DIRECT COMMENTS: A birthday tribute to “Iron Mike” Grell, who turns 74…
Paul Kupperberg — comics writer, novelist, historian and 13th Dimension columnist — has a spectacular new publication out: Direct Comments, collecting about two dozen never-completely-published interviews from the ’70s to the ’90s, mostly with some of DC’s greatest creators. We’re talking folks like John Byrne, Denny O’Neil, Jerry Ordway, Jim Aparo, Dick Giordano and many, many more.
You can order the $16 paperback through Amazon — and to spotlight this treasure trove of comics-history gold, we’ve been running a weekly series in which Paul pays tribute to his favorite works by 13 of these creators. (The series mostly runs weekends, with a few exceptions.)
Last installment it was Walter Simonson. (Click here.) This time, we wrap up with the series with Mike Grell. — Dan
By PAUL KUPPERBERG
“I was an illustrator in the Air Force. They had a fairly interesting program. I learned a lot about graphic arts that that has stood me in good stead, but the really important thing was, number one, that in basic training I had met a fellow who was an aspiring cartoonist. And he informed me that I should give up the idea of being a commercial artist and become a cartoonist instead because a cartoonist only works two days a week and earns a million dollars a year. Instantly I said, hey, this is for me. I’ve been in this business for fifteen years now, over fifteen years, and the way I figure it, someone owes me near fifteen million dollars and about nine and a half years off.
— Mike Grell, from Direct Comments: Comic Creators In Their Own Words
The way I remember it, Mike Grell’s (September 13, 1947) career went from one high profile project to another. After a start as Dale Messick’s assistant on the long-running Brenda Starr syndicated newspaper strip, he was hired by DC Comics to work on the Aquaman feature in Adventure Comics, which led directly to the daunting task of following Dave Cockrum as the regular artist on Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes.
“As luck would have it, the very week I walked in DC’s door happened to be the same week that Dave Cockrum walked out it,” Mike remembered in our 1990 interview that appears in Direct Comments: Comic Creators In Their Own Words. “(Editor) Murray Boltinoff had been on vacation, and he returned just after I turned in my first or second story, to discover that he had no longer had an artist for the Legion. Joe Orlando called me up and asked if I would mind if he recommended me and I said no, no, I want a regular book! He asked if I could handle it. I said yeah, I could handle it, no problem at all. So, I gave up sleeping and took on the Legion of Super-Heroes.”
The rest, as they say, is history. The Wisconsin-born Vietnam vet created Warlord and was writer and/or artist for 70 issues, followed by his own Jon Sable, Freelance for First Comics, then back to DC for his launch of Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, et cetera, so on and so forth. Along the way he also managed a ton of specials, one-shots, and back-ups, including a stint as the artist on the Tarzan newspaper strip and several issues of James Bond comics for Eclipse. I guess that’s how he got the nickname “Iron Mike.”
Of all Mike’s work, I have a special fondness for Warlord, the strip he had originally developed while enrolled in the Chicago Academy of Fine Art to study cartooning. In 1990, Mike spoke of those days, telling me, “The Chicago Academy boasted such people as Hal Foster, and I later found out that Foster had attended every school in Chicago. And Walt Disney, who had the dubious distinction of having been thrown out because also Disney attended every school in Chicago but never paid his tuition and apparently would stay in until they caught wise to him and then move on to another school. … And while I was there, I worked at another comic strip, which again didn’t get off the ground. It was called Savage Empire and later on when I started working for DC Comics, I changed the characters and setting around, rewrote the story some and it became Warlord.”
In addition to being a great adventure story in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and John Carter, Warlord was the comic book in which my own creation (with artist Jan Duursema) Arion, Lord of Atlantis debuted as a back-up feature, running there for eight issues before earning its own title in March of 1982.
Happy birthday, Mike!
So here, without commentary because they speak for themselves, MY 13 FAVORITE MIKE GRELL WARLORD COVERS, in chronological order:
And with this look at the work of birthday boy Mike Grell, we come to the end of my celebration of 13 Favorite Things from 13 interviewees from Direct Comments: Comic Creators In Their Own Words.
It’s been a blast taking these deeper dives into the careers of some of my favorite creators, and I’ll be back next time with… something!
— PAUL KUPPERBERG: My 13 Favorite Pieces of Original Art by WALTER SIMONSON. Click here.
— The Complete INDEX of DIRECT COMMENTS Features. Click here.
Direct Comments is available now at Amazon. Click here.
Paul Kupperberg has been writing comic books from Archie to Zatanna for 45 years at DC, Archie, Charlton, Marvel, Bongo and others. He is also the author of Paul Kupperberg’s Illustrated Guide to Writing Comics (Charlton Neo Press); I Never Write for the Money… But I Always Turn in the Manuscript for a Check (Comics Career); the comic book industry-based murder mystery The Same Old Story, the short-story collection In My Shorts: Hitler’s Bellhop and Other Stories, JSA: Ragnarok, and his latest, the YA fantasy/time travel adventure Emma’s Landing, all from Crazy 8 Press and all available on Amazon, or signed and personalized direct from Paul (email him at email@example.com for details).