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Mike Grell Returns to The Warlord

by  in Comic News Comment
Mike Grell Returns to The Warlord
“The Warlord” #1 on sale in April

In the late 1970s, no DC Comics title sold better than “The Warlord.”

Created in 1976 by Mike Grell, who served as both writer and artist on the series during its formidable and most popular years, “The Warlord” told the epic tale of American pilot Travis Morgan’s journey to the center of the Earth and his adventures in the magical world of Skartaris. After a 133 issues, the series ended in 1989. DC tried re-imagining the concept in 2006 with writer Bruce Jones and artist Bart Sears, but it proved unsuccessful.

But come April – in celebration of its 35th anniversary – “The Warlord” returns once again as an ongoing series. And this time, Grell (“Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters”) is writing the series and illustrating the covers with Joe Prado (“Action Comics”) is providing interior artwork.

CBR News checked in with the fan favorite creator at his home in Washington state to find out where the series picks up, what he has in store for Travis Morgan in the months and years ahead, and what he thinks about the possibility of a “Warlord” movie.

CBR: Did you ever think you would get a chance to work on “The Warlord” again? Or did you at least hope you would?

Mike Grell: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, from the time I started “Warlord,” I had a story in mind that I wanted to do. And now it looks like I will eventually be able to do it.

Is this new series a re-imaging of your classic “Warlord” from the seventies and eighties, or is this a continuation of Travis Morgan’s epic tale?

I am picking up relatively from where I left off when I left the series. I know there is a question about whether or not I was going to take into consideration the six-issue miniseries. I’m sure there is some spill over elements there, but mostly it’s pretty much where I left off. It’s not to say time hasn’t passed for the characters. Time has passed. The characters’ time has passed in the real world, but fortunately in the world of Skartaris, where the Warlord lives, people just don’t seem to age.

“The Warlord” #2

Warlord is picking up his adventures where we left him, however I am re-introducing everybody. I am introducing all of the characters because as a storyteller it’s my job to bring people up to speed on the yarn before I can start the adventure going. I am introducing a bunch of new characters, re-introducing all of the old characters, reestablishing the rules of the road as they were originally but clarifying it for audiences that didn’t come along for the whole ride. So you’ll be able to pick up these issues of “The Warlord” having never read the series before and you’ll get it.

What were your original inspirations with “Warlord?” What was your goal with that project?

Skartaris is the world at the center of the Earth. It was based on all of the books that I have read on the hollow Earth theory. The setting itself is certainly not new to me or any of the more famous writers, who had developed stories around it.

Edgar Rice Burroughs had a series of books called “Pellucidar” and Jules Verne, before him, had written “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” And odd as it sounds, both of them were relatively johnny-come-latelys. Somewhere before the turn of the 20th century, there was something on the order of 30 or 40 different books written on the speculative geology of the planet Earth. The rules of order are the Earth is hollow, there is a sun that hangs in the center and it’s held there by uniform forces of gravity pulling on it from all different sides. It’s always daylight. It’s always sunlight. And it’s always 12 noon. And because the people who live there are unable to tell time, time has meant nothing to them, they don’t have watches or clocks. If you take a nap, you don’t know if you’ve been asleep for an hour or a day. There’s no way of measuring it, so they are not bound by the limitations of it. They are simply free of time.

So they grow up like normal people do. People are born, they grow up, they mature — but instead of aging steadily and beginning to decline, they maintain this state of activity and health and physical capability they had in their prime. It’s basically an extended period of being in your prime.

The character, The Warlord, is Travis Morgan, who is a U.S. spy pilot. He was piloting an SR-71 in 1969 when a Russian missile damaged his plane and in trying to make a straight run back to his base, he flies directly over the pole and as the plane loses altitude, loses fuel, it drops out of the sky but it drops through the opening at the North Pole into the world of Skartaris.

So here we have a modern man discovering a world that was old when our world was being re-born after cataclysms. Skartaris, at one time, had been settled by the Atlantean civilization and there cities are in ruins at the center of the Earth. They have destroyed themselves from war and folly. And the people who are living there now are actually much more primitive tribes, living among the ruins with no real concepts of the civilization that has gone on before.

“The Warlord” #3

And into this comes Travis Morgan, who falls in love with the beautiful Tara, who is Queen of Shamballah, the Golden City that is referred to in the Tibetan legends – although they spell it, “Shambhala.” The land of Skartaris also equates to the Tibetan land of Agharta, which is basically what we would know as Shangri-La — a land where no one grows old and there is no sickness or disease, except the Shangri-La legend has got it all wrong because in Skartaris, it’s anything but peaceful.

There are prehistoric animals. They’ve never died out because there has never been an ice age there. There are also beasts of mythology – unicorns, griffins and dragons, you name it. Magic works. Anything that can happen in fantasy happens in the lore and it’s one of the reasons I always refused to draw a map of Skartaris. Year after year after year went by, and I always hounded by the editors, “When are you going to have a map?” The reason I refused was because once you draw a map, you establish boundaries. And why would you want to put boundaries on your imagination.

