Friday, September 13, 2019

Just For The Grell Of It

While cleaning up my study I came across my old collection of The Amazing World of DC Comics from the early 1970s. There is an awful lot of general nostalgia there, but we're here to talk about issue #12 (July/Aug 1976) in particular.

As you can see from the cover, this issue spotlights DC sci-fi comics. For fans of the Legion of Super-Heroes, this issue includes a four page interview with then-Legion artist Mike Grell.

t the time of this interview Mike had been on Superboy/Legion for approximately two years, and was soon to be leaving it. (There is an ad in the issue for Superboy/Legion #221, which is two issues away from Grell's last story). He had just started his stint on Green Lantern/Green Arrow and The Warlord was on issue #5.

Just For The Grell Of It
Conversations conducted and edited by Carl Gafford

Let's begin at the beginning, Mike....
I was born and more or less raised in a little town called Florence, Wisconsin, population just about the same as the Warner Communications building....maybe a little less. Born September 13, 1947.
OK, Mike, the first big question: how did you first get interested in the art field? 
I guess I probably drew pictures from the time I was big enough to pick up a pencil. My mother is a pretty good artist as are both my brothers. It just happened that neither one of them pursued art as a field and I did.
Did you start off drifting towards comics or some other area of art?
I think that the first thing I probably drew was a bunch of pictures I copied from coloring books and the Sunday funnies. I used to copy the covers from comic books and things like that. I remember copying a Tarzan cover from the 1950's.
From there did you pursue any art training while in school?
I had about two years of art classes in my junior and senior years of high school that didn't amount to much. It was enough to get me interested and started. From there I went on to the University of Wisconsin with the idea that I'd be a commercial artist. I spent a year there taking a whole three hours of art a week...and I was an art major! All the the rest of my time was spent on the academic subjects. After spending a year, wasting a lot of tuition money, and not learning a darn thing about art I decided then to transfer to a school that would teach art specifically because I couldn't see what good history or mathematics or geology would do for me.
Isn't this about the time you got into the service? 
Yeah. I had dropped out of the University for one semester and I was working, trying to raise enough to transfer to a private art school. Unfortunately, just about the time I got my tuition together Uncle Sam came knocking on my door. "Here I am boy," he said, "and we want YOU."
They sent me a nice little letter saying I had twenty days to enlist or they would draft me. Being the courageous hero that I am, I went out and enlisted, figuring that by enlisting in the Air Force, you see, I wouldn't have to go to Viet Nam. So the Air Force sent me to Saigon.
There must have been some good opportunities to use art in the service. Did you get some nice, soft office job? 
I really did get a pretty good job. Thanks to a good line of bull I convinced them that I had experience as a commercial artist and they made me an illustrator, so I spent four years pushing a pencil behind a drawing board.
In basic training I met the guy who convinced me that I should be a cartoonist. He's the guy who told me that a cartoonist only works two or three days a week and made a million dollars a year. All I can say is that I hope that guy is a cartoonist someplace so he can find out just how wrong he was.
How did you get the nickname "Iron Mike"? 
That came from a comic strip that I created. The character was a rough-tough hard-boiled private eye in the Mickey Spillaine tradition and I called him "Iron Mike" after an old cop who used to pound a beat where a lot of us kids hung out in the late 50's and early 60's.
You got to see most of the 50's then? 
Oh, yeah. You also have to consider being in the North Woods, we were a little behind the times. Where we were the 50's lasted until about 1968.
Have you heard about that new group, the Beatles? 
Funny you mention that. I remember when their first recording came out I was at a sock hop. The guy who was playing the records put on "I Want To Hold Your Hand," but after four bars of it everybody was booing so loudly he picked up the record and snapped it in two, saying, "Well, that's the last we'll ever hear from those guys."
Well, now you're out of the service. Congratulations. This sounds like a fine time to get married. 
Oh, I got married before I went into the service.
I got married in 1967. In fact, I had already enlisted and they gave me a three-month deferment so I could get married before I went in. We had a three-month honeymoon before Uncle Sam called me.
It must have been a pretty uncertain time, though, considering where you were going.  
Yeah, it was, but you know when you're young you do some crazy things.
It sounds funny, but I met my wife Sandy at a pool hall. It wasn't actually a pool hall, it was a youth center with a couple of pool tables there. She was the girl who sat there and if you wanted to play pool she'd punch your time card and take your money. I used to hang out there a lot and give her a hard time. We got to be good friends and then after four or five months we started dating and after a couple of years we got married. See how it happens?
After the service, what got you interested in art again? 
