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Back in the spring of 1987, I received a call from Jim Salicrup, my editor over at Marvel Age Magazine, for whom I’d been doing a monthly feature for a number of years already at that point. He informed me that Marvel was going to include the fan-friendly promo publication amongst that summer’s roster of Annuals, and he had a swell idea as to how to not only promote the line’s upcoming books, but to entertain the readers in the process: he wanted me to expand my “Fred Hembeck Show” schtick that I’d been doing upon occasion over an entire double-sized issue!

The concept was this: Cartoon Fred would come out on stage at this mock late-night chat-fest, welcoming all the biggies (i.e., characters with their own ongoing titles) onto the couch one page at a time. There’d be some (hopefully) comedic banter, and then, in tried and true talk show tradition, I’d direct the audience towards the clip our guests inevitably brought along. In this case, that meant each alternating page in this book was handled by the costumed do-gooders current creative teams, showcasing the near future plans slated for such mainstays as Spider-Man, Thor, and the Avengers.

It was an inspired notion, and despite the fact that I had little over a month to write, draw and letter (and you betcha by golly, there sure was a WHOLE lotta lettering!…) nearly twenty pages, it was one of the most fun things I’ve ever been assigned to do in comics. Naturally, cranking out the set-up material at such a hasty pace, I didn’t have time (nor really, any need, since Cartoon Fred got to play the smoozing host who loves EVERYTHING, no matter what you put in front of him!…) to co-ordinate any of my intros with the folks who were actually in charge of this impressive parade of iconic Marvel characters.

With one exception.

Mark Gruenwald.

Truth is, he was the one who called me. Neither of us could’ve imagined at the time that he was merely at the comparative outset of an epic decade-plus long run scripting Captain America (1985-1995, issues 307 through 443, save for 423), but it was a task for which his enthusiasm apparently never wavered, and that was especially true for what he had prepared for the then immediate future. Only, he felt that the upcoming events in the Star-Spangled Avenger’s life needed a little more oomph than my (by necessity) generic, already completed introduction provided. So he suggested that I take a few further panels on top of the page entrusted to him (and artists Tom Morgan and Joe Sinnott) to really get across the title’s exciting new direction.

This is what it looked like…

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Unfortunately, despite his near omnipresence at Marvel for nearly twenty years, that was the only time I ever worked with Mark Gruenwald (unless you count the fact that he’d done some production work for his friend, Dean Mullaney of Eclipse - color separations, mainly - on my first published collection, Hembeck: The Best of Dateline:@#$% back in the late seventies). We’d met up at conventions and parties on several occasions, but as I was never a regular New York City denizen, those brief encounters were few and fleeting. Still, he always seemed like a nice enough guy, and his going the extra mile to promote Cap’s book - and eagerly buying into the whole faux talk show conceit - really impressed me. It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, though - I’d long been a fan of his writing.

Now, some folks would tell you that Mark’s dialog wasn’t the best, and yeah, there were clunkers to be found lurking in his plentiful fully loaded balloons, but that always seemed a minor quibble at best to me. Y’see, there were always more ideas to be found in a single issue of a Gruenwald book than could oft times be detected in a full year’s worth of work from other, more ear-pleasingly glib, writers. And I’m not just talking about the nuts and bolts of the menace of the month - I was always impressed by the way Mark slowly but surely brought along the personalities of his always bountiful casts, having them interact in a surprising yet clearly logical manner. That above all is what I treasured about a Gruenwald penned episode - you could never quite predict where it was going, but it always made sense in getting there - and was true to the characters as established to boot. Little wonder then that far above anything else produced under the aegis of the regrettable New Universe experiment, Mark (and artists Paul Ryan’s) 32 issues (plus one Annual) of D.P.7 shines like a bright beacon of success amidst a gloomy cloud of failure.

And in the early nineties, when Marvel was cranking out books like sausages - bad sausages - and I was still on the freebie list, there were only four regular books I could stomach reading. Two were by Mark: Captain America, natch, and his 59 (of 60) issues of Quasar. (To stave off your curiosity, the other two were Walt Simonson’s F.F. and Peter David’s Hulk.) I always felt Mark’s books (save for the landmark 12 issue Squadron Supreme limited series) never quite got the props they truly deserved. Partially that had to do with the fact that Mark was usually paired up with solid, professional - but rarely flashy - artists, and partially because readers needed to immerse themselves in these continuing sagas to fully appreciate the thought and skill Gruenwald invested into his writing. Too bad. I have nothing but fond memories of his work.

Mark Gruenwald, as you probably know, passed away unexpectedly in August of 1996. Obviously, that was a great loss for everyone - his fans, the comics field, and most especially his family. Like I said, I barely knew the man, but if I can’t be counted among his personal friends, let me at least be happily identified as one his biggest fans.

