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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Mike Grell interview: Jon Sable Freelance as the precursor for the 1988 Green Arrow ongoing series

This is actually one half of a REALLY LONG interview I conducted with Mike Grell on Friday, May 13 2016 at the Ottawa Comiccon.  I was a little nervous when interviewing Mike, so my questions were all over the place and didn't follow any real logical flow. For your reading convenience, I separated the interview transcription into two parts. The second part will deal exclusively with his work on DC comics characters. This interview was actually recorded, but the quality of the audio is a little raw, so I won't be posting it for all to listen to - but I assure you, it exists.

This webzine is very much DC-centric, and this may be my only REAL chance to gush about how great Grell's John Sable Freelance is (and possibly my only chance ever to interview Mike Grell in person), so please bear that in mind as you read through the rather long-winded interview questions.

To summarize, Jon Sable Freelance is one of those indie book (published by First Comics from 1983 to 1988) that nobody seems to have read, but all unanimously agree to being one of the 'better' indie titles of the 1980s. A quick search on the 'net doesn't really delve much about this series, so this is DC in the 80s' chance to give this series it's due. Not just as a really well-illustrated and well-written series, but also as the forerunner to Grell's 1987 Longbow Hunters limited series and then his 1988 Green Arrow ongoing series (both published by DC comics in the late 1980s).

DCinthe80s: "To start: a little bit of history on you. You enlisted in the Air Force in 1967 and were discharged in 1971. You were in Saigon in 1971 - for about a year, correct?"

Mike Grell: "Yes."

DC80s: "So you weren't in the Vietnam War per se, you were working in the Air Force and Military Intelligence?" [the US extraction from Saigon (aka: end of Vietnam) was in 1975]

Grell: "Yes, I was. But the war was going on all around me, so I wasn't a combat soldier by any means, but I was in the war. I was involved. In fact, I was almost as involved as you can get without being in the jungle."

DC80s: "You grew up in Wisconsin, so you know a lot about hunting. Actually, I read that was one of your passions - wilderness, hunting..."

Grell: "Yes, yes it is."

DC80s: "You also know a lot about weaponry - I remember, while reading Jon Sable Freelance, you going into a lot of detail about the actual weapons used in the stories. I remember reading fan mail for the book praising your attention to detail on illustrating/describing a particular combat knife or gauge/caliber of a specific weapon. You have a really advanced knowledge of this stuff."

Grell: "Well I learned to shoot when I was 4 years old. I lived in Northern Wisconsin where the area was so depressed that if your father didn't hunt, your family didn't eat meat. Hunting came naturally to me just as a way of life. It taught me respect for the game animals, it taught me a love of the wild, and I've been at it since I was just a kid."

DC80s: "I sense a lot of that is reflected in your work: Jon Sable has a history of being a big game hunter in Africa, there's the whole hunter/prey motif in the series, and in Green Arrow - in your revamped origin - Green Arrow learns how to use a bow for survival while being stranded on a deserted island. Originally, as per his pre-Crisis origin, Green Arrow was a young boy when he was taught how to shoot."

Grell: "Yeah, it's a question of staying alive. I had a line I wrote in a story where someone asks him "what's the toughest shot he ever made?" and he replied "it was a lizard at ten feet" and they asked "was it poisonous?" and he replied "No. Tasty". Because it was the shot that he had to make in order to feed himself."

DC80s: "On the topic of Oliver Queen... by the way, do you still like the name 'Green Arrow'? I remember hearing you weren't a fan of the name 'Green Arrow'."

Grell: "The name is stupid, but the character - the concept of Green Arrow - well, Green Arrow has always been one of my favorite comic book heroes. Right from the time I was a little kid. I learned how to shoot a bow when I was six or seven years old and we used to play 'Robin Hood' all of the time. The idea of a character who doesn't have super powers, but he has superior skill that anybody can learn, just really appealed to me."

DC80s:"That's like the 'everyman' idea. Jon Sable is the 'everyman' because anybody with enough training could BE Jon Sable. Warlord/Travis Morgan was an 'everyman', he didn't have any special powers, he was an Air Force pilot who crashed in Skartaris..."

