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Friday, February 20, 2009

Aquaman Shrine Interview with Mike Grell - 2009

Now that we've had the chance to look back at then-newcomer Mike Grell's work on Aquaman in Adventure Comics, let's talk with the man himself!

Mike, over the course of his four decades in comics, has been the writer/artist of such well-regarded books as The Warlord, Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, and Jon Sable Freelance, but he got his start drawing the King of the Seven Seas:

The Aquaman Shrine: How did you end up with the Aquaman assignment?

Mike Grell: It was the classic "How did you get into the business?" story--I had gone out in '73 to attend the New York Comic Con. And in my portfolio I had a bunch of samples, and I was expecting to show a comic strip while I was out there, and I couldn't even get an appointment.

Nobody was interested in action-adventure stuff, and I learned that the con had almost nothing to do with comic strips, it was all comic books. But while I was there, I ran into Irv Novick and Allen Asherman. Irv was a terrific guy and an amazing artist, and Allen was Joe Kubert's assistant at the time.

They both looked at my stuff and were very encouraging, and Irv told me in no uncertain terms to get my carcass to Julie Schwartz's office. Unfortunately, I had to get on a plane later that day, so I went home, and I ended up corresponding with Allen, staying in close contact, and then I decided just make the big break--I packed up and moved to New York.

AMS: Wow.

MG: Yeah. So I went to Julie Schwartz's office pretty much cold, and I had my Encyclopedia Salesman's pitch down all prepared--"Good afternoon, Mr. Schwartz, can I interest you in this deluxe 37-volume set of blah blah blah..."

AMS: [laughs]

MG: And if you get interrupted you have to go all the way back to the beginning, "Good afternoon Mr. Schwartz...", and that's exactly how far I got. I said "Good afternoon, Mr. Schwartz" and he said "What the hell makes you think you can draw comics?"

I dropped my portfolio on his desk and said "Take a look, and you tell me."

AMS: Whoa!

MG: Yeah [laughs]--cocky. I hadn't read that book about bumblebees not being able to fly, all right? So, he looked at it and called Joe Orlando in. By now I had told this guy my story, and he told Joe this moved with his wife and his dog, and he was looking for work, and is there anything you can give him?

Joe looked at the stuff very carefully and said, "Yeah, come on into my office." And he gave me my first assignment, which was the Aquaman story, "As The Undersea City Sleeps." Steve Skeates was obviously into alliteration at the time.

And it was the launch of my career. It was one of the biggest breaks I ever got.

AMS: Wow.

MG: Joe was terrific to work with, he was very encouraging. I worked on the story--it was only seven or eight pages--but I worked my brains off on it and brought it in the next week.

And Joe was such a great guy to work with--he immediately gave me another assignment, but before I got to the finish, he also sat me down and gave me a drawing lesson. Several, in fact. When I turned in that [first] story, I became known as The Guy Who Drew Aquaman Mooning The Audience.
sgThe very first page, I didn't show the hero's face, I had him mooning the audience. So I caught flak for that, and then later on in the story, I drew him sitting on the throne, but had his body slumped too far down, and Julie Schwartz pointed out that [Aquaman] looked like he was sitting on a toilet. [laughs]--and he was right!

Fortunately, the power of the story for the audience overcame the shot of Aquaman sitting on a toilet.

AMS: That was something I wanted to ask you about--when you look at that splash page, it doesn't look unusual or anything, it looks great. So, when someone like Joe Orlando tells you that, do you say to yourself "I don't agree with that, but I'll do it, because it's Joe Orlando and I have to" or did you agree with him at the time?

MG: No, I was paralyzed! I was terrified I was going to have to redraw the entire page. But Joe left me off the hook--he said "It's a good page, so we're going to let it go, but be aware if the Comics Code Authority comes back you're probably going to have to redraw it", but they let it pass.

AMS: It's one of the things that's remarkable about those pages--there's a lot of impressive moment. Not everyone draws Aquaman when he's swimming so that he really looks like he's swimming--his head is at the top of the panel, his feet are at the bottom, but in your pages he's coming in at every angle, he's coming in upside down, and to me it feels very much like this is a guy underwater. This is not a guy rooted to the floor. It seems like you had a handle on the character.

