Written by Bryan Stroud
Mike Grell (born September 13, 1947) is an American comic book writer and artist, known for his work on books such as Green Lantern/Green Arrow, The Warlord, and Jon Sable: Freelance. Mike entered the comics industry as an assistant to Dale Messick on the Brenda Starr comic strip in 1972 - but in 1973 he moved to New York City and began his long relationship with DC Comics. His first regular assignment at DC was on Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, a high-profile assignment for an artist with no prior comic book experience. At DC, Mr. Grell worked on characters such as Aquaman, Batman, and the Phantom Stranger in arcs or single-issue stories. He and Elliot S. Maggin launched the Batman Family title in 1975 and Mike would work with Denny O'Neil on the revival of the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series the following year.
During his time in the industry, Mr. Grell has created many enduring characters including The Warlord, Jon Sable, and Joshua Brand - and revitalized older books like the Legion of Super-Heroes and Green Arrow. His mini-series "The Longbow Hunters" is seen by many as the definitive Oliver Queen story.
"Iron" Mike Grell was probably the first artist I came to recognize in the early days of my youthful comic book enthusiast phase (which continues, of course, to this day). I was a big fan of the Legion of Super-Heroes and while I did and do appreciate Curt Swan's work on the title, there was something about Mike's depictions that thrilled me. The realism, perhaps or maybe the updated costumes. In any case, his work made a big impression on me and so it was a particular thrill to get to interview him. As you'll soon see, he's an excellent interviewee, too, with plenty of great stories, humor and memories to share. He's always graciously helped me with BACK ISSUE assignments as well. Mike is just a great guy! Two quick anecdotes: I first met Mike in person in Portland, Oregon at a show and just about fell over when I realized he was boarding the same shuttle that we were on the way to the center. Later he made an appearance at the Denver Con and when I walked up to his booth to say hello he said, "Great! I need to find my assistant. Man the booth and don't discount anything!" With that he walked away. So, I manned the booth and thankfully only a couple of people wandered up while he was gone. A young lady in a Princess Leia outfit asked how much I wanted for a sketch. "You don't really want one from me." And now, the great Mike Grell!
This interview originally took place over the phone on March 4, 2009.
Bryan Stroud: I understand your mother was an artist and helped spark your interest that direction.
Mike Grell: Yeah, as a matter of fact my Mom was a great artist. Not professional by any means, but she always drew when we were kids. I was impressed by that and growing up in a house without television - in fact there was no television in my whole area at that time (chuckle) so I wasn’t particularly deprived) - I never saw a television set until I was 8 and we didn’t get one until I was 11, so I grew up with radio, and for our entertainment we had comic books and radio and movies and whatever you could make yourself and a lot of that activity was devoted to drawing. My brothers and I all loved to draw. Bob and Dick were actually better artists than me, they just never pursued it. But Mom had a real gift that she got from her Dad for being able to draw whatever she saw and she turned out some amazing pieces of art. I listened to her for years commenting that someday she wanted to take a painting class to learn how to paint in oils. I eventually enrolled myself in a painting class to learn color, to learn how to paint and after the first week I kidnapped her and dragged her into the class and somewhere along the lines of a year later she had a show.
MG: Yeah. I never had a one person show.
Stroud: Good for you and good for her for passing on that legacy.
MG: We would spend hours and hours; my brothers and I would buy and trade comic books with other kids and we’d draw pictures from those, but one of the fun things that I think my brother Dick started was if we saw a movie the night before he’d sit down and draw scenes from the movie and make a comic out of it. He was four years older than me so I was basically copying what I saw him do and we used to do that all the time. When the new car models came out we’d get the brochures and we’d trace the pictures and practice drawing and everything else, so we were always sitting there with a pencil in our hand.
Stroud: What sort of comics did you read as a kid?
MG: Just about everything. On a good week we’d get a 25-cent allowance, which was pretty darn spendy back then. I was born in 1947, so we’re talking the early 1950’s here - where a quarter was actually worth something back then. If some weeks things were tight, then we’d maybe get a dime, but geez, for a dime we could each get a comic book. I was always picking up something that had to do with cowboys or something like that. My brother Dick was really interested in Carl Barks’ Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge kind of stuff and Bob, the oldest, went straight for the axe-in-the-head EC comics. We’d read them all. We always bought different kinds of comics.
When I bought superhero stuff that was fine, but none of us could buy the same comic book. That was the rule, so we could trade them. Then you could read the other two and to get into EC comics for a 7-year old kid…(laughter). That left an impression! But then we’d finish our comics and there were other kids in town who had the same deal going. They’d get a comic book a week and we’d trade with them. Lord only knows what we may have traded off over the years. Eventually I settled on the ones I really liked, such as the Tarzan comics - which I really liked a lot - and in particular Russ Manning’s backup stories, “The Brothers of the Spear,” and that really made an impression on me. Manning was the first artist that I learned to recognize his work and learned to look for it. Of course, when he took over the front of the book, that was really impressive. Then I guess probably Doug Wildey after him. I just came across a box of my old comic books awhile back and in there is all those Russ Manning and Doug Wildey Tarzan comics.
