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Biographies of the Stars

Interview with Mark Gruenwald

COMIC-ART.COM: Mark, you took over Captain America with number 307, correct?


COMIC-ART.COM: What year was that?

GRUENWALD: Oh, let's see. It must have been '84 or early '85.

COMIC-ART.COM: So you've been doing the book about ten years.


COMIC-ART.COM: When you came onto Cap, which writers on Cap had influenced you the most?

GRUENWALD: Uh, obviously Stan. I also like Steve Engelhart's period, and Mark DeMattis's period and Roger Stern's, so those three guys, DeMattis and Englehart.

COMIC-ART.COM: Were you influenced much by the Golden Age stuff that Stan and Jack had done?

GRUENWALD: No, not really. A lot of it had not been reprinted at that time and I hadn't seen all that much of it.

COMIC-ART.COM: As someone who's written probably Cap longer than almost anyone except Stan, why do you think Cap has lasted so long?

GRUENWALD: I think because he's one of the major icon characters the comics medium has ever produced. I think he's the ulitmate self-made man in a positive sense. While a Batman is also a self-made man, he's, he remade himself for a negative reason, the reason to take vengeance, you know, which is the dark side of your personality. Captain America's, or Steve Rogers's program to remake himself was different, it was through patriotism, which is love of country, and love is a good thing. It's not like vengeance, which is you know, seeking death and destruction. It's my contention that even without Super-Soldier Serum that Steve Rogers, by strength of his own character, would have some way to be Captain America, to be, to serve his country. I think that too many people put the emphasis on the mechanism by which he became Captain America, which is the invention of the Super-Soldier Serum and have not thought enough about the man who decided to take it. In other words, we've seen a whole slew of other characters take a Super-Soldier Serum or some variant of it and none of them became Captain America. They've all, they all went bad or askew in their own particular way. It was only Steve Rogers, by strength of his personality and strength of his beliefs and his ideals that managed to take the Super-Soldier Serum and do something great with it and that is come up with the Captain America concept and really embody the ideals which he believes America stands for. So, I think he has withstood the test of time because he is the ultimate example of a regular guy with, who is good inside, you know, with, who's got (a) strong moral code and a good sense of American values, who has recreted himself on the outside in order to be able to better effect those values in the world today. So, I think he holds on because he's the ultimate self-made man.

COMIC-ART.COM: Interesting take. Now, in 1988 you had Cap quit the government and get a new uniform, and I was wondering, why did you give him a new costume?

GRUENWALD: Quite frankly, for two reasons. First, the most compelling real-world reason, the book was doing not-so-good sales. In fact, there was even talk of cancellation by the then-Editor-In-Chief, and this, to me, was unthinkable, not that Captain America has been running continuously from the Golden Age, but I just think that he's such a Marvel icon that it's a book that you don't mess with the numbering system of. The Editor-In-Chief at the time wanted to discontinue it and start it over, so I pleaded with him, `Please let me show you,'. I had only been on the book maybe about a year at that point and I said, `Let me show you that I can turn sales around. Let me give it a chance.' So, what I did was, you know, pulled out all stops. I mean there's only so many things that a writer can do to boost awareness of the book, and thus sales, and I tried doing them all. (Laughs). You know, it's always easier for an artist to influence sales because you can see the art without having to read it. But for a writer, you know, you have to imbed certain things into your story, which are bound to be controversial and talked-about, so, you know, obviously one of those is changing costume, changing status quo, changing logos, you know, doing things like that. The reason why I did it in terms of the story is I just thought I would be able to get a very interesting arc of stories in which Captain America is denied the official sanction of being an American icon. I thought that this would really put his head through a wringer, you know, put his mind in a different place, you know, even though he had in at least two previous storylines that I could think of, one only lasted an issue, given up the Captain America costume, never before was it motivated like it was in my storyline, and so you know, I thought it was valid approach. Steve Englehart had him ditch the costume during his run and it was because of personal disillusionment. And personally I don't feel that any political reality could disillusion Captain America, his ideals. So I didn't want to do anything like that because I didn't believe that that would truly motivate Captain America, so I engineered a situation in which he would not have the official sanction of the government and he would be forced to find another way in order to serve the ideals of America.

COMIC-ART.COM: Interesting. Okay, who designed that costume?

