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Year of the Artist, Day 333: Mike Grell, Part 1 – The Phantom Stranger #33

by  in Comic News Comment
Year of the Artist, Day 333: Mike Grell, Part 1 – <i>The Phantom Stranger</i> #33

Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Mike Grell, and the issue is The Phantom Stranger #33, which was published by DC and is cover dated November 1974. Enjoy!

This isn’t Grell’s earliest published work, but his first issue of Superboy (which was the Legion of Super-Heroes book at the time), on which he was the regular artist for a while, came out only a few months before this. The letters page of this book, however, has a different tale to tell:

According to Mike’s Amazing World of Comics (which is a tremendous resource, by the way), the letter column – presumably written by editor Joe Orlando – is correct – Adventure Comics came out on 25 June, while this issue came out on 9 July. However, Grell’s first issue of Superboy came out in April and his second came out also on 25 June, so maybe the story for Adventure had been in a drawer for a while (I also love that they’re still calling it “National”). Either way, he had only a few comics under his belt when he drew this issue. So let’s see what’s what!

Grell does some nice work on this page, as three men murder a member of a crime syndicate so his partner can take over. He’s able to capture the likenesses of the Phantom of the Opera (that has to be a sly joke, right?), the Wolfman, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon well, and his blacks on the masks make them look far more creepy than they would otherwise. His use of blacks in Panel 1 is nice, too, as he doesn’t add any folds or texture to the Stranger’s clothing of the clothing of the robbers – their clothes become voids, which is fairly clever. Panel 3 looks like it might have inspired Quentin Tarantino, as it feels very much like Jules and Vincent unloading on poor Frank Whaley. Grell lights the thieves very well, giving a source below them so the darkness of their eye ridges is thicker and more obvious. It’s a good look. Of course, Grell draws a too-large moon, because the moon in entertainment is always twice as close to the Earth as it is in reality. SCIENCE!

The man who ordered the hit, Lou Ubric, visits a Dr. Zorn (who apparently has a history with the Phantom Stranger) because he’s beset by seizures and Zorn’s sci-fi machine is the only thing that alleviates them. Comics, man. Anyway, I wanted to show this page because it gives us hints about the kind of artist Grell would grow into. Grell was 26 when he drew this, and while he continued to develop, it’s interesting to see the proto-“Grell male” appear on this page. Both Ubric and Zorn are drawn in much the same way that Grell would always draw men – yes, he refined them a bit over the years, but with some different inking (Grell inked this himself, and his inking got better as he evolved), they could easily fit into a Grell comic from the 1980s or even a current one. Grell draws younger people in different ways, but this, apparently, is what he thought “men” looked like – the sweeping, lush hair, the facial hair (which, yes, comes and goes depending on the character), the high cheekbones, the strong jawline, and the chest hair. The 1970s were an age of hair, and Grell, interestingly enough, never left that behind. I guess it’s not terribly surprising – these were his formative years, after all – but it’s interesting that when I think of Grell’s male figures, I tend to think of hair, whether on top of the head, on the face, or on the body. He just digs it!

Meanwhile, Deadman shows up. He’s looking for his own killer, as you do, and for some reason he realizes someone with a name that begins with “Z” knows something. So he wanders around, ignoring the plight of the bullying victim until he decides he needs a body to possess. Boston Brand and the Phantom Stranger are jerks in this issue, to be honest. Grell already knows the effectiveness of spot blacks, as he covers Deadman in them, highlighting the red of his costume (there’s no colorist credited for this issue, and I haven’t been able to find out who did it). He also uses blacks well on the bullies and their victim. I love how he puts the beatdown in the back of Panel 3, almost as if it’s an afterthought to Boston’s stupid navel-gazing. Jeebus, Boston, you’re a ghost who can possess people! Have some fun with it! Make Gerald Ford trip off a plane! Jump inside Warren Beatty and get laid by every woman in creation! Get inside Bake McBride’s head to find out what the hell he was thinking with that hair! (I kid, of course – Bake McBride’s hair was awesome.) Anyway, Deadman jumps inside the victim there and we get the weird Panel 5, where he attacks the bullies. “Deadman” makes quite a leap off the ground there between Panels 4 and 5, and he takes out all three punks with one complicated move. It’s too busy a panel, I think, because it requires the reader to make too many intuitive leaps. Maybe if Grell hadn’t spent four panels with Boston whinging about his lot in life, it would have worked better. Arnold Drake liked his words, I guess!

Boston possesses Dr. Zorn, who is trying to frame the Stranger for Boston’s death, and so when Brand hears the “proof” (Zorn spliced some of the Stranger’s statements together to create a “confession”), he gets a bit peeved at the Stranger. In Panel 1, notice that Grell draws his reflection in the window. A few days ago, we saw that in the 1990s, Joe Madureira accomplished this with, most likely, a bit of computer magic, while Grell draws in the lit parts of Zorn, leaving the shadowed parts alone so we’re looking “through” them at the buildings beyond. Grell also shows that he was some nice action chops (it must have been all those fight scenes in “Brenda Starr”), as Zorn leaps over the desk and kicks the Stranger in the face. His Zorn in Panels 3 and 4 is very fluid, and I love the way the Stranger reacts to getting kicked in Panel 4. Once again, it’s neat how he uses blacks on the Stranger, as he has no real clothing, just a void, and Grell always shades his eyes. I assume that was a standard “look” for our mysterious medallion-wearing wanderer.

Deadman finds out that Ubric might have something to do with his death, so he goes to check him out just as Ubric meets with two other members of his criminal syndicate. Said criminal syndicate is being watched by a federal agent, and he’s discovered by Ubric’s manservant, who is unfortunately not named Manservent Neville. Once again, Grell does a nice job with the action – Mr. Fed leaps at Manservant Neville, who clocks him over the head with the butt of his gun (aw, look how cute DC is, not showing the impact in Panel 4!) (and is Manservant Neville … enjoying the beating a bit too much, especially with whatever the hell that is coming out of his gun?). Both characters move really well, and Grell continues to use those nice black chunks, this time to make Manservant Neville seem a bit sleeker. I don’t know if Grell cross-hatched Mr. Fed’s pants or used some kind of overlay, but I dig it.

While possessing Ubric, Deadman can’t bring himself to kill Mr. Fed, so Mr. Koo (yep) takes the gun to kill him, which leads to Boston jumping in front of the bullet, depriving him of his chance to find out what Ubric knows about his murder. Deadman can’t let an innocent Mr. Fed die! Grell is still using nice blacks on this page, and notice that in Panel 1, his close-up of Ubric gives him a chance to use more liquid blacks, as we don’t get any sharpness to Ubric’s eyebrows or the shadow on his face – for some reason, that drawing looks more modern to me. It’s kind of neat. Once again, the “motion” of his characters is good, as Ubric looks very fluid when he jumps into the path of the bullets and when he actually gets hit by them. Grell shows that he can do facial expressions fairly well, as he does the desperation on Ubric’s face in Panel 4 and the pain he feels as the bullets hit him in Panel 5 quite well. I do like the “Whooosh” sound effect in Panel 2. Would it really be that sound when Mr. Koo swipes the gun from Ubric?

Also throughout these pages, you can see that Grell paid nice attention to what people were wearing. Man, the Seventies were awesome. Check out some of those clothes!

As I noted, Grell had already started drawing Superboy when this issue came out, and he continued on it for quite some time, so tomorrow I’ll take a look at some work from later in that run. Will we see “Mature Grell” in that comic? Don’t bet on it, but perhaps we’ll see a bit more of it as Grell evolved! And don’t forget to dip into the archives!

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