Stroud: And then years later you got to do the syndicate version of Tarzan, did you not?
MG: Yes, I did. That was a real thrill for me. Probably the most fun I’ve ever had doing comics. I got so excited that the night I was finishing my first Sunday page I started to hyperventilate and then I started to laugh and my wife was in the other room and thought I was having some kind of breakdown or something. (Chuckle.) It was just hysterically funny. I was laughing so hard I couldn’t work any more. I got to meet Russ and Doug at the San Diego Comic Con the year that I was doing Tarzan and it was a thrill for me, but talk about pressure. The very next day I was doing a convention sketch for a guy of Tarzan and the Golden Lion and Russ Manning wanders over and he hovers over my shoulder and then he yells, “Hey, Wildey, come over here! Look at this! This is how you draw a lion! Your lions look like hairy dogs!”
MG: So, I’ve got one over each shoulder, and they’re hovering like vultures and they’re commenting on every damn line I draw and I broke out into a flop sweat and a big old bead of sweat rolled down my nose and dripped on the paper and they laughed their asses off and went away! And being a professional little brother, I got ‘em in trouble for that about five years later. We were at a convention in Las Vegas and Dodie Manning, Russ’s wife, was there and I told her that story, (laughter) and she turned around and said, “What are you doing being mean to this boy?” They said, “Later on we’re going to take you out in the parking lot and kick the crap out of you.”
Stroud: Terrific story! How much formal training did you have, Mike?
MG: Well, I started off with the idea that I was going to become the next Frank Lloyd Wright, but I couldn’t handle the math involved. So after a year at the University of Wisconsin (where I learned absolutely nothing about drawing) I dropped out and I was going to transfer to a private art school where I thought I could learn a little bit, but I got caught up in the draft and talked my way into being an illustrator in the Air Force - which was great on the job training. Basic graphic artist stuff. Sort of learn the ropes, to get you a job in an art studio or a commercial art outfit in the civilian world. While I was there in the Air Force I ran into a guy who convinced me that I should give up the idea of being a commercial artist and to be a cartoonist instead, because according to him, cartoonists only worked two or three days a week and they make a million dollars a year.
Stroud: If only.
MG: Yeah. Somebody owes me…let’s see, I’ve been in the business 36 years now; someone owes me about 30 year’s vacation and about 35-1/2 million dollars.
MG: But while I was in the Air Force, I did have the opportunity to do a lot of drawing, a lot of cartooning, aircraft drawings and things like that. I did the “Escape and Evasion Tips” cartoons for the Air Force while I was in Saigon and started taking the Famous Artist’s School’s Correspondence Course in Cartooning with the idea that I would become the next Al Capp. The funny, bigfoot kind of stuff. Then a pal showed up with a few of his comics in tow and he showed me Green Lantern/Green Arrow and that changed everything. That was what made me decide to get some serious instruction and learn how to actually draw.
So, after the Air Force I went to the Chicago Academy of Fine Art for a couple of years and moonlighted as a commercial artist at the same time for two different studios. One was more of a print operation and the other one was specifically illustration and they both offered me a chance to go full time. I took the one that paid one third the salary because I was learning so darn much at it. That was well worth it. That was about it as far as formal training. Lots of on-the-job, hands-on stuff. Other than that, it’s a continuing education. I don’t think an artist, if he knows what’s good for him… an artist shouldn’t be satisfied with something that he strikes on. He should leave himself open for growth and change. Otherwise you wind up being stagnant, and the sound you hear behind you is some young lion charging up and is about to run up your butt.
Stroud: Yeah. Complacency kills. I understand your career at DC began with some good timing.
MG: Oh, yeah. It couldn’t have been better, actually. I more or less stumbled into the job on the Legion of Super-Heroes. I was practically walking in the door as Dave Cockrum was walking out. I had just shown my stuff to Julie Schwartz and Joe Orlando and had got my first assignment and turned that in. Joe gave me a second assignment and when I got home the phone was ringing and he said Murray Boltinoff, the editor, is on vacation and when he comes back he’s going to discover that he doesn’t have an artist for the Legion of Super-Heroes. “Would you mind if I put you in for the job?” “Would I mind?” Good Lord. You go to New York, cold-- I’d packed up my wife and the dog and everything in our exploding Pinto and there we were, so yeah, that was very fortunate. The luck of the draw.