GRUENWALD: Tom Morgan.

COMIC-ART.COM: Okay. Now what was your inspiration for the character of John Walker, the Super-Patriot?

GRUENWALD: Many of my Captain America nemeses have just started out as my take on some issue facing America today. I mean if you really go back to this mindset over my body of work you'll see that there's virtually no villain who just stands for villainy. They always stand for something that I felt had something to do with American society. In John Walker's case because my lead character was patriotic and most of the villains were either anti-patriotic or non-patriotic, that I was saying that patriotism automatically equals good. And I said that 's not neccessarily true. Many evil things have been done in the name of patriotism. So I wanted to do was introduce a patriotic character who was not a hero, and who, while being just as patriotic and just as sincere as America, would be obliged to fight him because they had different takes on what patriotism means to them. So, I introduced John Walker that way as the super-patriot not really realizing at the time that I was grooming him to eventually be Captain America's replacement. But when I thought of Captain America being replaced by the government, he filled the bill and so I moved him into that role.

COMIC-ART.COM: Well, over the years you and other people have had Captain America abandon the Captain America identity and have had other characters sort of step in to sort of fill his shoes in a way. What's the thinking behind that, at least in your case?

GRUENWALD: Well, it was a logical offshoot of Steve Rogers giving up the role of the officially sanctioned icon of America and them claiming that they own that concept, and so it just made sense for them to replace him with another individual even as other writers have had the government do that in the past, you know, after Steve Rogers ended World War II, according to retroactive continuity, you know they tapped in three other guys: Spirit of '76, and the Patriot, and finally, the infamous Captain America of the fifties, to take his place. So, they did it before. I assume they could do it again.

COMIC-ART.COM: Now a lot of people remember Englehart's storyline with the fifties Captain America. Would you say that that idea influenced some of your approach? You know, having sort of an evil Captain America in a way?

GRUENWALD: Not really. The fifties Captain America was responding to fifties things. I wanted one that was steeped in the eighties, you know, which was the time in which I think the stories started coming out, so I wanted a Captain America who was reflecting eighties concerns, and if those concerns happened to mirror any fifties concerns, okay, there would be similarities, but I don't think you can draw that many parallels between the two decades. So, I just wanted a harder-edged, more Rambo-esque Captain America, which John Walker was, because that seemed to be the temper of the times as I read it.

COMIC-ART.COM: Well, do you think Cap neccessarily has to be a sort of reflection of the time in which he's being published?

GRUENWALD: The book has to, but the character should not. The book obviously has to be set in the time period in which the readers are reading it but Captain America's values are timeless. And he should not be political, which is why the storyline Roger Stern did, in which he ran for president, that would be a story that never would have occurred to me because that's mixing the ideal with the real, and Captain America knows better than that. Okay, so while the stories have to be set in the time period in which they're coming out, Captain America's ideals are timeless. I mean they go back to our founding fathers and if you go back even further than that, they go back to, you know, the birth of democracy itself, which I guess was in ancient Greece, you know, they started the democratic ideals, you know, what democracy, government by the people is about. So I actually think that as Captain America is more interesting now than in the forties because in the forties everyone was patriotic. He was just more patriotic than most. Now, very few people are patriotic and very few people believe that the government and its ideals are the solutions to anything and so it's that contrast, that relief from the environment that makes Captain America more interesting today. So, the farther America in reality gets from America the ideal, the more interesting Captain America is.

COMIC-ART.COM: Do you think Steve Rogers as Cap will ever be permanently replaced?

GRUENWALD: Um, I can't say he will never be replaced, you know, maybe in 2040, someone will finally get a good idea. But, the thing with these icon characters is there's often a real connection between what they stand for and the fact that they were the first to stand for it. So, whereas, I'm trying to think of characters that could be successfully replaced and you wouldn't care. I guess the Human Torch, you know, started out as an android and he wasn't even human, but he was a torch, and the fact that we replaced him in the sixties with a different one, really didn't make that difference to the concept of the really didn't make that much difference to the concept of a Human Torch, you know, a human that can light up like a torch. But, I think Captain America, with his roots and all, that to replace him, you would lose so much. You would never have all of the resonances you know that reach back to the forties, a simpler time in which America was more patriotic. I don't think there's anything you could replace that with which would be resonant and compelling as Steve Rogers, so everyone else is doomed to just be a replacement. He's got the primal connection that's the basic concept, so at least by my way of thinking, no one could replace him forever if you want to do something called Captain America.