MG: Well, maybe not a handle on the character, but a handle on the swimming part. I loved to swim when I was a kid, and to me swimming is the closest to flying as you can get.

When I've gone scuba-diving over some choral, or even in a lake, where you can see the bottom, and you can turn every which way, you feel like you're suspended over the Earth, and it made a big impression on me.

sgAMS: One of the things I feel like you can see in the pages, is how much effort you were putting into them--there's a scene where Aquaman is looking at a monitor, and you've got the glow from the screen casting a shadow, and part of Aquaman is darkened by zip-a-tone. Did you feel like you really had to knock these pages out of the park?

MG: Oh, absolutely. When someone gives you your first assignment you want to do your absolute best.

In those days, I had just come from working in commercial art, and we used a lot of zip-a-tone, so it was pretty common. But once I got into comics, I soon realized zip-a-tone created a lot more problems than it solved--the combination of the dot pattern of the zip and the dot pattern from the various color plates could crate a moray effect, and would give you weird things going on that would make blobs and blotches on the drawings so that went by the wayside very quickly.

AMS: Did you have much interaction with Steve Skeates?

MG: I only met Steve later on, after I had done a couple of issues. I ran into him at the [DC] office, and we had a cordial relationship.

I was amused at some of the stories he told, Steve had a story for just about every situation, and he had written so many he was a great yarn-spinner. He was always cordial with me and enthusiastic.

I know that he had worked with Jim Aparo [on Aquaman], and I couldn't hold a candle to Jim.

AMS: Yes, he certainly seemed to have an amazing relationship with Jim as writer and artist.

MG: Yep, and that happens now and then. You get guys who just seem to click together, and so it becomes very strange when there's a change up, and I thought, considering all that, Steve was very supportive of me and I had a good feeling when I worked with him.

AMS: That Aquaman back-up feature only ran three issues, and then Aquaman got promoted to the lead-spot [in Adventure Comics]. Do you remember at the time, was that anything they had offered you, or might have offered you, or did not come up at all? Because obviously the stories were pretty popular, since they bumped Aquaman to the front of the book so soon afterwards.

MG: It never came up with respect to me, because by that time I had already gotten the assignment to do The Legion of Superheroes. And Julie Schwartz was keeping me busy with all the back-ups I could handle.

AMS: Yeah, The Legion of Superheroes is enough!

Something else I've always wanted to ask an artist who's had to deal with this--as an artist, how frustrating was it to draw Black Manta, a character with no facial expressions. That's got to be pretty tedious, having to draw that big orb in every panel!
MG: Again, I have to give a lot of credit to Joe Orlando, who took me aside. Joe was really my mentor in many ways, and he told me about "acting on the page."

And what he meant by that was the difference between emotion and action. And we were talking, and he said back in the old days of silent movies, most of those actors came from the stage, where all the action and the gestures has to be really big because you are playing to the people in the back row of the balcony, and on a comic book page, what you want is something more subtle, like a movie or a TV show--a modern film, where you can convey emotions with a raised eyebrow.
Sometimes you can't do that, so you have to go back to the bold gesture. So doing Black Manta, the challenge became how to convey the action and the emotion through his physical posture. And that was a great lesson.

When you look at a page in a book where people are posing, if they're just standing around in organized poses, the large-team superhero books are a good place for that--or should I say a bad place for that, because you have four or five people in a panel, they've all got to fit in there some way.

That's enough of a challenge, and many times the artist can't quite figure out what these people should be doing.

That was one of the things I always admired about the work of Curt Swan. When he had to draw an office scene with Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, whoever, a bunch of people standing around a water cooler--they're all doing something. They were all unique--all those figures look like people look when they're standing around a water cooler.

Being able to come up with those interesting poses, and still convey the action and the meaning of what's going on is tough. As an artist--and I can speak from both sides of the coin here--as a writer its one thing to put things on a page, but as an artist you have to consider not just what the scene is, but what the dialog is, because you're like a film director. You're everything--you're the casting director, you're the cinematographer, the director, and you have to play all the parts.

