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 Jon Sable, Freelance #16, which was published by First Comics and is cover dated September 1984. These scans are from Jon Sable, Freelance Omnibus volume 1, which was published by IDW in July 2010. Enjoy!
Okay, I was going to feature the one issue of Jon Sable, Freelance that I found in my comics shoppe’s 50¢-cent boxes not too long ago, but as I was looking through my Omnibuses, I noticed that IDW did a pretty good job at keeping the coloring very similar to the original comics. They cleaned up the presentation, obviously, but the issue I found is included in the second Omnibus, and the reproduction is actually quite good, so I figured I could find a more exciting issue that actually starred Jon Sable (the issue I found is the one where Jon tells a story about his dad in World War II, so it doesn’t have him in it much). So I decided to go with issue #16, because it’s a pretty good representation of where Grell was, art-wise, in the middle of the 1980s. Hold onto your hats!
I don’t know if Grell is exactly famous for his layouts, but later in his career, he really began experimenting with different ways to present comics while not straying into avant-garde territory. He does this in many of his comics by using parallelogram-shaped panels that cut across the background, but he does it in other ways, too. Placing the jewel-encrusted sword in the center of the page creates four natural panels, and it also allows us to see what Jon and Maggie are talking about while still focusing on their faces. These are classic “Grell” faces, too – Jon isn’t quite as dreamy as Travis Morgan or, later, Oliver Queen (it must be the goatee and ‘stache!), but he has a rugged handsomeness and, of course, he’s a little bit older and experienced than the kind of people we usually see in comics. Meanwhile, Maggie is younger, but not too much younger, as Grell draws her as a slightly more experienced woman. Of course, we get the gorgeous inking – Grell had become very good at inking over the years, and he uses nice, thick, lush lines in Jon’s hair, slightly thinner lines in Maggie’s hair, and even thinner lines to create the shadows on Maggie’s face in Panel 4. It’s beautiful work, and it’s part of the reason why Grell’s people always look so interesting.
Grell moves us around the page very nicely here, and he also shows how well designed Jon’s house is. It’s very 1980s (or even late 1970s, as Grell seems a bit old-fashioned occasionally), but Grell shows how one could move around in it. The establishing Panel 1 shows the levels, and then we see Jon approach and punch in the code. In the large Panel 4, we see the way the house is laid out, around a central area that appears to have many trees in it. Jon realizes that someone is lying on the sofa in front of the fire, although it’s unclear if he notices this because Maggie (it’s Maggie) made a noise or because, you know, there’s a roaring fire, but look how Grell shows him take the knife out and then, in Panel 8, we get a really nicely designed scene – he looks back to the right, where we see the Mauser sticking out from behind the cushion pointing at Jon’s knife, nullifying it. The motion of the panel takes us off the page well. Once again, the details, the inking, and the lighting on the page are tremendous. Grell uses blacks in Panel 2 very nicely, and Panel 4 is beautifully rendered, with the stonework showing both how fashionable and well-off Jon is, as it’s clear he has the money to spend on this house. He uses motion lines, perhaps unnecessarily, in Panel 6, as the backward glance of Jon and the crinkle around his eyes is probably enough. Janice Cohen colored this, and from what I saw in the one actual issue of this comic I own, IDW didn’t alter the colors too much, so the blue/yellow complement Cohen goes for here is well done. Jon is always a bit cool, so blue suits his house, while Maggie, of course, gets his blood racing, so of course she would be in front of the yellow fire!
This is another interesting page design by Grell – he doesn’t make it difficult to follow what he’s doing, but he does try to mix things up a little. Placing Jon “behind” the other panels is something he does fairly often, especially when he wants to show a face in close-up. Grell also smartly places the word balloons over panel borders to make sure he leads us the right way around the page. I guess that could be Ken Bruzenak, who lettered this, but I’m not sure. Either way, it’s clever. And, of course, we’re still getting wonderful inking, especially on Jon’s face in Panel 4. Grell understands how the light will fall, and so we get really nice shadowing on Jon’s face even as part of it remains lit.
There’s a lot of very nice inking on this page, too, as Jon and Maggie get busy. Grell manages to make Jon look tough yet vulnerable, which apparently the ladies love, in Panel 2. He turns his mouth down, but he still gives him steely eyes, and the line work on his face gives him very nice nuance as he listens to Maggie. She’s more playful than he is, and Grell does a good job with that as she pretty much seduces him. Grell again constructs a page that doesn’t follow a traditional layout, but blends two distinct images together, as the final drawing of Jon and Maggie lying down is superimposed over the close-up of them beginning to kiss. Grell does this often in love scenes, which is neat, actually, as it tends to stretch time a little and also show how the two people are coming together and joining, so the borders between the panels break down as a reflection of that. It makes his sex scenes a bit more languid and cozy, which is pretty neat. There’s one later in the series that I’m not going to show where Grell does this for a few pages, and it’s an excellent sex scene in a medium that doesn’t always do them terribly well.
