From Skartaris to Sable

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A chat with storyteller Mike Grell by Robert Greenberger
From Comics Scene #9, ©Comics World Corp., 1983.

Mike Grell looks nothing like one would imagine. Instead of a tall, broad-shouldered, bearded adventurer, Grell is actually like you or me: average. His beard is not as stylized as Travis Morgan’s or Green Arrow’s, his build is less-than superheroic but he has the swashbuckler’s spirit which is part of all he draws.

A friendly, talkative fellow, Grell is embarking on a new phase of his career, closing a few doors behind him on the way. February saw the premiere of Jon Sable, Freelance, First Comics’ third entry into the market. Grell has also brought to First Starslayer, taken away from Pacific Comics after its initial six-issue run. After scripting and laying out the first two new issues, Grell will leave the book behind, licensing it to First. With issue nine, Lenin Delsol and Mike Gustovich will be the full art team with a writer as yet undetermined.

Grell is also walking away from his first comic book creation, Travis Morgan, The Warlord. After seven years at DC Comics, Grell will be leaving Warlord with issue #72 and has no other assignments with his first comic book publisher. “It was time to cut the cord,” Grell says of the move in December.

“I’ve told DC that I will be more than willing to work with anyone who picks it up from there and make sure the storyline proceeds in a proper direction. I am hoping to do a project with DC involving Warlord in the future. We’ll jump ahead and actually tell the end of the story in an album or something of that nature. It’s nothing more than in the talking stage. Dick Giordano and I discussed it very, very briefly in San Diego this past summer.”

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Beneath Sable’s home is a target range with a sophisticated computer.

For the foreseeable future, Grell will be concentrating solely on Sable, a creation that was born “in a clap of thunder.” The entire concept came together very quickly, he says, maybe taking six months. The storyline involves Jon Moses Sable, a freelance mercenary in high adventure stories that will take him around the world. What makes him unique, Grell adds, is that Sable has an alter ego. For an hour or two a day, he assumes the persona of B.B. Flemm, America’s most beloved children’s author. With wig and mustache, Sable can be seen on talk shows, at autograph parties and in publishers’ offices. No one is the wiser as to his true calling in life.

Representing Flemm is a very modem woman named Eden Kendall. “There is a hint of a romantic involvement there. It’s very casual and we’ll occasionally see them in the sack,” Grell comments. “Where Kendall and Sable have a relationship that is both friendly and professional, the illustrator of his books, Myke Blackmon, and Sable get off on the wrong foot. There’s a mild animosity between the two of them; Blackmon doesn’t get along with Flemm at all. She’s a six-foot-tall woman who is in her early 20s, a terrific artist in her own right.”

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From issue one, the introduction of Eden Kendall, agent and friend.

While Sable’s Flemm has some interesting women in his life, the mercenary has a very strong antagonist in the form of Josh Winters, a black police captain who detests vigilantes like Sable. “Sable operates more or less on the outer fringes of the law. What I always liked about the Green Arrow character was that he stayed truer to the spirit of justice rather than the letter of the law. Sable is like that, too, and Winters objects like hell to all the good press Sable gets while the cops basically get a raw deal in the press. If something goes wrong, people come down on the cops and they never take into consideration all the times that police officers were there when needed,” Grell says. The final supporting character to be introduced is Sonny Pratt, former stuntman and full time swashbuckler at heart. He’s barely on the sunny side of 70. In fact, he may have pushed over the boundary. Sonny was Sable’s fencing coach when he was training for the Olympic pentathaIon. Pratt is also convinced that Douglas Fairbanks’ parents brought home the wrong baby from the hospital. He has coached everybody who is everybody – fencing, fighting – but he has never taken the bows himself. He will be a sort of recurring companion, thorn-in-the-side. He wants to hang around Sable… a lot. He also plays a sort of Cato to Sable’s Inspector Clouseau. In other words, he thinks nothing of swinging through the skylight during one of Sable’s romantic interludes, forcing him to fight a duel before he goes away and leaves Sable alone.

“He has a certain amount of blackmail to use against Sable. Everyone knows Sable is a macho action character. Very few people know that he is B.B. Flemm. He uses this ammunition to persuade Sable to do almost anything he wants.” Sable’s first two chronicled adventures have been used to set up the storylines, introduce the characters and make the fans familiar with the setting. Issue three in April will bring the first of a four-part origin story, hinted at only briefly in the first two issues.

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Sable meets the U.S. President, and stalks his would-be assassin in his first adventure.

