Mark Gruenwald A Remembrance —
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—In No particular Order
Part The First
June 18, 1953—August 12, 1996
New York Times, Aug 14, 1996. The “E” was for Eugene, a name that Mark always laughed about having.
“There’s nothing funny about the funny book business. And when I say the ‘business’ I mean the industry.”
It’s hard for me to write about Mark. Hard to think of him as “gone.” Mostly because I spent so much time with him – and Marvel Universe alum, Mike Carlin – that it seems he is still here (and Mike is just in the next room… ). I visited Catherine Schuller-Gru (The Widow Gru!) in their Upper West Side apartment not long after his dying and scooped out some Gruenwaldian ashes into a handy yogurt container. Well, Mark ate a lot of yogurt. Townsend, his beloved cat, was still slouching around. I have that container down in the basement with me still and I talk to Mark regularly. (Don’t worry! He hasn’t answered back yet.) This ash retrieval was before the still-impressive “ashes in a printed comic” idea that was a request in his will.
This Aug. 12, is the 20th Anniversary of Mark’s “Death Day.” That’s a term he invented, by the way, and is a good an example of Mark’s powers of word play. Mark had many faces, many aspects to himself. He could have a terribly funny way of talking like a monotone robot, more rarely, as impassioned as any street orator. Mark was self-conscious about laughing, hearing his “real” laugh was always a treat because you knew his level of amusement was great enough to make him forget to do his “false” laugh.
“Grow a head, make my day…”
I would say Mark had a fairly “low” sense of humor, which is not to say he was not sophisticated. I had been on-staff at Marvel as a stat-camera operator for only a few weeks. I was far down the hall, Mark’s office was just at a turn in the hall that was occupied by an old-style IBM electro-photocopier machine. But it was a machine that I was familiar with from a previous job. When it needed a paper jam cleared, I was handy to do it quickly. It was fairly laborious though, this was before copy machines could use simple reams of paper; they used rolls (!), paper-paths were all over the place in those early machines and required one to get down on one’s haunches to find any scraps of paper.
In those days, I affected a workingman’s T-shirt and blue jeans which left me vulnerable to exposing the crack of my ass when I was on my haunches. Which was all Mark needed. I felt a pick-pocket’s stealth when a pencil was placed upright in said crack. A quick glance found Mark leaning in a doorway, looking on with an ear-to-ear grin and everyone else in attendance laughing hard.
Another Mark-definer was once, back at the old 575 Madison offices, the entire elevator was filled with no one else but Marvelites. What was special about this—one time!—was that 575 was “entertainment lawyer” central. There were many lawyers above and below who had many big clients (the stand-out for me was spotting a pretty good-looking gal dressed out of place; hair pulled back, white trench coat and flat shoes… my first glance triggered brain cells that told me, “Hey, that looks like Julie Newmar.” Which prompted the rest of me to turn and take a serious look—yep, Julie looking rather subdued but still spectacularly beautiful) clogging the elevators. Even though we were only on the 6th floor, we never rode without stopping several times. This time, there was no one else but us.
“At last,” I cried! “We can finally ride down without… sto… op… ping…” I was pressed against the doors but I could hear the familiar sound of the buttons being pushed. As I turned to look at the controls, there was Mark leaning against the wall—big smile in place. Of course he had pressed all the buttons. And we stopped on every floor down.
Mid-1983 Marvel Offices. One of Mark’s playful, crazier office antics: Shap Day! So named after Bullpenner Barry Shapiro. I think he was touched, as least I hope so. The name of the “nose and glasses” was officially “Beagle Puss.” That’s what it said on the package. Everyone in the office was given a pair. This picture here because Mark is in the elevator of 575 Madison Ave. (L-R: Me, Annie Nocenti, Joe Albelo, Mark Gruenwald, Roger Stern and Jack Morelli)
If you ever stopped in Mark’s office and asked if he had a moment to listen to an idea, he would say, “Grow a head, make my day.” A cute recasting of one of moviedom’s great quotes by Dirty Harry!
Hey, bud, let’s party!
For no good reason, Mark became enamored of an early Sean Penn’s performance as Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The TV advertising campaign was relentless in those pre-internet days. Penn’s affected, almost dream-like delivery of the line, “Hey, bud, let’s party!” landed inside Mark’s brain and stayed there. For years.
Soon it morphed into simply calling everyone “bud” and initiating most conversations with, “Hey, bud…” When one woman we knew (Karen Scheele, famous Marvel colorist Christie Scheele’s sister) revealed to us she managed to keep herself lathe-thin by eating baked potatoes for at least two out of three meals a day, bud became “spud.” Don’t ask me how, that was Mark’s creative brain, jumping around and making connections hither and thither.
Even today, I call many friends “spud.”
As I’ve said, Mark didn’t let loose with howls of laughter all that often. But when he did… One night the gang was out in New Jersey doing something with Ralph (longer story to follow). We stopped at a rest stop (“–have a nice rest!”) since I have a pathological aversion to public toilets, I waited outside. Soon, Mark’s near-hysterical gobbling laughter carried through the industrial doorway. Gasping for air he plunged outward and staggered against the wall, laughing still. Willing himself to speak and with a face of utter joy I’d not seen before, he told me what made him laugh so much. A bit of men’s stall doggerel, “Turds over 3 pounds must be lowered by rope! – Management.”
Yes, it still is amusing all these years later. But it is Mark’s reaction that makes it quietly hilarious in memory.