Stroud: And boy, what a challenging assignment with all those characters to do.
MG: Oh, yeah. It was sooo much fun. It was the best break of my life, really and the hardest book I’ve ever drawn. Twenty-six characters, and of course the mandate was that at least five of them had to appear on every page (chuckle), sometimes in every panel and usually by the end of the book there would be at least one spread where there would be everybody lined up on one side against all the bad guys on the other side, so it was a challenge. Working with Cary Bates was a godsend, though. Cary would tell you what angle he wanted. He would give it to you in such clear language, that all you really had to do was draw it as he told it, and he’s a very, very visual writer. He solved 90% of the problems of who to put in the panel, what they should be doing, where they should be standing and everything else. All I had to do was draw what he told me.
Stroud: I’m sure that did reduce the anxiety considerably. How did his scripts compare to, say Jim Shooter’s? I know you did some of his also.
MG: A Cary Bates script would run between one page and maybe a page and a half for every page of story. A Jim Shooter script would run 70 or 80 pages.
Stroud: Wow! Was a lot of that reference?
MG: It was mostly stuff I ignored. (Laughter.) Jim felt that it was necessary to go into extreme detail in his descriptions of every tiny little thing, and of course that sort of attention to detail is terrific if you’re drawing it, or if you’re the guy who is either writing a novel or creating something like a film where all the backdrop and texture and everything else is all vitally essential, but I would get sketches in there of things like, for example, a universal adapter, which he spent half a page describing this thing and even included a drawing and in the end it turned out to be a three-pronged adapter and it had really nothing to do with the story at all except he needed it in order to connect a couple of machines. Which they did, but what the thing looked like was not important.
What they were doing was important, and it seemed like a lot of Jim’s scripts were dedicated to the thing rather than the action or the story. That was my view of it, that’s all. As I said, Cary Bates would write a page or a page and a half for every page that you got in the story and Denny O’Neil, by contrast to both of them, would write a half a page. In a Denny O’Neil page the panel description would be “Close Up Two Shot,” and then the dialogue. That’s three lines for a panel. Because Denny knew that he could trust his artist. He gave you the essentials of what you needed; what angles he wanted if it was a long shot or a close up or a medium shot or whatever, you’d get that on the page, but briefly enough that it allowed the artist a lot of freedom and creativity and I think that brought out the best in the artists that he worked with.
Stroud: I can see where that would be very attractive. A little economy there and just go with your instincts. You obviously impressed the powers that be, because it wasn’t very long before they put you on covers. It seemed like you took over for Nick Cardy or maybe you two were running in tandem.
MG: We were very much in tandem. Nick did several layouts for the covers that I did, in fact. Carmine Infantino liked to do layouts himself. Occasionally Nick would do the layouts, uncredited. It was my name that showed up on the darn cover, but a lot of those covers were Nick’s layouts.
Stroud: I was kind of curious, because a few of them did look like classic Infantino ones where he loved to go at that kind of corner angle.
Stroud: I haven’t heard you referred to this in quite some time, but when you were first introduced it was “Iron Mike,” which almost sounds like a Stan Lee invention. Where did the nickname come from?
MG: (Chuckle.) It came from a comic strip that I was trying to peddle. I created it when I was still in Saigon and I had samples that I showed to a couple of the newspapers with no luck. It was part of a portfolio that I had with me when I went out to talk to the guys at DC, but there was never really anything that ever came of it. “Iron Mike” does have a new incarnation, as a matter of fact, that doesn’t have anything to do with the way it was originally.
It was a basic hard-boiled private detective kind of thing. But to this day, because when I arrived at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art…I came at the second semester in mid-year and I was one of, let’s see… There was Mike Yurkovitch, who got to keep “Mike,” because he was there first; there was another little guy that we called “Beatnik,” but his name was Mike as well; there was another Michael and there was me. And they went, “All the names are taken. We could call you ‘Mickey.’” And I went, “You could die.” So, my pal Art Tyska, who was looking through my portfolio, started calling me “Iron Mike.” To this day he still calls me “Iron.”
Stroud: The bane of most people working on comic books is the dreaded deadline. How did you deal with them?
MG: Considering the fact that I worked, on average, 100 hours a week, on a short week, it was no problem for me at all. I had come from the Air Force, where everything we did was on deadline. If a job came in during the morning, in general it had to be out by the middle of the afternoon, and that was going slow. If you had the luxury of working on something over a period of several days, it was a miracle. We used to say, “ASAP is the lowest priority we have.” And that was the truth. I spent a lot of nights living on coffee and not much else.
