Several million people tune into The CW each Wednesday to watch Arrow, a popular television series about masked vigilante Green Arrow protecting the streets of his city.
The show is based largely on the work of comic book writer and artist Mike Grell, who reinvented Green Arrow 30 years ago. With a three-issue mini-series, Grell turned a once-obscure Batman knockoff into a hot character in his own right. Arrow paid tribute to Grell by naming a corrupt judge after him in the pilot episode.
“My niece saw that and said, ‘Uncle Mike, you’re famous!’ I said, ‘Sweetie, I’ve been famous for 40 years. You’ve just never noticed before,’” laughs Grell, 68, who will be a guest this weekend at the Lexington Comic and Toy Convention.
Grell broke into comic books in the early 1970s as the artist on DC Comics’ Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, a fan favorite set in the 30th century, with a monthly cast of more than two dozen characters. It was a high-profile assignment for a rookie.
“I was probably a little on the brash side, walking in there and expecting to be able to get work,” Grell says. “But I was like the bumblebee who didn’t know that he shouldn’t be able to fly. So I went airborne first shot out of the bank.”
Grell soon got a chance to switch to his favorite hero, also published by DC. Created in 1941, Green Arrow caught bad guys with trick arrows, such as a boxing glove arrow that — like Grell’s bumblebee — shouldn’t have been able to fly. Like Batman, he was secretly a playboy millionaire, named Oliver Queen, and he drove an Arrow Car, had an Arrow Cave and so on, also just like Batman.
In 1970, writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams (also guests this weekend at the Comic and Toy Convention) reimagined Green Arrow as a radical left-wing Robin Hood during an acclaimed run of stories that paired him with another DC hero, Green Lantern. The two traveled America in a pickup to explore real-world problems such as racism, poverty, pollution and drug abuse.
Grell admired those comics. So he was excited to learn in 1976 that O’Neil was reviving the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series.
“I went straight to his office and said, ‘OK, who do I have to kill to get this?’ And Denny basically said, ‘If you want it that bad, it’s yours, you’re hired,’” Grell says.
But the revived series was more in the vein of traditional super-heroics than it previously had been. Grell eventually left to focus on developing new comics by himself in different genres, working as writer and artist.
In 1986, a friend of Grell, DC editor Mike Gold, called to ask if he would return to the publisher.
“The next thing Mike said was, ‘OK, what about Green Arrow? Think of this: Green Arrow as an urban hunter,’” Grell recalls. “That was it. That’s all it took. Those six words were the tone for the whole of the series that followed.”
The next year, DC published Grell’s lushly illustrated three-issue mini-series Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, followed by a monthly Green Arrow series that Grell wrote but let other artists draw.
This Oliver Queen wasn’t a superhero anymore. He was middle-aged, pressuring his live-in girlfriend to start a family with him. He dropped his mask and just went by “Ollie.” He fought vicious street criminals, not super-villains. And he killed when he thought it necessary. The first person he skewered with an arrow was a knife-wielding rapist.
“I threw away the trick arrows. The very concept of a boomerang arrow scared the hell out of me,” says Grell, laughing, who is himself a lifelong archer and game hunter.
“I didn’t want to do the same character that Denny had been doing in Green Lantern/Green Arrow,” he says. “I wanted to plant the character firmly in the real world and put him in situations you read about in newspaper headlines, in stories that had relevance.”
DC published The Longbow Hunters about the same time that other projects were setting a new tone for mainstream comic books, one with graphic violence, language and sex, aimed at adults. The stark content, combined with rising cover prices, gradually pushed kids out of the audience.
Grell’s grittier version of Green Arrow proved lasting enough to cross into television. The emerald archer appeared for five seasons on Smallville, a series about a young Clark Kent discovering his super self. He started over with his own solo series, Arrow, now in its fourth season. Grell is a fan of the show.
“I like it quite a lot. I think they have a terrific cast, and the production in general is extremely high,” he says. Laughing, he adds, “I’m not pleased that they killed off Judge Grell, my shadow character. But, you know, it happens.”
Despite his own role in moving comics to an adult audience, Grell says he regrets that few children today show interest in reading them. Comics need to reach beyond their dwindling pool of older readers who have followed the same titles for 30 years, he said. While millions of people watch movies and television shows featuring comic book characters, the actual Green Arrow comic, for example, sold only 22,000 print copies in January.
“It’s supposed to be accessible to kids, and it’s not,” he says. “I would make it a mandate for each publisher to have a body of titles that are entry-level comics for kids, that can be read by all ages.”
If you go
Mike Grell will participate in a question-and-answer panel at noon Sunday in Thoroughbred 1, 2, 3 on the third floor, level L, at Lexington Convention Center, 430 WestVine Street, as part of the Lexington Comic and Toy Convention. John Cheves will moderate the panel.