Mike Grell interview

Throughout his career in comics, Mike Grell has worked on such series as DC's Legion of Super-Heroes Warlord, and Green Arrow, and his creator-owned book, Jon Sable, Freelance. This month, he becomes the new writer of Marvel's Iron Man. Worlds of Westfield Content Editor, Roger Ash, recently spoke with Grell about his plans for Iron Man.

: When you were approached to write Iron Man, what about the character prompted you to say yes?

Mike Grell: I always liked the concept of Iron Man. I see him as sort of a knight in shining armor for the modern era. The thing that always did appeal to me, and the thing I'm going back to actually, is the concept of this rather frail individual inside this super powerful suit. The guy has a whole bunch of very interesting character quirks; his alcoholism, his human frailty of the bad heart that continually threatens his life, and everything else. That, of course, got lost over time when they did away with his personal failing heart, but I've found a way to get back into that again.

: What can we look forward to in upcoming issues?

Grell: Storywise, the angle I'm taking is I want to, first of all, deal with the character. To me, the stories are not necessarily secondary, but the character development itself is always the important thing and the stories build around the character. So, one of the first things that I'm doing is restoring the human frailty aspect of Tony Stark having to recharge his heart on a regular basis, or an irregular basis, which is even more alarming for him. Depending on how much energy he uses during the course of the day, he gets somewhere between a 24 and 48 hour charge on his heart before he begins to weaken. So we're adding that one aspect back into his character. Then, going on from there, one of the things that I'm dealing with is the fact that Tony's spent an awful long time involved in one aspect or another of weapons development. Basically what he's done is, he's developed this super powerful weapon that, if it were to fall into the wrong hands or if it were to be misapplied, could cause more harm than good. It's one thing when you're young and you're approaching things from an academic standpoint, more or less on the angle of a mental exercise, "can I do this?" as opposed to "should I do this?" It's quite another thing when something you might have developed in the past jumps up and bites you in the butt. That's the direction that I've taken him in the very first storyline that I'm doing. In issue #50, I'm very pleased to say, given the state of the world and everything else, I took the problems in Eastern Europe of Kosovo and Bosnia and rolled them into a situation with a character that I call Milos Radanovic (a very, very slight take off on Slobodan Milosevic), and put Tony Stark into the situation where he has to deal in a country where the leader is conducting ethnic cleansing, which is a thinly veiled term for genocide, against the Muslim population. At this stage in the game, given recent events, I think a lot of the readers are gonna be surprised and a little startled to find that my romantic lead in here is a Muslim woman, which I'm actually very pleased about. (Of course this story was written months before the 9/11 attack.) I took Tony over there with the express intent of separating him from his armor and forcing him to deal with the issues at hand as an ordinary man. The way the story develops from there, I think, is both logical and interesting for the reader to see what happens when a guy who's come to rely on this super powerful armor, this ace in the hole that he always has, is forced to deal with it on a one-to-one human basis.

: Due to what's happened in the world since you've started writing this story, have you changed anything or been asked to change anything?

Grell: I haven't been and I don't expect to be. The only aspect of change is the illustrations that were done for the early pages of the book that sort of alarmingly had the twin towers in. So I expect those have been extracted already.

: Do you have plans past the opening storyline of where you'll be taking the book?

Grell: Absolutely. Before I took over the series, I sat down and I did a year's worth of plots and scenarios for the direction that we would be going, with an emphasis on the human aspect of Iron Man as opposed to the technological aspect, without losing the techno-thriller that's built into it. I'm alarmingly one of the least qualified people to be writing anything about high tech computer stuff. I'm not totally computer illiterate, but nowhere near the level that many people are. However, that hasn't stopped me. I'm going for a Tom Clancy techno-thriller angle as opposed to a Michael Chrichton techno-techno story.

: Since you are focusing on the character of Tony Stark, will you also be putting the spotlight on some of the supporting cast in the future?

Grell: Absolutely. I'm intentionally setting back and taking time to re-establish a new direction before I go after the characters like Rumiko and Ty Stone, but they are definitely in the plans. An upcoming storyline is going to deal very intensely with Ty Stone and Rumiko taking Tony back into that personal, emotional involvement that he's had with both of those characters. I'm dealing with other subject matters as well. We have a storyline coming up that deals with a serial killer preying on young girls on the street. Pretty much, you name it. In the past, I've always tried to draw my storylines as much as possible from headlines; from things that are actually going on in the world, or things that could be happening in the world. Speculative fiction based on the sociology of our times. I find it involves the reader on a deeper, more personal basis than when you create something that's totally fantasy, where it's quite difficult to particularly care whether or not the hero achieves his final end. Along those lines, I've also taken care to establish that while Iron Man is extremely powerful, he's not invincible. He has his weaknesses as well. I think those aspects go a long way towards improving the relationship between the character and the reader. Having said all that, there is also a story coming up that's going to be not pure fantasy, but very close to it. A fun, imaginative story that I think readers will really enjoy. I can't give away too much right now, because it hasn't been publicized.