Is “The Warlord” set in the DC Universe proper? Does Superman show up in issue #3, or are you completely removing “The Warlord” from all of that?

My old editor, and dear old friend, Julie Schwartz also used to say, “In the DC Universe, we have Earth-1, Earth-2, Earth-Prime and Earth-Grell.” “The Warlord” takes place on Earth-Grell. Yes, there were superheroes that showed up in that book, but not on my watch.

Beyond Travis Morgan, who are some of the other classic “Warlord” characters that are returning to the series?

Well, you can’t have The Warlord without Shakira. Shakira is his little female companion, who is either a woman who turns into a cat or a cat who turns into a woman. I know the answer to that and I ain’t telling – at least, not right now. Because again, it’s better if you don’t know everything. Tara, the Queen of Shamballah and Morgan’s wife, will be back. Tinder, who is actually Morgan’s son, who had been kidnapped by Deimos as an infant and has grown to manhood not knowing who his parents are — he grew up on the streets as a street urchin and a thief and then became a minstrel and a bard, later on. He features in this. Machiste, Mariah, and eventually I’ll get around to everyone. Deimos – it’s hard to keep a bad man down. Inevitably, in some fashion, you can look for Demios on down the road. But more importantly, I am also introducing a new cast, as well.

“The Warlord” #4

The plot of the first six-issue story is rather simple. But twisted and convoluted at the same time. A young lady climber in Tibet, taking refuge from a storm in a cave, discovers a freeze dried dinosaur. And she brings the head of the dinosaur back to the United States. And that sparks an expedition to go and extract the rest of it, the body of the thing, but they are also searching for a possible link to this story about Agharta, about Shamballah. And they mount an expedition that winds up traveling through a portal, to Skartaris. The expedition touches off a culture clash and wars that are threatening to destroy both worlds.

Do you have an endgame already in mind?

This is an ongoing series but in the back of my mind, I have always had this plot for a definitive ending to the world of “The Warlord” and eventually, I’ll get to tell that story, but probably not in the matter that you’ll expect. It’ll be a lot of fun when I finally get to do it. But the end is fluid. This could take five years to tell, it could ten years to tell. I doubt that it will be that long but I’m going into this with the idea that “The Warlord” series is going to have a good long extended run this time around.

I have already got the first six issues plotted, I’m outlining #7 and #8 right now and I have the next six after #8 roughly outlined. So I’ve got almost a year-and-a-half very clear. I have another story that doesn’t fit currently into this continuity, but it’s also a six-part story and it could go in anytime within the next two or three years quite easily. But that depends on how a lot of things develop.

One of things that I’m getting to do here is play with these new characters in an explorative direction for them. I’ve got a cast of people from the outer world now who are going to be interacting with the regular cast of characters and are having their own adventures, as well.

Will it be difficult for you, not handling all the art duties? You are handing off the interiors to Joe Prado.

I can’t tell you hard this is. I reached a certain maturity in my old age where I have to realize, I can’t possibly do everything, can’t draw anything, can’t micromanage every single panel. At some stage of the game, you have to be willing to relax and appreciate the other guy’s talent.

“The Warlord” #5

[Joe’s] got a very keen design sense. We’re working through the warts. Any relationship when you first start out is a romance. And as you go along, you discover warts in your partner but you overlook them, because maybe she’s got other fine attributes that overshadow those warts. And with Joe, he’s got such a powerful design sense that I look at pages and to me, they’re not always drawn how I would draw them, the story isn’t told exactly the way I would tell it, but there’s always some kind of surprise in there where I go, “Man, I wouldn’t have put that much work into it.”

“The Warlord” has never been properly collected, even as a “Showcase Presents.” Are there any plans to produce some archival editions with the original series?

There was one trade paperback done in the early nineties that was called “The Savage Empire,” and I think it was the first dozen issues. But no, there wasn’t [a proper collection]. And one of the reasons that I am doing the series now is because we’ve made an arrangement between me and DC Comics that is going to allow for that to happen.

“The Warlord” was one of if not the top-selling DC comic book in the 1970s. Why is it time to bring it back now? Is it because as a sword and sorcery comic, it is way different than anything else that DC is publishing right now?

I would say it’s a combination of that and god, I’m old enough that there’s a certain nostalgia involved in it. A lot of my readers are still out there and a lot of young readers have heard about it but haven’t had a chance to read it. So that’s really good. But the other thing you have to bear in mind is that the comic industry is very tightly geared towards media exploitation whether it’s video games or movies or television or animation or whatever. In fact, they did an animated version of “The Warlord” in “Justice League Unlimited” that was quite good. I thought they did a very nice job on it.

With the extraordinary advancement in technology for films, well 35 years ago, this would have been too big of a blockbuster. You couldn’t do it. But “300” was a very successful film done on a relatively modest budget. And it shows what can be done with the right technology and the right kind of a crew and some very talented people involved in it. So I think it’s got a strong attraction to the folks in the company who are looking for things they can exploit further.

Original art by Mike Grell, like the images featured in this story, are available for purchase at

“The Warlord” #1, with art by Joe Prado and Walden Wong and a cover by Mike Grell, goes on sale April 8 from DC Comics.

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