"You Mark Gruenwald?"
"Yeah? Who're you?" I asked the two burly men in cheap suits and Ray-Ban mirrored glasses who walked into my Park Avenue office unannounced.
"We'll do the asking, Mr. Gruenwald."
"Are you the guy who killed Mirage, Hellrazor, Shellshock, Bird-Man, Cyclone, the original Ringer, the Grappler, the Cheetah, the Vamp, Commander Kraken, Letha, Steeplejack, Mind-Wave, the Rapier, Turner D. Century, and the Hijacker all in a single story?"
"Uh...not exactly. That was Scourge, a villain I concocted. I wrote the story, though...but give me a break, that was what? seven or eight years ago! The statute of limitations on that crime is up. Hey, who are you guys - the Feds?"
The two looked at one another and each made a half smirk. I really hate half smirks. The bigger of the two said, "You also killed -" (he flicked open a small black notebook) "- the Porcupine, Blue Streak, Death Adder, Occult, Left-Winger, Right-Winger, Tom Thumb, Black Archer, Nighthawk II, Blue Eagle, Nuke, Foxfire, Lamprey, Redstone, Inertia, Cutthroat, Snapdragon, Mangler, Deathstroke, Maelstrom, Quasar's father, and several Scourges?"
I was exasperated now. "Yeah, over the course of my writing career so far, there've been a few casualties. Every writer takes a few out of the pool. What of it? I've added more than I subtracted!"
"Yeah, sure, every writer kills off a few in their time. Stan and the original Baron Zemo. Conway and Gwen Stacy. Claremont and Phoenix. DeMatteis and Kraven. But you, Mr. Gruenwald, you far exceed the norm."
"Yeah," sneered the bigger one, "even Starlin, Mr. Infinity Crusade himself, who once had the reputation for killing every one of his characters before leaving a series, has since brought almost all of them back. That makes you Marvel's Mister Death, mister!"
"So you want I should bring back Bird-Man? Steeplejack? Turner D. Century? Get real. That's it. I've had enough of your line of questioning. I'm getting my secretary to throw you out! JO-SIEEEEEE!"
They slammed the door before my yelp for help could fully escape. The bigger one put his hand on my shoulder and sat me down hard in my swivel chair. As he sat on the edge of my desk, he removed his Ray-Bans, leaned in and said, "Look, Mr. Gruenwald, we're not with the Feds. We don't even wanna know where you were the night Superman bought the farm -"
"Hey, I don't go near that universe! That was my ex-assistant Mike Car-!" He clamped his meaty hand over my moustache.
The other one said, "We have a client, who prefers at this time to go unnamed, who is interested in, shall we say, eliminating a character who has outlived his usefulness. Since you've had more experience than anybody else in the field wiping out known, named characters, he wants to hire you as - how can i put this delicately? - the triggerman? He's willing to pay you the tidy sum of -"
"Wait a minute!" I interjected. "You want to hire me as a hit man?!? I don't do that anymore! I'm out of that line of work! I've reformed! I regret almost every death I've ever committed to print! I -"
"Don't con a con artist, Mr. Gruenwald," the man on the other side of my desk said. "You're responsible for two deaths in the past year alone - Cutthroat and Snapdragon. Don't tell me you've sworn off!"
"Well," I admitted, "occasionally for dramatic necessity or long-term character development I still have to - ahem - write out certain characters, but I'm no longer the advocate of wholesale housecleaning. I believe that every character, no matter how humble his origins, may be of use to some writer or another, so I have no right to retire that character from the character pool we all share!"
"Rationalize it how you wish, Mr. Gruenwald," said the man. "What we want to know is if you want the job or not."
"Um...who's the character?" I asked. There are, after all, still a few characters in the mighty Marvel Universe that I find aesthetically embarrassing.
"No can tell, Mr. Gruenwald, until after you accept the assignment."
"Well, then I'm just not interested in accepting your so-called assignment. Sorry."
The two looked at each other; then the big one got off the corner of my desk and joined the other at the door. As the shorter one opened it, I suddenly thought, what if the character their mysterious employer wants to eliminate is one I actually like? What if they just find some other hack to do the guy in and I don't find out about it till I get the comic? What if it's someone I really don't think should die - like an Iron Fist - and I'm haunted by not saying something to prevent it, when I had the chance?
"Wait!" I said as the first was nearly out the door. "Come back and let's talk a sec. Have a seat on my couch."
I came around my desk and closed the door as they sat on my long blue-grey couch. "Change your mind, Mr. Gruenwald?" asked the slightly smaller one.
"Possibly," I lied, leaning against the edge of my desk. "Let me ask you a few questions. I promise they won't be who your employer or who your target is, okay?" Their nondescript heads bobbed in unison.
"Okay," I said with a sigh, ready to wing it. "This character you want bumped off...you say he's outlived his usefulness? How so?"