Grell: "Right. He was just an ordinary guy with a big sword and a .44 Magnum... but he had the only .44 Magnum is Skartaris, so it gave him a slight edge - y'know?"

DC80s: "Starslayer was another character you created. He was a Celtic warrior who gets that cybernetic eye implant as soon as he gets picked up by that ship - but for the most part, it is feasible that a normal human being could be skilled and honed enough that he could be on par with Starslayer. I'm finding that this another major theme in your 80s work - the main character as the 'everyman'. Even Blackhawk, the feature you wrote for 1988's Action Comic Weekly, is just a 'normal' pilot..."

Grell: "It's the circumstances that cause ordinary, normal people to rise above their everyday lives that really makes them heroic - people just going about their lives and something happens to change them. And it's that change that's important - it's what makes them who they are. It what makes them interesting." 

DC80s: "Something else I've noticed in your books is the concept of 'aging'. For example, Ollie is going through a mid-life crisis in Longbow Hunters, he's saying "well, I'm 40-something, do you want to have kids?" and Dinah says "Well, no. I don't want to bring kids into this world.""

Grell: "He wants to have kids because he's feeling that biological clock ticking, and she doesn't want anything to do with it because of what THEY do. She tells him that she'd love to make babies with him, but she doesn't want to make orphans. She's not ready to hang up her costume and give up the action. She still enjoys what she is and what she does."

"The reason why I made it a point to age my characters was that early on [in the 70s] I had a discussion with Julius Schwartz over a line in a Green Arrow story in which Ollie says "something something whatever I'm not even 30 yet" and I said "that's impossible" and he said "no no no, none of our characters are over thirty because our readers can't relate to anybody over thirty. They think that over thirty is 'over the hill' " and I said "that's totally ridiculous. How long would you say Green Arrow and Speedy have been together? Could you believe that the state had awarded Green Arrow custody of Speedy? What about Batman and Robin? Are you going to tell me that the state was going to award custody of a 15 year old boy to 29 year-old male bachelor? Really?" and so when I had the opportunity to create the Warlord and then Jon Sable, I made it a point to make those characters not just over 30, but over 40."

"I took a certain amount of pride in making them just a little older than I was at the time because I was against the pervasive ageism that is so prevalent in the comic industry. And it still is. There are so many unemployed artists who just happen to pass that 45 year old mark that you just can't believe it. It happens moreso in the comics industry...  probably moreso than any other industry. Artists who are still vital and viable - guys who can draw rings around a lot of the younger crop - are out of work because they're in their forties. Or, God forbid, in their fifties. Or, in my case, in their sixties."

DC80s: "Did you ever go to Africa?"

Grell: "Yes. I've been there twice on safari."

DC80s: "Was that before or after you wrote Jon Sable?"

Grell: "More or less during. I went first in 1984 and back again in 1989."

DC80s: "And you jousted at some point?"

Grell: "Yes. I rode with a group called the Seattle Knights for almost 10 years. I've jousted, did horse-back archery, sword fighting, and all that other stuff. I used to brag that I've never fell off a horse in my life. Then when I turned 45, I bought a horse. That came to an end in a hurry - three years later I was falling off professionally doing it 3 or 4 times a day. I've never been hurt falling off a horse on purpose. I've gotten busted-up on accident a couple of times.

DC80s: "When you were shopping around your Savage Empire comic strip in the early 1970s, you had another hard-boiled detective strip called Iron Mike... is that who Jon Sable is partly based on? You've listed Mickey Spillane and Edward Burroughs as some of your early influences..."

Grell: "The Mickey Spillane influence really showed in Iron Mike. There were a couple of stories I did in Jon Sable that I lifted straight out of Iron Mike - plots I had written out and wanted to follow through with."

DC80s: "I remember reading somewhere that Jon Sable was your favorite character. He was your 'pet project' and a lot of the allure came from the fact that you were able to tell the stories you wanted to tell. I've got say, I've re-read most of the entire Jon Sable Freelance TPB reprint set (available from IDW) for the first time a few months and still really enjoy it. It really holds up 30+ years later. I don't know if it's my age or etc, but lately I've been taking an interest in Cold War espionage drama, and this book was right up my alley. The majority of the stories are framed like whodunit mysteries..."

