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Mike Grell: From the Arrow to Skartaris

Updated: Jan 24, 2020

Mike Grell has been writing/drawing comics since the early 70's. He has worked on books for DC (ACTION COMICS, LEEGION OF SUPERHEROES, and GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW) and IRON MAN over at Marvel.

His work on GREEN ARROW: LONGBOW HUNTERS and the his long run on the GREEN ARROW solo series has long been one of the most celebrated takes on the character. He took Oliver Queen and made him an urban hunter. With stories that focused on real world problems, he made the character more grounded and interesting than ever before.

He also solidified his status as a fan favorite creator with his best-known creation, THE WARLORD. A series about an Air-Force pilot, named Travis Morgan, who crash land in the hidden world of Skartaris. A sword and sorcery book the likes of which had never been done before.

He went on to create other great books as well such as JON SABLE FREELANCE, SHAMAN"S TEARS, and MAGGIE THE CAT. But it will always be his work on GREEN ARROW and THE WARLORD that will hold a special place in fans hearts and fellow creators alike.

COMIC LOUNGE: What was your first introduction as a kid?

MIKE GRELL: We didn't have television where I grew up, we didn't get one until I was about 11. We had comic books, comic strips, movies and radio. My brothers and I would each get a dime a week, back then comic were a dime, and we would each get a comic and read them and trade them with each other and other kids in the neighborhood. So we had a wide range of different comics.

My oldest brother gravitated toward the EC comics, axe-in-the head, horror kind of stuff. My little brother went for the movie adaptations, cowboys, and stuff like that. I was pretty much a Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge kid myself.

COMIC LOUNGE: What was your first professional work?

GRELL: My first professional job, as a cartoonist, was as an assistant to Dale Messick on the Brenda Starr comic strip. But then in comic books, my first assignment was an Aquaman story. It was a seven page back-up story in ADVENTURE COMICS #435. I walked in pretty much cold off the street with my portfolio and knocked on Julie Schwartz's office. He said "What the hell makes you think you can draw comics?". I said "Why don't you take a look and tell me". He called Joe Orlando in from next door, they put their heads together and I walked out with a script in my hand.

COMIC LOUNGE: My favorite book by you has to be GREEN ARROW: LONGBOW HUNTERS. Where did the inspiration for that story come from?

GRELL: The storyline itself was a pitch I made back to Julie Schwartz back in the days when I was doing Green Arrow back-up stories. I was working with Elliot Maggin and had plotted a couple stories. Elliot was writing the dialogue and I would write the plot and the breakdowns. I pitched Julie on a story that had to do with a Holocaust survivor who was tracking down Nazi war criminals who would come over to the US under Operation Paperclip, and she's killing them with a longbow.

Originally she was intended to be a counterpart to Green Arrow, I was gonna call her the Black Arrow for lack of a better name. Julie listened to my pitch and said " Oh no, you got it all wrong see it's not a girl, it's a young boy. He doesn't use a bow he uses a sling and rocks and he's the reincarnation of King David". I said "That's not the story I wanna write, if you want to just use that plot then just get Elliot to write it and I'll draw it." So I took my story and stuck it in a drawer.

One day I got a call from Mike Gold, asking me if there was any character over at DC that I liked well enough to bury the hatchet and come back to work over there. I told him that I always felt that I had done such a crappy job on Batman, back in the seventies, that I'd like another shot at that. But Frank Miller had just told me about his idea for DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, so I told Mike " Frank is done with Batman, so you can just put a period at the end of that sentence for the next 20 years". 

Mike said "Well what about Green Arrow?" and I said "Green Arrow has always been my favorite comic book character", and still is. He said "Well think about this, Green Arrow as an urban hunter". That was it, that was the hook that I hung the entire plot and approach to Green Arrow on and for the plot of that story. I went back in to my file cabinet and dug out the original "Black Arrow" story. I modified it and that's how I came up with the Shado character. The elements in there that dealt with Iran-Contra guns scam was coincidental. I got a call from a New York radio station, asking if I would be willing to go live and discuss how it was that I managed to beat that story in to print by six months. I said " Sure, no problem at all". The truth of the matter was, that I paid attention to what was going on in the news. I plugged all the various characters in to my storyline and then asked myself, " What would be the stupidest thing they could possibly do, if they were absolutely certain they would never get caught?". That's what I wrote.

Thinking back on it now, from the distance of time, it does occur to me that NSA reads everything in print. In those days we had a six month lead on the publication. So it's entirely possible that some guy from NSA read my script for LONGBOW HUNTERS and called up Ali Morris and said " Hey Ali, I got this great idea for you". You never know.

COMIC LOUNGE: What to you is he most appealing about Green Arrow as a character?

GRELL: He doesn't have any super powers, he just has a superior skill. It's a skill that anybody can learn. I've shot bow since I was just a little kid. I'm sitting here right now, about 15 ft. from my longbow and a quiver full of arrows. I love going out and shooting in the yard whenever I get a chance. I've always enjoyed shooting a bow. I was always a huge Robin Hood fan and that aspect of the character always struck me.