After I'd gotten two years in and qualified for GI Bill benefits, I started taking the Famous Artists School correspondence course in cartooning. Then when I got out I went into a regular art school. I went to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts because of all the school catalogues I had sent for theirs seemed to have the best background record. It all seemed very impressive on paper but it didn't live up to what I expected.
Did you eventually graduate from there? 
No, I didn't. After a couple of years it seemed as if I was teaching the teachers. I decided I was wasting my money and quit school to get a job in commercial art. I worked for a commercial art studio in Chicago for about two years, but all the while it was still in the back of my mind that I was gonna be a famous cartoonist. To that end I started developing comic strips which I tried to sell.
From there it was a hop, skip, and a jump from the studio to Brenda Starr
Actually, it was at the same time. I had taken my two comic strips to the comic strip editor for the Chicago-Tribune. One of them was "Iron Mike," and the other one just happened to be called "The Savage Empire," which is now known as The Warlord. The guy seemed fairly impressed with my work but unfortunately he told me that at the time adventure-type continuity strips just weren't selling. He said, "If you had come around fifteen years ago I could have made you a star!"
The day after I had shown him "Savage Empire," the editor had lunch with Dale Messick. When Dale mentioned that she needed an assistant he said, "I know a guy."  So he called me and I called Dale, and that started about a year's association doing backgrounds and figures on Brenda Starr. 
All that seems very strange since her style is so different from your own.  
Yes, it is, but at the same time it's a good learning process. At first she used to criticize me because my characters were too realistic. She would explain that what she was drawing was a CARTOON strip, not an illustration but a comic strip. At first the only way I could imitate her style of drawing was to do everything extremely fast. If I took my time with it it would be too tight, too precise and too mechanical. I used to do a week's worth of dailies in six hours or a Sunday page in two hours.
You could have made a million. 
No, not really. She had another assistant at the time who did 95% of the penciling. He did the layouts and Dale would re-pencil the figures of Brenda or maybe two others. Then I'd take it from there.
From there did you start getting interested in comic books? 
My urge to get into actual comic book work came suddenly. I got interested in comics again while in Viet Nam, after having let them fall to the wayside around age fifteen or sixteen when I started really getting interested in girls. Back then Gil Kane was still drawing Green Lantern and Carmine Infantino was doing The Flash, but the Batman stories were still the old square block jaw and everything. Then when I was over in Viet Nam a friend showed me a copy of Green Lantern/Green Arrow #79, the story about the Indians and Ulysses Star.
It really took me by surprise because I'd grown up with art that looked like somebody had held a pencil in each hand and just gone at it, except, like I said, guys like Carmine and Gil. It really surprised me to see that people were actually doing what I considered good artwork. I'd always had a great admiration for Hal Foster and I enjoyed reading strips like that but I didn't think that I'd ever be able to do it. When this guy showed me that GL/GA I said right there, "That's what I'm gonna do!'
That book was in 1970 and I know you didn't come to New York until 1973. What were you doing in that period to get into comics? 
Like I said, I spent two years at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Well, less than two years, actually. As far as getting into the comic book field is concerned, the thought had never occurred to me. I came to New York for the 1973 Comicon with a portfolio containing my "Savage Empire" strip in the hopes of making some contacts at the convention. Like a fool I thought that there'd be a whole lot of bigwigs from various newspaper strips just itching to discover new talent. And I was new talent just itching to be discovered.
When I hit New York I made a few phone calls and talked to some people only to find that they didn't even want to to look at your portfolio if you were trying to sell an adventure continuity strip.
One day I was wandering around the convention when a gentleman with a tape recorder hauled me over to the side and asked if I was an artists. He looked at my portfolio and asked if I had tried talking to anyone from National Periodicals. I replied that the only person I had met had been Alan Asherman. So he says, "I'll tell you what, you'd better go up and talk to Julie Schwartz." I replied, "Well, that would be fine, except that I have to fly to Chicago tomorrow."
So, anyway, he gave me the phone number and the address and everything else. At first he wouldn't give me his name until finally I said, "Well, look, I want to be able to say so-and-so sent me." He relied, "Okay, so tell them Irv," and it was Irv Novick.
When I got back to Chicago I made a few phone calls to New York. It turned out that right about that time National was putting out a lot of new comics. I had talked to Julie Schwartz on the phone and it seemed pretty promising, so I pulled up stakes, moved me and the wife and the dog and the bird out to New York and then showed up at Julie Schwartz's office one day with my samples and he said, "Are you an artist?" And I said "Yeah!" He says, "Well, what the hell makes you think you can draw comic books?" I unzipped my portfolio and said, "Take a look for yourself and then you tell me."