Grell: "That's what I liked most about the Jon Sable book - I could do any kind of story I wanted. It was securely anchored to the real world and I could often draw my stories from news headlines."

DC80s: "There's a few things here that you actually predict in advance. Sable dealt with a lot of contemporary stuff (at the time of publication), when you're reading it you can easily place when it happened ("okay, this story is about the 80-something Olympics. Okay, here's Jon Sable meeting with Reagan. Here's some Russians trying to escape the soviet by getting smuggled into the U.S.") and then there's the whole Iran/Contra thing..."

Grell: "Longbow Hunters! I got a call from a radio station in NYC asking me if I'd go on air and speak live about the story connection. The reporter asked me how I was able to beat the Iran/Contra story, in print, by 6 months. I told them that, quite frankly, all I did was read the papers, looked at what was going on in the world and plugged in the various players and asked myself "what would be stupidest thing the CIA could do if they were absolutely certain they would never get caught?" and that's what I wrote about."

Reagan makes a guest appearance in Jon Sable Freelance #1

DC80s: "You're one of the pioneers of championing for creator-owned work. You were the first to join up with Pacific Comics in the 80s (Jack Kirby was the second). For First Comics, you were the second to sign up (Joe Staton was the first). Jon Sable was one of the first 3 books published by First Comics. There was WARP, E-Man, Jon Sable Freelance and then Starslayer came in not too long after that [1983]. What was that like? You were taking a big gamble and venturing into new territory (i.e. creator-owned). I know that First Comics was paying a really good page rate, but there was a risk - you were venturing and taking a gamble. You were also making a statement about 'creator-owned'. It wasn't fair that you were creating popular characters for a bigger comic book company and couldn't retain control of them." 

Grell: "Exactly. I was always a big fan of newspaper comic strips. One of the reasons I wanted to get into newspaper strips so badly is because creators owned their own material. I didn't see any reason why that SHOULDN'T be the case in comic books as well. When the opportunity to create and own my own feature arose with Pacific Comics, I jumped on it. They unfortunately did NOT live up to their pledge and promise of even regular payments, there were so many bounced cheques back in the day that I had to look elsewhere. But here came First Comics and they were making good on their promises that Pacific was unable to fulfill. And it just made a huge difference. They were offering royalties. If it hadn't been for companies like First Comics, I don't think Marvel or DC would be paying royalties today. There's no possible way."

DC80s: "First Comics needed you just as badly as you needed them, as First needed some big-name comic talent to jump on board with them to attract new readers. It was a win-win situation, really. The appeal of First Comics was that you were reading some big-name talent hence drawing you into their line of comic books."

"When you started with Jon Sable Freelance, it wasn't a code-approved book obviously, so it gave you more leeway. Frank Miller's Daredevil run for Marvel - I wouldn't say he coined 'grim and gritty' - but he had the street-level stories... and then there was kind of a lull because he left Daredevil in the early 80s, and that's when Jon Sable appeared on the newsstands. But since you weren't operating under the Comics Code Authority, you were able to be more graphic than Miller was able to...

Grell:"You know.. I'm not sure that that's accurate. I think that Sable was ahead of Miller's Daredevil." 

[Miller's Daredevil run ran from 1979 - 1983, and then again in 1985 - 1986. I was referring to Miller's first run when he introduced Elektra. So, Mike's half-right here. Still - not bad for a guy who didn't have wikipedia in front of him.]

DC80s: "What's interesting about the character of Jon Sable is that he's a very cool, laid-back guy, but then, next thing you know he's straight up murdering people on panel. (Granted, they are typically villains, assassins, muggers or enemy soldiers). But the point is, it's pretty graphic and it's on-panel. The Jon Sable has a major underlying theme of 'urban crime' - how dangerous the streets are. There's lots of implied sex in that book."

Grell: "I explored a lot of those themes in Jon Sable, but also in Green Arrow Longbow Hunters. I was taken to task in print by the New York Times and Times magazine - in the same week they ran articles mentioning Green Arrow. Unfortunately they never mentioned my name. They called Green Arrow, and I remember the quote word-for-word, 'borderline pornography pandering to the prurient interests of today's youth'. oh, it was great. it was great. I just regret that they didn't mention my name."