COMIC-ART.COM: Well, one thing I've noticed is that, through the years, ever since Cap got revived in the sixties, the writers, Stan, Englehart and you, have gone back and re-told his origin, sort of the way the Batman writers have. Do you think that's something that will continue, just to remind each new generation of readers where he comes from?

GRUENWALD: Uh, sure. Actually, I haven't, I don't recall doing any lengthy origin sequence, you know, I refer to it, but I never, I can't recall, my memory is failing, but you know, doing a full blown-full issue expanded origin sequence.

COMIC-ART.COM: Well, that's true, but in one of your most recent issues that's on the stands now, you have a reference to that at the beginning of the story.

GRUENWALD: Sure, yeah. No, many references to it. You got to keep reminding readers of you know, what's important to the character, and certainly their roots are as important as anything.

COMIC-ART.COM: Let's see. In the current storyline, how long do you envision Cap being in the armored suit?

GRUENWALD: He will be in the armored suit through this July Fourth, which is my last issue.

COMIC-ART.COM: Oh, okay. I was going to ask you what your last issue was.

GRUENWALD: Uh, 443 comes out in early July, so I like to think of it as the July Fourth Independence, my independence from Cap, Cap's independence day from me. (Laughter)

COMIC-ART.COM: Are you planning on going out with a bang?

GRUENWALD: In my own way. It'll be, I'm going to pull out all stops and try to make it the most poignant story I can and, but it won't be an explosive bang. I think the story, well, let me just tell you the basic premise. I won't tell you how it turns out. The basic premise is: the Black Crow, who is a DeMattis character for Captain America, an American Indian mystic, goes up to Captain America and says, `I've just had a vision. You've got twenty-four hours left to live. Live it wisely.' And he disappears. And so, my last issue will be Captain America realizing that he's only got twenty-four hours to live. What should he do with his last remaining hours? Should he go out and try to capture all the bad guys he can? Should he go out and visit all his friends? Should he go out and visit old haunts and help him remember the places that he's loved. Should he just sit there and mope? What should he do? And so, I'm hoping that I'll get all the readers to think about what they would do if they really realized that twenty-four hours from now, their heart would stop, and how they would spend their last twenty-four hours, so that when you see what Captain America does, it's poignant to you. That's my last issue.

COMIC-ART.COM: And are you coordinating with Mark Waid, kind of the direction of the book for the future?

GRUENWALD: I am consulting, but not coordinating. The reason why I'm giving up the book is because I'm Editor-In-Chief of the Avengers, Fantastic Four, Surfer and Forceworks lines and I feel that I shouldn't write for myself. I shouldn't write within my own group because it's too liable to be abused. You know? Nobody would be able to say no to me since I'm the ultimate authority and I really believe that all writers need editors. And editors who have enough teeth to be able to say, `If you you don't do such and such, you're off!' And it's really hard to fire your boss, so I don't want to be in that situation so I decided that I have to give up all the writing within my own area. So, as Editor-In-Chief I'm consulting, you know, because I've got to keep track of all of the books in my line, you know, I've got to be able to tell what's going on and making sure it coordinates with other related books, but it's not like I'm dictating the plotlines to him, not in the least. I've consulted with him. I've given him lots of my backnotes on characters and villains and whatnot, and he's got to pick up where I left off. And as you can tell from the description of my last issue I don't leave Captain America in a very good place for him to pick up from. (Laughter)

COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah. That's kind of a tough assignment for old Mark there.

GRUENWALD: Yeah, so he's got his hands full but I've read his first plot and it's great and I couldn't ask for a better replacement on the book.

COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah. He's a good writer. That's sure. Given all the continuity with the character that you've built up, what do you consider the most significant changes you made in Cap over the years?

