Directly responsible for The CW’s Arrow with a harder-edged run on Green Arrow that kicked off with the controversial Longbow Hunters miniseries, writer and artist Mike Grell was a Bronze Age DC stalwart with fan-favourite runs on Superboy And The Legion Of Superheroes and Green Arrow/Green Lantern alongside the book’s definitive writer, Denny O’Neil.
Not just a hired hand, Grell was at the forefront of creator-owned comics with cult strip Jon Sable, Freelance and is now making his long overdue return to the UK at London Super Comic Con. We spoke to Grell about courting controversy, going alone and dragging comics into the real world ahead of LSCC…
Heartwarming opening question: what do you love about comics?
Everything. Old comics, especially. I love the way the newsprint smells and feels and the way the paper yellows with age and softens the colors and turns brittle, so you’d better take care of them or they fall apart. Come to think of it, old comics are a lot like me!
Looking forward to London Super Comic Con? Are you a big con guy?
Very much. It’s been over 20 years since I’ve been to London and I figure the statute of limitations has expired by now. Last time I was there some actor pals took me on a pub crawl and we managed to lower the shoreline of Lake Guinness several inches.
I do a lot of cons, but nowhere near as many as I did 30 years ago when Sable debuted. I counted my calendar and discovered I had spent 168 days on the road that year. One day I was sitting on a panel with about a dozen other people and suddenly I realised I had no idea where I was. I didn’t recognise the venue, so I knew it couldn’t be Chicago or San Diego… people were too polite for New York… no Southern drawl, so it couldn’t be Texas. I finally decided I must be in Iowa. Wrong! I was 70 miles from home and I had driven there the night before. The next year I did TWO cons.
What do you find fans asking you about the most at these events?
The Arrow television series. It’s definitely put me on the map.
Is it nice to see new generations of readers discover your work through the show?
It’s great. When they mentioned the crooked Judge Grell in the pilot episode, my niece phoned and said, “Uncle Mike, you’re famous!” I said, “Sweetie, I’ve been famous for 40 years. You just never noticed.” Then she said, “So… did they have to pay you to use the name?” I told her, “If you’re wondering if I’m going to die and make you rich, the answer is no.”
You seem most at home with harder-edge solo characters, from Green Arrow to Jon Sable to The Warlord. Had these types of characters always intrigued you as a reader, or were they just the type of stories you found yourself most naturally exploring?
I’ve always been drawn to hard-boiled private eyes and man-against-nature stories with plenty of action and good old high adventure. My favorite writers were Mickey Spillane and Edgar Rice Burroughs, though these days I lean toward Elmore Leonard and John Steinbeck.
You’ve never shied away from reflecting the real world, even in more obviously escapist worlds like The Warlord. Have you ever had to fight to get content into print?
All the time. It seems like I’ve spent my whole career trying to drag editors and publishers kicking and screaming into the 20th Century. A story I proposed for a Green Arrow backup in about 1974 was too hard-edged for editor Julie Schwartz.
He changed my story of a Holocaust survivor tracking down Nazi war criminals with a bow into a story about a young boy with a sling who turns out to be the reincarnation of King David. My story went into my file cabinet until the industry grew up a bit and I eventually revised it into The Longbow Hunters.
Another time, while doing Jon Sable, Freelance, I wanted a cover printed in black and white with a red bullseye. There’ was a long argument about why it wouldn’t work, but I prevailed–that cover was rated #1 among the retailers that month, because it stood out from all the others.
More seriously, while writing Green Arrow I drew a lot of my inspiration from headlines and people had a hard time accepting that I wasn’t just making this stuff up. In particular, there was a story about a girl who had been sold into the sex trade and was crucified when she tried to break away. True story, it happened in Florida. If Dick Giordano, then DC’s Vice President/Executive Editor, hadn’t been the inker on that issue, the story might never have seen print.
It’s the only time my work was mentioned in the New York Times and Time magazine, which called it “borderline pornography pandering to the prurient interests of today’s youth.” But they didn’t mention my name, so my niece had to wait another 25 years for me to get “famous”.
You’ve been seriously ahead of the curve in terms of creator-owned books – what were the biggest challenges when you started with your own titles?
Working up the balls to quit a perfectly good job and strike out on my own. I knew I was taking a chance that audiences that had followed my from Superboy And The Legion Of Superheroes to The Warlord to Green Lantern/Green Arrow would be interested in a story about a 1st Century Celtic chieftain transported to the distant future or an African hunter in the concrete jungle. Turns out they were more than ready for a change and so were a lot of creators like me who were tired of putting our best work out there to be exploited and owned by someone else.
I knew the chance I was taking, but I also knew someone had to take the step or things would never change. You don’t think for one minute DC or Marvel would be paying royalties if we hadn’t forced their hand, do you? I was the first artist/writer to sign with Pacific Comics (Starslayer) – Jack Kirby was second (Jack’s book debuted ahead of mine because Jack could write and draw an issue in the time it’s taken me to write this.). I was the second creator to sign with First Comics (Jon Sable, Freelance) — Joe Staton, who was their art director, was first.
Of course, once we had creator ownership rights and royalties, the big trick became collecting what we were owed. That was – and remains – a serious challenge; some companies and individuals never made good on their promises. Others, like DC, have always paid on schedule (in fact, I’m still getting royalties for work done 40 years ago).
In the end, we changed how the industry did business. That’ll do for an epitaph.
Meet Mike Grell at London Super Comic Con. held 15 to 16 March 2014 at London’s Excel Centre. Find out more and book tickets LondonSuperComicConvention.com.