I was a big fan of the Legion of Super-Heroes as a boy (who wasn’t?) and the first time I became consciously aware of an artist was when Mike Grell began to draw my favorite team. Years later, who knew I’d get a chance to talk to Mike and enjoy his great sense of humor, then when my wife, best friend and I attended a convention in Portland, Oregon, who should happen to climb aboard the same motel shuttle as we did, but Iron Mike himself? Earlier this year when I went to the Denver Con I saw Mike’s table and went to say hello when he promptly told me to man the table while he hunted down his assistant. “Don’t discount anything while I’m gone!” How can you not appreciate a guy like that? Mike shares his tales of the industry and how he enjoys spending his time away from the drawing board in this fun interview.
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: 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.
Grell: Yeah. I never had a one person show.
CB: Good for you and good for her for passing on that legacy.
Grell: 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.
CB: What sort of comics did you read as a kid?
Grell: Just about everything. On a good week we’d get a 25¢ allowance, which was pretty darn spendy back then. I was born in 1947, so we’re talking the early 1950s 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’s 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, but 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.
CB: And then years later you got to do the syndicate version of Tarzan, did you not?
Grell: 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 anymore.
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!”
Grell: 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.”
CB: Terrific story! How much formal training did you have, Mike?
Grell: 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, 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.
CB: If only.
Grell: 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 35½ million dollars.
Grell: 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.
CB: Yeah. Complacency kills. I understand your career at DC began with some good timing.
Grell: 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.
CB: And boy, what a challenging assignment with all those characters to do.
Grell: 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.
CB: 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.
Grell: 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.
CB: Wow! Was a lot of that reference?
Grell: 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.
CB: 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.
Grell: 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.
CB: 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.
CB: 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?
Grell: (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.”
CB: The bane of most people working on comic books is the dreaded deadline. How did you deal with them?
Grell: 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.
CB: Good grief. No wonder she described you the way she did, because after all that’s when the body regenerates, during the sleep cycle.
Grell: 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.
CB: Holy cow.
Grell: 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!
CB: Oh, good night!
Grell: Yeah. And sometimes they’d finish the page practically at the same time.
CB: 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?
Grell: 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.
CB: 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?
Grell: 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 twenty 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.
CB: Yeah. Neal Adams was telling me about some of his efforts and of course he wasn’t alone.
Grell: 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 or in comic books you could draw an entire page and get paid $60.
CB: That doesn’t take a lot of math skills to analyze.
CB: Therefore Continuity Studios became what it did.
Grell: 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.
Come back next week for part two of this freewheeling conversation!