When I first started in the business I met Joe Orlando’s wife, Karen, and I think I met her within the first two weeks that I was in New York. Two months later I ran into her again and she said, “Oh, my God, what happened to you?” “What do you mean?” She said, “You look terrible.” I didn’t feel terrible. I had had almost four hours of sleep that night. And I went and looked at myself in the mirror and I had aged. (Chuckle.) I mean I had really aged. I was working on the supposed Frank Lloyd Wright system of catnapping. I would work until I was completely exhausted and that generally meant that I would work 24 or 28 hours in a row and sleep for two, and then wake up and work another twelve, and then I would sleep for three, until I was getting into longer and longer sleep periods. But it was catnaps. Just enough to get my brain back alert and to get my body functioning again and then back to the drawing board, and it took its toll, but that’s the reason why in the first two years I was in the business suddenly my name appears on all those stories.
Stroud: Good grief. No wonder she described you the way she did, because after all that’s when the body regenerates, during the sleep cycle.
MG: I used to have trouble getting served in bars, but after that first few months I never got carded again. (Laughter.) It was pretty interesting. Joe and I collaborated on some of the National Lampoon stories. As a matter of fact, if you look at Animal House, it’s actually based on a story we did called “First Lay Comics.” Michael O’Donoghue wrote it and Joe hired me on to do the pencils and he did the finishes because it needed that Orlando touch. So, Michael O’Donoghue would call Joe up on a Wednesday or Thursday and say, “I’ve got a five-page story,” and Joe would say, “I’m on my way over to pick up the script,” and O’Donoghue would say, “Well, I haven’t written it yet. Come by on Friday night and pick it up.” So, on Friday night Joe would pick it up and he would do rough layouts that evening and then Saturday morning I’d meet him and pick up the layouts. We’d talk it over and Sunday morning I’d deliver the finished pencils. So that’s five pages in 24 hours. When are you going to sleep? And Joe, being Joe, would spend the next 24 hours working on the inks on the thing, taking them with him on the train in the morning and hand them off. There they’d be. That was considered a long deadline for Lampoon back in those days.
Stroud: Holy cow.
MG: Joe was quite a guy. He was very much my mentor. He used to tell stories about working on tight deadlines with Wally Wood where Woody would be penciling a page, starting at the upper left-hand corner and pencil down the page and Joe would sit across the desk from him and ink it upside down!
Stroud: Oh, good night!
MG: Yeah. And sometimes they’d finish the page practically at the same time.
Stroud: Incredible. But as you said, I guess you do what you’ve got to do. You worked with some of the legendary editors there at DC. Did you have a favorite?
MG: My other mentor, of course, was Julie Schwartz. I just loved the guy. He was so much fun to work with. He could be hard-nosed and tough, and he certainly had his own ideas about what a story should be and how it should be told. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but I always loved the guy. As far as editors, those in terms of cooperation and creative inspiration; the two guys who had the most impact on me were Denny O’Neil and Mike Gold. Mike Gold, not at DC, of course, but at First Comics.
Mike and I have been pals since, oh Lord, ’75 or so, something like that, and he’s been editor on almost all of my creator-owned books. Even when I was working over at Image Comics doing Shaman’s Tears and Bar Sinister, I hired Mike as an in-house editor, because I think the worst thing in the world is to not have someone you’re answerable to, and there’s nobody in the business that I respect more than Mike. He’s got a really sharp mind. He knows the industry better than anybody and he understands good story-telling and he can keep me honest with a phone call. On occasion he’s phoned up and said, “This just isn’t working for me,” and we’ll sit down and it always annoys the hell out of me, but he’s always right. You can’t ask for much better than that.
Stroud: Not at all, and it’s to your credit that you recognize that synergy. You’ve done work for a laundry list of publishers, some that you’ve already mentioned: Dark Horse, DC, Acclaim, Valiant, Image, Pacific, Marvel, and First Comics. How did they compare?
MG: It’s like comparing apples and Volkswagens. Apart from the fact that we’re all involved in producing comic books, the methods, the personalities and the systems are all so vastly different, it’s like learning all over again. Just because you can ride a bicycle doesn’t mean you can fly a B-29, and it’s sometimes that way. The biggest difference between a company like DC and Marvel and a company like, say Pacific Comics or First Comics at the tail end there was that if DC comics owes you .12 you’re going to get a check. If they sell something of yours 20 years later, and there’s a royalty due for thirty-five bucks, you’ll get that check. It’s just the way they do business.
With some of the smaller publishers, they’ve got other things on their mind and occasionally it can be a problem. That certainly occurred with Pacific and at the end of First Comics. That was the case, I think, for just about everybody. The more established companies are great because you can rely on them, because it’s just the way they do business. That’s something that you can always bank on. No pun intended, but it’s pretty literal. You can depend on them because they’ve been around so long. You know they’ll be around next week and next year.
