Last fall Scoop interviewed comic creator, writer and artist, Mike Grell. He talked about his contributions to comics over the past 40 years. In Part I, Grell, shared what he’s currently working on, reading comics and comic strips while growing up, and how he got into comics.
Now, we pick up after Grell got his first job with DC Comics, following meetings at New York Comic Con in 1973.
Scoop: Wow. That’s incredible. I believe your first DC assignment was Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes.
MG: Yes, that was my first regular monthly book.
Scoop: What was it like starting off on a popular title?
MG: Nerve wracking. [laughs] I had just turned in my first story and picked up another script from Joe Orlando and when I got home the telephone was ringing. It was Joe who said, “Murray Boltinoff, the editor on Legion of Super-Heroes is on vacation, and he doesn’t know it yet, but when he comes back he’s minus an artist because Dave Cochran just walked off the Legion of Super-Heroes.” And he said, “Would you mind if I recommended you for the job?”
Well, I packed up my wife and our dog in our exploding pinto and moved to New York just certain that I was going to find work. Like the bumblebee I had no idea how difficult it is under most circumstances to get a job in comics. I just assumed that I would get hired right away and I did, I was that lucky.
So, Murray gave me a tryout, which was a short story to ink over Dave Cochran’s pencils. And, after I turned in the finished work he called me into the office and said, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.” I said, “Okay, what’s the good news?” He said, “You got the job.” I said, “Okay, terrific. Now, what’s the bad news?” He said, “Well, you can expect to get hate mail.” I said, “I haven’t even done anything yet.” He said, “It doesn’t matter. For starters, you’re replacing the most popular artist we ever had on the book and to top things off, we’re going to kill off one of the fans’ favorite characters in your first issue.” And he was right. The fan mail all came through and it was like, “Ah, Grell, you suck. Do whatever you’ve got to do to get Dave back on the book.”
But, it was onward and upward from there. I was delighted and thrilled to get the job. In real world terms, I was beyond lucky to have stepped in at that moment. I was also every bit as thrilled to finally get off the book because it was a crusher. A team book with 26 characters, you know that sooner or later you’re going to have to draw all 26 on one page.
Scoop: Do you remember how long it took to do all 26 on one page?
MG: No, I just know that in the first year that I was in comics I averaged 100 hours a week.
Scoop: Oh my gosh.
MG: Oh yeah. I worked the Frank Lloyd Wright system, actually. I would get up on a fresh day and I would work, sometimes, 24 to 30 hours straight and then I would take a 2-hour nap. Power naps. I would work until I couldn’t work anymore then take a power nap and get up and do it again and repeat that cycle until the work periods and the sleep periods sort of merged together. To where I was requiring at least six or seven hours of sleep in order to get my body to recuperate and wake up fresh to start all over again.
I know that when I first moved out to New York I had met Orlando’s wife Karen, and two months later I ran into her again and she took a look at me and said, “What the hell happened to you?” I had no idea what she was talking about. But, I went and looked at myself in the mirror and, good Lord, I had aged five years.
Scoop: Tell me about the process of creating Warlord.
MG: Well, Warlord, actually came about because at that time there was a company called Atlas Comics, which came in existence and they were in competition with Marvel and DC. They put out the word that they were going to be paying $100 a page and they were offering creator ownership. Now, creator ownership in comics, at that point, was unheard of. Commonplace in comic strips, right, from the 1940s on starting with – I want to say – Steve Canyon, all the artists owned their own material, lock, stock, and barrel. I always felt that that’s the way it should’ve been in comics, but things, at that point, were established in another direction. And if you wanted to work you had to toe the mark and do whatever was necessary.
So, I gathered up my samples for Savage Empire and went over to Atlas Comics where I spoke to Jeff Rovin, who was editor at the time, and showed him the serial and gave him my pitch. He said, “I like it. I want to do it.” I told him, “Okay,” I was all for that, but I had some commitments with DC and I said, “Do me a favor, hold off any announcements for a couple of months until I get two issues in the can. I want to have two finished issues of Savage Empire before we announce anything about the comic.” He said, “Sure, no problem.”
