindless thing I did in my apartment (shower, change clothes) and returned to the office.
Alas, to quote my chum Mike, let no good deed go unpunished. By so doing that level of overtime salary compensation, it was decided that assistant editors were now to be considered “exempt employees.” This bit of obscure fiducial legalese means we were then considered able to understand the idea of selfless devotion and sacrifice for the good of the company. If, the JOB required that you stay an additional 3 hours that night, you did so with no thought of money in return!
Despite the fact that I here, now apologize to all my office mates who were thereafter damned to work for their base salaries and not one dime more, I do blame Barry Kaplan, Marvel’s Comptroller for being so cheap. I should point out that I don’t recall hearing of anyone in editorial putting in for overtime (Mike the only exception and only for his run on MU). And, when I was putting in for overtime, I was a part of Bullpen Production, as typesetter. Only after Tom DeFalco who stunned me (I mean tasered me) and had me step up from the muck and mire of production into the muck and mire of editorial, did it affect me.
It was Mark who had to walk the paperwork in and to Shooter’s credit it was he who had to fight the good fight upstairs. After all, it’s not as if we were getting paid for doing nothing. I later guessed that I was responsible for typesetting about 600,000 words. Up to #11 when I was tapped for editorial.
I have to point out that all those new executives were not given “executive” salaries. Nor was I. I believe my salary before was $15K and after promotion, $16K. In Manhattan, just enough to squeak by. Yes, I made some sweet overtime money and also did artwork – completely separate time. That just meant I could buy a second pair of pants, see movies and eat better take-out food when doing my overtime.
One illustrative moment occurred on Christmas Day, 1984. Mike, myself and Luke the Security Guard (lovely fellow, by the way—yet another unsung hero in the big story of Marvel) were in the office, on the phone with Mark. Mark and Belinda were in Oshkosh celebrating with Mark’s family. The three of us were using a speaker phone – the only one we could get to which, if memory serves, was up in reception on the 11th Flr—and Mike and I were taking down corrections. Again, if memory serves, Mike and I broke it up and left the building at about 2:30 in the afternoon, going to our respective houses of celebration. I remember being irritated and distracted during Mom’s Xmas Day meal, only because I needed to return to the office that night. Alas, I cannot recall whether Mike joined me; probably yes. The work was needed the following work week for final Shooter approval.
When Mark arrived in the office, that very work week day, I believe he had more corrections that he had unearthed while on the plane trip. All of Marvel Universe was that sort of carousel ride.
My typesetting office. When Mark realized that what he had available was what we now call a “word processor,” he loved using it. Of technical note: high-resolution type was photographically generated on long rolls of paper. There was a nicely engineered “x-ray plate processor” just behind Mark, that needed constant attention and cleaning to keep it going. At Mark’s left hand is a couple of boxes of 5-1/4” “floppy disks!” Not only did one have to store all work on those things… one had to make this hunk of junk a Frankensteinian monster into a word processor every time you turned it on. Yes, you had to install the Disk Operating System each and every time. Of further note and painful memory, that horrid monochrome amber screen… there are phones today that are close in size to that working area. If that were not bad enough, the characters on that screen had to fit on a grid—so there was no pre-visualizing of what you were outputting (no “what you see is what you get”).
Mid-winter, Febuary, 84, middle of the night. Jack Morelli wrapped in his Spider-Man sleeping bag. Mike Carlin (chopped off, I know I was laughing and standing on a chair for this shot) “going for his gat” (SCTV reference, mentioned in a previous post). By looking over the negs before and after, this was a weekend spent during a blizzard that shut down NYC. I also know it was about 1:30-2AM.
Doing all this work was an amazing experience. ‘Amazing’ in that we did it so gladly. Mark had a zealot’s passion in a comic-booky way I hasten to add. Mark was really easy to work with; Mike too. We three had already spent some late nights putting together his third Omniverse. He had wanted to redesign it, liked The Scientific American’s layout. So that’s what we did. Alas, I never got a “proof” set of Xeroxes and only really saw the boards I pasted up.
But after that we three—with the off-stage help of Peter Sanderson and verbally unchallenged Peter Gillis—launched into Marvel Universe. Roughly April/May of 1983. Now, Peter and Peter, as far as I could tell, were Mark’s secret weapon. Between them they remembered every miniscule detail of every comic ever printed. Worse, they were of the rigorous research background and felt that “mere” eidetic memory was not good enough. No, there must be proof! Individual panels must be called out, identified and annotated!
