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Friday, July 15, 2016

The Mike Grell interview: Grell talks about his 1980s work at DC comics

This is the second-half of our interview with Mike Grell at the 2016 Ottawa Comiccon. As previously mentioned in the first part of this interview, this was recorded while sitting with Mike as he drew commissions and interacted with fans from his table. The entire interview lasted about an hour and, due to my being slightly nervous, was all over the place (in terms of subject matter). In order to make it easy on the reader, we separated the transcription into two parts organized by topic - this half focuses on his DC comics work. The first half mainly deals with his work with Jon Sable Freelance and it's influence on his Green Arrow revamp of the late 80s.

Just as no man is an island, and there's no 'I' in 'team' and any other phrase you can think of that involves individuals not being able to succeed without the help of others, there was no way I could've entered this interview so knowledgeable about Grell's work without listening/reading the other interviews Grell had conducted with various other bloggers/media outlets. There's quite a few I want to mention, so I'll list them after the interview. Anyways, let's get this show on the road...

DC in the 80s: "At some point, you said that you didn't want to do superheroes anymore."

Mike Grell: "That's right."

DC80s: "The rumor is: you were so burned out from pencilling the Legion of Super-Heroes that after that you were just like 'I'm finished! I want to do different stuff, but I'm done with superheroes!'"

panels from Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes #213 (1975). Property of DC comics.
LoSH from the 1970s. art by Mike Grell.

Grell:"I actually declined Chris Claremont when he came to me and said 'so Mike, when are we going to get together and do mutants?' and I told him I was burnt-out on superheroes. I was happy doing Jon Sable and leaving superheroes behind... and I swear to God it never donned on me that,  here we are in Canada at the time, and Chris had flown up there in his private Lear Jet. Sonuvagun."

DC80s:"You worked on Warlord up until issue #72? I know you were drawing and writing for the first 50 issues?"

Grell: "Actually I wrote the series until issue #54 and then I handed it off to Sharon Wright [Grell's ex-wife]. She began by ghosting me (we worked on the plots together) and then I just handed it over and the rest of the writing to her. I eventually stepped out altogether and let her take all the credit and do the writing herself."

DC80s: "You left Warlord prior to taking on Jon Sable Freelance. You dropped your Tarzan newspaper strip, you let go of Starslayer (it went to John Ostrander eventually) - you basically focused all of your attention on Jon Sable, really."

Grell: "Yes."

DC80s: "Regarding Mike Gold's comment about 'burying the hatchet'... what was he specifically referring to?"

Grell: "It was that I left DC because I wanted to own my own characters. I knew that, going back, I wouldn't be able to. But the offer writing Green Arrow was enough to get me there."

DC80s: "...and that's why you slowly phased out of Warlord and went more towards creator-owned material such asJon Sable Freelance and Starslayer..."

"Back to your work on Green Arrow, I remember you had a very major story arc in which Ollie gets framed for bombing a vessel in the Panama Canal. There was then a manhunt for Ollie as he was now identified as a state fugitive. He's framed by Eddie Fyers...  who I heard was actually based on [writer/editor] Archie Goodwin..."

panels from Green Arrow v2 #37 (1990). Property of DC comics. Archie Goodwin. Image source: marvelhorror.wikia.com
Eddie Fryers on the left, Archie Goodwin on the right


Grell: "Yes he was." [laughs]

DC80s: "In appearance or character?"

Grell: "In appearance, not character. Archie was deceptively physically fit. Outwardly, he gave the impression of being 'rather bookish', and you'd be standing there talking to him, and suddenly he would fall face-forward onto the floor, catch himself on his hands, do several push-ups and snap himself right back up to his feet.  What sealed the bond of friendship between the two of us was that when I was introduced to him, he did that with me, and I immediately dropped on my face and did the same thing and we hit it off and got along like gangbusters ever since. So yes, I modeled Freddie Fyers physically after Archie Goodwin. It was an example of how you can't discount someone just because of the way they look. I wanted him specifically to look more 'book-ish' - to be 'nerd-like' - but really he'd be this very very dangerous character."