Well, I walked from Jeff’s office over to DC Comics, about 20 minutes across town and it turned out that as soon as I walked out the door Jeff had picked up the phone, because when I got to DC Carmine Infantino was waiting for me in the hallway. Carmine, at the time, was head of the company and Carmine thought of himself as somewhere between the pope and Don Corleone – the only difference between the two being that the pope only expected you to kiss his ring. Carmine said, “Why didn’t you bring it to us?” I told him, which was quite true, that DC Comics hadn’t had much luck with sword and sorcery type stories and, number one, I thought they wouldn’t be interested and number two, there was Atlas offering $100 a page and creator ownership. Carmine said, “Look, I understand what you’re thinking here. I can’t give you creator ownership, I can’t give you $100 a page, but what I can do is give you top rate (which at that time, I think was $67 a page) and I’ll give you a one-year guarantee, which is better than what you’re going to get at Atlas. It’s a new company and could be a flash in the pan and you don’t know how long it’s going to last.” I thought about it, and said, “You know, you’re right.”
The upshot of that, of course, was Atlas Comics did pay their artists $100 a page to begin with, but very quickly dumped all of those guys and hired artists who would work for $30 a page instead, and none of the original creators ended up owning their stuff. Atlas wound up owning everything – by hook or by crook or by trickery.
So, as I’m talking to Carmine, he says, “Why don’t you give me the pitch and let me be the judge?” So, we walked into his office and the telephone is ringing. As he excused himself to take that call – it was two or three minutes that he was on the phone – my brain kicked in and said, “You know, dummy, if he buys this you lose all your rights, because that’s the way it was.” Working for DC was like working for IBM, you invent a new computer and you get a pat on the back and your butt out the door after your 20th and that was all you could expect. I very quickly changed everything about Savage Empire and BS-ed my way through the pitch and a story about an archeologist in Atlantis became a story about an SR-71 spy pilot who was shot down on a mission over Russia and his plane winds up entering an opening that leads to the world at the center of the Earth.
I pulled this stuff out of the thin air, out of my imagination, out of my memories, and – in some cases – straight out of my ass. When Carmine asked me what the name of this world was I had it right off the bat – Scartaris. It’s the name of a mountain peak in Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth. The mountain Scartaris is the shadow of the mountain that points the way to the center of the Earth. I had just finished reading the book, The Hollow Earth, a week before, so that was all fresh in my mind. It turned out that not only was there A Journey to the Center of the Earth, there were, like, 87 or 89 different titles published before the turn of the 20th century all having to do with the speculative existence of a world at the center of the Earth. I was drawing on all of that. Bits and pieces of Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs. The name of a capital city became Shambala, I got that from Three Dog Night, “On the road to Shambala.” Shambhala is actually the Tibetan city of gold. Legend says it’s somewhere buried in the mountains, so it’s an underground city. Again, all that stuff was coming together.
Finally Carmine said, “Okay, pitch it to Joe Orlando and if Joe likes it, I’ll give you a one-year guarantee.” So, I talked to Joe and Joe was the first one to stump me with a question that I didn’t have a ready answer for. He said, “What’s this guy’s name?” Well, I didn’t want to use the name that I had for the comics, which was Jason Cord. I went, “Um, Morgan.” “Morgan what?” “Morgan Raider, you know like the pirate – Sir Henry Morgan?” He went, “Hmmm, what’s his first name?” I said, “Well Henry, of course.” He says, “No, you can’t do that.” I said, “Why not?” and Joe said, “There are two actors named Henry Morgan – one is a comedian.” He didn’t want a character named for a humorous person who was on television all the time. So, I reached into my bag of tricks and I came up with the name that my brother had just chosen for his bouncing, baby boy, which was Travis. That’s where Travis Morgan came from. When I said Travis he just kind of frowned and said, “Travis?” I said, “Yeah, you know, like the Alamo?” He went, “Oh, yeah. Okay. Yeah, that’s pretty cool.” So as far Joe was concerned the character is named after Colonel Travis from the Alamo, but really, he was named after my nephew.