Iron Mike

Grell has been working steadily in the comics field for nearly 10 years now, after hearing how cartoonists worked only two or three days a week and made a million dollars a year. Originally, Grell wanted to be an architect but was never good enough at the math so he switched his interests to art. After high school, he managed to get in a year at the University of Wisconsin before “I got caught in the only lottery I ever won.” Rather than be drafted, Grell joined the Air Force hoping to avoid Vietnam. Once in far east Asia, Grell discovered comics had changed since the early to mid-1960s. After one look at an issue of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Grell knew comics was the career for him.

He enrolled in the Famous Artists School and reflects, “I think it’s one of the best courses available for a beginner. This thing teaches you to crawl before you walk and walk before you run.” Once out of the Air Force, Grell attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts because it was the only school he knew that offered a degree in cartooning.

Although he was intrigued by the change in comic books, Grell remained interested in comic strips because of the potential for big bucks and the opportunity to delve deeper into characterization. During school, Grell had tried to market a strip called Iron Mike which featured a hardboiled private eye. From there, he created Savage Empire, a tale of Atlantis which Grell calls, “An American in Atlantis.”

Much to his surprise, the syndicates rejected Savage Empire out of hand. Most editors refused to look at a continuity strip since so many were failing and audiences, they thought, wanted only daily gag strips. Willard Coulson, a syndicate editor, told him, “Kid, if you were here 15 years ago, you would have it made.” The next day, Brenda Starr artist Dale Messick told Coulson she was looking for an assistant. Coulson put Grell and Messick together.

“Working with Dale was really interesting,” Grell recalls. “I learned how to adapt to something that was completely alien to me. Dale is very soft and feminine and draws in curves. I was all hard edges and cross hatching. It took me quite some time before I found a way to duplicate her style. First, I drew exclusively with a brush and I waited until the last minute before deadline. I didn’t have time to spend to get hard or do cross hatching. I had to get it down and I found that the faster I worked, the more my stuff looked like Dale’s. The only way I found to make our two styles jive was to work that way.”

Grell would do backgrounds and ink the figures while John Olsen would do the lettering and finish the backgrounds. Messick finished the heads. Today Grell laughs and claims if he ever writes an autobiography, the title would be Doing Brenda’s Body.

Doing his own comic strip still burned in Grell’s soul so he headed for New York and attended a comics convention in hopes of meeting with talent scouts for the syndicates. When Grell turned up at Phil Seuling’s annual bash, he was shocked to see no talent scouts, few pros and mostly fans. Wearing a suit, however, did make him stand out in a crowd.

Allan Asherman, then Joe Kubert’s assistant at DC, showed Grell’s work to people and Grell found himself talking to a man named Irv. He approached Grell, liked what he saw and suggested Grell go see Julius Schwartz at DC. What Grell later discovered was that the Irv he spoke with was Irv Novick, then chief Batman penciller.

First Came Aquaman

“Julie was very cordial and treated me in his customary fashion,” Grell says of the encounter. “’What the hell makes you think you can draw comics?’ I unzipped my portfolio and said, ‘You tell me.’ He took me in to Joe Orlando and I walked out with – ‘As the Undersea City Sleeps,’ an Aquaman story for Adventure Comics.” The three-part story established Grell as both a penciller and inker, a rare commodity in the business these days.

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Grell’s first assignment for DC, an Aquaman story from Adventure Comics #435.

As Grell was turning in his first story, Murray Boltinoff was pacing in his office wondering who he could get to replace Dave Cockrum, who had just announced he was leaving Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes to go work for Marvel, Orlando suggested Grell and Boltinoff had him ink a Cockrum story. Satisfied with the effort, Grell debuted as Legion artist with issue #201.

The Legion days were happy ones for Grell. “I was very ecstatic to have a series that fast,” Grell says. “I started working with Cary Bates who is one of the top three writers in my esteem. Cary will give you all the details cinematically. One of his scripts resembles a film script – he’ll tell you where to move the camera, what has to be in the shot.

“The future aspect was perfect for me but the 26 strange characters were awfully hard. The one thing that helped me was the background material that Dave Cockrum did. He had a sketchbook which DC xeroxed with all the costume details. There are some costumes in the Legion that I couldn’t remember from page to page. Shrinking Violet, for example, has all this elaborate lace work on her costume that had to be just right.”

Grell plowed along, even though comics fandom hadn’t really discovered the joys of reading team-oriented comics back then. Grell even complains that some of the stories were just minor soap operas. When Bates left the series and was replaced by Jim Shooter, and then Paul Levitz, things began to change. “I felt like my mother had moved out and a strange lady had taken her place,” Grell says. He adds that the collaborations didn’t click and that his interest was beginning to wane. He never had the love for the Legion that Cockrum had. “I cared about it, but he took very, very great pains with the characters.”