"At the same time, they referred to Mindy Newell (she was writing Catwoman at the time) and Mindy's name they used. She got a phone call from her father, who was a heavy-hitter stock broker with big offices on Wall Street, saying "Mindy, I'd like you to come down to the office for lunch today" and she was thinking "Oh my God, what am I gonna face now?". So she walks in, as she steps off the elevator in the main lobby of her father's firm she sees the page from the New York Times blown-up wall-sized with her name circled about 25 times in yellow highlighter. She got a standing ovation from the office staff, and a big bouquet of roses from her father. He said "Honey, I've been on Wall Street for 35 years and I've never gotten my name in the Times."

DC80s: "You also did a Jon Sable story in Green Arrow where someone named Jake Moses show up [Green Arrow v2 #15 - 16, 1989], and..."

Grell: "Yes!" [Grell's face lights up]

DC80s: "...and Green Arrow ends up having a conversation with him. Was there a reason for that? Were you trying to demonstrate something? Like, 'for all you critics comparing my Jon Sable character to Green Arrow, here's the difference...'. Jacob Moses was driven over the edge. He was nothing like the smooth, handsome man-of-the-world Jon Sable - he was a haggard, Irish mercenary. Was there a story there? Or was this just a fun way to slip Jon Sable into a DC book?"

Grell: "Yeah, there was. On the one hand it was a continuation of a Sable-type of character, and on the other hand it was my way of putting that character to rest. It would've more or less been a logical ending for a guy who lived his life like Sable did. But in reality, it was a little bit of a back-hand slap at First Comics because at the time that I left the book - well, the reason that I did so was because I knew that without me on the title it would eventually fade and die. First Comics had a 10 year publishing license for 3 years after they last published the book. My leaving the book was a way to hasten that time period instead of having to wait until that 10 year period was over, I knew that after I left the book they'd only be able to keep it going for a short period of time. And then I would get the rights back a few years after they ceased publication."

DC: "Was there 'bad blood' between you and First Comics?"

Grell: "There was at the time. It was a sheer question of economics: I wasn't being paid what I was owed when I was supposed to get my payments. The timing was perfect. Mike Gold had transitioned to DC comics and he phoned me up one day and said "I'm editing over here at DC, is there any character here that you like well enough to 'bury the hatchet' and come back to work?". I said "Batman". I had just talked to Frank Miller, maybe a week before, and he told me about the plot of his Dark Knight Returns book, and I told Mike "Once Frank's done with Batman, you can put a period at the end of the Batman sentence for the next 20 years." Of course, I'm off by 7 or 8 years now, and counting. Gold was the one who said "Green Arrow". Green Arrow has always been one of my favorite characters. "Now think about this," he said "...Green Arrow as an URBAN HUNTER". That's was it. That was the whole inspiration for the Longbow Hunters, and the angle on the character for the ongoing series that followed."

DC80s: "Was that a difficult idea to sell to DC? I remember Green Arrow as being a somewhat 'jovial' character - that guy with the trick arrows (boxing glove on the tip of the arrow) - and you were going to reinvent him as a vigilante with pointed arrows that pierce and potentially kill. How did DC handle that proposal on the character?"

Grell: "It turned out to be a really easy sell." 

DC80s: "I'm imagining it had to do with your success with Jon Sable Freelance. They saw how popular and well-written that was. Hence my point that Jon Sable Freelance was the precursor to your Longbow Hunters and, shortly thereafter, your 1988 Green Arrow ongoing series. A lot of elements from Jon Sable Freelance are apparent in Green Arrow. In both of them, your main characters get hurt. Jon Sable, he's got permanent scars across his chest - there's some continuity there because the scars are the result of one of his first adventures. In Green Arrow, Ollie's always coming back as bloody as hell and Dinah has to bandage him up. It's grounded in realism. He's not going out beating up muggers all night and coming back home unscathed. These guys are getting hurt. Same thing with Dinah - she gets into a major fight and for several issues later she's still got the exact same bruises. That's realistic. That's the allure - it goes back to that 'everyman' thing. You feel that you could realistically be this person. You can relate to it."