The reason this all came to mind, oddly enough, was due to my MySpace page. I generally double post anything I write over there on my own Fred Sez blog. The advantage the MySpace page has is the ability for readers to leave their own pithy comments under my ramblings. Last week, in a brief posting pointing folks to the previous edition of “The Fred Hembeck Show”, the aforementioned Jim Salicrup, as well as an Italian fan by the name of Max Brigel, both chipped in their two cents, and after seeing himself sharing space with Jim and I, Max came back with this brief note…

Nice! Now, with you and Jim Salicrup, I’m almost on a Marvel Age page!! Ahh, those were the times…

Friend Max, it turned out, had good reason to wax nostalgic over the sadly long defunct Marvel Age, as he explained with his next posting…

Well, since I owe my career to the late great Mark Gruenwald I completely agree with that! I’ll tell you the story… because I didn’t have the chance to write it down anywhere last month, in the 10th anniversary of Gru’s passing.In 1990, I was only a fan of Marvel Comics (now I work for Panini Comics, which reprints Marvel for Italy/France/Germany/Brasil/Spain) and decided to check their boot at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. Lo and behold: the great Gru was there, and when I saw him I couldn’t resist asking the hostess if I could speak a minute with him. Only later I discovered we were both born on the 18th of June (ditto for Alan Davis and Paul McCartney), so maybe there was a weird connection between us, but in 1990 I only exploited my knowledge of Marvel Comics.I remember pointing at him, even when I was speaking to the hostess, and he noticed, and asked me to sit in the Marvel booth so we could speak everything Marvel. And so we did for a few minutes (15? Maybe more…), but he didn’t mind answering all of my questions. If I had had more of them, he would’ve answered more: he was kindness! Then I thanked him and got back home with a precious knowledge of Marvel’s next moves.

A few days later I went to my comic shop and spoke freely to the people there about my encounter with Mark Gruenwald… “Why don’t you write it down? We’re printing a fanzine next month and your ‘interview’ will be priceless!” they told me. No sooner said than done, I rushed home and wrote everything with a pen (using my memory too) on a piece of paper: I didn’t have a computer back then!

The “interview” was indeed printed in the fanzine (”Glamazonia”) and I was so proud of it I decided to send a copy to an Italian editor of Marvel Comics (Luca Scatasta), just to thank him for his great work. When Glamazonia arrived in his bullpen, it created quite a sensation, and everyone started to remember my name: “He’s a letter hacker!” said the editor-in-chief, “He’s buying comics in the comic book shop where I used to work” said the secretary. You see: they needed another freelance editor because Luca Scatasta was only very part-time at the moment, and they decided to interview me.

The interview went very well, and so my first articles and editing job (basically I edited a couple of translations of Wolverine issues)… In short, I got my very first freelance job! And it was only the beginning of a (so far) amazing experience in Marvel editing which started in 1990 thanks to the great man I discovered with “Mark’s remarks” in Marvel Age!Two or three years after that meeting (dated 7th April 1990, as I recently discovered), I had the incredible honor to start editing the translations of every single Captain America Mark G. wrote! I also wrote cliff notes on characters he would have surely appreciated!

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This in turn inspired Jim Salicrup to share the following…

Well, this will be the longest comment ever on Fred’s MySpace page…First, here’s something I wrote for the latest issue of MoCCAzine, the newsletter for the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (www.moccany.org):“MoCCA Remembers Mark Gruenwald

“Peter Sanderson’s MoCCA Monday lectures on 1986: The Year That Changed Comics are incredibly insightful examinations of key important and influential comics and graphic novels. But Peter’s August 7th talk was extra special, and no, it’s not because Peter raced through his in-depth analysis of Marvel’s Squadron Supreme limited series in Speed Demon fashion (clocking in at a little over fifteen minutes compared to his usual norm of roughly two hours). What made this particular MoCCA Monday unique was that Peter had gathered together a group of special guests to talk about Squadron Supreme writer Mark Gruenwald, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Mark’s death. Remarkably, this wasn’t the first time Mark’s death has been tied to the Squadron Supreme, as some of Mark’s ashes were actually blended in with the ink used to print the first trade paperback collection edition.“Speaking before the standing-room-only crowd, guests included Catherine Schuller, Mark’s widow, who read movingly from a eulogy Mark had written for himself years before he died, and Sara Gruenwald, Mark’s daughter who announced she has, despite her father’s advice, recently published comics of her own. Many of Mark’s co-workers were present and shared their favorite memories of Mark. Mike Carlin, Jim Salicrup, Glenn Herdling, Glen Greenberg, Tom Palmer, Carl Potts, and Tom DeFalco all spoke of Mark’s humor, practical jokes, and love of comics. Also in attendance were several of the current writers of Mark’s creation, The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, one of whom spoke and told of Mark’s impact on his generation of comics fans and professionals.“Videos of Mark’s convention appearances and Bullpen hi-jinks were shown, and to conclude the formal proceedings, a friend Henry O, performed one of Mark’s favorite Beatles songs, ‘In My Life.’ The guests and audience members, including many comics industry professionals such as Bob Budiansky, Renee Witterstaetter, Ken Lopez, and many others, all then got to mingle, enjoy refreshments, and continue to share their memories of the clearly much-loved Mark Gruenwald. Despite the potential of such an event turning into a very sad occasion, the mood was upbeat and fun the entire evening, making for a truly memorable MoCCA Monday.”And, if that wasn’t enough, here’s what I said at MoCCA that night…

“A Few Words About Mark Gruenwald

“Asking me to say a few words about anything is often futile, as I tend to go on endlessly about almost anything. And when it comes to Mark Gruenwald, I’m sure I could write a monthly ongoing solo comicbook series, as well as an ongoing team-up title. But tonight, I’ll give it my best shot to be somewhat restrained.