The two looked at each other through their Ray-Bans and, for a moment, I figured they were going to refuse to cooperate. Then the smaller one said, "The guy's backstory has gotten way too complicated, he's been handled by a succession of writers who took the character this way and that, his sales are now in the toilet, and - to make a long story short - our employer thinks the only thing good about the character is his name. So he wants to kill the current guy so he can turn around and recycle the name with a new character."
"I see. That does sound like a real problem. And death, as you propose, is a possible solution to that problem. Possible, I say, because you're hoping that you can do better the second time, but you're by no means assured of it."
"Actually your plight reminds me of a discussion I was involved in concerning Captain America's pal, the Falcon. I'd gotten a lot of fan mail from people who were interested in seeing Falc return to Cap's book, and so I was considering it. My problem with the Falcon was something like what you said. Through a succession of writers, Falc's backtory got very, very convoluted and messy. I also thought the way he looked was a bit too '70s-ish, and what he could do was no big shakes anymore. An artist came up witha proposal to kill him off and have him be replaced by a young continuity-free protege in a slicked-up '90s suit.
"As I mulled over the idea, I began to realize my great affection for Sam Wilson and the storyline where he was first introduced, well before his life got all mucked up. It also hit me that he was Marvel's first African-American super hero. I couldn't condemn such a guy to death just because he had the misfortune of having some writers make him complicated instead of interesting. So I told the artist, how about if we just ignore all the stuff that makes Sam's backstory so unsavory - not negate it, mind you, just never refer to it again - and work on updating him for the '90s instead? The artist agreed, we did just that, and well, the Falcon's been back and the response to his return has been generally good."
[line missing from printed copy] sort of acknowledgment of my tale. Finally the big one said, "That may work with a supporting character, Mr. Gruenwald. But we're talking about a headliner here -"
The smaller guy elbowed the big one in the ribs, afraid, I guess, that he was going to reveal too much.
"Well, with a headliner, it's possible to do the same. You can just have the writer and editor hereby vow to ignore all the bad stuff and concentrate on the good, and eventually the fans will stop remembering that the bad stuff was even there."
"That won't work, Mr. Gruenwald," the smaller lug said. "We're talking about a book which is hemorrhaging from low sales. It's necessary to do something big and something quick to save it."
"To Save You, Why Must I Kill You?" I murmured.
"What was that?"
"Oh, I was just quoting my all-time favorite Stan Lee title. Your solution to save the title is to kill it, right?"
"Yeah, but then revive it."
"Look, one of my most-quoted axioms about the comics biz is that there are three things you can do to make an immediate sales difference on a super hero title: One, guest star somebody big, like Wolverine or Venom. Two, change a guy's costume in a big way. Or three, kill him off and/or replace him. You seem dead-set - pardon the pun - on the last of these. Have you considered the first two?"
"Considered?" said the bigger guy. "We did 'em! Even threw in number four to add to your list - did a gimmick cover. Didn't work. Soon as the guest stars left and the cover was back to normal, sales slacked back, new costume be darned."
"I see...well, might I suggest then retiring the character without killing him? Maybe the book's just a little anemic right now, or there's a lot of stiff competition out there, or the direction's just never clicked, and all you need is a few years of downtime so you can try again with the exact same guy. I mean, the Hulk, Silver Surfer, the Guardians of the Galaxy - none of these could sustain a series for very long when they first came out in the '60s and '70s, but after being relaunched some time later - success! Could happen with your guy."
"But what about Ghost Rider, Deathlok, and Spider-Woman?" asked the smaller one. "They were revived with new guys taking the place of the originals. They might not've done so well with originals just dusted off and put back in print."
"Mmm, yes," I said, "but for every Ghost Rider or Deathlok or Spider-Woman, you have at least two Iron Fists or Morbiuses or Hellstorms or Warlocks who are the same old characters dusted off and done better than in their previous incarnations. What I think you have to do is determine what is at the core of a given character's concept. If it is that a specific person just has to be a certain character to retain its uniqueness and primacy, or if the concept is bigger than who happened to be the first to embody it. For example, you could do another guy who got Morbius's blood formula and turned into a living vampire, but it wouldn't be Morbius. On the other hand, you could do another guy with a fiery skull riding a motorcycle - it doesn't have to be Johnny - excuse me, John - Blaze."
The two lughs both stared at their knees for a moment, apparently thinking about what I'd just said. "So have your employer ask himself if the concept of the character he wants to bump off requires that the original person embody that concept to make it work - replacing Sam Wilson with another Falcon would rob the Marvel Universe forever of its first African-American hero - or if it's a non-specific, inheritable concept - any woman with spidery powers could be a female Spider-Man, not just the first. Does that make sense?"
The two guys in cheap suits rose from my couch. Did my arguments penetrate? Did I save the life of a character whose identity I don't even know?
"Thanks for your time, Mr. Gruenwald," the one said as the two opened the door and left my office. I stood at the door and watched them lumber down the hall toward the reception area.
"Scratch Gruenwald. Let's try Nicieza. He just had a 60-year old granny killed."
Reader alert: Somebody with his own book is going to die real soon, and I swear I had nothing to do with it.