A Month of Writers, Day Twenty: Chris Roberson

Chris Roberson is a triple threat: He’s a writer, he’s an editor and he’s a publisher — and he’s good enough at each that he’s been nominated for a World Fantasy Award for each of these talent. He’s also been nominated for the Campbell and Sidewise awards, twice each, and won the latter in 2004. And he’s also a hell of a nice guy. Rumor is, he’s kind to babies and kittens, too.

He’s also a huge comics geek, as you’ll find out in today’s Month of Writers entry (and which you might know if you’re a fan of the X-Men novels, since he wrote one earlier this year). His most recent novel is Set the Seas on Fire, which is lots of swashbuckling fun, but for pimping purposes, Chris asked me to direct you to the nifty online serial novel he’s doing, called Three Unbroken, which is summarized thusly: “Three Unbroken is the story of a war between the Chinese and the Aztecs on the red planet, Fire Star.” Seriously, if your head hasn’t gone kablooey from that description alone, you’re doing it wrong. And it’s a free read! You can’t lose.

And now, without further ado, Chris introduces you to  his candidate for the title of “father of modern superhero comics.”

CHRIS ROBERSON: Mark Gruenwald, the father of modern superhero comics

The folks at RevolutionSF asked me to write a few words about Squadron Supreme for their ongoing Comics of 1986 series, having previously done a bit about Miracleman. I set aside a few hours before starting work on The Dragon’s Nine Sons to reread a few issues of the series and then type out my thoughts on the book and its creator, Mark Gruenwald. Well, it turns out I had more to say about Gruenwald than I thought I did. Too much, as it happens, as RevolutionSF had to cut the piece down to size a bit before posting it here.

What got left out? If you’re interested in just the meaty bits, read the RevSF article linked above, but if you want the director’s cut with all of the fat still in, read on…

Squadron Supreme

Mark Gruenwald was the father of modern superhero comics, and I can prove it.

I know, I know. You’re probably thinking that it’s Alan Moore, right? Or Frank Miller? Or maybe you’re a bit more old school and point to Denny O’Neil, or maybe even Stan Lee or Jack Kirby. Heck, you might be such a neophile that you look to Geoff Johns and Brian Michael Bendis. But whatever you’re thinking, if it isn’t that Mark Gruenwald was the father of modern superhero comics, it’s wrong.

Mark Gruenwald was the ultimate fanboy-made-good success story. With a degree in Art and Literature from the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, Gruenwald moved to New York in the hopes of getting a job in comics. Working a day job at a bank, in his spare time Gruenwald clearly spent a lot of time thinking about comic books. He wrote “A Treatise on Reality in Comic Literature,” and with his father Myron Gruenwald cowrote “A Primer on Reality in Comic Books,” both of which attempted to systematize parallel dimensions and time travel in comic books. It was in these that Gruenwald introduced the concept of the “Omniverse,” which he described as the sum total of all universes. DC Comics had their Multiverse, Gruenwald said, and Marvel Comics had one of their own, but both were just subsets of the same overarching Omniverse (along with every other fictional reality). A short while later Gruenwald and Dean Mullaney (who later founded Eclipse Comics) copublished a fanzine entitled OMNIVERSE: The Journal of Fictional Reality, with contributions by notables such as Robert Rodi, Kim Thompson, Pete Gillis, and Rich Morrisey, and art by Pete Poplaski, Neal Pozner, and Jerry Ordway. In its brief run, OMNIVERSE examined weighty topics like where the dividing line between Earth-1 and Earth-2 could be divided (the simple answer was that there was no simple answer, and instead of a dividing line a whole separate reality was invented, Earth-E, in which all of the confusing stories that didn’t fit nicely into either world were consigned), whether Howard the Duck was from the same world as Donald Duck (or whether Howard’s reality was a parallel of Earth-Marvel or a Primary System of its own), and just how Doctor Doom, Rama-Tut, Kang the Conqueror, the Scarlet Centurion, and Immortus fit together, anyway (the answer: confusingly).

Gruenwald’s fan treatises and fanzines show the same level of ruthless attention to detail and desire for rationalization that were hallmarks of his later professional work. In the late seventies, it seemed that his fan writing had gained him some attention, as Gruenwald went to work for Marvel Comics, where he worked in one capacity or another for the rest of his tragically short life, starting as Assistant Editor to new Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter. In 1982, Gruenwald was involved in the launch of two projects which prefigured most of the current state of superhero comics: Contest of Champions and The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. The former, Contest of Champions, which Gruenwald helped plot with Steven Grant and Bill Mantlo (who provided the final scripts) was the first company-wide limited series crossover, the now-familiar beast. Everything from Secret Wars to Crisis on Infinite Earths, from Civil War to 52, owes its genesis to the success of Contest of Champions.

