Dr. Strangelunch, or: How I Learned to Have Lunch and Love the "Secret Defenders"

This is the story of the strangest lunch meeting I've ever had.

I've already written about the year I spent on "Thor," and how it didn't quite work out as hoped. (The trade collection of the Thor-Silver Surfer-Warlock "Blood and Thunder" storyline apparently hit stores yesterday, so you can go see for yourself.)

About halfway through my year on "Thor," the decision was made to replace the artist on the book. The incoming artist was going to be Tom Grindberg, who had spent a weekend at my house so we could brainstorm ideas and designs. Not long after, Tom and I were summoned into the Marvel offices for a lunch meeting to discuss the book's direction. So far, standard operating procedure.

I hopped the train into Manhattan and walked a few blocks to the Marvel offices. Lunch with my "Silver Surfer" editor usually meant sushi. Lunch with my "Thor" editor, Mike Rockwitz, had no established cuisine yet. Mike's assistant, Joe Andreani, met me in reception and we headed for Mike's office. Tom Grindberg showed up, portfolio in hand. So we waited for the arrival of Rockwitz's supervisor, the legendary Ralph Macchio, a fixture at Marvel then and now. (Save the "Karate Kid" jokes, Ralph's heard them all. Twice. Minimum.)

Once Ralph appeared, we headed out of the office and walked to the restaurant, talking about nothing in particular on the way. I don't remember the name or the location of the restaurant, only that it was an Italian place on the second floor, and that it was one of Ralph's favorite places. We were there later in the afternoon, and except for a few late lunchers, we had the whole place to ourselves. We sat down at a round table, and Tom unzipped his portfolio, ready to show off the Thor sketches and designs he'd produced.

But before Tom could bring any artwork out of his portfolio, Ralph laced his fingers, looked at us across the table, and said: "I'm so glad you've agreed to take over 'Secret Defenders.' We really need to get that book on track. So, tell me what you have planned."

I looked at Tom, eyes wide. Tom looked back at me, eyes wider. He obviously had no idea what was going on either. This was the first time... ever... that the subject of "Secret Defenders" had been broached with me, much less the subject of actually taking over the book.

Bear in mind this is right in the midst of the '90s comics boom, when speculators were driving sales to insane levels. You could throw damn near anything out on the market and sell 100,000 copies. "Secret Defenders" certainly fit the description of "damn near anything." The title was not Marvel's finest moment (or mine). It was essentially "Mission Impossible" in the Marvel Universe, with Doctor Strange in the Peter Graves (or Tom Cruise) role, gathering a rotating team of operatives for missions. At the time, "Secret Defenders" was less than a year old, written by Roy Thomas and drawn by... somebody I can't remember. It was also one of the books in Rockwitz's editorial stable.

In the space of however long it took me to stammer, "Uh... uh... well..." I guessed what must've happened. Tom and I were under the impression we were going to be working on "Thor" together. But it was suddenly obvious that Rockwitz had been given marching orders to find a new creative team for "Secret Defenders." It was also obvious that he hadn't done it. So to cover his ass, he'd told Ralph that Tom and I were the new team. Without ever asking us.

You hear stories -- often true -- about writers or artists being handed gigs because they were in the office at the right time. Tom and I had just been handed "Secret Defenders" because we showed up for lunch at the right time. Or, considering this is "Secret Defenders" we're talking about, maybe at the wrong time.

Sitting at the table, waiting for appetizers, I was faced with a dilemma. I could tell the truth -- that I had no idea about any of this -- which would make it plain that my editor hadn't bothered to do his job. Or, I could go along with it, and save my editor's bacon in front of his boss.

Tom looked at me, I looked at Ralph, and said, "Well, I... um... what I was thinking was... we could do something different and... uh... have Thanos put together a team of villains..."

From there, I made up plotlines on the spot, just saying whatever came into my head. Eventually, Ralph nodded and said he liked it. Then he turned to Tom and asked him if this was something he was excited to draw. To his credit, Tom played along: "Oh yeah, absolutely."

So that was it. We were the new team on "Secret Defenders," a title I'd never even considered working on just fifteen minutes prior. Later on, back at the office, Rockwitz sheepishly said something like, "Hey, that's okay with you guys, right? Working on 'Secret Defenders?'" But by that point, it was already a fait accompli.

Ralph asked us to build a storyline around second-stringers War Machine and Thunderstrike for the first couple of issues, because Marvel wanted more exposure for them. If I said I had any desire whatsoever to write "sort of Iron Man" and "not quite Thor," I'd be lying. But at least I got to write a couple scenes of Doctor Strange in his Sanctum Sanctorum, and that's pretty damn cool.

Issue #11 was a tie-in to some crossover or other, and I don't remember much about it except that I got a chance to write Nova, one of my favorite heroes from my boyhood comics reading. As a kid, I wasn't savvy enough to see Nova as the obvious Spider-Man/Green Lantern amalgam that he was. I haven't gone back and looked at the issue, but I imagine my Nova in "Secret Defenders" #11 reads something like a proto-Kyle Rayner.

By issue #12, we finally got to trot out the Thanos story I'd made up at lunch. I loved writing Thanos, and tried to do right by him and his creator, Jim Starlin, the guy who got me into comics. The team Thanos assembled was essentially a collection of villains I liked:

  • Rhino, who made an impression on me as a kid, watching reruns of the '60s-era "Spider-Man" animated series.
  • Titanium Man, whom I first saw in my older brother's box of vintage Marvels.
  • Nitro, for his Captain Marvel connection.
  • Super Skrull, because ... well, he was a Skrull. And Super.

We even snuck an image of Darkseid, a pretty prominent one, into #12. But I have to admit, the coolest aspect to the issue was the foil-enhanced cover, a big head shot of Thanos with glowing eyes. As foil enhancements go, it was pretty restrained, and pretty effective because of it.

I stuck around through issue #14 of "Secret Defenders," figuring six issues was the minimum I needed to write before I could justify begging off due to workload. In the end, it wasn't a terrible gig, just one I wasn't enthused about. I suppose it ranks fairly low on my list of credits, down around the handful of "What If" I wrote... though come to think of it, I like a couple of those "What If" issues.

At least I got lunch out of it.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts," "Witchblade" and "Magdalena" for Top Cow, and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.

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