Mike Grell: Paving the way

Josh Hadley

josh hadley | the shadows of pop culture | june 2016

Mike Grell is not the largest comic book name out there but he is easily one of the most important and significant.

As a comic fan you may not know his name as well as those of his contemporaries but he has a footprint larger than most.

Mike Grell initiated many firsts that are now so commonplace that people tend to forget where they came from. He was the first comic creator who got to retain the rights to his own creations with Pacific Comics in 1981. He was the first independent comic book creator to have an independent comic brought to television.

These things are now beyond standard but in the 1980s these were monumental steps into the great fog of the unknown and to be fair, these were not entirely successful, but they were steps that needed to be taken. Pacific Comics would end up folding after only three years and Grell's "Sable" TV series would only last seven very low-rated episodes in 1987. These were necessary failures though, as without Grell, embarking on this journey into the unknown the industry may not have ever gotten to the point it is at now.

Grell is a native of Florence, Wisconsin, and has long favored Wisconsin in his travels and stops as a comic book professional. His recent stop at Powers Comics in Green Bay was a way for him to connect with his home state once again.

He began his comic career in the 1970s on DC Comics “Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes" books while also doing work on “Batman," “Green Lantern/Green Arrow" and many others before creating his own character and world for DC Comics, “Warlord." Eventually rights disputes and other issues at DC Comics (who were not doing well in the late '70s) forced Grell to walk away and move to the then-enterprising and insane world of creator-owned books at the fresh Pacific Comics. It was here that Starslayer (a Celtic barbarian in a space opera setting) was born. Continuing in the indie world, Grell would start up the first real "super hero" comic “Jon Sable: Freelance" for First Comics after Pacific collapsed. “Jon Sable: Freelance" was a real man, who got hurt, had doubts, was a jerk at times, slept with women and dealt with real world issues (although exaggerated ones such as spies and assassins). “Jon Sable: Freelance" also brought forth the first openly gay character in comics in the form of Gray Adler. Adler was, at the time, the only openly gay character in comic books. Adler was not a stereotype but was also "obviously" gay, which Grell used to poke fun at macho clichés in comics. The gritty and non-stereotypical black police captain of Josh Winters would also kick away from what Marvel and DC would be doing.

Eventually Grell would return to DC comics to take part in the wave of adult comics made at DC.

“The Dark Knight Returns," “Watchmen" and Grell's “Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters" were the three books that showed the mainstream that comics (and ostensibly super heroes) could be used to tell adult and real stories with real consequences and real impact.

As I mentioned last issue with Neal Adams the “Green Lantern/Green Arrow" comic book helped usher in "realistic" comic storytelling in a superhero setting, but Mike Grell used the Green Arrow character to take a sharp turn into almost brutal realism of the character. His Green Arrow book would eschew the larger DC Universe and play in our world.

A character like Green Arrow would no longer be fighting Black Manta or Despero, instead, he was taking on rapists, drug dealers, serial killers, AIDS, gay bashers and child molesters.

"I didn't want to do stories about aliens or bug-eyed monsters, I didn't want super villains and super heroes with super powers; I wanted to do real stories about real people in the real world," Grell has said.

This was a monster shift at a time when comic books were gaining mainstream attention and it was books like Grell's, which gave that attention credibility. He likes to refer to the works he does as "More hard-edged than normal super hero books." Grell has a way of telling a grounded story easily and smoothly with his detailed, cinematic artwork and dialog coming straight out of a noir novel.

Sometimes Grell may get too close to reality. There was a plotline in “Longbow Hunters" where Grell beat the Iran/Contra scandal by six months. He wrote a story a year earlier that almost exactly mirrored what would really happen in that scandal, so much so that people have asked him for years if he had some kind of inside information. His response to these inquiries is simply "I just thought of the dumbest thing the government could get caught doing ... and it turned out I was right."

Grell brought a dark and dirty realism not just to DC Comics but to mainstream comics in general. Even after he slowed down some in the early 1990s the work he did on “Longbow Hunters" could be evidenced rippling through the world of comics in the "Grim and Gritty" trend that almost doomed the industry.

"I get credit and blame for a lot of stuff in my stories," said Grell. “I get accused of being a misogynist because I dealt with issues of rape and child porn and everything else ... but the fact is I am not making this stuff up, this really happens to women and children. A lot of the harder-edged stuff people think I made up I took right from the headlines."

While Mike Grell may not have his name known outside of the main comic book realm, his work still affects not just the industry of comic books but that of pop culture as well.

A fiercely confrontational and arrogant critic whose stubborn nature makes him immanently readable and equally angering, Josh Hadley is a writer for magazines such as Hustler, Fangoria, Paracinema, Shadowland, Grindhouse Purgatory and Cashers du Cinemart, as well as a radio host on Jackalope Radio. Find more from him at 1201beyond.com, a website that only the most anti-social personalities would engage.

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