Mike Grell Answers 15 Questions With Julinda Morrow
Mike Grell is an original. His distinctive blend of masculine heroes, exotic locales, action and adventure is unmistakable. He is, in many ways, a modern day cohort of Mickey Spillane, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lester Dent.
Mike has put his unique creative stamp on icons like Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Iron Man, Tarzan, James Bond, and perhaps his most famous mainstream title, The Warlord. He has also given the comics world such creator-owned projects as Starslayer and this interviewer’s personal favourite Jon Sable.
Mike graciously responded in record time for this inaugural edition of 15 Questions. Remember to click on Mike’s gallery at the end of this interview – ’cause, boy, can this man draw!
Julinda Morrow: What path led you to comics and sequential art?
Mike Grell: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a lumberjack, just like my old man. Then, when I was 16, he got me a job working in the woods and I discovered there had to be an easier way to make a living. I decided to become an architect, but couldn’t handle the math, so then I settled on commercial artist because just the title meant you actually got paid for your art BEFORE you were dead (unlike Van Gogh). Before I could get enrolled in a decent art school, I got caught up in the draft and was given a choice to enlist or be drafted. I enlisted in the Air Force and, while in basic training, I met a guy named Baily Phelps who told me I should become a cartoonist instead, because “Cartoonists only work 2 or 3 days a week and make a million dollars a year.” That did it.
JM: What schooling or training did you receive?
MG: My mother was a great artist and always encouraged us to draw. We didn’t have TV, so drawing was a great passtime. My brother Dick, who was always a much better artist than I was, used to draw whole storyboard sequences of movies we had seen. I became an illustrator in the Air Force and took the Famous Artists Schools course in cartooning at the same time. Afterward, I attended Chicago Academy of Fine Art while moonlighting at an ad agency, where I learned a hell of a lot more than I did in school.
JM: How do you define sequential art?
MG: Sequential art is the art of visual storytelling.
JM: Do you find that sequential art provides you with near-limitless possibilities for storytelling or do you experience it as constraining?
MG: You’re only limited by your imagination. I’ve always tried to push the envelope. When a friend said he hated comic strips because you were limited to a rectangle format I told him it was no more limiting than a movie screen and drew an entire WARLORD issue all in rectangles to prove my point. I reversed that when I did the TARZAN Sunday pages, often using layouts like you’d typically find in comic books to create unusual shapes on the page, rather than the standard horizontal rows of panels.
JM: What qualities or resources do you believe are most important for a sequential storyteller to have?
MG: The ability to tell a story clearly is more important than being able to draw pretty pictures. My favorite example is DC’s THE SHADOW by Mike Kaluta – amazing artwork, but sales were in the toilet. Then Frank Robbins was put on the book and sales spiked. Frank’s work was anything but pretty, but his dynamic storytelling more than made up for it.
JM: How do you approach your work process?
MG: Like a kid poking a hornet’s nest with a stick. I never know what’s going to come out of there. I always write a full script, even for myself, because I want no last minute surprises and I like the idea of having to show it to an editor as a safety measure against my ego getting out of control. I draw my layouts actual size of the printed page, planning balloon placement at the same time, because, as Dick Giordano always said, balloons are part of the art and the design of the page. Then, if I’m inking, I either enlarge to finish size and ink on my lightbox or, if I have to take work on the road, print out bluelines to ink. Most often, though, I prefer to do my finishes in pencil. I began drawing most of my books in pencil back about 1984 with SABLE #19. You still have to draw for line reproduction, but I like the different qualities you can get on the page. Pencil or ink depends on the nature of the book – superhero books like GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW and IRON MAN are better in ink; SABLE and THE WARLORD were all done in pencil.
JM: How many hours a day do you work? Are you uniformly productive on any given day or more productive on some days than others?
MG: As many as it takes. My usual process is to screw off as long as possible, the work in a panic to make the deadline. Comes from watching John Wayne movies – I always figured “in the nick of time” was plenty.
JM: What has been your most valuable professional experience?
MG: I’d have to say it’s a tie between meeting Allan Asherman and Irv Novick, who looked at my portfolio and told me to get my carcass up to Julie Schwartz’s office and having the opportunity to work with Denny O’Neil, who taught me what good writing really is.
JM: What inspires or informs you creatively?
MG: Like any artist, I respond first to visual stimulus, then to words. I love movies, especially old movies made before everything was done to THE FORMULA. I listen to jazz, classical music or swing music while I write.
JM: What is your position on digital comics? Are they a good thing or a bad thing?
MG: Both. You can reach more readers, but I’m going to miss the old pamphlet books when they disappear.
JM: If you were to make any changes to the industry or the market what changes would you make?
MG: I’d go back to good old-fashioned newsprint for all comics, so they’d turn that wonderful yellow and crumble to dust if not cared for properly. Then, because they were fragile, they might actually be worth something in the future.
JM: What, in the future, would you like to accomplish creatively?
MG: I have a project called 100 ANGELS that I’m SLOWLY getting to and I’m spending a lot of time on novels and screenplays. I’d love to see SABLE finally make it onto the big screen.