A point about Sanderson was that he had been hired by DC to read every book in their library (this was back in the early 80s, I think), in order to pick out merchandising opportunities. You might have a better image of Peter doing this if you picture a puppy with an old slipper. Gillis I know much less well, all I needed to know was that his family was responsible for inventing and perfecting lensatic art, an early form of “3D animated” art. His family home had a huge chunk of it devoted to the equipment with which to make those peculiar forms of artwork. And he had a book devoted to translating Egyptian hieroglyphs on his coffee table. So he was OK in my book.
As the workload increased, more and more researchers were brought on. But those guys set the standard. This remembrance isn’t really about me but this highlights something much harder to quantify about Mark and his comic co-conspirators. Anyone reading this might know that I was involved in MU as the “technical illustrator.” I drew up all the buildings, spaceships, guns, whacky gadgets, whatever was needed. Often, I would not know of something or where it came from. I read comics, sure, but not like those guys! I didn’t really appreciate that until, years later I worked on the Marvel Atlas (2007). The modern day researcher would chuck together a hugely inefficient pile of conflicting or weak imagery with no notes of any kind. I spent many frustrating hours/days staring at the pile until it gelled. Back in the day, I would be given a single panel that perfectly illustrated what a costume or weapon did. If they felt that more information was needed, I was called in and took some notes. On occasion, a second panel might be offered!
That’s how “on target” those fellows were.
Mark food (Gru Fuel) was air-popped popcorn. I always had sensitive teeth and could not enjoy this foodstuff while worrying about running into an unpopped kernel. Sharp-eyed comic enthusiasts will spot a toaster with the name “Rom” on it. The cylindrical gadget to image left is the hot-air popper.
This was the ‘high concept’ of the MU covers at one point. Not sure whose idea it was, but this high quality sketch was no doubt executed by Ed Hannigan, cover designer extraordinaire. I’m pretty certain this idea was never brought to fruition [can’t find a “final” on the net]. A cursory examination of any two printed covers of the first volume in alphabetical order will show the characters crossing between the adjacent edges. Of note is that this piece was at a point in time when the Books of The Dead and my own beloved Book of Weapons, Hardware and Paraphernalia, issues #13-15, were not at all certain!
Adding issue #6 (K-M –Kang to Man-Bull), you can see Jack Morelli assembling an in-progress version of the poster-to-be. Or so we thought at the time… This pic was taken during a late winter snow storm in 1984 when we all were “trapped” in the building for an entire “Marvel Universe” weekend.
On another long weekend, with the book done and on Shooter’s desk. But we stayed up to 4:30AM getting it there and were a little tired. But not tired enough to take a gag photo—probably because I’d brought my tripod in for something else. Any old Marvelite will remember that when we got our spiffy new reception area on 10, there was a built-in couch. That couch was made up of two custom cushions, seat and back. If you look carefully, Mike and I are on those. Mark got the couch that grasping over-lord! Of note is that we had to move furniture around to spread out on the floor, I am decorously draped in a ratty old plaid blanket from home and while we are definitely striking a pose—I could only do so much as the self-timer on my sweet old Nikon FM was mechanical and I had to hop lively to get over Mike and hit the deck. Also of note was that the building shut down the heat plant every work night at about 7PM, while they did turn it on for a little while on Saturday, come winter it could get mighty cold by 4:30AM! One winter was so bad, we slept inside the Xerox Room which was in the middle of the building and left the mighty Canon 7000 on all night.
I Want My MTV!
As I write this, I note that MTV is celebrating its 35th Anniversary… unsettling on many levels… but here, is what it meant to the OHOTMU gang! When Marvel moved from 575 Mad down to 387 Park, we got a whole new office. The suits got a whole new set of magnificent offices including a huge conference room! In that room was a locked cabinet that held a TV set! Attached to that set was a Manhattan Cable-TV switch box!!! Editor Mark could get the key… !