He looked at my work and then called Joe Orlando in. Joe looked at it and I walked out a half hour later with a script in my hands. That was the first Aquaman that I did.
Now you are mostly known for your work on the Legion. How did you  happen to fall into that kind of assignment? 
Fell in is exactly the way it happened. At the time that I was working on that story you're going to be running in Amazing World #12* (my second assignment from National) I got a phone call from Joe Orlando. It seemed that at about the time I walked into National, Dave Cockrum had walked out, and Joe Orlando said he was going to recommend me for the Legion of Super-Heroes. Murray was on vacation during all this and hand't heard he'd lost his artist. When they told him he said, "All right, who am I going to get to replace him?" and I believe that both Julie and Joe recommended me for the job. I talked to Murray and agreed to ink a short story Dave had pencilled. (I guess they wanted to try me out and see if I could handle it.) He seemed pleased with the job and I've been drawing the book ever since.
What did you feel about coming onto a strip that had been so popular under another artist? 
I felt that it was the luckiest break that I ever could have. It really was, at that time. To be honest with you, I had no idea that the Legion had such a large following. I had never read the book until I started drawing it.
Then all of a sudden you had 24 costumes facing you. 
Oh, yes, that was jolly. I had to go and scrounge through old pictures and everything to find out what these guys looked like. In fact, it took me over a year to get to where I can draw most of the costumes through memory.
What's your opinion about the kind of following the Legion has? 
I think it's fantastic. I'm glad to see that the book is doing well and I like to think that I had something to do with it, but I know the thing has been popular from the start. It also has more appeal to the age group that buys most of the comics. Sure you have your regular fans, the guys 15-17 years old who have been reading the Legion for years and know who's been dating whom on which planet. I'm sure they're not as numerous as those little kids who just look at the cover and see a lot of action going on with all those brightly-colored costumes and more or less buy on the basis of that.
Did it satisfy you creatively to be doing a regular strip? 
Well, it satisfied me professionally but not creatively. I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to do my own thing. I like the idea of writing your own story, creating your own characters and following the thing right through from beginning to end. But as I said, professionally I considered it to be a feather in my cap to be doing full books on my own when I'd only been out here in New York for say, less than three weeks when I landed the Legion assignment.
The Warlord involves you creatively from start to finish. This is involving you as a writer for the first time. What special difficulties has that presented? 
I didn't have any difficulties at all in writing and I still don't. It's just dumb luck, but I grew up in an area where we didn't have television when we were kids. I think I saw my first television set when I was about eight and my folks didn't get one until I was ten. Up until then we had radio, comic books, the Sunday funnies and our own imagination. At any given time I could conjure up a better story in my head than you could generally find on television. I always had an imagination for way-out weird stories and as far as the technicalities of writing goes, I had enough courses in high school and college English Comp and Lit that I always seemed to do well in. It just seems to come as much second nature to me as drawing does.
You're not concerned that you might not be as strong on plot as say, someone who writes comics full time?
I know I could never compete with a guy like Dave Michelinie or Cary Bates or anyone like that, but I regard myself in the comics profession as a story-teller. For this field what you're really involved with is story-telling, and I think I do a fairly good job of it.
Do you think the blend comes through rather well for The Warlord
Yeah, I think it does. If you look at the book in its entirety it may seem like it's a little light on the writing. I don't believe in loading down every page with thirty to forty balloons so that the characters spend most of their time talking. I don't believe in carrying on a conversation while you're fighting. I try to tell the story completely and concisely in the pictures and the
n the dialogue is for embellishing that and developing certain little plot lines that you cannot carry off in the pictures. I think if you stop to consider that most of our audience lies in the range between seven and thirteen years old with a large portion of them being under ten, then if you can aim toward them the older ones will take care of themselves. If you've done your job right there'll be something for everyone.
The Warlord went off-schedule for a while and you were moved over to GL/GA. 
That must have been a kick. 
It was and still is. I'm still doing the book and if they want to take me off it they'll have a fight on their hands. For me it was like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I got as much of a kick out of that as I did doing The Warlord. 
I think it was the fact that GL/GA was what got me interested in comics in the first place that made it such a kick. My taste in comics is rather's subjective and rather personal. If it appeals to me it's good and if it doesn't I generally don't pay any attention to it.
What are your plans now that The Warlord is back on the schedule? 
