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Captain America Digs Deadheads: The Grateful Dead Meet Marvel

Dean Budnick | January 23, 2018


Issue no. 355 of Captain America (July 1989) opens with Cap sitting in his executive office on Avengers Island where he laments, “Some Avengers leader I turned out to be. Since taking command of this outfit, I’ve  been doing as much paperwork as Avenging!”

In the midst of sorting through these tasks, Peggy Carter, the former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who has been assisting the group with administrative duties, informs him of “a call on line seven from a Ms. Bernadette Rosenthal.” Cap agrees to speak with her, although he acknowledges some misgivings. (She is a former girlfriend who had proposed to him before their relationship dissipated.) He had first met her in the guise of his alter ego Steve Rogers, and later endangered her life by revealing his secret identity.

Rosenthal, who subsequently left town to enter law school—years later, she would defend Cap’s former partner, Bucky Barnes, The Winter Solider—reveals that she has contacted him hoping that he could locate her younger sister Nancy, who ran away from home a month earlier. Cap promises to investigate and soon discovers that other teenagers have seemingly disappeared as of late. He decides to go undercover and enlists Sersi, one of the Eternals, to turn him into a 17-year-old version of himself.

He then makes his way to New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, where the incognito Captain America is hypnotized and kidnapped by the villainous Sisters of Sin. They transport him via a bus along with other lost teens to Camp Rage (which, to modern ears, sounds like a destination weekend with the band Lettuce, but carries far more nefarious connotations in this setting). While at the camp, criminal masterminds Mother Night and Minister Blood instruct the teenagers to channel the power of hate.

This story arc concludes in issue No. 357 after Captain America spontaneously returns to his previous size, which enables him to defeat the Sisters of Sin and liberate the young people. On the final page of the story, Captain calls Bernie with an update, explaining that he still hasn’t found her sister. She interrupts him to inform Cap that Nancy hasn’t actually run away, but instead, “She just took off  with her boyfriend to follow the Grateful Dead on their concert tour and forgot to tell anyone.”

Captain America is heartened by this news and says to himself: “Considering all the alternatives, this country could use a lot more Deadheads.”

These two panels, which would seem destined for T-shirts—or at least bootleg lot gear—raise an intriguing question: Was anyone at Marvel a Deadhead, and what are the origins of the Nancy Rosenthal as a touring Deadhead subplot?

In the process of considering this, it’s worth noting that Jerry Garcia was a longtime comic book fan. While growing up in the 1940s and ‘50s, he was an avid consumer of EC comics, describing this enthusiasm as “one of the ways I got into reading.” EC, which is best known for its horror titles such as Tales From the Crypt, received a series of public rebukes in 1954 during the congressional hearings into juvenile delinquency that vilified the industry, following the publication of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent. Eventually, EC publisher William Gaines stopped producing comics altogether, focusing instead on his new magazine, Mad.

Nearly four decades later, Garcia characterized EC as “the Grateful Dead of the ‘50s,” noting that the obsessive mail in the back of each issue demonstrated that “their fans are like Deadheads.” As one of these individuals himself, he expressed his ongoing fascination with the classic EC comics titles, singling out many of the writers and artists by name, including: Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Bill Elder, Bernie Krigstein and Graham J. Ingels. (Garcia raved that Ingels’ work, with its heavy use of shadows, is akin to a German expressionist film.)

Ken Viola, the Dead’s longtime head of security, recalls, “Garcia and I were big comic-book readers. I remember he told me that when he first got money, he bought a complete collection of EC. I read those, but I also read Marvel Comics when they were Atlas, due to the work of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, so I was in at the beginning of the early ‘60s superhero thing.”