“Like most people I liked Mark as soon as I met him. His unique sense of humor and passion for comics was infectious. He was sort of combination of Bill Murray and Jack Nicholson - the bad boy with that endearing twinkle in his eye. In the time I knew Mark, we went from being the young fans that were breaking into comics to becoming what they like call ‘comics veterans.’ We went from being very close friends to colleagues with a tremendous amount of mutual respect.

“In the early days, we spent lots of time together talking about our respective hopes and dreams, usually while taking long walks through Central Park, up to his West Side apartment. We both passionately loved comics, but the reality of working at a major comics publisher could be, shall we say, very challenging.

“Rather than simply despair, Mark and I would always embrace the challenge of finding a way to please both our corporate masters and our own fannish desires. For example, Mark was always more of a DC fan than a Marvel fan, but did Mark let that stop him from writing the Justice League of America?“Mark wrote, with Ralph Macchio, the long-time Marvel editor, not the star of Karate Kid movies, Marvel-Two-In-One, a team-up title featuring the Fantastic Four’s ever-lovin’, blue-eyed Thing character, which I got to edit. Working with such top artists as George Perez and John Byrne, we got to have fun with such storylines as Project: Pegasus and the Serpent Crown Affair. While most of the time it was fun to work with Ralph and Mark, sometimes Mark would come up with ideas that I wasn’t able to appreciate at the time. For example, Mark once wanted to feature Moon Man, the older version of Jack Kirby’s Moon-Boy character from Devil Dinosaur. I didn’t quite appreciate Mark’s sense of the absurd at that point.“Later when looking for a villain somehow related to the ballet, to include in a strange comic I wrote, which actually featured Spider-Man, Fire-Star, and Ice Man watching a performance of the Nutcracker, I was thrilled to come upon a character Mark had created - a guy who was repeatedly rejected because he was too short to be a ballet dancer, so he somehow got his hands on a growing formula that turned him into the freakish Daddy Long-legs - a guy now too tall to be a ballet dancer.“Quite often, Mark would try to get a concept by me, by saying, ‘But Jim, there’s never been anything done like this in comics before.’ And unfortunately, I’d have to respond by saying, ‘Sometimes there are good reasons.’

“Mark also wrote a monthly Mark’s Remarks column for Marvel Age Magazine, the official Marvel fan magazine I edited for eight years. While most of the columns were in someway promoting something or other that Marvel was publishing at the time, I’d sometimes be surprised at how personal his column could become. For example, unlike me, who thought it was great that everyone had an opportunity to submit their work to Marvel for consideration, Mark was far more compassionate, and felt strongly for the many people who would inevitably be rejected.“In another column, where Mark was just listing random thoughts, one of his philosophical points had a profound affect on my life. It was a simple thought, appreciate the people in your life who love you. Back then I was a bit too full of myself, and taking the people who loved me for granted. Mark’s sincere advice, coming from such an unexpected source - a column in a magazine devoted to promoting Marvel Comics - made me think about how I was treating people in my life, and for that, I’m eternally thankful to Mark.“I remember one difficult time, walking Mark home on the night that Spider-Woman, a title he had been writing, was reassigned to another writer. Mark was crushed. He was pouring everything he had into that comic. I told him he shouldn’t let this upset him too much. That he should remain open to future opportunities. That life was full of creative challenges, and the specifics weren’t all that important - that he would continually find ways to creatively express himself. And he did.“Instead of allowing the job to shape him, Mark shaped his job to reflect him. I’ve always thought it was an editor’s job to construct an environment conducive to creativity. Mark took that literally and would redesign and rebuild his office in amazing ways. Mark’s life was a constant expression of his humor, compassion, love, and spirit.“As much as I enjoyed Mark’s comicbook work, I think Mark himself was his greatest creation.”

Max, I’d like to read that interview you did with Mark. It would be like spending a few minutes with my old friend yet again.

Thanks Jim - and thanks to both you and Max for granting me permission to reuse your heartfelt words here - I felt both pieces were just too good to be shunted away in the comments section of my MySpace page. If nothing else, it spurred me on to offer up this long overdue tribute of my own to one of my favorite latter-day mainstream scribes. We all miss you Mark, but you haven’t been forgotten. Not by a long shot. And if you folks are at all interested in reading an expansive collection of the earlier alluded to Mark’s Remarks columns, well, this whole sentence will serve as a link to get you there. Go ahead and take a look - there are far worse ways to while away the time on the Internet, after all.

(Not including Hembeck.com, of course!…)

Copyright 2006 Fred Hembeck (except for the material generously provided by Jim Salicrup and Max Brighel, used by permission)

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