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Interview: Mike Grell

[From Worlds of Westfield, April 1995, Vol. 14, No. 5 (whole no. 156), © 1995 The Westfield Company of Wisconsin, Inc.]

Like the rough-and-tumble characters he excels at creating, Mike Grell has proved one of comics' most resilient writer/artists. From the heights of success with Green Arrow to the depths of uncertainty over the fate of his Shaman's Tears series, his work had maintained its edge. In an interview with Westfield's Creative Director Bennett Neuhauser, Mike talks his current and upcoming projects.

Westfield: I imagine the last couple of years have been a bit unsettling, with Shaman's Tears bouncing around between publishers. First it was scheduled to be released by Image, then Axis. Now it's back with Image How is that going?

Mike Grell: I'm just kind of curious, did you buy the entire manual and take the home study course from "Understatements-R-Us"? [Laughter] To say that the last couple of years have been "unsettling" is a very major understatement. But as far as how it's going right at the moment, I certainly have no complaints. We've come a very long way through a lot of difficulty on everybody's part and wound up essentially back where Shaman's Tears belongs.

Westfield: You're launching two titles with Acclaim, under their creator-owned Windjammer imprint. How does it feel to be established there?

Grell: It's great. I'm enjoying working with the gays over at Windjammer not just because of the level of cooperation we get, but also for the level of enthusiasm for the projects. We're doing Bar Sinister, the director's cut of Starslayer and a special crossover title with Shaman's Tears and Turok.

Westfield: You're introducing a whole new group of readers to Starslayer who weren't around when it was originally published by Pacific Comics. Tell us about Starslayer.

Grell: Sure. Starslayer was originally created as a direct counterpart to my project the Warlord that was being done over at DC Comics. In fact, it got its beginnings before the big DC implosion of the '70's. DC had even mentioned in print that they were intending to print Starslayer. In the Warlord, I had a modern-day man stuck into a primitive society, a sort of Connecticut Yankee in Atlantis. I took the exact opposite approach with Starslayer and asked, what would happen if you took Conan the Barbarian and landed him smack in the middle of Star Wars? That was the basic premise. Starslayer is about a Celtic warrior from the first century who is transported into the far distant future. He's snatched right at the moment of his death, so that his life wouldn't screw up the time-flow continuum, and brought into the future by a lady scientist [Tamara] who has a plot to save a dying civilization. The Earth is in grave danger because the sun has gone red giant, which means it's many times its original size but also many millions of degrees cooler. Humankind has long since gone off to the other planets in the solar system and in fact, even conquered interstellar travel. But the children of Earth who are scattered throughout the solar system want to come home, because their worlds are slowly dying, freezing up, and Earth doesn't have any room for them and, even worse, just doesn't want them. And he's [Torin, the Starslayer] brought into the middle of all that mess to try to solve it.

It's a lot of fun. I get to play with wild spaceship designs and weird effects for drawing outer space, and things like that. Rob Prior is going to be doing the coloring on the book. Rob is well known for his paperback book covers and he's an excellent airbrush artist. He's created space-effect backgrounds on some of the covers we've seen from him so far that will just blow you away.

Westfield: How does Starslayer: The Director's Cut differ from the original six-issue series from Pacific Comics?

Grell: Since the films were lost in shipments to printers over the years and the original art was mislaid during a divorce back about a thousand years ago, what we had to do to reconstruct the artwork was to physically strip out the color from existing comic books. Mark Wheatley at Insight Studios provided that service for us and has done just a wonderful job to get us back to an original black and white piece of art. Rob Prior is doing full painted color on the inside, with a combination of techniques that makes it look as good as any computer stuff you've ever seen.

In addition, all the scripts have been redone. I'm re-dialoguing every one of the original six that are being reprinted. That takes the form of judicious editing, rewriting passages of dialogue, some deletions, keeping the essence still basically the same, but updating it for a 1990s audience. At the original release of Starslayer, I held back certain key elements of characterization and plot that were used as the basis of the two issues that were published at First Comics.

What I've done for the Windjammer release is taken material from those two books and rewritten two different stories, using the same key information but formatting it entirely differently, so we have a lead issue that introduces the characters and the world they function in. Then we launch into the original six issues, followed by number eight, which wraps up the story in a correct chronological manner instead of just jamming the information in there at the end.

Westfield: Do you think this will be just the first mini-series of Starslayer for Windjammer?

Grell: If you had asked me that six months ago I'd have said that this one was probably just going to be a one-shot. Now I think we've got a really good chance that this could be just the start. Basically, I'm having a helluva lotta fun with this thing. [Laughter] I'm finding how many positive points there are in it and how much room we have to expand and grow now.

Westfield: In issues of Shaman's Tears solicited recently and hitting the stands soon, you bring back another character you created several years ago, which is Jon Sable from Jon Sable Freelance. He joins forces with Joshua Brand for a four-issue run. How do you feel that's working out, and where is the relationship between those two characters going?