Grell again moves us around the house, as Maggie wakes up after a night of epic love-making (I assume, as no one in popular entertainment is ever less than epic at the sex) and goes to find Jon. He uses interesting angles to give us a sense of the way the house is constructed, as Maggie looks out over the floor on which the bed is in Panel 3, while in Panel 4 she looks down into the central atrium. Grell reminds us that Jon is a writer (he writes children’s books, which is particularly awesome), and then he takes us downstairs, where he uses more black chunks to show that this area is a bit less homey. The way he draws Maggie in Panel 2 is interesting, too. Later in the book, he didn’t have a problem with female nudity, so I wonder if it was First’s policy at the time and it changed, or if Grell decided showing a nipple or two wasn’t going to make anyone’s brain explode. Anyway, he does a good job with Maggie’s disheveled hair, as well as her quizzical looks as she wanders around the home (including when she looks at the typewriter – Jon uses an alias as a writer and even a disguise when his writer alias has to appear in public, so Maggie wouldn’t know what he does on the side). Once again, Cohen uses a somewhat subtle blue/yellow complement. I mean, it’s not too subtle, because it can’t really be, but it’s far more subtle than when Michael Bay does it. Yeah, that’s not the best comparison, is it?
Grell does a nice job cutting back and forth between Professor James and his sycophants and Maggie taking out the guard, and this kind of thing always works well in comics and other popular entertainment. It’s a cliché, but that’s because it’s effective (it also allows Cohen to use the blue/yellow complement again, but that’s all I have to say about that!). Grell knows how to set this up – he begins with a medium view of the guard, with the coin flipping up onto the parapet in the foreground. The guard leans over to see what’s what, and then Grell moves us down so we’re on Maggie’s level as she reaches up and pulls him down, knocking him out. There’s nothing terribly unique about it, but Grell still has to know where to give us our view to heighten the tension, and he does that well. You’ll notice that he trusts us to move the guard’s head down between the panels so that he’s looking over the wall a bit more, which allows Maggie to grab him on the top of the head and pull him down. If he stayed where he is in Panel 4, she wouldn’t have been able to reach him. But Grell knows, because there’s no actual movement in comics, that he needs to allow the readers to make intuitive leaps, and that’s an easy one to make. Being an artist is as much capturing the right “moments” in a sequence of events as drawing them well, and this is a nice example of Grell understanding that.
Strangely enough, Grell seems to be less fluid with his action scenes in Jon Sable, Freelance than he was in other comics. In Panel 2, Jon swings down to the window, and while it’s a perfectly fine drawing, it seems a bit stiffer than some of the action stuff we’ve seen in the past. I don’t know if it’s just me, but it still looks less fluid to me than in other comics. Either way, Grell does a nice job with the layout – we get a vertical panel with the bad guys running up the stairs, which sets the scene for the rest of the page, while Jon swings to the window in Panel 2 and then enter the window in Panel 3, which is a nice way to show motion. Panel 4 is also nicely done, as the bullets cross over Maggie and Jon to draw an actual line between them, and Jon’s look toward Maggie and the word balloon on the other side helps move us across the panel. The page flows very well, even if I have a bit of an issue with the way Jon himself flows across the page.
Grell always does some very nice detailed work, as we see here. There’s a lot of watery black chunks in Panel 1 as the boat carrying the professor passes over Jon and Maggie, and Grell remembers to show Jon about to fire his fancy spear gun through the deck of the dinghy. He uses nice inks on the professor in Panel 2 as the short spears rip through him, showing the folds in his clothing as he staggers. It’s a nice pose, too, because James looks very awkward as the spears tear into him and he loses control of his muscles. Once again, we see that Grell likes breaking the panel borders just a bit, as Jon’s head in Panel 3 intrudes on Panel 2. He also likes big panels on which he can place smaller ones, so Panel 3 is really a splash page with Panels 1 and 2 superimposed on top of it. Grell digs this kind of thing, and he does it pretty well.
Grell continued working on Jon Sable, Freelance for a while, until DC got him to redefine Green Arrow a few years after this. It’s probably Grell’s masterpiece, and we’ll check it out tomorrow! And, as always, you should wander through the archives, because you never know what you might have missed!
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