A few months ago Scoop talked to comic creator, artist, and writer Mike Grell. In Part I he talked about current projects as well as reading comics as a kid, then in Part II he shared how he got into comics as a career.
Now, he gets into the details of his work on Green Arrow from changing the costume to the controversial points of the story.
Scoop: Tell me about the process of redesigning the Green Arrow costume and character for Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters.
MG: That came about because what I wanted to do with the character was move him away from the mythical Star City and put in the real world, so I could do stories that mean something to the world we actually live in. So, being a small town boy from northern Wisconsin, I only lived in three cities in my life: New York, Chicago, and Seattle. I was living in Seattle at the time. New York, I had already featured as the background for Sable. Chicago, I went to school there and worked there and the inner core of the city, itself, is quite vibrant and interesting. It’s got a lot of really great elements about it. As a setting for the type of story where you’re featuring a Robin Hood character, eventually you’re going to want to take him into the forest and you’ve got to go so far out of the city to find a forest around Chicago. I decided that it would be much better to set him in Seattle. The reason, of course, is that if you’re going to write something that features the city as, essentially, a character, the type of the environment that your character lives in defines how he’s going to act. Certain actions.
In Seattle, you have to deal with rain a lot and that brought about the costume change. The feathered cap and the tights and the bare arms just, absolutely, do not cut it in Seattle. It usually starts to rain in early September and usually stops around about May. It’s not a constant downpour, but it’s a fairly steady drizzle. My first two weeks in Seattle were spent in the vain search for an umbrella. But after I got one, I only ended up using the thing for a couple of months because it dawned on me that it isn’t so much that people in Seattle don’t mind the rain it’s that they are totally oblivious to it. You get accustomed to it – it’s just there.
So, when I redesigned the costume, one of the elements of that always struck me about various costumes is that when you make a change you have to remember that every book is somebody’s first issue. I wanted to be sure that anybody who picked up The Longbow Hunters and saw this character running around with a hood and bow and arrow would immediately recognize him as Green Arrow. So I kept the light and dark green pattern that had been used since the ’60s. All I did was give him long sleeves that were more practical, integrated a hood into the tunic that he could put up when it was raining, and gave him trousers because tights are not warm at all, they are not any protection from the elements at all. And I added the wrinkles to the character and all that other stuff, and made a few other changes that were lurking in the back of mind that would allow me to write and draw the kind of stories that I wanted to do. So, these changes to the nature of the character, I felt, were appropriate.
Scoop: Dinah talks about not wanting to have children because she didn’t want to make orphans and Ollie was basically dealing with a midlife crisis. Why did you want to explore these storylines and themes in the comic?
MG: Well, for starters, I think that that particular scene was important to the rest of the story that I was going to tell. I was working at bringing about a dramatic change in Oliver Queen’s life. I had made him as old as he was because I always sort of objected to the idea that all those DC characters were somehow supposed to be magically under 30 years old. Julie Schwartz and I had a conversation about a line of dialogue in a story that, I think, Elliot Magen wrote. Ollie’s got a line where he says, “…I’m not even 30 yet.” And I went, “Whoa, wait a minute. Not even 30? How’s that possible? He has to be at least 30 years old.” And Julie said, “No, none of our characters are over 30. Kids can’t relate to a character who’s over 30 years old.” And I said, “Let me ask you this, how long has Dick Grayson been a ward of Bruce Wayne?” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Would you say five years, in the context of the storyline?” He says, “Hmmm, yeah. Five years is about right.” I said, “Same thing goes with Roy Harper-Speedy in the Green Arrow stories, right?” He goes, “Yeah.” I said, “So, in what fantasy world would any judge in his right mind award custody of a 10- or 12-year-old boy to a 24- or 25-year-old multi-millionaire?” That’s just not going to happen.
So, Julie had that line removed, but it always kind of annoyed me and became, kind of, I guess an underlying theme for me or maybe a cause. Pretty much from that point on, anytime I had the opportunity to do one of my own characters, including Warlord, I always made him older. The Warlord starts out he’s 43 years old when his plane crashes, but you very quickly find out when he comes back to the surface of the Earth 12 issues later, that a period of 8 years have passed. He’s now 51 years old. He doesn’t look 51 years old and he certainly doesn’t act 51 years old. Editors were going, “Wait, how are you going to pull that off?” I said, “Hey, take a look at Kirk Douglas who was over 50 years old when he made Spartacus and at 50 years old could still kick anybody’s ass.”