Grell: "Yeah, I think that's part of the job of a writer is to be close enough to reality - even in a fantasy - that your character isn't perceived as just a violent S.O.B. who has no repercussions in his life. Yes, Oliver Queen shot a lot of people with bows and arrows, but he also wound up in court. And it took a toll on him. Everything that he did took a toll. He was essentially a victim of PTSD."

DC80s: "...also another common theme in your work: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Jon Sable is dealing with the death of his family."

Grell: "Violence doesn't only affect the person that it happens to. sometimes it affects the person who perpetrates it"

DC80s: "That appears to be an important theme in your work which keeps it based in realism. Is Jon Sable based on Ian Flemming? His alter ego is B.B. Flemm... "

Grell: "No. The inspiration for Sable was a character who would be the EXACT OPPOSITE of Batman. He doesn't work for the greater good, he works for money - you got to pay him, he's a mercenary. He doesn't have a secret identity. The mask is only symbolic apart from the fact that it scares the hell out of the bad guys. He's not trying to disguise who he is - everybody know he's mister blood and guts. His deep dark secret is that he's a closet "nice guy" who writes children's books about a group of leprechauns living in a fairy mound in central park. The only time he wears any kind of disguise is when he has to go out into public and appear as the children's author B.B. Flemm. Which, when it's written out, looks fine. But when you say it, it's that stuff you hock out of your throat when you have a bad cold."

DC80s: "Physically, was the appearance of Jon Sable based on someone you knew? An actor, perhaps? Same question for Maggie the Cat... [a Jon Sable character that quickly became a fan favorite and received her own spin-off book]"

Maggie the Cat

Grell:"Sable was originally based on James Brolin - Josh Brolin's dad. Maggie the Cat was based in part on Grace Kelly. Grace Kelly did a movie with Cary Grant called To Catch A Thief [1955] and she's also partly based (facially) on a model/actress named Lauren Hutton."

image of James Brolin. phot source:
James Brolin

Grace Kelly. MGM Photo. Source:
Grace Kelly

image of Lauren Hutton. photo source:
Lauren Hutton

DC80s: "All the women in Jon Sable Freelance are beautiful..."

Grell: "Beautiful are more interesting than ugly ones. I'm just sayin' "

DC80s: "...especially when you are writing cold war mystery/espionage thrillers..."
Grell: "More interesting to me, anyways"

DC80s: "It's also interesting that Jon Sable, a guy in his 40s, his primary love interest is Myke - the really tall twenty-something aspiring illustrator..."

Grell: "Yeah, well I was married to a twenty-something girl at the time"

DC80s: "art imitates life"

Grell: "...and just like in Jon Sable, she was taller than me."


Again, I'm going to make a strong recommendation that you pick up and read First Comics' Jon Sable Freelance ongoing series from 1983 (written and illustrated by Mike Grell). I didn't read the entire series, just the first six trade paperbacks published, so I really can't comment on anything after that - but I can confidently tell you that the first 33 issues are better than 80% of what's currently out there on the comic book market. The series is beautifully illustrated by Grell and holds up really well as far as plotting and pacing go - some of it's pretty intense and will even surprise you. If you're the 'adventurous' type, you can go hunting through back-issue bins (issues can vary wildly in price, but for the most part you should be able to get them pretty cheap) or you can just bite the bullet (like I did) and pick up the trades from IDW.

Just lovin' those two-page Grell-illustrated splash pages

I can hardly express how grateful I am that Mike Grell gave me his time and sat down and talked with me. You can check out more of Mike Grell on his website:

Go to part two of this interview.


  1. No mentioned of the short lived Sable TV series. Interesting?

    1. Well, I did briefly chat with Mike about the Gene Simmons/Sable TV show connection - but it wasn't really enough to add any value to the interview. I decided to mainly stick to his comic book work. But I'm really glad you mentioned it, Anon, because the Sable TV series aired in 1987 (which is right in our wheelhouse). I'm not really a 'TV expert' - all I've got as a link is the IMDB entry:

      If you've got any links to any articles that cover the Sable TV show more extensively, by all means - please post. :)

  2. Here's some talk about the TV show. . .

    1. This is a really good interview/article! Sweet find! Thanks for sharing with us :)