DC80s: "Physically he's a pretty formidable foe for Oliver. He's a master marksman and there's a few times he goes toe-to-toe with Ollie and is able to hold his own - and Ollie's supposed to be this peak physical human. You really played up Fyers physical competency. Later on, Freddie becomes a mentor to Connor Hawke - but that was after you finished your Green Arrow run..."

screenshot from The Arrow season 1, episode 22. Property of the CW.
Eddie Fyers as he appears in CW's The Arrow
Grell: "It's one of those situations, like it was with The Warlord, where you create a character for a major company and they own it. That's all there is to it. It's a work-for-hire. You have to know that going in. Occasionally, I've created some pretty good characters only to see them go down the road and into the hands of somebody else. It's one of those things - you have to learn to walk away with no regrets."

DC80s: "I also remember Green Arrow v2 #17 being somewhat infamous because there's fully exposed female breasts in that issue. The Comic Book Journal or the Comic Book Reader really made a big fuss about it. It was a 2-issue story arc where a Mountie is disguised as a biker..."

Grell: "Oh! Oh right! That one! The 'Horseman' story"

DC80s: "Yes! Was the 'Horseman' character based on a particular character or...?"

panels from Green Arrow v2 #17 (1989). Property of DC comics.
             
Grell: "The story was based on an incident that actually occurred where a Canadian motorcycle sold a girl to an American motorcycle gang and shipped her down to Florida and forced her into the sex trade. When she attempted to escape, to set an example, the motorcycle gang crucified her."

DC80s: "Holy [inaudible]! I never heard about that one..."

Grell: "Oh yeah. I got a lot of undeserved credit for being a misogynist because people thought I made that stuff up. Or somehow interpreted that that was MY idea of a good story to tell because I was into brutalizing women. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that most of my best characters are women. My strongest characters are women. And I don't make this stuff up - I read it in the papers and I incorporate it into my stories. It's just a fact of life that women are more frequently victims than men - so they are the ones on the receiving end more times than not. On the one hand it's unfortunate, and on the other hand it's all basically fodder for stories. I'm not promoting violence against women."

DC80s: "I never saw it as 'promoting' violence against women. I read it more as 'raising awareness' about what's going on out there. You tackle quit a few social issues in Green Arrow: there's stories about runaways, there's at least one story about AIDs - and the series was geared towards a 'mature audience' - like, I'd go so far as to label it as a 'pre-Vertigo' book. The Vertigo imprint was dealing with a lot of mature content - and that's what your Green Arrow series was doing. You were basically ahead of your time."

Grell: "The AIDs story that I did for Green Arrow v2 #5 - 6 (1989) was actually inspired by things that were going on in Seattle at the time. There was a long string of violence against the LGBT community in one of the parks and it was pretty much worth your life to go there after dark."    
  
DC80s: "You were living in Seattle at the time?"

Grell: "Oh yeah. That's why I moved Green Arrow to Seattle. The main purpose was to move him away from the mythical Star City and anchor him solidly into the real world. The reason I chose Seattle, instead of any place else, was because I'm a small-town boy from Northern Wisconsin and I've only lived in 3 cities in my life - Chicago, Seattle and New York City - and you have to be able to write about a city with some kind of authority. Otherwise you end up writing about the slums on rodeo drive. or y'know, the ram-shackled sleazebag Fairmont Ch√Ęteau Laurier hotel.  You have to know what you're writing about to the extent that you can make it believable. I moved him to Seattle and that's what led to the change in the costume. " [the crack about the Chateau Laurier was a regional joke, it's one of Ottawa's most prestigious hotels -J]

DC80s: "Seattle's always raining, so now he wears a hood."

Grell: "Well, maybe not always, Seattle gets 3 inches of rain less per year than Miami Beach. Miami gets all of their rain in one weekend accompanied by a hurricane. So, the hood makes sense. The long sleeves made sense. Trousers, as opposed to spandex, made sense. I've worn spandex - while performing with the Seattle Knights. I will tell you that when it's chilly and rainy, spandex is NOT warm at all."

