Thursday, June 11, 2009

Reunion Reminiscences

Part One: Ancient History

A packed crowd, reunited! June 6, 2009
(photo by Howard Mackie)

Last weekend I flew to New York for a reunion of people who worked for Marvel Comics during the 1980s and 1990s. The party was attended by more than 150 former staff members and freelancers, many of whom had not seen each other in twenty years or more. Among the crowd were some legendary comic book artists and writers, erstwhile denizens of the famed “Marvel Bullpen,” and other staff members who may or may not have survived the multiple downsizings and reorganizations that plagued Marvel’s “bankruptcy years.” In the weeks preceding, expectations were uncertain. Some people were nervous. One former staffer (Marvel Historian, Peter Sanderson) worried that his memories of the late 80s and early 90s were a “nostalgic fantasy,” and he wasn’t alone.

It was, for all intents and purposes, my college reunion. And it was an enormous success.

(photo by Howard Mackie)

You see, I never made it to college. I’d planned to. I was accepted to Parsons School of Design, my first choice of schools, when I graduated from New York’s High School of Art & Design in 1986. But, it wasn’t in the cards. I had trouble getting the financial aid that I sorely needed, so I deferred my enrollment at Parsons, and accepted a full-time job at Marvel’s Epic Comics division. Luckily, I had been working there already, starting with a high school internship in early 1985, as a 15 year-old junior.

Marvel truly was my university. The other young Assistant Editors, Bullpenners and “Romitas Raiders” were my fellow students. Our professors and mentors were an amazingly gifted group of artists, writers and editors. I was lucky to be there at that time, when so many of the “old guard” were still around, and when many of today’s top talents were just breaking in. I had the distinct pleasure of working directly for the illustrious John Romita that first summer after I left high school, and then for Archie Goodwin and his small staff at Epic. For someone in the comics industry, it was an education to be reckoned with. I stayed on staff until 1989, when I decided go freelance and concentrate on my artistic career.

me in my Epic office around 1988

Those years on staff from 1985 to 1989, and continuing until 1993 when I moved to Los Angeles, were so very formative to me and many of our “graduating class.” It was a special, special time to be in and around the Marvel offices. There was a palpable sense of camaraderie and fun. The place was teeming with creativity and wackiness! While preparing for the reunion I, along with fellow “alumni,” dug up tons of old photographs and video from the era. Looking back, I truly can’t believe the stuff we used to get away with!

If one person could epitomize the spirit of that particular stage of Marvel Comics history, it was, without question, the late Mark Gruenwald. It has been said countless times that when Mark unexpectedly died in 1996, it was the death of Marvel’s heart & soul. I don’t wish to disparage those who have worked there since then, but as someone who “grew up” in the Gruenwald era, I believe it’s an irrefutable fact. Comics haven’t been the same since.

Mark Gruenwald

And so, it was extremely appropriate that this first reunion of “Old Marvelites” was also a tribute to Mark. He not only led us all in crazy antics, but he challenged everyone to go out and do likewise. His spirit set the very tone of the office.

Personally, I was not close with Mark. I am a shy person today, and was 100 times more shy back then. Because I worked in the “Epic” department, I did not have to attend his “Assistant Editor School,” and I regret it. Several of my good friends, former Marvel Assistants, still use the lessons they learned in Mark’s classes today, though they work in different fields. Even so, Mark’s influence was felt by everyone on the 10th floor of 387 Park Avenue South. To younger staff members like me, he was like the favorite school teacher! I was undoubtably influenced by him, or I never would have transformed my editor, Dan Chichester’s office into the bridge of the Enterprise while he was out of town!

Just the kind of prank Mark would have done...or so I’d like to believe!

Around the time I went freelance in 1989, I was getting into playing with video as a hobby. On occasion, Mark would recruit me to video Marvel antics at conventions or office parties. I was much more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it, so the front-row seat to the “Mark Gruenwald Show” suited me fine. When I shot some videos of my own, Mark happily acted in two of them.

Mark appearing in the video, The Freelancer (1989)

One of my first regular monthly freelance jobs was coloring Captain America, which was written by Mark. For me, this meant more time in his sphere, but as a quiet observer and admirer. I wish I’d been more outgoing, and I wish I’d known him better.

When Mark died in 1996, I was living in Los Angeles. I was overwhelmed by the news. I flew out to New York, though I was not permitted to attend the funeral for whatever reason. Instead, I stuck to the sidelines, spending time with my friends, quietly mourning a man that profoundly affected my life, whom I hardly knew at all.

This Saturday past, at the Reunion / Tribute, former Marvel Editor (and current DC Editor), Mike Carlin presented a montage of video and still images of his old pal Mark. For a short while, we were transfixed, and taken back in time. There’s Mark--up to his old tricks again! In this litigious era of political correctness, there’s absolutely no way he could do half that stuff today! Staring at the video screens, shaking our heads, one giant, bittersweet smile stretched across the entire venue. Mike’s narration was just the right combination of admiration, reverence, wry wit and goofball fanfare that Mark would have loved. I was proud to be in the room.

Mike Carlin remembers his old friend
(photos by Francine Burke)

D.G. Chichester, Marie Javins, me, Marc Siry & Evan Skolnick

To be continued
(click here for part 2)


Gregory Wright said...

Great start, looking forward to the rest. And I forgot about the ENTERPRISE. And speaking as someone who was close with Mark Gruenwald, yes, he would have loved it and encouraged you to go even farther.

Steve Buccellato said...

Thanks, Greg.

I'm sure Mark saw the Enterprise thing. I just don't remember what he said or thought about it. I was always a fan of the way Mark and Howard would "remodel" their office. The time they built the platform for their desks (so everyone had to look up at them) really sticks in my mind.

Gregory Wright said...

It was very difficult to try to live up to Mike Carlin and Howard Mackie in that office. And by the time I arrived Mark had already brought David Wohl, Marc Siry and Marc McLaurin into his weird world of antics. I often felt left out of the joke. Thankfully, he approved of my idea of ripping off New Universe covers and crumbling them up to turn the office into a giant garbage can.