During his run on Captain America, Mark Gruenwald introduced a bunch of villains, and he tried to use the same approach to creating every one of them.
Today, we look at how Mark Gruenwald used a unifying theory to come up with the set-up for almost all of the new villains that he introduced into his Captain America run in the 1980s.
Knowledge Waits is a feature where I just share some bit of comic book history that interests me.
MARK GRUENWALD’S HANDBOOK TO THE MARVEL UNIVERSE
As I wrote about recently, Mark Gruenwald was an extremely thoughtful comic book writer, who really took the THEORY of comic book writing very seriously. Few comic book writers seemed to put as much thought into the greater impact of their run on the overall comic book mythos as much as Gruenwald. As I noted in that other post, that led to Gruenwald introducing a good deal of new villains during his run, as he believed that superheroes were only as good as their supervillains and that superheroes should have at least 12 great villains so that you could theoretically have the hero fight a different villain each month for a year. That way, you don’t have to rely on the same villains over and over again, possibly diluting their appeal.
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However, interestingly, Gruenwald even had a theory about who should BE Captain America villains. He explained it all to Dwight Jon Zimmerman in Comics Interview #54, when the topic of John Walker (who, at the time of the interview, was the new Captain America) came up:
I designed John Walker, the new Super-Patriot, as part of my ongoing attempt to make Captain America’s villains specific to Captain America. Captain America is not a generic hero. Not that any Marvel heroes are generic, but let’s just say that Spider-Man does not represent spiders. Spider-Man’s a guy who happens to have spider powers. He can fight anybody. Captain America is different, he represents something very specific, and I don’t feel that he can fight just any old person that Spider-Man can. A Captain America story should always have this symbolic level or he becomes generic. Captain America’s best villain has always been Red Skull. Why? Because he is the flip side of the ideological coin that Captain America is on, tyranny versus freedom. After a while, though, the Red Skull was overplayed. You know, every six months we’d announce, « You’ll never guess who’s behind the scenes! » » (Goofy voice.) « Duh, is it da Red Skull? » « Yessirree! It’s the Red Skull! » Trotting him out was getting a bit tiresome, so under my editorship, scripter Marc DeMatteis got rid of the Red Skull for what seems to be permanent – but you know comics. (Laughter.)
WHAT MAKES A GOOD CAPTAIN AMERICA VILLAIN?
He then explained further that he thinks that a good Captain America supervillain exists in relation TO Captain America:
But other than the Skull, Cap’s not had such a great rogues’ gallery. Most of his foes have not had the symbolism that the Red Skull had, and thus they were not half as good a Cap foe. Think of all of the main Captain America villains: Baron Zemo, MODOK, Batroc, Madame Hydra or the Viper…You start running out really quick. So, one of the first things I wanted to do was to try to think of opponents for Captain America that embodied something, like the Red Skull. So what should they embody? Something about America or the world political situation. So other than Armadillo – who is just a silly monster I wanted to throw in as kind of a joke on the old Marvel armadillo thing in the letters page – virtually every character that I’ve introduced or that I’ve reintroduced has had this symbolic aspect to their nature. That’s not to say that I take concepts and put a costume on them and turn them into characters. But that’s my starting point: What is the opposite of Captain America? What sorts of thing would only Captain America be concerned about?
Gruenwald then explained a number of the examples from his actual run.
I started with the opposite of patriotism, anti-patriotism, and came up with the Flag-Smasher, who was totally against the concept of countries and nationalism. And, I just went on from there as far as trying to figure out parts of American culture and the world political situation of today, and finding a way to embody them. I took censorship and repression and I created the Watchdog group. I took drug running and I created the Slug, the most disgusting villain I could think of. (At the time, I thought a 1200 pound man was a bit far-fetched, but I’ve since read about such a guy in People). To represent the military, I created G.I. Max as their new super soldier. Madcap represents purposelessness, the disaffected youth who thinks, « What’s the reason for doing anything? » The ultimate dropout generation. To deal with the health and fitness craze, I made the Power Broker. Nuclear paranoia – I invented the Overrider, whose son was suffering from nuclear psychosis and so he wanted to eliminate all nukes. Vigilantism with Scourge. And this one will sound really contrived, but the idea behind the Serpent Society – who probably look like a bunch of standard villains – trade unions. (Laughter). And wait until this union merges with another one coming up later this year, it’ll be AFL-CIO all over.
JOHN WALKER IS THE ANTI-CAP
Finally, then, he explained how John Walker was introduced as being the opposite of Steve Rogers’ patriotism, the ugly side of patriotism:
I made this giant list of aspects of American life today, and when I had to go the old « idea-well » for a story, I’d take out that list and see what I hadn’t hit yet and say, « Well, how can I deal with this aspect of American life by having a character embody this? » It’s right up Captain America’s alley, and some people have noticed and have said, (Goofy voice) « Oh, it’s so campy, fighting Flag-Smasher an’ alla dese guys. » The stories, anyone can judge whether they’re corny or campy or don’t work for them, but to me, symbolic conflict is the essence of Cap. He has to be involved in the concerns of America and the greater world today in a way that an Iron Man or a Spider-Man does not have to. I’m not trying to do camp villains – I’m trying to stay in the tradition of the Red Skull. If the Red Skull is camp to you because he’s super-arch-Nazi, well, I’m sorry. This is a comic book, folks. (Laughter). All this is leading to Super-Patriot – really. I invented Super-Patriot because I realized that with Captain America being a patriot and being the hero of the strip, and being good and all, that the book was in essence saying patriotism is great, all the time, no matter how you slice it. But there are bad aspects of patriotism, too, so I wanted to come up with a character who…
Zimmerman: Carries patriotism to the extreme?
Gruenwald: Right. Someone who was the dark side of the American dream, who embodied patriotism in a way that Captain America didn’t – a patriotic villain. Basically, I just wanted to the opposite of Steve Rogers.
While this interview was done in 1988, it’s likely that Gruenwald continued this thinking throughout his run on the series (which ended in 1995), as it really seemed like he was trying to do social commentary with a lot of his villains. However, that is not to say that his choices for social commentary were always on point (labor unions as supervillains? Ouch.) The Power Broker, who certainly seemed like a commentary on steroids more than anything, as a commentary on the health and fitness craze is a bit of a tangential point, as well, like it is very likely that the 1991 villain, Superia, was some sort of commentary on « women’s lib » and if so, that landed a bit flat.
Also, it is worth noting that John Walker’s time as Captain America was manipulated by the secretive head of the Commission on Superhuman Activities. « You’ll never guess who’s behind the scenes! » » (Goofy voice.) « Duh, is it da Red Skull? » « Yessirree! It’s the Red Skull! » So that’s just amusing in retrospect.
In any event, Mark Gruenwald was clearly a fascinating guy with a lot to say about comic books. We lost him far too early.
If anyone has an idea for an interesting piece of comic book history, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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