Mark’s Remarks – Marvel Age #108 (January 1992)

Once upon a time a kid built a sandbox. It was pretty nifty. It had a lot of things in it that no one thought to put in a sandbox before. And the kid was a real genius when it came to building things out of sands inside it – elaborate castles and roadwork and landscapes. Perhaps best of all, the sandbox was tidy and free of the sort of contamination that can creep in if you’re not careful – you know, mud, litter, weeds, junk like that. It could remain this nice and tidy because it was essentially a one-kid sandbox. There was room for one person to play in it and that was of course the kid who built it.

There came a time, however, when that master sandbox-builder got tired of playing by himself and decided to invite other kids in. He had to expand the sandbox a bit to make room for them, of course, annexing new wings to the basic structure. But the new wings were as carefully designed and crafted as the core structure, so the whole thing still looked cool. And he was very careful screening the kids he let in, impressing upon them the rules of the sandbox. The first and most important rule was: No messing up what he or anyone else builds in here. You can build it, improve upon it, but you mustn’t tear anything down that’s there. The other kids agreed to his rules of course, because this was definitely the coolest sandbox in town.

In time, the kid who built it lost interest in the sandbox – hey, it was a lot of upkeep and he had been at it a whole lot of years, so he decided to open it up to a few others, give it to another kid for supervision, and just check in on it from time to time in an advisory capacity. Supervising the sandbox was no picnic, not half as fun as just playing in it, and so the first supervisor left in a few years, and another had to be appointed, then another, and another, as each took his turn overseeing the coolest sandbox ever built and then opted to move on.

Years have passed, the sandbox has thrived and grown, and a lot of kids have been given a chance to play in it and leave their indelible marks upon the edifices within. By now, the master sandbox-builder is way out of the picture, having moved to another part of the country, and the supervision for the sandbox has been left entirely up to others. But despite its expansion, the sandbox remains such a wonderful piece of work that it virtually inspires reverence in its supervisors. Thus the sandbox remains not only the coolest structure of its sort, it now one of the most elaborate.

The sandbox-builder in the above parable is Stan Lee, the sandbox is the Marvel Universe. And right now the supervisor is editor in chief Tom DeFalco and I am his right hand man, the designated custodian of the coolest and most elaborate sandbox devised by man.

I want to share with you some observations from inside the sandbox, first as a mere player in it, then as its prime custodian.

I love the Marvel Universe. There’s nothing else in all of literature like it. It’s got slews of great characters, interesting places, and a fascinating infrastructure. I love toiling in it, being a part of the gestalt intelligence that shapes it. Frequently I hear writers (usually those for other sandboxes – uh, companies) complain that a continuous, consistent universe is confining, ridiculous, and anti-creative. I say to ‘em: Then go play someplace else! I find the continuity and consistency exhilarating, challenging, and an impetus to creativity. Consistency is not a straitjacket – it’s a rocket-pack! One that may be a bear to master, but when you get the hang of it, it enables you to go higher and farther than you would otherwise have been able.

My major credo as one of the players in the sandbox is and always has been this: “Leave your corner of the sandbox in better shape than you found it.” When I inherited a small corner of the sandbox, let’s say the CAPTAIN AMERICA corner, I began looking at everything in that corner – namely, all the characters that had appeared in the run of the book so far, and then sat there trying to figure out what to do with them. Some writers are content to build an excellent looking wing on the castle in their corner of the sandbox without taking into regard the castle as a whole. Consequently, a Gothic looking castle will suddenly find itself with an art deco style wing, one that is truly exquisite in its art deconess, but looks way out of place tacked onto the Gothic structure. That’s not my way. I try to gear all of my contributions to the architecture of the wing I inherited so that they blend aesthetically with the structure as a whole.