DC80s: "Speaking of strong women - women characters you've written - we've got Black Canary. Now, in the beginning of Longbow Hunters, her being captured and tortured is a major catalyst for the events that occur in your Green Arrow ongoing series. It sends Ollie over the edge - he ends up killing a man out of anger - the idea that he could of simply incapacitated Canary's attacker instead of killing him is explored in the ongoing series. A very popular analogy given is that he jumped off a cliff and he can't come back."
panel from Longbow Hunters #2 (1987). Property of DC comics.

Grell: "Exactly. And the reason that I did that was that I wanted to make a change in the character so I could change the type of stories that I'd be able to write. Denny O'Neil had written a very famous and popular story line where Ollie kills a man by accident and his response to that incident in his life is to withdraw from the world, essentially, and literally joins a monastery and vows to never ever kill again [Flash v1 #218 (1972)]. Well, I wasn't going to be able to do my kind of stories if he persisted in that attitude. So in order to make a change like that, I felt that it was necessary to have an inciting incident that would cause him to break that vow. I made it clear that he had the choice. Ollie had already demonstrated that he could have easily shot the weapon out of the torturer's hand when he was threatening Dinah with it, but y'know, the S.O.B. just deserved to die. Ollie, having made that decision, now he has to live with it and it affects not only him, but Dinah. Everything that happened there was for a purpose - it made the characters more interesting. Their lives together changed. They went from having a healthy and rather robust sex life to Dinah not being able to be stand being touched."

DC80s: "Was it you who introduced the 'vivacious sex life of Ollie and Dinah' thing? Prior to you taking over the title in 1988, was it ever really hinted that Arrow and Canary were getting it on like rabbits? Did you bring that to Green Arrow?"
    
Grell: "Oh... I'm not sure that I brought it to the characters, but I think that they were boyfriend/girlfriend for so long and mature people - you'd have to be a moron not to understand that they had a sex life. So when it was time for me to do the characters in Longbow Hunters, I just put it right straight out there. These people have a relationship. It's sexual. They are probably the two horniest characters in comics. If not the horniest, they are the ones getting the most sex. It's a healthy kind of sex life, y'know? They play games, they roleplay. She puts on the Black Canary costume before she goes to bed - just because, y'know?"

panels from Longbow Hunters #1 (1987). Property of DC comics.


DC80s: "Dinah refusing to marry Ollie (in the Longbow Hunters), was that kind of a 'Mike Grell message' about marriage not being super-important? As in, it's just a piece of paper and it's the relationship that actually counts?"

[I asked him this as his wife sat beside us. Not my finest hour. -J]

"You've also stated that when there are two romantically involved characters in a series, as soon as they marry them the series is basically over. There's no more interesting stories to tell or one of them gets killed or they have a baby. And then 'bam!' the series is over."

[me, backpedaling -J]

Grell: "Exactly! The woman's role disappears. She either gets killed off or she has a baby and has to retire to take care of the baby. Or she has a baby and the baby is killed. I mean, something like that always happens. It's a last desperate act of a failing series when they do that. Look at Moonlighting [TV series: 1985 - 1989], look at Magnum, P.I. [TV series: 1980 - 1989]. As soon as the ratings fail they know that they can get one last season out of it if they marry the character off. Then what happens? All the viewers lose interest because all that tension is gone."

DC80s: "So, Canary not wanting to marry Arrow was more for story purposes and it wasn't your own personal statement about marriage in general? There was no subtext to it?"

