Comics / Cult Favorite

The Mike Grell Dragon*Con Panel

By Philip Schweier
October 13, 2011 - 09:53

Writer/Artist Mike Grell
As a young man growing up in northern Wisconsin, future comic book artist Mike Grell had initially intended to become a lumberjack, like his father. “When I was 16,” he told an audience at a recent convention, “he got me a job working in the woods and thank God he did because I found out how hard the old boy had been working all those years.”

Grell then made plans to become an architect, but the math proved too great a hurdle and he switched to commercial art instead. “When I was in the Air Force, I met a guy in basic training by the name of Bailey Phelps, who said, ‘Give up this commercial art thing, you should become a cartoonist, because cartoonists only work two or three days a week and make a million dollars a year.’”

That might have been true for the likes of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, but Grell said, “After 39 years in the business now, someone owes me $38.5 million bucks and about 30 years vacation time.”

The thought of getting into comics never occurred to him until he was stationed in Saigon, when another airman showed up with a bundle of old comics in tow. “He had Daredevil by Gene Colan and Tom Palmer, and he had Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams/Dick Giordano’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow. And I took one look and thought, ‘I know exactly what I want to be when I grow up – Neal Adams.’”

After serving an apprenticeship with Dale Messick on her newspaper strip Brenda Starr, Grell chanced into a meeting at a comic book convention with artist Irv Novick, who was working for DC Comics at the time drawing such characters as Batman and the Flash. He encouraged Grell to submit his work to Julie Schwartz. After a few jobs drawing Aquaman back-up stories, he was able to establish a large body of work.

“I took every assignment that came my way. If I hadn’t slept for days and somebody said, ‘We need a seven-page story done over the weekend,’ I’d take it, and find some way to stay awake and get the thing done.”

Grell's wrap-around cover to the Legion of Super-Heroes Limited Collector's Edition
Fate intervened when a dispute led Dave Cockrum, who was drawing the Legion of Super-Heroes at the time, to depart the book. His last work on the title was #202, penciling a story entitled “Lost: A Million Miles From Home.” Grell did the inks, then penciled and inked the following issue himself.

After drawing the Legion for the next few years, he left the title when presented the opportunity to write and draw his own character.  “Because of my interest in comic strips, I knew most of those guys – Hal Foster, Milton Caniff – wrote all their own stuff,” he said. “And it sort of went hand in hand. Like the bumblebee, I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to fly. And my first book on my own was of course the Warlord.”

Starslayer #1
In 1975, the Warlord debuted in First Issue Special #8, leading to an ongoing series which Grell wrote and/or drew for approximately 80 issues. Many of the later ones were written by his then-wife, Sharon Wright, a fact that went unnoticed by the readers at the time. When he eventually left the series, he launched a new title entitled Starslayer with Pacific Comics, one of the earliest so-called independent publishers that sprang up in the early 1980s to offer creator ownership.

“I guess if I have to pick one thing out of my whole career to hang my hat on, I think that’ll do,” he said. “It was tough going there at first, but man, once people saw what could be done, it was amazing.

“We knew that this was going to break the lock. Pacific couldn’t really hold it together but fortunately First Comics stepped up right behind. And I had a sense then that this was going to be something that would change the industry and it did. I guarantee you, if it hadn’t been for companies like Pacific and First, Marvel and DC wouldn’t be paying royalties right now.”

Starslayer, like the Warlord before, was a blend of science fiction and sword & sorcery, moving Grell away from the costumed super-heroes he worked on earlier in his career. Jon Sable: Freelance, published by First Comics, took it further, featuring the adventures of a bounty hunter/mercenary who masquerades as a children’s author, largely because the money is better. The series ran for approximately 60 issues before Grell left, returning once again to DC Comics to write and draw Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, a three-issue mini-series that eventually led to an ongoing series that he also wrote.

Again, Grell took steps to move into the real world, despite the character’s background as “Batman with a bow.” He said, “I wanted to put Ollie into the real world as much as possible, having just gone from the Sable series and drawing on real world stories for inspiration, news stories and things like that.”

Grell credits his editor, Mike Gold, with whom he had worked at First before Gold moved over to DC, for providing him with the opportunity. “Mike phoned me up and asked me if there was something I’d like to do at DC enough to bury the hatchet and come back to work over there. And I thought I had always done such a crummy job on Batman that I’d love another shot at it except I knew that Frank Miller had just started writing his new project which was coming out around the same time entitled The Dark Knight.”