On the other hand, there’s a tradeoff, and the biggest tradeoff for me and the reason why I went with the independents, was that at the majors you didn’t own your own material. I don’t own The Warlord. Right now, I have a piece of it, which is really great, because DC has changed their policies and they’ve sort of retroactively done a deal with the creators that allows them pretty much a guaranteed share of future exploitation of their properties. And that’s terrific, but back in the day, the standard was like working for IBM: you invent a new computer and at the end of your 20 you get a gold watch and a pat on the head, because it was your job, and that was very much the way it was with the major publishers. You didn’t own anything. They owned it, they controlled it and if they wanted to dump you off, they could do so any time they chose, or they could make a 300-million-dollar movie and not pay you a dime, which is pretty much the reason why Stan Lee (chuckle) wound up suing Marvel Comics over Spider-Man. It was tough in the old days, but I tell you what…people wouldn’t be getting royalties on their books today if it weren’t for the guys who took a stand way back then and took a chance.
Stroud: Yeah. Neal Adams was telling me about some of his efforts and of course he wasn’t alone.
MG: No. Neal was outspoken, but he never seemed to quite bridge that gap into the independent publishing that he could have taken advantage of at the time. He became disenchanted with the comic industry because frankly he was making so darn much more money in commercial art. And that was a fact. If you were a commercial artist you could draw one figure and get paid $200.00 or in comic books you could draw an entire page and get paid $60.00.
Stroud: That doesn’t take a lot of math skills to analyze.
Stroud: Therefore, Continuity Studios became what it did.
MG: He was smart. The only mistake I think Neal made, and it certainly wasn’t a mistake for him, because he had a business plan of where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do, but in terms of what his continuing contribution to the comic industry could have been, is that if he had kept his hand in and produced maybe the equivalent of a graphic novel a year; just think of the great stuff that would be out there.
Stroud: What might have been. Over the course of your career, Mike, you’ve done lots of super heroes, adventure, science fiction, and mystery. Did you have a place you felt like you really fit?
MG: I think I found that with Sable. It’s set in the real world, of course, and deals in stories pretty much from the headlines and doesn’t involve superheroes. I continued that flavor and that theme when I did Green Arrow. Green Arrow is my favorite comic book character - I didn’t create it, but he’s always been my favorite comic book character. Working on the Longbow Hunters and doing the series, it was just a heck of a kick in the pants.
So, I like the guys who are not super powered, because I think when you give someone too much power they become less interesting. That’s why when I did Iron Man, for instance, I actually weakened him from where he had been before and went back to the old routine of him having to recharge his batteries, otherwise his heart could give out and I added the aspect that it was possible (since they both ran off the same power source) that he could use up too much energy and wind up killing himself. I kind of enjoyed the fact that they included that in the film. But I was more interested in the man inside the iron and I think that’s pretty much always been the case. Now the other genre that I love, of course, is the fantasy/adventure like The Warlord or Tarzan. The idea of some guy running around in the jungle wearing leopard-skin skivvies and swinging a sword or swinging from trees is just my cup of tea. I like that kind of stuff. Man against nature.
Stroud: That goes back to one of the comments that stuck out in my mind when I spoke to Denny O’Neil. He said he found that he liked human-scaled characters and you pretty much echoed that sentiment.
MG: Very much, and that’s what I saw in the Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics. The two characters of Green Lantern and Green Arrow, on Denny’s watch, were so perfect together because they were an absolutely perfect balance. You had the one guy who is the letter of the law. That’s Green Lantern. “The law is the law is the law is the law.” Right or wrong, it’s the law, so you uphold the law. Then you had Green Arrow, who is Robin Hood. He’s there for right. He’s there for justice. And I think that came through in every one of Denny’s stories, even when he was dealing with grand issues. When he was doing sweeping epics, when he was doing bug-eyed monsters in outer space there was still that human aspect to it.
Stroud: The weaponry you portray is always incredibly detailed. Do you use lots of reference or is it from personal expertise?
MG: Let me reach over here and just pick up my broom-handled Mauser while we’re talking.
MG: In my studio I’ve got bows and arrows, I’ve got a rifle sitting in the corner, I’ve got a functioning replica a broom-handled Mauser, the full-automatic version. It’s made of plastic, but it fires caps and the slide actually works and the whole nine yards. Guns, knives, swords, all that stuff. That’s my bag.
Stroud: Tools of the trade.
MG: Tools of the trade. Very much so. My wife and I raise horses. We raise Friesian horses. You know that black horse they used in Ladyhawke?
Stroud: Oh, yeah.
MG: That’s it, and they’re not really quite as big as they appear on screen. You have to remember that Matthew Broderick is pretty tiny and Michelle Pfeiffer is infinitesimal. She’s a very tiny person, so when they’re standing next to this big horse it really isn’t that big, but Lauri and I belong to the group called the Seattle Knights. You can check them out at www.seattleknights.com. We sword fight and joust and fall off the horses and everything else.