But it was nothing compared to The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. In TOHOTMU, as it’s sometimes called, editor Gruenwald brought the fan’s obsessive eye for detail and rationalization to the forefront, provided detailed schematics of secret bases and flying cars and jetpacks and trick arrows; rating the relative strength and speeds of heroes and villains, gods and monsters; and slowly working out an entire detailed history of a fictional universe that included everything from Norse gods to teleporting dogs to blue-skinned mermaids to mutants to dark dimensions to WWII super-soldiers. For the obsessive fan, it isn’t enough for stories to be good; they have to make sense. And so when confronted with the question of how Scott Summers optiblasts work, it isn’t enough to say that his eyes shoot lasers; after all, they are concussive blasts, but don’t generate any heat. Naturally, then, his eyes are really miniature portals to another dimension. (Likewise anyone whose powers involve projecting darkness—since darkness is the absence of light, after all, and not a physical thing, involves tapping into another dimension. Likewise anyone who shrinks shunts their extra mass into another dimension, which may or may not be the same dimension from which anyone who grows pulls the extra mass to do so.) The tenor of both the DC and Marvel universes in recent years is owed in extremely large measure to the obsessive rationalization of TOHOTMU, and to editor Gruenwald. (And it can be argued that the Ultimate Marvel universe is the finest realization of this kind of rationalization to date, but more on that later.)

But what does any of this have to do with Squadron Supreme, anyway?

Well, in addition to editing and co-plotting while at Marvel, Gruenwald turned his hand at writing, as well. In addition to a long run as scripter on Captain America, he wrote Spider-Woman, Marvel Two-in-One, DP7, Hawkeye, and Quasar, among others. And while Quasar was probably the clearest example of Gruenwald’s notions of superheroics and fictional realities (including the titular hero traveling to other worlds of the Omniverse, even going so far as to encounter a hero from another company entirely in an unacknowledged crossover with DC Comics Flash), it was in his Squadron Supreme that Gruenwald had the biggest influence on later superhero comics.

The Squadron Supreme was a thinly-veiled Justice League of America homage/pastiche/parody that was introduced by Roy Thomas in the pages of The Avengers in the early seventies, and who turned up a time or two over the years in the pages of The Might Thor, The Defenders, and others. Instead of Superman, the last son of Krypton, the Squadron Supreme had Hyperion, explorer from the sub-atomic world of Yttrium. Instead of Batman, the dark knight detective, they had Nighthawk. Instead of Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Flash, they had Doctor Spectrum, Power Princess, and the Whizzer (yes, the Whizzer). The Squadron Supreme lived in an essentially Marvelized version of the DC Universe, with their own villains and supporting casts. Hyperion was secretly cartoonist Mark Milton, who was constantly bedeviled by his arch-nemesis the hirsute Emil Burbank, who hated Hyperion for accidentally causing his hormones to run wild, so that his hair would never stay cut. (Get it? Lex Luthor hated Superman for making him bald, and Burbank hated Hyperion for making him hairy. Isn’t that funny? Well, not really, I’ll admit, but you can see where they were coming from.)

In short, up until they fell into Gruenwald’s hands, not much interesting had been done with the Squadron Supreme. They were most often used to poke gentle fun at the Distinguished Competition, or to allow the creators to play with a new set of toys for a short while. When Gruenwald took over the characters in 1985, though, that was all set to change.

Gruenwald had always been a fan of the Justice League of America, apparently, but the fact that he was an editor at Marvel Comics meant that he wasn’t likely to get the chance to write them. In Squadron Supreme he was given the opportunity to write the JLA, or near enough to count; but better still, he was able to write them in a way that DC Comics would never allow. He was allowed to change them, and more than that, allow them to change the world around them.

A conceit of superhero comics, from the Golden Age onwards, is that the presence of beings with superpowers just doesn’t change the world all that much. Superman may have been flying in the skies over the DC Universe in the 1940s, but he wasn’t able to prevent World War II in that fictional reality anymore than the Flash was able to stop Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet. The fictional worlds of the DC and Marvel universes map to the real world, the one that the readers inhabit, too closely for the worlds to diverge too much to be recognizable.

Which is the first way that Squadron Supreme differed.

In the characters last appearance before Gruenwald took over, the world of the Squadron Supreme had just been liberated from the mental control of the Overmind. The world was in sad shape, and the Squadron, who had been the unwitting tools of the Overmind’s control, were distrusted by the populace.

In the first issue of the twelve-issue Squadron Supreme limited series, Gruenwald establishes the tone of the book right off the bat. The superheroes of the Squadron (all except Nighthawk, who had by this point retired in order to run for, and be elected to, the office of President) unmask at a press conference on the steps of the nation’s capital, and announce their intention to eliminate hunger, poverty, crime, disease, pollution, and oppression in exactly one year.