Grell: "Right. When I was working on the Warlord - when I left the book. In fact, when Sharon stopped writing the book, we left off with the Warlord and Tara split up. I left story notes saying that as far as the rest of the series goes, it's mostly important that they stay separated for about a year before you bring them back together. Because, ultimately, the audiences want to see the two lovers get back together and reconcile or whatever. I can't off-hand name the writer who took over it, but he thought it was just wrong for married people to be separated so his very first issue has them back together again."

cover of Warlord #41 (1981). Property of DC comics.
Warlord and Tara on the cover of The Warlord #41 (1981)
"I did the same split up with Ollie and Dinah. The reason for that was that there was an untold story with Shado. There was an unfulfilled relationship between her and Ollie that I wanted to explore and I could not do that while Ollie was still with Dinah. I couldn't have Ollie leave Dinah for another woman. So, I had to all be one of those unfortunate moments in time when a young girl who's attracted to Ollie grabs him and kisses him, and he kisses her back. Dinah happens to walk in, - and if she hadn't, nothing would've come of it - Dinah walks in and sees that kiss and that's it. She basically throws him out. My intent then was to keep them separated long enough so that Ollie could legitimately have a relationship with Shado."

Green Arrow #75 (1993)


DC80s: "Shado was another strong female character you created, and in her mini-series [Shado: Song of the Dragon (1991 - 1992)] that you wrote - that I think Gray Morrow painted - you go into the detailed history of the Yakuza. Were you in Japan at some point? You write what you like to read - that's how you work - so you had a major fascination with Asian/Yakuza culture at some point?"


Grell: "I have an interest in it. I'm certainly fascinated by it. I research my stories in great depth. I studied the Yakuza more during Longbow Hunters so I'd have something viable to put on the table. I think I basically fell back to what Agatha Christie said about reading a book. She said 'when you're reading a novel you get 10% plot, 20% characterization, and 70% whatever the writer knows best'. and that's very much the case of it. I wrote a story that I was interested in, about things that I was interested in. I was keenly interested in Japanese culture, I love the idea of this zen archer being superior in almost every way to Ollie and it coming down to the difference between pulling the bow with your arms and pulling the bow with your spirit."

DC80s: "In that mini-series, the main cast of characters consist of a Vietnam vet, a WWII vet, there's Shado and then there's a monk. It goes back to you knowing about war and Vietnam - which goes back to you drawing on experience. The big thing here is that this was Shado's last major story arc - actually, I think she had one more in Green Arrow after that - but the point is that Shado just had so much story potential and it never gets fully explored. We never see what happens between Shado, Ollie and their child (Robert)."

Shado as she appears in CW's The Arrow
Grell: "Unfortunately, there is a story line I had in the pipeline that never got done because DC decided that they needed to reboot the character entirely. This is sort of understandable. When I left the Green Arrow series, the fans were every bit as loyal to me as they were to Dave Cockrum when I took over the Legion of Super-Heroes and my then-editor, Murray Boltinoff, then warned me that I was going to get hate mail. I didn't understand it and he said 'well for starters, you're replacing the most popular artist we've ever had on the book and to top it all off, we've going to kill off one of their favorite characters in your first issue.' I got to be on the receiving end of that, so I understood the situation of that poor guy who had to follow me [on Green Arrow]. They were facing a very staunch readership that were not very happy that I left the book. After all of that time of negative fan mail and stuff, it was just better for the sake of the series, and certainly for anyone who was following me on it, that they basically dropped my story lines and did a reboot on their own. I think that's why the character got picked up and was popular enough to continue as long as it has. They only really screwed it up one time when they married Ollie and Dinah. But then they rebooted again, and well..."


DC80s: "What would've you have done with Shado's baby? The story you said you had in the works, but never saw the light of day?"

panels from Green Arrow v2 #24 (1989). Property of DC comics.


Grell: "I had a proposal that was intended to kick off her own series. In it, she would be trying to raise this child while being hunted by the Yakuza. I was going to bring the two of them back together throughout the series so that Ollie would be part of the boy's life as he's growing up. The unpublished story basically faded out when the boy's about 7 years old and it would've been the right timing for publication so you could say 'this is how many years have gone by' very similar to the theme you see in [Koike/Kojima's] Lone Wolf and Cub. or even [Max Allan Collin's] Road to Perdition. Same thing. The adult caring for the child will be pursued by dark forces around them."