When I made my initial preparations to write CAPTAIN AMERICA, I looked at my villains and supporting cast and found that the former was severely lacking while the latter tended to detract from rather than enhance what I identified as one of the earmarks of the character (all-out action). For brevity’s sake, let me discuss the villains here: The Red Skull had just been put to rest in a dramatic, well-crafted story so I wasn’t about to bring him back till some time passed and I had a believable way. Besides him, who are Cap’s main villains? Let’s see, there’s Batroc – a good sparring partner but not exactly a world-class menace, the Viper – who’d been appearing more in other books than in CAP the last few years, Baron Zemo – who the Skull made pathetic-seeming in the aforementioned storyline, Dr. Faustus – fine for the offbeat tale of psycho-warfare now and then…and that’s about it. Four good reusable villains – each with baggage – is all Cap had to show for twenty-odd years of his own title?!?

The first job I set for myself was building a solid rogues’ gallery of reusable villains for Cap, I did this by categorizing everyone Cap fought in his entire run to date according to their basic type (e.g., mastermind, mad scientist, robot, alien, non-powered athlete, etc.) and then determining which niches weren’t filled that should be dealing with a protagonist like Cap. Many villains to fill these niches were created from scratch, others were appropriated (with permission) from other series (Cobra first appeared in THOR, for instance), and a few more were less-than-stellar villains who premiered in CAP who were given a dusting off and sprucing up (the one-shot Scarbo became Minister Blood, for instance). I’ve been on CAP for ninety issues now (longer than any other writer since he got his own strip in 1965) and what I have to show for my stint is a solid rogues’ gallery of at least twelve strong distinct reusable villains. The next person to play in this corner of the sandbox when I finally tire of it (don’t hold your breath) is going to find it in better shape than I found it.

I truly believe that tending to the greater needs of the book as a whole is of equal importance to providing good entertaining stories. These priorities are hardly mutually exclusive, and yet how many times have you read a story where a writer crafts a good dramatic tale but leaves a character in worse shape than how he or she found him (dead, retired, swearing to never be interesting again, etc.)? I’ve lost count myself. I’m not saying I’m perfect, and I’ve never diminished a character’s cachet in the process of using him (I did a bad number on Turner D. Century, for instance), but I’m always conscious of the greater good beyond the needs of any single story whenever I handle a character.

Know what? I have two other credos to write besides the one I just mentioned. (Surely by now you folks realize all my rules come in threes.) My second credo is my Conservation of Characters principle. Briefly stated: “Never create a new character who can serve the same purpose.” Personally, I hate needless replication, two characters who have virtually the same shtick. This is not only a waste of effort on the second “creator’s” part, it is also an imposition on the integrity of the fictional universe! Once a character is brought into existence, he exists and cannot be made to un-exist. Killing the character won’t help blot his existence from the record, it’ll just give him an entry in the Book of the Dead (till some unscrupulous writer brings him back!) I’m truly bothered by the existence of these one-shot ripoffs, and I know some of you are, too. We know they’re out there, taking up space, waiting their turn to come back – it drives me nuts. Sometimes, folks, it takes more creativity to NOT create a character. Ponder that one.

My third credo relates to my second: “If you feel you have to change more than half of the things about a pre-existing character in order to make him useful, just create a new character.” I don’t know about you, but I hate character overhauls so extensive there’s nothing left of the old character. I don’t mind costume updates, name changes, or power enhancements, but if you have to do all three, I’d rather see a new character (provided of course that new character doesn’t replicate another existing character). I’ve done a number of revisions on pre-existing characters myself. For instance, I turned a one-shot female hypnotist named Suprema into Mother Night (she still has hypnotic powers), I designed Darkstar’s current costume, and I was instrumental in bringing about the following name changes to characters I didn’t create: the Huntress to Mockingbird, the Whizzer to Speed Demon, Wundarr to the Aquarian, Eros to Starfox, Power Man to Goliath, Black Goliath to Giant-Man, and Cobra to King Cobra, to name just a few. In all of these cases, I had what I feel are strong, justifiable reasons for “improving” on someone else’s character. You look at them before and after – you tell me if you agree.

I wanted to go into my role as the prime custodian of the sandbox – but as usual I’m running long already and have a whole lot to say. So let’s save it for next time, huh? Till then, enjoy the sand!

–Mark Gruenwald