When Green Lantern and Green Arrow were teamed up, you had the contrast of the two characters. Green Lantern is the sheriff, he's the letter of the law strictly by the book. Green Arrow is Robin Hood, he's the spirit of justice, he's the guy who sees something bad going on and steps in and takes care of it and deals with the consequences later.

COMIC LOUNGE: After LONGBOW HUNTERS, you also did a long run on the GREEN ARROW solo book. It had a lot of political undertones and dealt a lot with societal issues. Why did you decide to go that route with the character?

GRELL: Because I was more interested in dealing with real world issues than monsters, super powers and outer space. That was one of the reasons why I took that approach. I didn't want to deal with make believe. I wanted to set it as firmly in the real world as possible. As far as political issues, it was not so much politics as it was society. I took a lot of my stories out of the local papers and local headlines, national headlines as well.

One of the more interesting stories, in a very twisted and convoluted way, had to do with the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Again, not so much political as society, and how easily people forgot about it. Basically all that happened, was that for a long time, Exxon stations virtually disappeared. All they did was repaint them and change their sign BP (British Petroleum), then it was back to business as usual. The other storylines that I did, focused on elements that were very much in the news. I did a story that dealt with gay bashing attacks in Seattle, and that was actually happening at the time.

I did another story where terrorists took over the Space Needle, which turned out to have some very funny moments in the creation of that story. The artist on the book at the time was Rick Hoberg and he was a fanatic for detail. He lived in Seattle as well, so when I gave him a location that I thought was interesting for the story to take place, he'd grab his camera and off he would go to take photo reference. So he was up in the Space Needle taking these photographs, somebody noticed him and asked him what he was doing. So he told them he was drawing a comic about terrorists taking over the Space Needle. They got really upset and Rick gave them the phone number for Mike Gold at DC Comics, he said "He's my editor, give him a call". Gold said " I gather from the tone that you believe that its entirely possible that there could be terrorists active in the Pacific Northwest" and the guy from the Space Needle said " Well yes". Gold said " Do you think it's possible that these terrorists are not currently aware of the existence of the Space Needle, but are likely to discover the existence of the Space Needle by reading a comic book?". The guy said "Print your fucking story".

COMIC LOUNGE: Also over at DC, you created a fan favorite book, THE WARLORD. Where did the inspiration for that character come from?

GRELL: THE WARLORD was based on a failed comic strip that I was trying to peddle when I broke in to comic books by accident. I always wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist instead of comic books. But when I moved out to New York in 1973, and started making rounds at the newspaper syndicates, I couldn't get an appointment. I couldn't even get my foot in the door.

So this comic strip was called "Savage Empire" and it was about an archaeologist who is transported back through time and winds up in Atlantis before it sank. I had that in my portfolio when I went out to New York. I had  six story pages, two weeks worth of dailies, and the entire script of the first story arc. I left that in the hands of Saul Harrison, who was President of DC Comics at the time and forgot about it. I was hired on by DC shortly after that and had forgotten all about the fact that I had left "Savage Empire" there.

After I had gotten myself established over at DC, Atlas Comics showed up and they were offering creator ownership and $100 a page, which was monumental. It was way more than anyone else was paying, it was double my rate at DC at the time. The idea of creator ownership was really powerful for me. So I showed them "Savage Empire" and editor Jeff Rovin liked it and said he wanted to publish it. I said "Ok, but I have commitments at DC that I have to fulfill first. So do me a favor and don't mention this to anybody until we have two issues in the can." and he said, "I won't". 

I walked out of his office, twenty minutes across town to DC. I walked in the door and Carmine Infantino was waiting for me in the hallway because Jeff had picked up the phone as I walked out the door to call Carmine and brag that he had me "tied up". Which was a dirty thing to do. Carmine of course wanted to know why I hadn't brought it to him. I said " Look you guys haven't had much luck with sword and sorcery type books. I didn't think you would be interested, number one. Number two, they're offering creator ownership and $100 a page. Carmine said, "Well, why don't you show it to me and if I like it, I can't give you creator ownership or $100 a page. But what I can do is give you a guaranteed 1 year run, which is better than you'll get from these other guys and top rate, which at the time  was $67.50 a page. I said, " You know what that's a pretty good offer.

As we were walking to the office, my brain kicked in and said "You dummy, if he buys this you lose it" because there was no creator ownership. The telephone stared ringing so he excused himself for a couple minutes to take the call. In those 2 or 3 minutes, I jettisoned the whole storyline about the archaeologist and Atlantis. I changed him into an SR-71 spy pilot who's plane crashes through the opening to the center of the Earth at the North Pole and comes out in the world of Skartaris. It was a land where the sun shines 24/7, it's always high noon. Since there's no means to measure the passing of time, you're pretty much unaware of the passage. You fall asleep and wake up, it's noon. You have no idea if you've been asleep 20 minutes or 20 years. There's never been an Ice Age, so there's dinosaurs. It has been settled in the past by survivors of Atlantis, who built this elaborate civilization and then vanished and destroyed themselves.