DC80s: "Did you think much of Black Canary? I believe her first Post-Crisis appearance was in Legends. It's revealed that she's the daughter of Black Canary Sr. She's then a regular in Giffen/DeMatteis' Justice League/Justice League International for about a year. Following that, in Longbow Hunters, she's tortured - as a result of that, her Canary cry is extinguished. I realize that you were trying to ground these characters to reality, so I'm guessing that's why you took away her meta-powers?"

Grell: "I ignored her pre-existing Canary Cry. I just never dealt with it. It was other people who came up with some kind of a scenario where she lost her Canary Cry powers while she was being tortured. It was contrived. It wasn't me. As far as I was concerned, in my reality, there was no super powers. That's why when Hal Jordan appeared, it was as 'Hal' and not as Green Lantern."

"The statement that Julie Schwartz made back in the day really applied, he said 'At DC comics, we have Earth-one, Earth-two, Earth-prime and Earth-Grell' and someone asked 'so, who's on Earth-Grell?' and Julie pointed at me and said 'Him! Leave him alone, he's doing his own thing!' so I never considered myself bound to the continuity of other writers, whatever they were doing."

DC80s: "It seemed like the other writers were trying to stick to your continuity. In Action Comics Weekly, published during the same time you were writing Green Arrow, a solo Dinah Lance story was released in serial installments (she's got still got her short black hairdo) and then there's another Action Comics Weekly storyline following that in which she's donning her blonde wig because she now feels confident enough in herself, and I'm realizing that they are basing all of that on the continuity that you've established in your Green Arrow series. Meanwhile, she wasn't really appearing in any other titles - she even checked in to the Justice League International to say 'hey, I know I took a hiatus, but I'm not coming back to the team'... so it would seem that everyone was trying to work with your version of Black Canary. Eventually, a Black Canary mini-series was published in 1991 - where she finally says to Ollie 'YOU find a way to pay our bills while I take a trip in the mountains for a while'....




Grell: "That was not me who wrote that Black Canary mini-series. I'm pretty sure that was my ex-wife, though. Yeah, I'm pretty sure that was Sharon who wrote that." [Mike is half right. Sharon Wright wrote the Action Comics Weekly Black Canary stories. Sarah Byam wrote the mini. -J]

DC80s: "Nevetheless, the Black Canary: New Wings mini-series stayed somewhat true to the direction it appeared you were going with the character. Did you have long-term plans for the character evolution of Black Canary? There's this pivotal scene in your Green Arrow series in which the reverse of what happens to Dinah in the Longbow Hunters happens to Ollie - he gets captured and tortured, and Dinah gets "rambo-ed up" to go and rescue him...""


Grell: "Oh yeah! I remember that one..."

"No. My plan was to ultimately bring her and Ollie back together, only after Ollie had a chance to go off and be crazy and explore his relationship with Shado."

DC80s: "Huh. Interesting. By the way, those Warlord action figures that came out around the time of those Masters of the Universe toys..."

Remco Warlord action figures. Photo source: https://charltonhero.wordpress.com

Grell: "They were actually He-Man figures with Warlord heads stuck on 'em."

DC80s: "Did you have any input into that?" [Thanks to Mark Belkin for this question]

Grell: "No. I had no idea they were even doing them until a box dropped through the mail slot one day with some toys."

DC80s: "Was there a possibility of a Warlord Saturday morning cartoon in the works? Maybe to compete with He-Man and the Masters of The Universe cartoon?"

Grell: "Nope. Not that I know of. the only reason we made the figures was because somebody came to us and was looking for something to license."

The interview concludes with Mike and I chatting about some of the more famous DC characters he'd created over the years. We'll save that one for a 'rainy' day.


Articles/interviews that really helped this interview:
As previously mentioned, the Superhero Satellite blog wrote a really great article on the Warlord toys.

Mike Grell has his own website at www.mikegrell.com

------

Justin

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