Monday, August 2, 2010

Marvelous Tales: Remembering Mark Gruenwald and Our Trip to Skywalker Ranch

During the 1980s through mid 1990s, Mark Gruenwald was, in many ways, the heart and soul of Marvel Comics' editorial/creative department. He possessed and infections enthusiasm for comics and all things Marvel.

Mark moved from Wisconsin to New York City in the mid '70s and landed a low-level job on Marvel's editorial staff in 1978. His creativity and hard work were recognized and Mark was promoted to full editor in 1982. He spearheaded the work on the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe, wrote Captain America for a decade and helped train new editors by holding weekly "Assistant Editor Classes."

Full of energy, ideas, and practical jokes, Mark was the instigator and ringleader for Marvel's office parties and pranks. He also promoted a wide range of contests that challenged the physical skills and pop culture knowledge of Marvel staffers. In theory the participants in Mark's events were trying to win prizes. In reality, many just got caught up in Mark's enthusiasm and wanted to be a part of whatever fun he was whipping up.

Mark wanted Marvel's fans to have as much fun as he did so he devised the 'Marvel Olympics" and other convention events where fans participated in outrageous contests with Marvel personnel.

No one on Marvel's editorial staff was immune from becoming the target of Mark's pranks or the focus of good-natured ribbing during Marvel's convention shenanigans with the fans.

Mark became an Executive Editor in 1987 and one of five Editors-in-Chief when, in 1994, Marvel temporarily split its publishing into multiple divisions.

Recently, I rediscovered a video of a presentation Mark participated in when a group of Marvel staffers visited George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch.

I'm posting Mark's part of the presentation here so his friends and coworkers can relive the joy and enthusiasm he brought to Marvel - and to allow those who didn't have the pleasure of working with Mark get a glimpse of what they missed.

Marvel's trip to the Skywalker Ranch took place on Mon. April 27, 1992. After attending the WonderCon comic book convention in Oakland, CA, our crew of editorial staffers drove north across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the remote hills of Marin County.

The troupe included Publisher Stan Lee. Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco, Executive Editors Mark Gruenwald and Carl Potts along with Editors Fabian Nicieza, Mariano Nicieza, Bobbie Chase and Hildy Mesnik

Our tour of Skywalker Ranch and Industrial Light & Magic had been arranged with the help of Gary Winnick. At the time, Gary worked at LucasArts, helping produce a number of hit CD-ROM games. Gary, Steve Purcell and others from LucasArts showed the Marvel crew around the film and game production facilities contained in beautiful buildings on the secluded Skywalker Ranch property and nearby Industrial Light & Magic lot.

L to R: Mark Gruenwald, Bobbie Chase, Fabian Nicieza, Marianlo Nicieza, Hildy Mesnik, Carl Potts, Tom DeFalco, Stan Lee, Steve Purcell, (unidentified woman) Kneeling: (unidentified man), Gary Winnick.

Among the highlights were the model building shop at Industrial Light & Magic, the Foley sound effects studio housed in what appeared to be a vineyard building and the giant Victorian-style library lined in redwood shelves with lighting filtered through a huge domed stained glass ceiling. It was a blast seeing many props and mementos from the famous films George Lucas had been involved with - including the idol that Indiana Jones lifted from the tomb at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

After an amazing lunch at the Ranch's high-end cafeteria and a bit more touring, the Marvel crew prepared to give a presentation as part of LucasArts/ILM's lecture series for its employees. Five of us gave short (approx. 10 minute) presentations on various aspects of comics--
- Fabian first gave a quick overview of Marvel's publishing and licensing output.

- Stan then enthralled the audience with a few tales of Marvel's early days and the development of working "Marvel style" (where the artist draws from a loose plot and the final script is prepared after the pages are drawn.)

- Fabian bounded back to the stage to give an overview of Marvel's creative and production chain.

- Tom discussed how readers process the words and pictures as they read comics.

- I (with butterflies in my stomach) commented on visual storytelling techniques in comics and compared them to the techniques used in film.

-Mark then wrapped up the presentations with a discussion of what makes the Marvel Universe special and a description of his activities as Marvel's "continuity cop." Mark's humor and his enthusiasm for the Marvel Universe made his segment a highlight of Marvel's presentation. His attempt to explain how "unstable molecules" work was hilarious.

Mark's presentation about being Marvel's "Continuity Cop"

The formal presentation was followed by a long Q&A session that covered everything from how to become a comics editor to Stan's relationship with Jack Kirby to how Marvel kept long-running characters from becoming dated.

Early in the morning on Mon. Aug. 12, 1996, only four years and four months after the trip to Skywalker Ranch, Mark suffered a massive heart attack and passed away. He left a wife he loved and a young daughter he adored.

Mark is still missed by those who knew him personally as well as by those who only knew him through his work.

For those of us who knew Mark, watching the video is bittersweet - simultaneously prompting laughter and tears. Mark would have appreciated the former but probably not the latter.