GRUENWALD: Um, most significant changes? Uh, well, okay, the first is, I think when I inherited him, he had maybe only two good villains: Red Skull obviously, and The Viper. And I think I've bolstered his ranks of his rogues' gallery quite significantly during my ten or so years on the book so now he's finally got at least ten good villains with different agendas and whatnot, so that's one thing that I think was an accomplishment. Secondly, I at least tried to focus people's attention on the fact that he was Captain America primarily and Steve Rogers was the false identity to him, that he became like, something like a priest: married to the job. You know, that this was his life and civilian life considerations were very secondary to him. I thought previous writers who were trying to get those two aspects of his personality in balance, you know his civilian life and his costume life, were missing the point. You know, a fighter for the American Dream, and this is where I thought was the most interesting paradox about him, the fighter for the American Dream cannot have the average American's American Dream work for him. And I think previous writers really tried to flirt with him attaining the average American's American Dream, which is, you know, a house in the suburbs, a wife and two point three kids, and that does not work for him, anymore a priest can give up all of their priestly functions and have what they hope their happy parishoners have, you know? It was like he really was married to the job and so I tried to strip away all of what I thought were the detracting aspects of his civilian life and surround him with intersting people that had something to do with his primary mission, with what his ideals were all about, and that is, serving the American Dream. So, of course that could be reversed in a storyline but I hope that's one of my lasting legacies, is to show that Captain America, that Steve Rogers is Captain America first, Steve Rogers is just a convenient thing he uses in downtime, and that Steve Rogers himself has no greater needs than being Captain America. So, I guess those two things.

COMIC-ART.COM: Do you think you've said all you want to with Cap?

GRUENWALD: Um, that's a difficult question. When I realized that my tenure was coming to an end I certainly had to pick and choose among the various story ideas that I had and said,`Wait, I can only do so many. Let's just pick all the best ones.' So, I think if I remained on it I would be able to think of something more, but I am not sad to leave it in some ways because, you know, I look over my ten-year run and I will not be the one to claim that, you know, every issue I did was perfect in that all of it was at a uniform high. I definitely had highs, and I definitely had lows in that periods and you know it's not like one ever sets out to be on a low. No one sets out to do a bad story or a series of stories or a story arc or anything. It's just that in retrospect you go back and you say, `You know, maybe that wasn't the best avenue to pursue and I got six months out of it. And you know, maybe I should have done something different.' But, you know, it's easy to figure that out in hindsight. So, I'd say that I certainly had a good long run and I've done some good stories and some I'm not so proud of, and I'm sure there'd be more Cap stories in me, but there are none that I feel aching to tell and will never reach the world. You know I could have come up with some more, but I feel like this is a really good stopping-point.

COMIC-ART.COM: Do you feel kind of relieved to be moving on to other things?

GRUENWALD: In some ways. I mean mostly I'm relieved, you know, to be out from under the monthly deadlines for a little bit. You know, that's always a relief, you know, when you don't have to go home and say, after putting a full day in at the office, and say, `All right now, what must I accomplish tonight?' You know, so that's going to be a relief, but I'm sure I'll pick up some other writing assignment and I'll be back under the deadline gun again.

COMIC-ART.COM: Well, besides Cap, Mark, do you have any regular assignments now?

GRUENWALD: No, I do not. I actually, I've got one new book called Starmasters, which is a Silver Surfer team book, which I'm only doing the first four issues of, and that'll be out later this year. And after those four issues I don't have a regular assignment at this moment.

COMIC-ART.COM: Well, let me ask you this: Going back to your current storyline, is Cap's condition permanent?

GRUENWALD: Is Cap's condition permanent? How do I answer that?

COMIC-ART.COM: If you don't want to say you can tell me that.

GRUENWALD: It's permanent through my run and I will not, I certainly don't want to spill the beans on Mr. Waid's storyline, so I'll say: Yes, through my run, which ends at 443, his condition is permanent, though I do offer a number of possible miracle cures in the course of the way. We'll see if Cap takes them or if they work or whatnot.

COMIC-ART.COM: What do you think of the way Cap was incorporated into the Daredevil storylines?

GRUENWALD: Recently, or the Frank Miller ones, or when?

COMIC-ART.COM: Oh, "The Tree of Vengeance", that story arc.

GRUENWALD: I thought it pretty well.

COMIC-ART.COM: Do you think those two characters work well together?

GRUENWALD: Uh, they're not one of my favorite matchups, but I think they're pretty interesting. Uh, just their different takes: Daredevil as the agent of justice and Captain America as an agent of freedom. I mean freedom and justice are not synonomous but there's some similarities there, some points in common.

We thank interviewer Steve Ringenberg for this transcript

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