So you have a new wave of people living among the ruins who are all the way up to certain culture like the advanced stage of Roman civilization, while some or more savage and barbaric. There were no rules as to what I could or couldn't do. There was magic, science fiction works, it was all fair game. Jungle stories, survival stories, anything I wanted to do at any time. I refused to draw a map of Skartaris because that was establishing boundaries right away. If you have one story where he's in artic situation and then the next story he's in the jungle or desert, right away people wanna know "How the hell did he get there?". It's not important, the important thing is the story.

I had all that going for me and Carmine liked it. He said " Pitch Joe Orlando on it, if he likes it we'll guarantee you a one year run". Imagine my surprise when I was reading the letter pages for the third issue and read the words, The End, at the end of the book. I said to Joe "This is wrong, it's supposed to say next issue and then the title of the story".  Joe said " Carmine cancelled the book". I said "He can't do that he guaranteed me a one year run". He said " He lied, he does that".

Fortunately for me, Jeanette Kahn walked in about a week later and cancelled Carmine Infantino. It turned out that THE WARLORD had been he favorite book in the lineup. She spotted it's absence in the publishing schedule right away, when she asked where THE WARLORD was they said "Oh Carmine cancelled it". Jeanette said " Carmine's not here anymore, so put it back". That's how it not only survived that cut, but when the DC implosion hit and so many titles were cancelled, everything left became monthly and THE WARLORD made that cut and became a monthly book.

The funny part is, a couple years later, I was sitting in my studio and I got a package in the mail. I had no idea what was gonna be in it, so I opened it up and there's my portfolio that I left with Saul Harrison, complete with a letter rejection slip. It said " Dear artist, thank you for your submission. However it does not meet our current publishing needs. Best of luck, DC Editorial Staff". Which was hysterical because at the time, the title THE WARLORD was the top selling book in the lineup.

COMIC LOUNGE: So would you ever return to the character? Or would you be happy if they brought the character back?

GRELL: For the 35th Anniversary, I killed him off. But it's comics and it's hard to keep a good man dead. It was a crowning achievement as a cartoonist, something that I wanted to do with the character right from the very beginning. There was a panel in 1ST ISSUE SPECIAL #8, the very first appearance of The Warlord, where he gives Tara his wristwatch and she puts it on her upper arm, like an armband just a piece of jewelry that she's wearing. There's a line in that panel, I figured out how I was going to end the story arc, of how Morgan was gonna die, who was going to kill him, how and why. Also exactly what role that wristwatch played in it.

It took me 35 years, but I got around to it. Then hand it off to his son, which is what Hal Foster always wanted to do with Prince Valiant, but they wouldn't let him because Prince Valiant became so popular. He was always disappointed that he couldn't deal with the demise of his character, the way he wanted to. I don't know, I feel like I did a good job wrapping it up, but would I go back, yes I would. Have I got it figured out, of course I got it figured out. That was the 35th Anniversary, which was several years ago now. We're coming up, not to far in the future, on the 50th. If I'm around, you can bet there's gonna be another Warlord story.

COMIC LOUNGE: That's awesome news. Are there any other projects you're working on now, that you can talk about?

GRELL: Yes! We're gonna be running a crowdfunding campaign to relaunch SABLE and MAGGIE THE CAT at the first of the year. I have a finished screenplay that I've got for SABLE and another for MAGGIE THE CAT. We've been close a couple of times, but we're waiting for Hollywood to come to their senses. In the mean time, we're also going to be reissuing the original SABLE prose novel that was published in 2000.

I've also finished another novel called EARTHBOUND. It's set over the New Years period in 2022, where the New York police have been hunting a serial killer who has struck seven times, killing seven girls on seven nights between Christmas and New ,then he vanishes for seven years. He's now finishing up his fourth cycle and last girl in line happens to be the first girl born in the new millennium.

COMIC LOUNGE: Do you have any advice for creators that want to write or illustrate professionally? 

GRELL: I have the same advice for both of them. If you want to be an artist or if you want to be a writer, for God's sake, study something other than comic books. Read something other than comic books. The best writers are well rounded, well read. The best artists don't learn to draw by copying comic books. Copying comic books is how you wind up with overly muscled characters, who have, you know the term "six-pack", well these guys are up to about an "eighteen-pack". It's because these artists have no idea how many rolls of the abdominal there are. They also have no concept of how many muscles there are in the quadriceps femoris. Here's a clue "quad", there's four, there's not nine like you see in so many superhero comics these days.

The best guys in the business, the guys that everybody looks to for inspiration odds are that they studied something else. They didn't learn to draw by copying comic books. They learned to draw first and then applied that to the work you see in their comics. The same thing goes for writers. A writer probably, especially, should be looking at writers outside of comics, for their inspiration. Some of the best guys came from outside comics.

Take a look at Alan Moore, he didn't study comic books before he started writing great stories. He came from outside, a different medium, a different genre. Neil Gaiman, was a terrific writer to begin with, and then applied that to comics. First you learn to fly the plane, right?

#Comics #DCComics #ComicBooks #Writer #Interview

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