The funny part about all of that is, among other things, when I turned in pages I would pick up the letter pages and stand in the office and read through it, proofread to make sure there were no errors that needed sent back for corrections before I did the finished inks, when it came to issue 3, I was in Joe’s office and at the end of the book instead of saying “Next Issue” it said “The End.” I turned to Joe and said, “This is wrong. It says ‘The End’ but it should say ‘Next Issue.’” Joe said, “Yeah, well, Carmine cancelled the book.” I said, “He can’t do that, he promised me a year’s run.” And Joe says, “Yeah, well, he lied. He does that.”
Fortunately for me and for the Warlord, within a couple of weeks Carmine Infantino was out and Jenette Kahn arrived on the scene. It turned out that Jenette was a pretty astute cookie and she had studied the entire lineup very thoroughly before she ever took over the company. I come to find out that Warlord was one of her favorite books. She looked at the production schedule and said, “Where’s the Warlord?” I told her, “Well, Carmine cancelled it.” She said, “Carmine’s not here anymore, put it back.” So that’s how Warlord got continued on past issue 3.
The upside of all of that was that several years later I was sitting in my studio and the mail slot opens up and here comes a package from DC Comics. A pretty good size one. I’m not expecting anything, that I know of. So I open it up and low and behold there is my Savage Empire portfolio that I had left with Sol Harrison in 1973. It was accompanied by a form letter rejection slip that went, “Dear artist, thank you for your contribution, however, it does not meet our current publishing needs. Best of luck. Editorial Staff, DC Comics.” Which was a total crackup because right at that moment the Warlord was the top selling book in DC’s line.
Scoop: What was it like returning to the character in 2008?
MG: That was the culmination of a dream and a plan that I had. The Warlord debuted in 1st Issue Special #8 and in that very first issue I planted a seed for a story and figured out how it was going to end, how the character was going to die, who was going to kill him, and why. It had to do with that scene where Morgan gives Tara his mate, his lady love, the wrist watch that he’s been wearing because time has no meaning in Scartaris, really, it’s always straight up high noon. There’s no means of measuring the passage of time, therefore, the people who live there are not bound by any common rules that we have learned to accept in terms of how time works. You live, you die. Well, as I’m drawing the scene where Tara puts the wristwatch on her upper arm, I figured out right then and there how I was going to end the entire series. I finally got around to actually doing that. It took me 35 years to kill him off. I’m only half-Italian, but Michael Corleone’s got nothing on me, man. He only had to wait until mama was dead, I had to wait until whole generations had passed on before I was able to kill off my character.
Scoop: It’s wild that you had that idea, the plan for it, and had to wait so long.
MG: The other wild part was that I had permission and enthusiastic support of DC Comics and the editorial staff to go ahead and kill off a character that had been around for 35 years. Of course, compounded the issue by violating one of the rules of comics which seems to be that he’s dead but he’s not really dead, right, nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Like when Dan Jurgens killed off Superman, he told me, “Here’s how stupid people are, everybody’s all in an uproar about the fact that I killed Superman, but at the end of the book, it says, ‘Next Issue…’”
In the Warlord, my goal had always been to hand over the reins and the title of Warlord to his son, which was inspired by Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant. Foster always wanted to kill off Prince Valiant and have his son take over. It’s sort of that archetypal father-son thing where the son fulfills the unfilled dreams of the father. That was really what the Warlord character was all about. He sold everybody that package of a dream of how much better life could be, but then failed to follow through with it, so it falls to his son to make good on it where his father has failed.
With the Warlord, when I was done with him, I burned the body. [laughs] That was just my way of saying, “Nope, he’s dead, okay? Dead equals dead equals dead.” And that just never happens in comics. I don’t think anyone’s ever done a story where they’ve taken a character straight through his entire life cycle and finished it out. They probably haven’t been allowed to and I am very happy that I’ve been able to do that.
Scoop: It’s certainly an exclamation on the end. “I didn’t just kill him, I cremated him.”
MG: Yup. And that’s not to say that there isn’t a possibility of him ever returning. We’re now getting closer and closer to the 50-year anniversary, and if I’m still around at that time, we shouldn’t be too terribly surprised to see another one.
Look for the third installment when Grell talks about Jon Sable Freelance and Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters.