Just under the bustling show floor above, Thursday night at New York Comic Con saw the reunion of Marvel creators and staffers in panel room 1C03 of the Jacob Javits Convention Center. They gathered to reminisce about working at Marvel in the 1970s and ’80s, and to pay tribute to editor and writer (and sometimes artist) Mark Gruenwald. The tone was set before the panel even started when Eliot R. Brown hammed it up upon meeting a Doctor Doom cosplayer. The panel was a stacked lineup: Brown, Jim Salicrup, Peter Sanderson, Lysa Hawkins, Daniel Hort, Bill Sienkiewicz, Lisa Hawkins, Catherine Gruenwald, and Janice Chiang gave an inside look into the Marvel Bullpen, which sometimes was as comical in real life as it was depicted in comics.
Pranks were a frequent thing in the Marvel Bullpen. A story was recounted of a prank pulled on Tom DeFalco once. An unnamed person in the bullpen cut out a piece of cardboard in the shape of a gun and wrapped it in aluminum foil before hiding it in DeFalco’s suitcase before he headed off to the airport. Security spotted the “gun” in an x-ray scanner and stopped DeFalco in order to search his bag. Both the panel and audience were laughing over this story. It doesn’t sound like this was the work of Mark Gruenwald. One panelist, knowing the identity of the prop gunmaker, said they didn’t want to name the person, “because they’re still among the living, and own a lot of real guns.” I have my guesses as to who that might be. Lisa Hawkins did relate a story of Grue pranking DeFalco though. Any time DeFalco would travel, Grue would sneak into his office and reshelve his books in reverse alphabetical order. Peter Sanderson commented, “We had fun. It was less fun at DC. Marvel was a lot of fun.”
Back when Priest was Jim Owsley, he used to roller skate up and down the halls of the Marvel office. Jim Salicrup complained to then Marvel Editor-In-Chief Jim Shooter about this, thinking this no way to behave in a professional office. Shooter explained to Salicrup, “I told him he could do it until someone complained.” Salicrup admitted to the audience, “I had to be the bad guy sometimes.” According to Bill Sienkiewicz, Marvel “was like a mix of anarchy and a daycare” in those days.
Bill shared that in the old days, he could walk in the front door or come up through the back and have one of the mail room guys buzz him in. He had free reign of the office back then. He contrasted that to today, where he would be escorted by someone from the moment he walked in the door and brought directly to the person he was scheduled to see.
The corporatization of Marvel didn’t just affect the comings and goings of staff. Having corporate overlords meant having to keep profits up anyway they could, even through layoffs. Catherine Gruenwald, Mark’s widow, recounted that Mark had to layoff people from Marvel during Christmas week and that it absolutely gutted him. “They made him fire 25 people,” she recounted. “He cared about everybody. When I first started dating him, he had framed pictures of everybody he worked with. He took those photos down as he fired people.” She linked those firings to his death, saying “He died of a broken heart.”
Catherine went on to praise her late husband. “He made me a better person because I didn’t want to let him down. I was married to the real life Captain America.” Jim Salicrup called Catherine the woman of Mark’s dreams. Bill Sienkiewicz credited Mark with Marvel’s creative successes back then. “There was a hub of creativity. Mark brought that out in people. It was a level of inclusivity, I find myself missing the innocence of that.”
Bill Sienkiewicz recounted his earliest days in the industry, saying “When I first started out, I didn’t think I was good enough for Marvel, so I sent my submissions to DC.” This got a big laugh from the audience. Bill talked about the lack of diversity at DC compared to Marvel, jokingly saying DC’s attitude was “We’re quite diverse. We let Catholics in now.” Daniel Hort agreed, “DC was uber white.” Marvel, on the other hand was much more diverse. But Bill pointed out that “It was progressive without having to use the term.” Janice Chiang agreed, saying “We talk about diversity in the industry. I started at Marvel in ’74 and ’75, coming out of the Vietnam War. Because Manhattan was diverse and New York was diverse” companies were diverse. “You just had to get the work done on time.”
Janice Chiang talked about lettering Silent Interlude, the famous silent issue of G.I. Joe, in G.I. Joe #21. “I lettered the silent issue. Stan Lee Presents, the credits line, the end. I paid my dues. If I get a silent issue, I should get paid for it. I deserve more of them.” She went on to talk about a dark time in her career. “Three people stole my work. One made a program and started a sweatshop. I was locked out of the industry due to racism, sexism ageism. No one would teach me the program.”
Lysa Hawkins, now an editor at Valiant, credited Mark Gruenwald with her eventual move to editorial. “Mark was my mentor in editorial,” she said. Before he passed, Mark Gruenwald had made plans to officially bring her into editorial, however he passed away before those plans could be completed.
Catherine said that Mark’s biggest prank of all came after his passing, “when I opened his will and it said he wanted me to cremate him and put him in a comic. I thought this is the biggest prank!” When someone asked if it was hard convincing Marvel to put Mark’s ashes in a comic, Catherine countered that it was Marvel’s idea. “First he went into a poster,” she explained. But Marvel got back to her saying, “We’re going to put him in Squadron Supreme.” And they did. Catherine shared some of the graphic details that go into preparing someone’s cremated remains to be mixed into ink. I’ll spare you the details.
One of the major highlight of the panel was the photographs of Eliot R. Brown, who took many photos of the Marvel offices back in his days as a staffer there. His photography really opened the history of the Marvel offices for those in attendance at the panel. A fan asked if there was any chance these would be collected into a book. Hopefully, as they really tell the tale of Marvel at that time.
Brown documented everything from the staff’s moving out party when Marvel relocated to newer offices to Grue and some other creators using couch cushions from the reception area as makeshift beds when they were all stuck in the office overnight due to a blizzard. I came away from the panel thinking the Marvel offices of the 1980s were an even more magical place than I pictured as a kid. And a huge part of that is thanks to the gone but never forgotten Mark Gruenwald.
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