Of course, now every kid has a phone that can allow anyone to watch any recorded thing in the history of humanity! Back then we paid through the nose to watch 36 channels of whatever “They” felt like putting on. But for one shining moment… there was Music Tele-Vision… music videos… ! I mean they played music videos, never mind whatever it is the hell else they are doing now. And during lunches on the weekends, we could watch them. All 4 of them, over and over. No, I am not kidding, there were only 4. Sure that changed, but our work load increased to the point we had to quit having that kind of fun. As much fun as those videos were, I am still sick of Video Killed The Radio Star and You Better You Bet.
We-e-ell… I’m exaggerating a little. By 1983 we had a lot more videos to watch (above I am referring to the first year of MTV’s narrowcasting). Dolby’s Blinded Me With Science, anything by Devo (we scraped monies together and saw them in concert!) and anything by Talking Heads. One video hit Mark right between the eyes: Falco’s Amadeus! Especially the single with the English language drop-ins (“—1756 Salzberg, January 27, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is born—“ etc.!) But having MTV available made meals almost… normal. Just because we were up in “Executive Territory” at 2-in-the-morning didn’t bother us, we had our MTV!
Finding food at 2AM was made all the easier by having a Smiler’s just on the next block. We would troop in, gingerly stepping past the midnight people, hookers, transvestites, transvestite hookers and get our spicy chicken and macaroni and cheese. The fellow who ran it was a doctor from India whose license was not honored by immigration. He struggled for a while, only being able to find work at a 24-hour convenience store. I ran into him many years later at another Smiler’s and he remembered me without pause. At that point, which was about 2004 he owned 4 Smiler’s franchises… He had written a book about his experiences with the title “417.” That number being that Smiler’s street address just up the ave from 387. It seems it was possibly self-published, as I cannot find it online and I do not recall the fellow’s name.
Let me take you back to 1984. The movie adaptation of the wildly successful Broadway play “Amadeus” is released. Tim Hulce played Mozart. Marvel’s own Dave Wohl, at the time assistant to Howard Mackie (friend and crony to Mike and Mark, et al) had such a strong resemblance to Mr. Hulce that Dave to this day has the nickname, “Amadeus.” Because of that resemblance and owing to Mark playing Falco’s Amadeus over and over, Dave can also perform all the “drop-ins” in perfect synchrony to the song. No doubt still to this day. Go ahead, anyone, play the song near him and see what happens!
A hilarious set-up shot during one of the relatively rare times famous inker but less well-known fine arts painter, Joe Rubinstein, came in to deliver pages. I think this and the following were shot for Marvel Age, Marvel’s advertising organ. I may have suggested that Joe pick up that pencil to make some insightful points to Mark. Mark could just keep a straight face.
More staged photos. We never edited side-by-side or ever listened to anything Joe had to say. Of note is, pinned to the full-wall cork board a menu for Donut Faire. For a long time, that wonderful shop was located in the north corner of our building. A great variety of absolutely disgusting sugar-drenched sugar-bearing doughnuts. And some pretty good coffee.
OHOTMU #5 L-R: Mark Gruenwald, Belinda Glass (Mark’s then wife), Mike Carlin, Chris XXX (name eliminated to protect the innocent), Eliot Brown. As I recall this was at an almost human hour. Hence the presence of the ladies. Marvel’s offices were on 28th St., I lived up on 66th and the East Side, Gru lived up on 82nd on the West Side, Mike lived in southern Brooklyn—not too sure where Chris lived. Those two were dating and I think seriously, but soon not!
OHOTMU #5 complete! When we moved into 387 Park Avenue South, the architect had given us offices that had two outstanding things. Floor to ceiling windows on the interior facing walls. Floor to ceiling cork board on the non-exterior-window walls. That’s a lot of cork! The rolls were 8-feet tall and about 12-feet when unrolled. Thus there were no seams. We all disliked the giant windows and almost no one kept their curtains open. But Mark took to the cork with a will. Almost immediately, he put up a grid so that every page had a place. This way he and Mike could see what the status was of any page. Everybody else pinned in-progress, shrunk-down pages on the walls, but only Mark n Mike set up a whole, actual book layout.
It was Mark who assembled this never-to-be-done-again team of brilliant thinkers, workers and artisans. This was a point in Marvel’s and comics in general’s history where it was possible to drive forward such a project and pay for it. That was dumb luck or inspired genius on Mark’s part. I say genius. There were lots of people listed in the credits but it was Mark who was the lighthouse lamp in the dark.
End Part Four