Stroud: Sounds like a kick.
MG: Yeah, it is. The farthest away I’ve been with the show is Colorado, but it was a lot of fun.
Stroud: You’ve done a little bit of everything, it seems; penciling, inking, painting, writing. What brings you the most satisfaction, Mike?
MG: Boy, oh boy. I think I’m a better writer than I am an artist. I love to draw in pencil. My penciling is far more satisfying to me than my inking. I can do it. I consider myself to be a decent inker, but it’s not easy for me, and I’m certainly not fast at it. When I do a page, I can pencil it maybe in a couple of hours, but the inking process will take 8 or 9 hours to do a page and I’ve just never been able to do quality work much faster than that. Certainly, back in the day I was turning out on average a page and a half of finished artwork a day, but that was also working those 18-hour days. So right at the moment I’d say it’s kind of a tossup between penciling and writing. Penciling a story is still basically story-telling. I consider myself to be a story-teller first and foremost. I get a lot of joy from it. Once I’ve gotten past the pencil stage where I’ve worked out all the problems and everything else that’s when the sheer labor starts. Although these days I am enjoying painting a lot, too.
Stroud: What mediums do you work with?
MG: Oil, although a lot of it is mixed medium; commercial art technique. Start with a pencil and add a little bit of this and a little bit of that. You use a bottle of stump water by the light of the full moon and a dead cat in a graveyard.
MG: Wait a minute. That’s for warts. I always get ‘em mixed up. But it’s close to that. It’s not quite as alchemical, but darn near. By the time I’m done, what I use for paint, though, is Windsor-Newton Artisan Oils, which are water soluble, so I don’t stink up the house. You can actually wash your brush with soap and water. The thing with water soluble oils is you can use a drying enhancer, which I do, in order to speed up the drying time. And you can work in either a thin water color technique or a very thick oil technique and my work is generally both, starting with the foundation of a pencil drawing - sometimes ink; maybe charcoal or something like that; something underneath - and then building up from there.
Stroud: You do dabble in a lot of different things. Al Plastino was telling me that he can use oils, but sometimes it never feels like it’s done, so he sticks more closely to water colors.
MG: I think with water colors you reach a point where you’re either done or (chuckle) or you might as well be. Water colors are generally a fairly fast medium. The reason I use the drying enhancer is that I can speed up or slow down my drying time by using more or less. And, again, the stuff I use dries at about the same time as acrylic does. So, why don’t I use acrylic? Well, there are times when I wanted to go slower. That’s all.
Stroud: It gives you that flexibility.
MG: Yeah, and I don’t have to have two sets of paints around here in order to do this stuff. I don’t know how to use an airbrush. Okay, I know mechanically how to operate an airbrush, but I don’t do it very well. I think I did two pieces that involved airbrush and the second one came out so bad that I wound up painting over it with just a regular brush. It came out a lot better.
Stroud: It sounds like it’s just not worth the hassle at this point.
MG: No. Too old.
Stroud: (Chuckle.) I wouldn’t go that far. You were discussing The Warlord a little bit earlier and of course he’s making a comeback thanks to you. What kind of plans do you have for the character? Anything you can talk about?
MG: Oh, yes. I’ve already finished writing the first 6-issue story arc, which is being drawn by Joe Prado and after that there’s a 2-issue arc that I’m writing and drawing myself. At some stage of the game here I’m going to do a 6-issue arc that will incorporate a storyline that I’ve had cooking in the back of my brain for some time, but I have plans for where this goes. We’re kicking this off as if the readers are completely ignorant of who and what The Warlord is, which I think is the only way to do it. Starting pretty much where I left off but bearing in mind that it’s been so many years now that at least three generations of comic readers have come and gone. Well, okay, two at any rate have come and gone without picking up an issue of one of my Warlord’s. So, they don’t have anything to base it on or judge it on - so I’m trying very hard to reintroduce all the aspects of the world The Warlord lives in, reintroduce all the characters as we go along here, and introduce a new cast of characters with new conflicts and new personalities and it’s possible these form new directions to go with the stories.
Stroud: It sounds great! It sounds like a very rich and detailed adventure coming along.
MG: It’s going to be a lot of fun. By the time you’re done with the first book you understand pretty much who the characters are, and how the world operates, but as you go along you will get the entire background and history of The Warlord told through the eyes of various people, so that by the time we’re halfway through the story everybody’s up to speed and everything can progress from there.
Stroud: In your 30+ years as a professional, what changes have you seen, good or bad, in the industry that are most notable?