: One thing that often happens when new creators take over Iron Man is that the armor changes. Will you be changing the armor?

Grell: Pretty drastically actually. I did a preliminary drawing for the armor and Michael Ryan, who's doing a bang up job on this thing, used my sketch to rearrange it again. Basically, what we've done is, to show that there is a human being on the inside of this thing, we've altered Tony Stark physically. He's no longer an Arnold Schwarzenegger kind of a guy. He actually has a neck and his head is actually larger than his fist, which is fairly unusual in a lot of comics these days. If you were to see Tony Stark playing tennis somewhere, you'd be not exactly unimpressed by him, but you wouldn't be stunned by his physicality. I personally see him as a bit of a Pierce Brosnan type. What we've done from a visual standpoint on Iron Man is we've taken essentially two bodies, one inside the other. We have a flexible, tight-fitting armor that molds to his physique which is similar to the Frank Zane Batman physique that they used in the first Batman movie; the Michael Keaton armor. And then, over the top of that, we over-layed Arnold Schwarzenegger and cut away pieces so that you can see the more slender body underneath. The hard armor is the bulky stuff and the flexible armor is the part that's on the inside. So you can see that, despite the fact that there is this bulky, muscular armor on the outside, that there really is something resembling a human being on the inside.

: Are you happy so far with your collaboration with artist Michael Ryan?

Grell: I'm stunned. Happy is a bit of an unnderstatement. I wrote a scene right at the beginning of issue #50 where Tony Stark is riding in the back seat of a fighter jet flying over an Eastern European city and it's struck by a stinger missile and blasted out of the sky, which is how he gets separated from his Iron Man outfit. It's one thing to sit at the typewriter and describe the aircraft exploding in a million pieces over the sky and the city down below. It's another thing when you open a package and unfold this page that actually has about a million pieces of what actually look like aircraft parts (and I'm pretty sure they are) scattered all over the sky. And oh, by the way, down below in the city you can not only see the buildings, you can look down into the alleyways and see the individual bricks, and see the rubble on the one side and the trees and the more luxurious areas on the other side of the river. I was completely blown away.

: Does your approach to plotting or writing a story change when you're going to be drawing it yourself versus when you are working with someone else?

Grell: The plotting doesn't change. The actual physical act of writing is a bit different because I have to be a bit more detailed in what I write. I write full scripts. I don't work in the traditional Marvel style of sending in a plot and letting someone else do it and then taking it back over. I have a particular storytelling style that involves certain beats. I like the page to turn in a certain spot. I like beats and pauses during the course of the story that allow for let downs in the action and a gradual build up to a climax. I like the reader to come to the end of one page and want to have to turn it in order to find out what's going on on the next page. To give the artist a better, more clear, understanding of what it is I'm calling for, I write pretty cinematically.

I learned a great lesson from my collaboration with Denny O'Neil over the years when we worked together on Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Denny knew when to lay off on his descriptions and let the artist take over. If it was a two shot of talking heads, or something like that, sometimes his scene description would be "C.U. 2 shot." That was it. It didn't need anything more and it was up to the artist to make it interesting. By the same token, if there was something that was important to the story that had to be in there, then it gets put into the description. As opposed to working with other writers I've collaborated with in the past who, from an artist's standpoint, on occasion some of them would get carried away with descriptions of things like a mechanical device that had almost nothing to do with the plot of the story, but they'd spend half a page describing this contraption, and then the final result wouldn't be germane to the story in the first place. If it's important, I try to put it in and if it's unimportant, I try as much as possible to leave everything but the absolute essentials to the discretion of the artist because that's how you get your best work out of them. It's the best collaboration you can get.

: Do you have any other projects you're working on you'd like to mention?

Grell: Right at the moment I'm doing a lot of screen work. I just published my first novel called Sable. It has nothing to do with lady wrestlers of course. It's based on my Jon Sable, Freelance comic book. It's out in paperback right now, and I have a second novel in the Sable series in the works. I've sold a screenplay based on the same project and we're currently working on presentations for another feature film and a television series. So I've been concentrating largely on writing. I've just begun a series of cheesecake paintings, sort of World War 2 nose art-style paintings, but updated for the modern era. Beyond that, the next comic work that I'll have out is I'm going to be doing a 12-page backup in issue #55 of Iron Man.

: Do you have any closing comments?

Grell: Having seen Iron Man in the pencil form, I'm really anxious to see it inked up and in full color. It's quite exciting. This is my first work for Marvel Comics and it couldn't be coming at a better time. I've been in comics since 1973 and other than a couple of pin-ups that I did for them and a few pages I co-wrote with Chris Claremont for Heroes For Hope years ago, I've never done a regular book for Marvel. It's high time. And, like any other decent climax, I always try to save the best for last.

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