There are other aspects to that too. I think, personally, age is nothing more than a number and it’s sort of randomly assigned to you, as opposed to something that really applies to you, unless you choose to allow it to. I had that in mind with Ollie and Dinah when I did that scene. He’s the one who’s going through a midlife crisis. He’s suddenly at the point where he’s thinking of his own mortality, he’s thinking about being older. That’s my way of hammering it home to the readers that no, this guy’s not 20- or 30-something, he’s 40-something. Time’s slipping by, the clock is ticking.
The other aspect of all of that with his relationship with Dinah. In comics, Ollie and Dinah probably had the best long-term relationship in comic books. There’s no question about it, they were sleeping together, they’re having sex, they’re having great sex. It was possibly the first time that characters, at least in mainstream comics, had been shown in bed together. I wanted people to know this is them, this is how they live, and it’s a damn good lifestyle. They are quite happy. They’re content, except that he has this nagging feeling that the clock is ticking for him. He tries to persuade her that they should get married, if for no other reason than that he’s got this sudden compulsion to fulfill his destiny and breed, or something like that.
That was also an element that was going to be important when I took him to the next step, which was the complete turnaround from where Denny O’Neil had left the character. He had done a storyline where Ollie inadvertently, completely accidentally, kills a man. He goes off his nut, withdraws from society, joins a monastery and he’s going to turn his back on this all forever. He swears that he will absolutely, never ever take another human life again. Me, just coming off of Sable, I wanted to hardedge stories where your hero has good cause and would react in a violent way. Robin Hood in the Errol Flynn movie didn’t kill indiscriminately, but when the need was there he was not above putting an arrow in a man’s heart. In order to make that change in Oliver, given the place he’s coming from with Denny O’Neil stories, I had to make it a very dramatic change and it also had to be something that was done by his choice. He’s already demonstrated his skill with a bow, we know that he could’ve shot the knife out of that guy’s hand if he wanted to. But, you know, the guy just absolutely deserved to die. That was that moment of transition that was the lynchpin for the character.
Everything that came after that was all dictated by that one moment, that momentary decision he makes. I followed that up with stories where he kept coming back to that and it became an issue, not just in his own life, but in his relationship with Dinah. The experiences that she has, they go from having a pretty hot romantic relationship to a point where she can’t stand to be touched. That is natural and normal for a person who has been in a situation where they have been brutalized. That moment where it comes down to trust. It’s like walking into a burn ward with a lighter and saying, “Look, I’m your friend, I have been for years. Trust me while I snap this lighter in your face.” That person is going to flinch. So it was that flinch factor with Dinah that they had to overcome. Ollie was not well, dealing with his own demons he had to get rid of. It’s a choice that he made, in that moment, something that affects his whole life after that and he has to live with it.
Then I threw away all the trick arrows. I don’t know if you played with a boomerang when you were a kid, but I did.
Scoop: We had a toy boomerang but I couldn't get that thing to come back to me.
MG: I threw it one time and that damn thing came back and almost took my head off. If I hadn’t ducked I’d probably have, not just a cleft in my chin, but a cleft in my head. The idea of an arrow that would come back to you was kind of terrifying. Of course, he always had an arrow for everything. The stupidest one, I think, was the lock picker arrow. How that one worked was anybody’s guess.
Scoop: And the boxing glove one.
MG: Yeah, the boxing glove one was explained in a book called The Wonder Year. It was completely accidental. He was out with his buddies playing archery golf and the last thing you do when you’re playing for a hole you use a blunt-tipped arrow and shoot at a golf ball that’s set up on a stanchion. It’s his first time playing archery golf and he accidentally uses a sharp-tipped arrow and it sticks in the golf ball and that happens to be the one he pulls out of his quiver at the moment when he’s facing down a guy with a shotgun. When he draws the arrow back and sees there’s a golf ball on the end he thinks, “Oh crap, maybe I can hit him in the head.” But of course, the extra weight of the golf ball changes the trajectory and he ends up hitting the guy square in the balls. [laughs]
Look for the fourth and final installment when Grell talks about Jon Sable Freelance, Iron Man, and his greatest accomplishments in comics.