MG: I miss newsprint. I miss the old, smelly, fall-apart-in-your-hands newsprint where the page on the back of it bleeds through. I miss the old crumbly paper. I miss the fact that comics will deteriorate if you don’t take really good care of them. But that’s just me. The biggest changes, of course, from the publishing end, has been independent publishers. Quality printing. Incredible quality printing on superb quality stock. Computers. Being able to use computers, in some cases, to produce an entire comic. It’s now possible to draw entirely on the computer, though why you would want to, I could never understand.
I did one piece of art where I penciled it, scanned it in and then I colored it on the computer, and at the end of three days that it took me to figure my way through this thing, I had a nicely colored piece on the computer, but (chuckle) my original drawing was the black and white pencil drawing and I really had nothing to show for that three days except the pencil sketch. But to a lot of guys that doesn’t matter. Their art is what they produce inside the computer and a print is just as good to them as an original painting hanging on the wall. Unfortunately, that print is going to deteriorate pretty fast and a hundred years from now somebody is going to find a moldy old canvas in the attic and turn it over and there’ll be a Warlord painting on it. I think I might be ahead of the immortality game with that.
The other thing that I’ve seen, of course, as with anybody who began in comics almost four decades ago; content has changed dramatically. The flavor of comics today is almost totally different from what it was when I was a kid. Much more adult story lines and themes in general. You look, for a prime example, at the Dark Knight compared to the Bob Kane Batman. It would be impossible to equate the two if you didn’t have 45 years in between. Spider-Man today isn’t the same as he was in the 60’s. The stories are different, the characters are different. The costumes are the same, and that’s sometimes about as close as they come. Even Superman has changed pretty dramatically and whether that’s good or bad I can’t really say. Some characters lend themselves really well to a darker, more realistic aspect and some of them just need to remain heroes. I don’t think the world needs a dark Wonder Woman. That would be like a dark Donald Duck. Believe me, Donald Duck is dark.
MG: He’s violent, he’s nasty. He’s got a terrible disposition. He’s rude to everybody. Yeah, Donald Duck is dark, but he’s got nothing on Daffy. Absolutely nothing on Daffy. The one mistake that I think comic companies made as the years went on is that as our readers got older and older and our readership changed from when I was first starting in comics; the average reader was 7 to 10 years old, and Julie Schwartz told me that. He figured that their books were best written for audiences in the 8 or 9-year-old range. Now I think there’s a lot to be said for having books that are understandable and reachable for an 8 or 9-year old, but you want to keep them coming back later on. You don’t want them to get bored, and it’s possible to do both.
Look at Shrek. Shrek is a great example of a story that works for the young kids and it works for adults. But it’s a lot of work. You have to really know what you’re doing to pull it off. And not many guys do. So, there was a tendency to go the direction of stories that were more suited toward older and older audiences.
By the time I was doing Sable the audience demographic on that book was 18 to 34 years old according to our survey. We had everybody sort of across the board. They calculated that they were sort of in the middle-income bracket. You could draw a line across the country sort of along the Mason-Dixon line and Sable was really great below the Mason-Dixon line and, west of the Mississippi, the Northern conservative states liked it, but the liberal states didn’t enjoy it a lot. The audiences, though, as they got older the comics also got older and now you’re writing comics for an audience that is not 18 to 34 years old any more. They’re anywhere from 10 or 12 years old on up to 40 or 50 or 60 years old, because face it; I got that old and my readers got that old right along with me. It’s strange how that works.
As you go along you notice that the kids have been left behind. The entry level comics just aren’t there for the audiences any more, except for a few. The Legion of Super-Heroes just had their 35th anniversary this past year and I was in San Diego and sitting in on a big panel. Someone asked the question: “Why do you think the Legion has had such longevity?” And I said, “It’s really simple. I still have people coming up to me today that will hand me a copy of the first Legion book they ever picked up; an old one way back when and say, ‘You know, this is the best thing you ever did.’” And they don’t mean that as an insult. What they’re saying is that that’s their favorite comic, because it was probably the first comic they ever picked up. And for a kid, the Legion of Super-Heroes is a great entry-level book. Millions of great characters. It’s a story about young people with super powers. Well, not so young any more, but in general it was. Young people with super powers. That was attractive to young readers. They’d pick it up and it was one of the first comics they ever read. It makes an impression on them and it sticks with them. The Legion fans are absolutely the most loyal fans in the business. If they take you into their hearts, they will never forget you. And if you piss ‘em off (laughter) they will never let you live it down.
Stroud: Woe be.
MG: There are still guys who are upset about that costume I did for Cosmic Boy.
Stroud: (Laughter.) Well, I don’t know what to say about that, but going back to my adolescence, the things you did for Saturn Girl and Princess Projectra I have long appreciated. (Chuckle.)