AMS: So maybe the best sample story DC could give to prospective artists is Black Manta invading the offices of The Daily Planet, and that's your test--a guy with no face attacking a bunch of people standing around a desk! "If you can make that work, here's a book."

MG: [Laughs] Yeah, absolutely.

AMS: Now, you mentioned you were going the comic con with an adventure strip. That was The Warlord, correct?

MG: It was a comic strip called The Savage Empire, which evolved into The Warlord.

AMS: Now, I see more similarities between an Aquaman strip and Warlord than any other DC character--its a fantasy world, you've got more room for crazy monsters, as opposed to, say, Metropolis.

MG: Absolutely.

AMS: So when you were working on Aquaman, was there anything in that influenced you, that showed itself later in The Warlord?

MG: Oh, I'm sure the cities in Atlantis look very similar to some of the cities in The Warlord, because they both sprang from the same kind of influence. In The Warlord, the world in the center of the Earth--Skartaris--had been settled by survivors of the Atlantean cataclysm. And so their culture translated into the architecture into the cities, the same kind of look, the same kind of a feel, so I didn't have a problem in terms of creative integrity translating one over from the next.

AMS: You mentioned going to the con with an action-adventure strip, something different than DC was publishing at the time. I remember reading about the term, was it Julie Schwartz or Joe Orlando that coined the phrase "The Grellverse" that was the universe Mike Grell's characters existed on?

MG: The question always came up as to which version of Earth The Warlord took place in. I always fought against crossovers, and never did any crossovers with the DC Universe. Later, when I did The Longbow Hunters and the Green Arrow book I never did any crossovers, either. When Green Lantern appeared, it was as Hal Jordan, because I was trying to make Green Arrow fit into the real world.

And there were some questions that were raised, because at some point there were people who wanted to play around with The Warlord setting, and Julie Schwartz said "We have Earth-1, Earth-2, Earth-Prime, and Earth-Grell."

AMS: [Laughs] Yep, that was it--"Earth-Grell!"

MG: And he had some logic behind it--Earth-Prime is the world we live in, we know the world isn't hollow. We know that for a fact--its solid all the way down there. Earth-1 was Superman's world, and he had already drilled through the center of the Earth, the magma core, all the way through, and he never found Skartaris.

And by extrapolation it sure can't be Earth-2, so its got to be some other Earth, so he said Earth-1, Earth-2, and Earth-Grell.

AMS: That's pretty good--you get your own world!

MG: There you go! And I adhered to that as strictly as possible. Of course, as soon as I left the book, they brought in the superheroes.

sgAMS: What are you working on now? You're writing a new Warlord series, right?

MG: Yes. I'm doing the scripts and the covers for new Warlord series, and I'm going to be drawing a few issues down the road, and that ought to be a lot of fun.

I've got another project with an old friend, Mark Ryan, called The Pilgrim, and that's running on ComicMix.com. And in my spare time, I'm finishing up a re-write of a screenplay I did for [Jon] Sable.

AMS: Well, Mike, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

MG: Great, Rob. Take care.

It was a real thrill to get to talk to the legendary Mike Grell. I thank him so much for his time, especially when you consider what a blip his Aquaman work was in his long, celebrated career. He was a genuine pleasure to talk to, friendly and engaging, and it made for what I think is one of the best interviews we've ever had on The Aquaman Shrine.
You find out more about Mike and his work on his official website, MikeGrell.com, you can read his new series The Pilgrim over at ComicMix.com, and if you'd like to commission Mike to do an original illustration (like the sweet Aquaman piece you see above), go to CatskillComics.com!

Special thanks to Stephen Legge for helping set up the interview with Mike.


Adama said...

Oh man, I am so jealous! I wouldn't even know what to do with myself if Grell agreed to an interview over at the Arrowcave.

Anonymous said...

I met Mike at the Mid-Ohio Con this past October and got him to sign both an Aquaman story and the cover to JLA 121 (where Aquaman "dies"). One of them was for the Heroes Fund for retired artists/writers, so we chatted at that booth for a little bit. He seemed like a warm, friendly guy.

I would LOVE a Mike Grell original. I need to look into this and save up my pennies.
Thanks, Rob!