Green Arrow #1
According to Grell, Gold said, “‘Well, what about Green Arrow?’ and Green Arrow was always my favorite comic book character, and he said, ‘Think about this: Green Arrow as an urban hunter.’ Oh, yeah, that works for me. I’ll take that.”

After 80 issues, Grell left Green Arrow behind. Following a three-issue James Bond story, his next project, for Image Comics, was Shaman’s Tears. “At that point,” Grell said, “it was a decision to do a super-hero type oriented book, but I really don’t care that much for super-powers. So I decided what I really wanted to do was something that had more of a metaphysical or spiritual aspect to it where the guy, the hero of the book, undergoes the ordeal of the Sundance ceremony and is bestowed with the powers of the animals.” The series ran for a total of 13 issues.

In the early 1990s, speculators had taken over the comic book market, resulting in a lot of cheap gimmicks such as die-cut covers and events with no significant lasting implications. When the bubble burst, many comic book creators struggled, including Grell. It took a while, but eventually he landed at Marvel Comics where he spent a brief time writing Iron Man.

The cast of the short-lived Sable TV Series: Ken Page, Lewis Van Bergen and Rene Russo
He also published a novel based on his Sable series, and has since revived the character for a couple of limited series published by IDW. The character has also been optioned for film.

In 1987, ABC broadcast six episodes based on the Sable character, but the show failed to capture the attention of viewers. Since then, in 2001, Gene Simmons, the bass player for KISS, has optioned the title.

“He was pushing to get it greenlit before the ides of March,” said Grell. “March 15 was the cut-off that year because there was a Screen Actors Guild strike pending and they knew that if SAG went out the first of July, anything that was in production had to be finished.

“They were down to about the last 10 days and Stephen DeSouza, who had written the script – he wrote Diehard and Commando and tons of other stuff. So what they said was, ‘What we’re going to do instead of rushing this is, we think it’s a better story than this, we’re going to take a little more time and start shooting in October, shoot over Christmas in Africa and New York.’ Great, that’s fine. And in September, the Towers came down.”

Mike Grell's recent Jon Sable graphic novel
The tragedy of 9/11 put a choke-hold on financing from overseas, as well as many films featuring references to terrorism and violence. But since then, Grell has been pushing to see the film made. “A year ago I was working with a director and at the point where the lawyers got involved, everything went to hell. Imagine that. My guy talked to his guy and they’re having a great time. They’re showing the size of their various appendages and I honest-to-God thought we were one e-mail exchange away from a signature and they said, ‘Screw this,’ and pulled out. But, a year later, we’re back. Got the deal memo, waiting for a phone call. We’ll see. Cross your fingers and toes.

Gradually Grell has made his way back into mainstream comics, most recently writing and drawing a revived Warlord title for DC Comics. “There’s a panel early in the original series,” said Grell, “where I planned how I was going to kill him off, and I just did last year.”  The run culminated in the death of Travis Morgan, the title character and the mantle of the Warlord being handed down to his grown son.

He has also been working with actor Mark Ryan on a series entitled The Pilgrim. It tells the story of a program by the British during WW II. “They were attempting to conjure up a physical form out of pure mental energy with the idea that this could form the basis of the perfect clandestine agent. You can manifest this person, this object, this whatever, anywhere you want, send it on a mission, espionage, assassination, anything, and it vanishes into nothing when you’re done with it. Except in the case of The Pilgrim, the house where this is going on gets bombed and this thing escapes into the world.

“Then come forward in time and it’s a story about this creature, the Pilgrim, who is formed out of the psyche of many different people – almost like the Frankenstein monster. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to be, what he’s supposed to do. He has incredible powers, but he has no idea what they’re for or why. And he spends all this time trying to learn how to be a human. He’s succeeded to the extent that he’s sort of forgotten who he really is. And the story is a zinger, and I’ll be honest with you, I’m not entirely sure how it ends.”

So far, two issues have been published. “The Pilgrim, we’re talking to a new publisher at the moment,” explained Grell.

In the meantime, Grell has returned to mainstream comics, illustrating such titles as X-Men Forever and Herc for Marvel, and a Green Lantern/Green Arrow special at DC.

Last Updated: April 9, 2021 - 22:22

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