Grell: I think it's working surprisingly well. I've wanted for a long time to reintroduce Sable to readers because, if I had to choose which of my creations is my all-time favorite, it would have to be Sable. He's the nearest and dearest to my heart.

Westfield: Why is that?

Grell: I suppose because I put so much of myself into it. I gave him a complete life before I began writing this thing. I spent a lot of time thinking about it and planning what Ms history was. I lived with the gay for so long in my head before and during the production of the book that it's just a natural It's like having your brother come home again. It's just great.

Trying to work him into the world of Shaman's Tears has been kind of interesting and at the risk of alienating readers and going against the stance I took years ago, that Sable deals with the real world and real-world issues, I found that in working with Shaman's Tears I can deal with the problems of the real world in a manner that's still exciting to the reader who's looking for more high adventure, perhaps a bit more superhero type action, which is not to say that I'm going to turn Sable into a superhero. It's just that if the events that happen in Shaman's Tears actually appeared in the real world - and I think we're only a few years away from things like that [the creation of laboratory-produced genetic combinants] occurring - the entire world would change. Aliens don't land in Times Square on Monday, and on Tuesday you're back to watching daytime soap operas as usual, you know? [Laughter] Things are going to be different if something like this happens.

If you take a starting point that says, "OK, from this point on things in the world have changed, things in the world are different," then, with a character like Sable you have to ask the simple question, "how would this character fit in? What would be or could be his relationship to the internal structure you've already established for the story." And surprisingly Sable fits very well. Finding a logical means for introducing him into the story was actually quite simple. Like so many problems Sable's gotten into, he had help from a buddy. I know what that's like. That describes my childhood.

Westfield: Do you think we may eventually see a Jon Sable mini-series or regular series?

Grell: I intend that, before too awfully long, you will see a Jon Sable regular series, alternating with the character of Maggie the Cat. We've been working toward this for a couple of years now and, in fact, I've been spoken to Dick Giordano about doing the art and Dick seems quite enthusiastic. He really loves the character of Maggie and I'm hoping I can persuade him to stay on and do the art chores on the Sable end of the series as well.

Westfield: What can you tell us about your other creator-owned title for Windjammer, Bar Sinister?

Grell: Bar Sinister is a group of genetically altered individuals who were created to be villains in the original Shaman's Tears series. As that series wrapped up, they were more or less set free, but free in this world of people looking at you and pointing fingers just because you look different is a very peculiar sort of a definition. They are now free to choose their own path, however, they're being scrutinized even more closely, because people just don't like anything that looks different or out of the ordinary. Plus the fact that these genetic- combinant individuals are combinations of human and animal that have already been judged by the higher courts to be without human rights, as they are products created by a corporation. They're patented life forms. They can be bought, sold, owned, traded, used as slaves, created, destroyed with total impunity and with no thought whatsoever to the rights of the individuals, since they have absolutely none. And it's up to them to prove that they do have a rightful place in the world. Perhaps they didn't belong here in the first place, but mankind has created them and now mankind has a certain responsibility to them, or if nothing else has a responsibility to leave them alone and let them lead their own lives.

The characters are basically humanoid in shape with a few animal traits that come out in various fashions, sometimes it's attitude, sometimes it's physical. We have a girl who's a combinant of a bat, her name is Sigil. Sigil has some unique characteristics, such as albinism, which gives her red eyes and makes her extremely susceptible to ultraviolet radiation. She's not really happy about being out in the sun, very much like a vampire. And also very much like a vampire she has sort of a craving for blood. Since all the individuals are created for their rapid growth patterns, which is similar to their animal progenitors, Sigil, at the age of less than two years, is very childlike in a lot of ways and is also a grown woman who has not had the time in the world to develop certain social mores, so she tends to be rather amoral. Think of her as Madonna with wings. [Laughter]

Docket, a combinant of human and simian, has prehensile feet and tail. We also have Signet, who is human and ermine. She's capable of being very cold and calculating in her actions and functions. She, like many of the others, was created for military application, as well as commercial sales value and industrial applications. Docket, for instance, was created for a labor force in outer space, so he could function in zero gravity with four hands free to operate. We have Banner, who's a badger combinant. He's like Arnold Schwarzenegger squished down to about the height of Danny Devito. [Laughter] He's five foot one and 260 pounds.

Blazon is the functional leader of the original group. He's a combinant of human and wolf with many wolf-like characteristics, in that he is a powerful individual who is also extremely intelligent and adaptable to survival in a lot of different situations. He has very strong leadership qualities, which puts him in direct conflict with Animus Prime, the "lion-man," the one who was created on the Soviet space station where ah this began. Animus Prime and Blazon fight like cats and dogs, literally, because Animus is far more the intellectual side. I like to think of him as a cross between Cyrano, Quasimodo and the beast from Beauty and the Beast. He's the most brilliant mind in the most twisted body and, ultimately, the most tragic of the characters, I think. I always find the tragic characters more interesting than comedic characters.