Nighthawk, of course, can already see where this will go terribly wrong, and only barely avoiding assassinating Hyperion on the spot with an argonite bullet (argonite being Hyperion’s, well, kryptonite).

The second issue picks up the baton and runs with it, and introduces the second way in which Squadron Supreme differed from other books. A month had passed since the first issue appeared on newsstands, out here in the real world, and exactly a month had passed in the fictional reality of the book, as well.

Squadron Supreme played out in real time. Twelve issues over twelve months, with a month gap in the story between each monthly issue. Readers of DC Comics’ recently concluded 52 weekly series will recognize this gimmick. And though it had been used in other media before (Gasoline Alley, most notably), this was the first time the trick had been employed in the pages of a superhero comic book.

As the series progresses, it becomes clear that the status quo had been left far behind. The characters’ aggressive campaign to end the world’s ills almost immediately brings them into conflict with segments of the population, when they round up all firearms in the world and destroyed them. Then, when one of the characters creates a behavior modification device that could brainwash a villain into abandoning their evil ways, it is immediately perverted by a lovelorn hero who uses it to make a fellow hero fall in love with him. Heroes die, heroes kill, and heroes compromise their principles. Meanwhile, as the Squadron increasingly sets itself up as the dictatorial rules of Earth (albeit with the best of intentions), their former colleague Nighthawk begins assembling a team of dissident heroes and villains to act as a counterrevolutionary force.

In the final issue, the dissidents led by Nighthawk face off against the heroes led by Hyperion (the thinly-veiled Batman waging war on the thinly-veiled Superman), and in the end neither side truly wins as both sides lose. With most of their colleagues dead, the heroes are forced to admit that their tactic of saving the world through domination is doomed to failure.

Until recently, the worlds of superhero comics were virtually identical to the real world, with the exception of the brightly-clad heroes and villains flying overhead. If Superman met the president, it would be the president readers could see on the evening news. And even if Captain America learned that the president was secretly the head of the Secret Empire, for all intents and purposes he was unmasking Nixon (though thinly veiled). But in the world of Squadron Supreme, the former Nighthawk is elected president, and then has to stand by as his fellow superheroes successfully take over the world.

In recent years, the United States of the DC Universe has elected Lex Luthor to the presidency, while in the Marvel Universe Tony Stark has abandoned superheroics to take command of SHIELD in the interest of identifying and controlling all of the world’s superheroes. Each year DC and Marvel restructure their fictional worlds in line-wide crossovers that owe their format to Contest of Champions, and in at least one case their structure to Squadron Supreme. And the sweeping changes to the status quo, which push these fictional realities farther and farther away from the real world familiar to the readers, resembles nothing so much as Gruenwald’s masterpiece, Squadron Supreme.

Mark Gruenwald passed away in 1996 at the tragically young age of 43. He left the request that his body be cremated and the ashes mixed in with the ink of a trade paperback collection of his landmark work, Squadron Supreme. The first edition of the trade, published in 1997, fulfilled this request.

The current state of superhero comics, with its obsessive attention to continuity and rationalization, line-wide crossovers, multiple realities, and increasing divergence from the real world, resembles nothing so much as a Mark Gruenwald comic writ large. Everything that Gruenwald pioneered, from the late seventies through the mid-nineties, has now become industry standard. And the mainstream superhero comics of today resemble Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme more than they resemble the mainstream comics of the day.

And that is why Mark Gruenwald is the father of modern superhero comics.

(original entry, plus comments, is here)

2 thoughts on “A Month of Writers, Day Twenty: Chris Roberson

  1. It’s a mixed legacy that Gruenwald left, isn’t it?

    I never read Squadron Supreme — although now I may need to track it down — but I really enjoyed DP.7 and Gruenwald’s stint with Captain America. I still have my complete set of “The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe” that I bought month at a time when it first came out. I loved the attention to detail and semi-rational explanations for super-heroes, powers, and Norse gods. Frankly, the artwork was pretty good too — much better than the super-exaggerated, overly sexualized style that caught on a decade later.

    However, the excessive cross-overs, tie-ins, and monkeying about with continuity (and the steeply rising costs of the comics themselves) drove me out of the hobby. Why should there be six X-men comics each month? Why are we rebooting the Marvel universe again? Why is this story continued in two other comics this same month?

    If Gruenwald is to be blamed for the current state of affairs, then I think that’s a sad legacy.

  2. Chris, some at Marvel share your regard of Mark Gruenwald’s work in comics. Walt Simonson used Gruenwald’s likeness during his short run on the Fantastic Four for a person in charge at an authority created to monitor and to correct “continuity errors”. Recently, this character (or someone very much like him) showed up in Dan Slott’s run on “She-Hulk”.

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