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This Legion tabloid edition contained the marriage of Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad.

Before leaving the book, Grell created Dawnstar, an American Indian with wings who had the ability to track down anything, anywhere. Grell created the character and origin while Levitz contributed her powers. She has since become a popular Legionnaire, which pleases Grell since he always felt that the Legion wasn’t racially integrated enough. “You can do any relationship you want,” he says of the attitude in the mid-70s at DC, “as long as they’re not black and white. I did one particular story where the character was rather undefined. I read it over and said, ‘Why not? there must be a few surviving black people in the 30th Century.’ I didn’t know until several issues later that they were all moved out onto an island. So, I drew this Science Police officer as a black man and turned the comic in and Murray Boltinoff almost had apoplexy. ‘You can’t do that, this guy is black! You’re going to have to change him.’ ‘Why?’ ‘You can’t do that because there’s something negative in that character.’ He was an ordinary man who could make mistakes; Murray felt that would make the character appear weak. I took the story back to ink and was angry enough to make it obvious that he was a black man colored pink.

“One of my pet peeves in comics is that most of the black characters are white people colored brown.” About this time, as Grell was moving off the Legion, Denny O’Neil was given the go ahead to revive the Green Lantern title. At the time, both Green Lantern and Green Arrow were sharing a back-up slot in The Flash. Jack Kirby was given the nod for artist when Grell approached and said, “’Who do you want killed?’ I think what I really said was, ‘Oh please, oh please, oh please.’ He said ok. I enjoyed it tremendously working with Denny O’Neil. He’s another of the best writers working in comics.”

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Green Lantern #90 brought back Hal Jordan after the O’Neil/Adams series had been cancelled years before.

During all of this, Grell still had hopes of selling Savage Empire as a strip. Finally, he decided to turn it into a comic book and approached then-president Carmine Infantino who said, “Show it to Joe; if he likes it, we’ll buy it.” Grell did up a proposal and spent a day at Joe Orlando’s upstate New York home. “He quizzed me for hours of what the characters were like, what Morgan did, why he did it, what was it like being an Air Force flyer, and at the end of the day, Joe knew the character almost as well as I did,” Grell says.

The character was bought and Grell wrote and illustrated the opening Warlord tale which appeared in First Issue Special #8 in 1975. Warlord was only one of two features to appear in this oddly-named showcase title that won its own series. Warlord #1 premiered a mere two months later.

Orlando continued to work with Grell on the character as the first of many editors on the title. “He was a lot of fun to work with,” Grell remembers fondly. “He never let me get away with anything. When I delivered the artwork, he would go over it and critique it. If I got something wrong, not only did he correct it, but he gave me an art lesson. This was really the fabulous part of working with him.”

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Grell usually used his covers for symbolic poses and images as seen by this collection of Warlord.

As writer/artist, Grell approached the book with a different point of view than most comcis. Warlord has always been a faster-to-read comic than most others with a pace that could leave a reader breathless. In the last two years, the series had concentrated much more on the characters and the boundaries of human relationships. These aspects gave Warlord a unique, quiet strength that has made it a particularly strong title on the newsstands and has recently inspired a Warlord toy.

“As a writer,” Grell says, “I was trying to have fun. I was looking for something that would be 20 to 30 minutes of cheap thrills. I think comic books, with a few exceptions, are there to entertain. I did things like moving my character around the countryside; I never drew a map so I could move him from one side of Skartaris to the other just for the sake of the story. I am firmly a member of the Mickey Spillane school of storytelling. Write the end first and then write your way up to it so you don’t find any surprises. When I did Warlord, I planned it on a page by page outline and made sure I knew when I was going and the action was moving along at the right pace.”

Travis Morgan’s adventures in the inner world of Skartaris has brought him in touch with the remnants of a past civilization, perhaps Atlantis, and with many different societies. He has the wanderlust in his blood and is never home long with his wife, Tara, queen of her people. The stories Warlord was involved with were unusual and more often than not, unexpected.

What did cause some confusion two or three years ago was the time sense in Skartaris. A production error was exacerbated by then-editor Jack C. Harris and has remained a question in the readers’ minds ever since. Grell warms up to the question, seizing the opportunity to set the record straight, perhaps as a final act. “I did a story where Mariah comes down to Skartaris from the outer world and she’s having trouble adjusting to the fact that things don’t work there the same way as they work here. Due to an editorial error or a lettering error that no one caught, one of my lines was messed up and the explanation was almost completely wrong. The line said that while Mariah was relaxing in her bath, Travis Morgan had slept once and ate twice. The line was printed as slept twice and ate twice.”