Westfield: That's quite a line-up. Can you give us a fix on where you think the series is going? How would you characterize the whole group?

Grell: At the moment, the best thing in the world they could be, for their own good, is a superhero team. Unfortunately, they're having a great deal of internal difficulty working that out. Some of the characters are just not going to stick around. Others will die off from time to time, because these creatures not only reach maturity at the same rate that their animal progenitors do, but they have a correspondingly short life span. An entire lifetime for a character like Animus Prime might be 20 years and he'd be pretty creaky by the end of that.

These people have to find a way to persuade the world they belong. And just at the stage where it looks like they have solved that problem, with the birth of an individual into their midst who represents all the positive things that they can be, everything turns tragic for them and they find themselves even more on the outside than they had been before.

I have a specific plan for where the story goes over the course of a number of years, how the individuals develop and what their lives become, and what the world becomes as a result of them. The readers are going to have to stick around and find out, the same way I do every time that I turn a script over to Rick Hoberg and Brian Snoddy and just wait on pins and needles for the stuff to come back. [Laughter] And I'm never disappointed. Working with these guys is just a joy. I can't tell you how gratified I am at the work that I see coming across the drawing board here. It's just great.

We have a running joke in the studio where we'll do something that looks like a banana with an X through it and jot a note, "Brian, insert Sistine Chapel ceiling." [Laughter] That's only partially a joke Something like that happened to Rick very early on in one of his Star Wars books. Somebody had drawn something that looked very much like a banana with an X through it and wrote "insert X-wing fighter." Rick was the inker. That's leaving a little bit too much to artistic interpretation. But we're dealing with two guys in Rick and Brian, who if you do something silly like that and say, "insert Sistine Chapel" by golly when it comes back, it's gonna be there.

Westfield: It looks like you've got a lot of confidence for the future. You mentioned a Shaman's Tears/Turok crossover. Could you elaborate on that?

Grell: Sure. In Joshua Brand and Turok we have two different approaches to the American Indian culture. We have, on the one hand, a character from the modern world [Brand] who has essentially spent most of his life trying to turn his back on his native culture and fit in and sort of blend with the rest of society. Then, later in life, he begins turning back to his native roots, but he's more or less stuck without a guide. He doesn't know where to go and so he's kind of fumbling his way along.

And then, on the other hand, we have Turok, who is a Kiowa Apache Indian from the last century who has been transplanted and transported through time into the modern world. He's an individual who belongs in antiquity, very close to his roots because he's never left them behind, who is having a terrible time trying to function in this crazy world he's found himself in. That's the basis of the relationship between the two men.

We're not going to do the standard "superhero-meets-superhero" comic book, where we have two big muscle-bound guys who bump into each other in the dark and mistake each other for enemies, so they fight, and in the middle of punching one another's lights out they say, "Oh gee, you're not so bad after all. What do you say we gang up on these other guys and kick the snot out of them?" "Oh, OK and then they do. [Laughter] I mean, that was the basis for every single team-up/crossover hook that ever came down the pike in the 1970's and I haven't seen much to alter that opinion in the '90s. So, what I want to do is give these guys a reason for being together, just like I try to give all my characters a reason for being in the first place.

Westfield: Do you have any more projects coming up that we haven't heard about?

Grell: Unfortunately, I can't make specific announcements at this point. However, there are projects in development. I have a list so long you wouldn't believe it. We are working slowly but surely at getting Leatherstocking up and running. That's a very difficult one, because it's relatively non-commercial. It doesn't have the sort of appeal a superhero comic does, so we have to take it in a slightly different vein and approach a different market.

Westfield: Are we talking about the James Fenimore Cooper character here?

Grell: Actually, it's not, although the relationship was intended. It was intended that the name conjure up images of James Fenimore Cooper and Hawkeye. In fact, Leatherstocking is a collection of tales of pioneers, of individuals functioning in a completely new world where they don't know what's around the next corner, what's over the next hill but they keep on going. The exploration the opening and closing of the West, everything from the days of the pioneers up to the advent of the automobile. In fact, if you stop and think about it, early in this century we had a blissful attitude toward what the West was. I don't know about you, but I used to think that Roy Rogers probably did have a station wagon that he hauled Trigger around in a horse trailer with. And that was only to get from Hollywood to his ranch, and then everybody rode horses and probably carried guns, too. I just assumed that was naturally the way of it.

In a lot of areas of this country, the West in particular well into the '30s, the horse was a primary means of transportation. I have always found that kind of theme of exploration and discovery and opening up new worlds very fascinating. It'll be a good high-adventure collection of stories.

The premiere issue of the Shaman's Tears/ Turok crossover, and the latest issues of Bar Sinister and Starslayer: The Director's Cut are listed under the Windjammer imprint in the Acclaim Comics section. See the Image Comics section for the latest issue of Shaman's Tears.