Just gonna keep going. You mean plans for the plot? There's going to be a major plot development in issue #5 that I won't tell anybody about as it's for them to find out. As for where we're going from there I have to talk to Joe Orlando about a few things.
I'm debating whether or not to add more characters as was the original plan or else let the book go with only a few central characters.
Has The Warlord deviated significantly from your original premise of "Savage Empire"? 
Yes, almost totally in terms of the setting, the type of character and greatly in terms of the plot. The Savage Empire hero was an archaeologist who found a passage through time and the ruins of an ancient temple which just happened to be from Atlantis, the lost continent. This passage transports him back through time to Atlantis at a time before Atlantis had developed to be the advanced state it was before they sank. The plotline went along much as it had in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Here was a guy who was more of a thinker than a man of action and was forced to become a man of action. With The Warlord I started out with a man of action. This eliminated a lot of the unnecessary captions explaining how his character must eventually change.
The Warlord is a guy who made a living with war. Actually, he was a US spy pilot who probably served time in Viet Nam and action was nothing new to him.
How's your personal life these days now that you've gone back to Wisconsin? 
Yeah, we've been out here since April now and we're busy getting settled down in the old home town. I've got a farm out here....about 39 acres worth. I call it "Brigadoon" after the Scottish village that appears out of the mist every 100 years. There's a small cottage that my wife and I are moving into and there's another old farmhouse that's kind of in need of repair that we've fixed up as a studio and I do my work out there. And lately I've been thinning out the gopher population of my lawn with my bow and arrows.
Did you take the little crescent sign off the studio door?
No, actually it didn't have one on the studio, but I know the kind of buildings you're talking about. Where most families have two cars or two garages, we have two out-houses for prestige.
We're real modern now. We're even getting indoor plumbing. In fact we just finished putting in a shower bath. No more sitting in the rain barrel.
Everything seems to have come to you by your just being there with your portfolio ready for your chance. Can you give any advice to younger readers who'd like to get into comic books or comic strips?
Yes, to the kids who want to get into comics, if you're young (like 13 or 14) just don't lose interest. If you want to be an artist or a writer do a lot of either drawing or writing. A lot of people fight the idea of copying someone else's work, but you'd be surprised how many big name artists started out by copying drawings they saw in the comic books. The idea behind it is that you've got to do it a little bit better than the guy who originally did them.
Is there any kind of special training you could advise them?
For someone who decides to be a cartoonist and doesn't know anything about it and wants to get the basics on it from day one (doing ballooned funny heads) I would recommend the Famous Artists course in cartooning from the Famous Artists School in Westport, Connecticut. It has everything that a beginner could want. I believe you can now buy the textbooks and do the studying on your own which is a a good thing. Or there's Joe Kubert's new school, which is perfect for a comic if had been open when I got out of the Army I would have gone straight there.
So you say they should stick with it and just stay in school?
Stick with it but it's not absolutely necessary to go to the college route. For a lot of people it's not even the right move if they get into a university that puts too much stress on the academics and not on the art. Then they could get waylaid and get their whole minds turned around. That's what almost happened to me at the University of Wisconsin.
Is there something else you think you'd like to do in comics?
There are several things that I've got in the back of my mind that I'd like to do. I have ideas for a couple of new books that will be hashed around and something may come of them.
If I get out of the comic book business I think the only other thing I'd want to do is a newspaper strip. The reason for that is there's obviously more money involved and the workload is not quite as heavy as it is in conics. I know a lot of guys have an awful lot of trouble meeting that deadline of six dailies and one Sunday a week, but when you stop and think about the volume of work that a comic BOOK artists turns out, that's about a day and a half's amount of work.
There's something else that would be a good advice to newcomers just starting out. You've got to remember it's not only important to be as good or better than the people who are working now, you've also got to be FAST!! That's if you want to make a good living from all this.

Editor's Note: See? For fans of Mike Grell this was a nice "time capsule" type interview of where Mike was in early 1976. Hope you enjoyed it as much as we did!

*As for the story Mike references as the second assignment he ever got from National, this was in fact published in Amazing World #12. It is an eleven page sci-fi horror story evidently originally intended for Weird War Tales called "The Alien Among Us." We'll publish that soon!


  1. Ever see "Comics Feature" No 15? That has some legion related articles including an interview with Levitz that might make a nice companion article to this one. (I have a copy and would be willing to scan/email.)