Garcia remained such a lifelong comics fan that, in 1991, he prompted crewmember Bill “Kidd” Candelario, who often focused on the band’s merchandise, to develop Grateful Dead Comix. Candelario recalls, “Jerry volunteered me to do a lot of stu over the years that I wouldn’t have otherwise done. In this case, we brought in [Robert] Hunter, who was skeptical at first, but then he saw how someone like Tim Truman was interpreting his lyrics. The ‘Dire Wolf’ art is amazing.” Garcia set the project in motion and later helped select the artists for the title, which Kitchen Sink Comics published for seven issues. 
In his introduction to a compilation of Grateful Dead Comix favorites, Garcia wrote, “The Grateful Dead has always been eclectic stylistically, and so are these comics, going from hard, illustrative styles to cartoony, comic-y, bouncy animated stuff. Being able to have that spread of styles is fun—I don’t know that there’s any absolute aesthetic to comics, just like music, and whether or not this material has any interest to anybody besides Deadheads I couldn’t even begin to guess. It doesn’t matter, really. For me, it’s given me new covers to collect, and made me a happy fan—still a fan-addict after all these years.”

Candelario’s hand in creating the series later sparked an idea that led him directly to Marvel. Candelario had long been in charge of the band’s backstage passes. He remembers that initially they were simply created by using stamps on felt, which, as it turned out, meant that they could be easily counterfeited by zealous Deadheads. By the mid-‘80s, this prompted the band to produce a series of passes for every show with art that varied from night to night, often with ongoing visual themes such as old-time autos. He notes that early on, “I had Jerry and [artist] Rick Griffin on my team to look [at the proposed images] to tell me what was cool and what changes needed to be made.”

As Candelario contemplated the series of illustrations that would appear on the band’s passes in 1995, he came up with the idea of using Marvel characters. He approached the company, which assented. Candelario recalls that his initial point of contact was “The Man, himself”’ (i.e. Stan Lee). The resulting passes featured images of Spider- Man, Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, The Silver Surfer, Galactus, and, yes, even Captain America.

Just six years earlier, Cap had extolled the virtues of Deadheads. The question remains as to how this reference found its way into the pages of Captain America.

Mark Gruenwald, who wrote issues 355–357 in the middle of a 10-year run on the book, passed away in 1996 at age 43 due to a heart attack resulting from an undetected congenital defect.

Epic Marvel Podcast host Kurtis Findlay comments, “Mark Gruenwald was a fantastic writer who really understood the core of the characters that he wrote. He never relied on cheap gimmicks or publicity stunts to make his books sell. He was simply an excellent storyteller.”

But was he a Deadhead?

The answer appears to be no. Gruenwald’s editor on Captain America was his old friend Ralph Macchio (no, not the actor). A year after Macchio started at Marvel in 1976, he met Gruenwald, a comic fan who was then toiling at a Manhattan bank, and recommended him to the Marvel brass. The two of them soon became writing partners on Marvel Two-In-One and Thor, before later joining forces again on Captain America where Gruenwald penned the scripts and Macchio edited his work.

Macchio remembers Gruenwald as a casual music fan who kept a poster of The Who’s The Kids Are All Right hanging in his office. Macchio also recalls that Gruenwald once informed him that John Lennon’s death had helped convince him to get married because one doesn’t know what’s on the horizon (a poignant thought given Gruenwald’s own fate).

While Gruenwald did not demonstrate any particular fervor for the Grateful Dead, Macchio notes that Marvel did have at least one resident Deadhead, Mike Higgins, who served as an editor, letterer and in other capacities over the years. In issue No. 262 of Fantastic Four (January 1984), which came out during Marvel’s whimsical Assistant Editor’s Month, the comic opens with writer/penciller John Byrne on the phone with Higgins, explaining that his content is late because the FF hasn’t called him yet to share their latest exploits. Higgins is receiving this call while seated behind his desk. The portion of his shirt that is visible features an unmistakable Stealie logo.

Macchio believes it’s possible that Gruenwald included the reference to Grateful Dead fans in issue No. 357 as a nod to their friend Higgins.

Still, it could have just been a plot device, pure and simple. By the time that Gruenwald wrote these issues of Captain America, the nomadic nature of the band’s fans was well established. It is possible that Gruenwald, who clearly had some musical interests, was simply referencing the band’s affable, peripatetic boosters in order to serve his story of missing teens captured by super villains, and relocated to “a camp set up to fan the flames of hatred and promote the ways of violence.”

All of which suggests that—whether in the pages of Captain America circa 1989 or in the polarized, tumultuous world of the present—“considering all the alternatives, this country could use a lot more Deadheads.” 

This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of Relix.