MG: Well, you know, I can’t take all the credit for that. Very little, in fact. Yes, I did push the envelope a bit. Princess Projectra’s costume became lower and lower and wider and wider divided in the front under my watch, but Dave Cockrum designed those costumes. I think the only costumes I actually designed for the Legion were Dawnstar and Tyroc (which was just an awful character) and that Cosmic Boy costume.
MG: Anyway, that was all Dave. I had a notebook full of his sketches for the costume designs. The editor, Murray Boltinoff, gave it to me and years later I told Dave how I never would have gotten through one story if I hadn’t had that book sitting open on my desk the whole time and he said, “I had the same book.” (Mutual laughter.) It took me forever to figure out that all of that lace in the front of Shrinking Violet’s costume over her cleavage is the letters “S-V.” I just had no concept that that’s what it was. I just looked at it and saw all the different shapes and I drew the different shapes, but I never understood it as being “S-V.”
Stroud: Well, neither did I until you just said it.
MG: That part dawned on me about 3 years ago when I was doing a convention sketch. (Laughter.)
Stroud: All these subtleties. Have you ever taught art, Mike?
MG: Nope. I never taught, although sometimes when you’re working with a young artist I’ve had assistants working for me. It’s a mentorship or maybe more of an apprenticeship, where you pass on your information the best you can. Joe Orlando used to sit me down when I came into the office and he’d go over my pages and, more than that, he would whip out a pad of tracing paper and he would show me how I could make something better. He would show me how I could make a gesture more dynamic, how you could shade the face a little bit differently, and all of that stuff stuck with me and I would always thank him and he always said the same thing: “Pass it on.” So that’s what I believe in doing. If you’ve got the knowledge and skill sets and it can be of use to someone along the line you’ve got a duty to the next generation to pass it on.
Stroud: An excellent philosophy. I see where you’ve fully embraced the internet with your own website (www.mikegrell.com), your commission sales through Catskill Comics (www.catskillcomics.com), and your work at Comic Mix (www.comicmix.com). Do you think online publishing is the future of the business?
MG: I think so. How far they go with it is going to be up to the individual companies, but I see it as a perfect interim step, actually. It’s a great way to get the material produced and out there and get paid as you go along so that you can afford to take the time to produce a large volume of work that can ultimately go into a trade paperback, and trade paperbacks are currently where the publishing industry is going.
Stroud: I would agree. The graphic novels and the reprints like Showcase Presents and Marvel Masterworks seem to dominate the shelf space.
MG: Yep, and the great thing about that is that unlike a comic store where you’ve got a maximum two-month shelf life; in a bookstore it’s infinite. As long as that book is selling it can stay there on the shelf.
Stroud: Good point. You’re a regular at the convention circuit, as we’ve talked about. You must enjoy interacting with the fans.
MG: I do. I get a kick out of going to the shows. I think I’ve been in every state except Louisiana. One of these days I’d like to get to New Orleans. It doesn’t have to be real soon, but before I shuffle off the mortal coil.
Stroud: You mentioned your horsemanship and so forth. Any other hobbies you indulge in when you can get away from the drawing board?
MG: I love to hunt. I grew up in Northern Wisconsin where if your Dad didn’t hunt, your family didn’t eat meat, and I like to get out and spend as much time out in the boonies as possible. It doesn’t matter if I’m actually shooting anything. I once spent 10 solid years hunting every day of the deer season and never fired a shot, but during that time I had a flock of chickadees land on me. There must have been fifty of them. One of them was walking on my hat and he walked on the edge of the brim, hung by his toes and looked me right in the eye, and of course that did it for me. I laughed and they all flew off.
I had a squirrel come down a tree and sit on my arms while he ate a pinecone and I had a rabbit come hopping down the trail and hop right up next to my leg and sit in a patch of sunlight. I got dive-bombed by a turkey who was coming in for a landing on what he thought was a nice perch and it turned out to be my tree stand. Luckily, he saw me at the last minute. I had a deer walk up so close to me that I reached out and touched her as she went by. She had no clue I was there. Those are all sorts of things I never would have experienced if I hadn’t been out there in the woods. It’s hard to take the time to just go spend days on ends in the woods, but if you’ve got a gun in your hands, you can always say that’s your excuse.
Stroud: There you go. As a wise man once said, “Your life span is not reduced by the time you spend fishing.” Same theory. (Chuckle.)
MG: Was that Thoreau?
Stroud: If it wasn’t it should have been. (Laughter.)
MG: It sounds like either Thoreau or Will Rogers. Will Rogers once said, “The best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse.”
Stroud: I like it a lot.
MG: Groucho Marx said, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
MG: Not even remotely related, but…
Stroud: Have you ever read any of Pat McManus’ work?
MG: Oh, yeah. Half the stuff he’s written about his childhood is stuff I lived as a kid.