Another example was when, during a typical all-week-weekender Marvel Universe work-a-thon, Mike (Carlin) and I were drawn to their office by an inhuman howl of success! “I DID IT!” followed by the –rare—maniacal laughter. What had he done? He had been drinking quarts of orange juice and belching while “speaking.” All the while recording himself (on an old cassette tape recorder). What did he say? “Orca, dorca doo.” I know… doesn’t seem all that funny. But think, Mark’s fun-fascination with silly words like ‘orca’ and his odd-but-lovable affection for bodily eructations… No? Still not funny? Well picture it after sleeping for 4 hours on a couch cushion you pulled in from Marvel’s reception area and were trying to get some work done at 10 O’Clock in the morning… Now it’s funny!
Fart Humor is now relegated to “Dad Jokes” – the “pull my finger” standard– but one could get a smile out of Mark from the slightest fart joke or prank. I had a palm-of-the-hand over the mouth trick that rendered up a very credible fart noise. And one that could achieve a tune. That could get howls out of Mark. He loved (LOVED) whoopee cushions. Should have brought out his own brand. He often complained of not being able to find “good ones.” At his second wedding, he had his and his partner-in-crime bride’s face on whoopee cushions for every guest…
Spidey/Hulk from Treasury Edition #25, pg 19, © Marvel Entertainment, LLC
Okay, now that’s funny. Marvel’s Hulk Treasury Edition #25. Impeccable lettering by Jim Novak, who loved a lettering challenge. In this case, not laughing while lettering! Speaking of matters lettering, a name Mark enjoyed was lettering legend Janice Chiang’s, “It’s a name and a sound effect!” Yes, it was used… I think by Mark, possibly Mike Carlin. Spidey/Hulk from Treasury Edition #25, pg 19, © Marvel Entertainment, LLC
On rare occasions, Mark and I would talk women… As a list-maker and nascent order-ranker, before Marvel Universe was a soul-filling passion, women needed more detailed ordering. At least for purposes of conversation. One measure we worked on was the “Street Of Broken Glass Standard.” Would you crawl across a street of broken glass to—what? We never got that far, really. I guess to make some of those comic-pro moves one hears so much about (“I’m good friends with Stan Lee…”). Every female comic professional were ranked and ordered in every category you can imagine. And ladies, you were ALL on the list. No names; please don’t ask. One of his great female appreciation innovations was, “A face that could stop an atomic clock!” We also speculated that those little three-legged supports used for delivering pizzas—keeping the cardboard off the cheese—could also be used by large-busted women to keep the bottoms of their boobs off of tables. Always thinking, my old friend…
An oddity that may be specific to the Madison, Wisconsin region was referring to women’s breasts as “wobs.” Not just a funny word but fun to say.
“I’ll have the Slenderella.”
In the good old days, we did not enjoy expense accounts. Plus we generally could not justify ordinary meals out. So it was just us and our free-range wallets. Mark would sidle up to an external display of a menu and intone, “I see 12s and 15s…” and we would move on. “Greek Diners” were quite prevalent through New York City and certainly the areas around Marvel’s 575 Madison Ave and 387 Park Ave South offices. There we would find “—6s and 7s…” and in we would go. Mark was not exactly a vegetarian, he preferred the term “piscatarian.” “Feathers and fins” was the complete diet plus a lot of cheese.
The Slenderella appeared on pre-printed menus at several diners around 387. I believe I was with Mark when he first saw it and he found the name hilarious. He ordered it without finding out what was in it. Turns out there were a couple of styles. One was a turned-over can of tuna fish on a bed of lettuce. Another was a scoop of cottage cheese on a bed of lettuce. But anyone who spent any time with Mark would eventually see him happily order one.
“I don’t need a wheelchair, I use it for respect!”
–Guy Caballero, ostensible President of Second City TV, portrayed by Joe Flaherty
My vocal range was very close to good Mr. Flaherty’s and I could do a bang-up impression of Guy Caballero. That was another thing that could get Mark laughing. We all enjoyed SCTV and often integrated various catch-phrases and gestures into our every-day activities. Mark, Mike and capacious bibliophile, Peter Sanderson were all big fans. Thanks to Mark, somewhere buried deep in OHOTMU, is a perfectly reasonable use of ‘Guy Caballero’ as someone’s identity…
There was a silly courtroom trial where the SCTV gang portrayed gangsters. The man in the docket, when accused by the opposition lawyer, would lunge for his gat by reaching into his coat’s breast pocket. Of course the lawyer would lunge for his and ultimately, the jury would all lunge for theirs… great stuff. Mike Carlin to this day, even bedecked in a tasteful Hawaiian shirt, will lunge for his gat… Andrea Martin played a weird kid’s TV-show hostess with John Candy as her lumbering sidekick. She would break into song, mangling Hot Chocolate’s “I Believe In Miracles,” to “I believe in molecules…” Mark would croon that at random times.
One of the things I continue to lament over is what Mark would have made out of the modern day internet. Even the one of only 5-7 years ago. YouTube alone would have drawn him in. As it was, he gathered together the Marvel office crowd to shoot small videos. That time was after my on-staff time but not before…
Cheap Laffs—The Cable Comedy TV Show!
Mark’s childhood friend, Dave Lofver visited the Cheap Laffs set, Brooklyn, NY (ahem, Mike’s apartment and thanks to that rubber head, Mike’s not the low man on the totem pole!). ©Dave Lofver and used with no particular permission except that of our mutual love of an old friend!
End Part The First