Mike Grell continues sharing his stories from more than four decades in comics in this second part of a two-part interview. If you missed part one, read it here.
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: 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?
Mike Grell: 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.
CB: 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.
Grell: 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.
CB: The weaponry you portray is always incredibly detailed. Do you use lots of reference or is it from personal expertise?
Grell: Let me reach over here and just pick up my broom-handled Mauser while we’re talking.
Grell: 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.
CB: Tools of the trade.
Grell: 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?
CB: Oh, yeah.
Grell: 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.
CB: Sounds like a kick.
Grell: Yeah, it is. The farthest away I’ve been with the show is Colorado, but it was a lot of fun.
CB: You’ve done a little bit of everything, it seems; penciling, inking, painting, writing. What brings you the most satisfaction, Mike?
Grell: 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.
CB: What mediums do you work with?
Grell: 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.
Grell: 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.
CB: 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.
Grell: I think with watercolors you reach a point where you’re either done or (chuckle) or you might as well be. Watercolors 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.
CB: It gives you that flexibility.
Grell: 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.
CB: It sounds like it’s just not worth the hassle at this point.
Grell: No. Too old.
CB: (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?
Grell: 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 Warlords. 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.
CB: It sounds great! It sounds like a very rich and detailed adventure coming along.
Grell: 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.
CB: In your 30+ years as a professional, what changes have you seen, good or bad, in the industry that are most notable?
Grell: 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 ’60s. 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.
Grell: 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.
CB: Woe be.
Grell: There are still guys who are upset about that costume I did for Cosmic Boy.
CB: (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.)
Grell: 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.
Grell: 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.”
CB: Well, neither did I until you just said it.
Grell: That part dawned on me about 3 years ago when I was doing a convention sketch. (Laughter.)
CB: All these subtleties. Have you ever taught art, Mike?
Grell: 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.
CB: An excellent philosophy. I see where you’ve fully embraced the internet with your own website, your commission sales through Catskill Comics, and your work at Comic Mix. Do you think online publishing is the future of the business?
Grell: 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.
CB: I would agree. The graphic novels and the reprints like Showcase Presents and Marvel Masterworks seem to dominate the shelf space.
Grell: 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.
CB: Good point. You’re a regular at the convention circuit, as we’ve talked about. You must enjoy interacting with the fans.
Grell: 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.
CB: You mentioned your horsemanship and so forth. Any other hobbies you indulge in when you can get away from the drawing board?
Grell: 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.
CB: There you go. As a wise man once said, “Your life span is not reduced by the time you spend fishing.” Same theory. (Chuckle.)
Grell: Was that Thoreau?
CB: If it wasn’t it should have been. (Laughter.)
Grell: 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.”
CB: I like it a lot.
Grell: Groucho Marx said, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
Grell: Not even remotely related, but…
CB: Have you ever read any of Pat McManus’ work?
Grell: Oh, yeah. Half the stuff he’s written about his childhood is stuff I lived as a kid.
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