For the Marvel portion of our story, we need to jump ahead a few years, to a certain San Diego con. Not sure when, but it was in the mid-Eighties, probably a year or two after the Crisis. (Strange how us old fanboys use that as a marking device, isn’t it?) As you may recall, Rich Howell and I collaborated on a series of Inhumans shorts originally intended for WHAT IF? that got shelved. But I still had stats of the art, and I brought them with me to the con, hoping for a little attention, and maybe work.
I saw Tom DeFalco, who was the editor in chief at the time, and said hi to him and shook his hand. He asked my name, and I gave it to him. “And I think I’m also one of your writers,” I said, showing him the pages.
He looked through them and said, “Well, I guess you are one of our writers. Welcome aboard, Lou.”
I asked him where at Marvel I might be able to pick up some piecework. He mentioned that Mark Gruenwald was buying stories for AVENGERS SPOTLIGHT, the split-book that had Hawkeye in the front half and a different single Avenger in the back.
Did I ever mention that my all-time favorite Marvel comic was THE AVENGERS?
Well, I just had to try to place a story with Mark, who had grown into a pen-phone-pal in the years intervening. (I wrote some articles for the still-unpubbed OMNIVERSE #3, with which he was impressed.) Problem was, what character would I write about? I’d stopped being a Marvel Zombie a few years before, and, as everybody knows, a few years out of touch with Marvel can make you a hopeless antique vis-a-vis their characters.
Who could I write about that wouldn’t require me having to acquire and bone up on four years worth of back stories?
…somebody who wasn’t around in current stories?
Somebody, maybe, who was dead?
There was only one Avenger that fit the bill.
For those not in the know: The Swordsman debuted in AVENGERS #19 (1965) and was a fairly popular B-list villain through most of the Silver Age. He was a masked sword-wielder who had gotten in trouble with the law in a number of countries and tried to become an Avenger to cover his tracks, which, briefly, he did. He later fought the Assemblers in various groups but came back to heroism in AVENGERS #100 and rejoined the team shortly thereafter. Steve Englehart wrote a masterful series of stories detailing his attempts to fit into the team, his almost pathetic love for the faithless Mantis, and his heroic death protecting her from Kang. That being 1974, he stayed dead.
Better yet: neither his origin or even his real name had been revealed.
Our little crew of congoers, who included George Olshevsky, his wife Andrea, Murray and Laura Ward, Dennis Mallonee, and me, all went out to dinner that night and on the way, I was cogitating on an origin story for the Swordsman. I might not know much about mutie-era Marvel, but from 1961-1984, I just about had cosmic consciousness of the group.
I had to think of what had been revealed, if anything, of Sword’s background. Really, there hadn’t been much. In his first appearance, Captain America remarked that he was wanted in at least half-a-dozen countries for various crimes. What crimes?
In the issue in which he rejoined the Avengers for good, Sword told Captain America that men had died facing him. What men?
Just prior to his return to the team, the Swordsman had gone to Southeast Asia as a mercenary, where he met Mantis. Why there?
In an issue of CAPTAIN MARVEL, Sword was shown speaking French in one dialogue balloon. Why?
Gradually, I began to fit all these details into a single profile, and put it together with the real-world situation that preceded his first appearance.
It seemed to me that the Swordsman could have been a native of French Indochina, before the revolution that kicked out the colonial powers and divided the country into North and South Viet Nam. But what would his part be, in such a struggle?
What part, indeed?
Mark Evanier once warned about a writer who has sold maybe one story gassing about it as if he had sold hundreds. I won’t go that route. You can read the story yourself, if you want to. At the time, though, I knew I had a tale with some legs to it (let’s forego puns, folks), and I approached Mark Gruenwald at the Marvel table the next day to pitch it to him. When I mentioned that I wanted to tie the briefly-seen French hero, the Crimson Cavalier, to it, he smiled and said, “Are you going the way of Philip Jose Farmer?” Well, maybe. He agreed to take a look at it after I wrote it up.
So I did, and he wrote back that he really liked it. He just asked me to change the setting from Viet Nam to a non-specific country, and to make sure I left enough room for action. I did both.
The story got drawn up by, miracle of miracles, Don Heck. Don had been the second artist on the Avengers, after Jack Kirby, and had drawn the Swordsman’s first appearance and many thereafter. When I got the pencilled pages for dialoguing, it was like stepping back into the Silver Age.
I think I did one of my best dialogue jobs on the story. Anyway, it went back to Marvel, and they sat on it. Since it wasn’t tied to current continuity, they could slot it in anytime they wanted to.
It took a little while. But one day, in the mail (we didn’t have e-mail back then), a note came back from Mark. He wrote that the Swordsman story was scheduled for a specific issue of SPOTLIGHT, and my Inhumans stories were about to be published in a special edition as well. “Guess ’89 is your year,” he said.
And I guess it was.
AVENGERS SPOTLIGHT #22 featured the Swordsman with Hawkeye on the cover, and, despite a little rewriting on the first part of the framing sequence (there had been some personnel changes in the team, and Steve Englehart had brought the Cotati Swordsman back for an encore in AVENGERS WEST COAST), it came off pretty well. Most of the pros I showed the story to later on, as a sampler, enjoyed it. One of those was Stan Lee, and another was Tom DeFalco.
The Inhumans I was less pleased with, not from an art or plot standpoint, but for my dialogue. I could have done a lot better job with it if I’d written it in ’89, rather than ’81. But that was my big-show item of the year, and it gained one unfavorable review in AMAZING HEROES (which I pretty much agreed with), and it didn’t exactly help me get more work.
Thanks to the Gruenwald connection, I was able to pitch a few more stories to Marvel, but none of them stuck to the wall. But I was already trying to score with just about everybody else out there.
Still, I think Marvel treated me just about the best of all the companies I’ve been involved with. And I’m still glad that I finally got to give the Swordsman an origin, and that a lot of folks seemed to like it.
Less happy things, at other places, were to ensue.
Do I have to say it? “To be continued…”