Later, there was a tale in which Morgan returned earthside. When he arrived back in Skartaris, his helmet was covered in spider webs. This visual shorthand for passage of time was used by Grell in an entirely different context. “A friend of mine was a race driver and he was in two races one night with maybe a half-hour between them. When he came back to his car for the second race, a spider had spun a complete web from the steering wheel to the seat. Spiders spin their webs very fast. I got the idea from that incident. Everyone else began thinking there was a time warp.

“I’m here to tell you right now that time progresses down there the some way it progresses up here.”

Burroughs and Starslayer

Grell admits that Skartaris is not an original idea. In fact, he points out that through research, 13 books were written before the turn-of-the-century on the subject of the hollow Earth. Much of the inspiration comes from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories of Pellucidar and a book aptly titled The Hollow Earth. “My setting, I have to say, is inspired by Pellucidar. I’ve read almost everything Burroughs has ever written and I found it very fascinating.

“This long-time fascination with the work of Burroughs goes back to childhood and Grell says he read all the Tarzan books at least three times and became a big fan. “When the Secret Service did a security check on me while I was in the Air Force,” Grell recalls, “They said, ‘Mike Grell is Tarzan.’ There was a time when you could have easily found me by asking for Tarzan in my hometown. I still do a halfway decent imitation of the yell.”

When United Features Syndicate called to ask Grell if he was interested in picking up a strip, little did he know that Tarzan was one of the possibilities. Grell was recommended by Archie Goodwin, who continues to write for comic strips in addition to his duties at Epic Comics. After samples were approved by Danton Burroughs, president of ERB, Inc., Grell began working on the strip, something he calls “a natural.”

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His work began appearing with the July 19, 1981 Sunday page – the dailies remain reprints – and he is now renegotiating a contract. “They’re paying me so little, I lose money every time I draw a strip,” Grell explains. “I will continue on the strip if they meet my financial demands, otherwise I pull the pen.”

Grell has picked up on concept of a man displaced in time and/or space as seen in Warlord, Tarzan and even Starslayer, Grell says that Starslayer was created over four years ago as the opposite of Warlord. Torin MacQuillon, Torin of the sword, was plucked out of Earth’s ancient history by Tamara and charged with helping save the future of the solar system.

For quite a while, Grell wanted to do the comic and DC was interested until the implosion of 1978, forcing them to cut back their line about 50 per cent. Then, Mike Gold left DC and began thinking about forming his own company, which has evolved into First Comics. For a while, Grell kept holding the character back, waiting for the word from Gold. “At one point, he called and said, ‘I’m on my way to sign the deal with the distributor. Start the book. Twenty minutes later he called back and said, ‘Stop work, they backed out,’” Grell says. Finally, Pacific Comics got into the publishing field and offered Grell a deal. Soon, Starslayer joined Jack Kirby’s Captain Victory as the premiere titles from that fledgling company.

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The final issue of Starslayer for Pacific Comics. It returns soon under the First Comics ægis.

The original deal with Pacific called for six issues and when that obligation was fulfilled, Grell received a better offer from Gold, now that First Comics was ready to go. Grell says that First’s deal beats everyone else’s by offering a substantial page rate and royalties from the first issue sold. Most others either use the page rate against royalties or wait until 100,000 copies have sold before paying royalty.

But all that is behind Grell now, he’s concentrating on Sable. And that’s enough. He recently moved from Wisconsin to Idaho and with his wife Sharon, is making life as good as possible. Sharon has helped Grell as a sounding board, a business manager and even a letterer on Starslayer and Tarzan. “We always sit down and discuss the storylines, the different aspects of the characters and what their personalities are like. To a large extent, she’s been responsible for a great deal of input on the major and minor points of character development.

“One thing I want to add about Sharon: there have been a lot of nights where I was working on a 24 or 36 hour push. She was right there in the studio all the time. When she couldn’t stay awake, she would sack out on the floor and stay with me. I tell you, just having someone around to keep you reminded that you’re not the only one alive sure helps a lot.

“I think the most important thing she’s done for me is that she has taught me, ‘It’s ok if you fail as long as you try. If you try, nine times out of 10, you’re going to succeed.’”

Grell has been dabbling with painting when he finds the spare time. He says that in 10 or 15 years, he would like to devote most of his time to painting nature and wildlife, something that has caught his fancy recently. Today, though, he’s busily dreaming up new missions for Sable to accept and sits back to watch where his earlier creations are headed. For now, all is right with Mike Grell’s world. eom

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