Comic Art Friday: Sable metrics

I’ve been reading comic books, and admiring the art contained in them, for more than 40 years. (Which reminds me — get off my lawn.) I can’t begin to guess how many comic book artists’ work I’ve viewed during that span of time. Of course, there have been numerous pencilers and inkers whose work I’ve loved. Not surprisingly, there have been quite a few whose art, at best, didn’t impress me, and at worst, repulsed me. (Hello, Rob Liefeld.)

Silver Sable and Jon Sable, pencils by comics artist Mike Grell

There’s always been one category of artists who’ve held a special place in my admiration: those whose work I can always, and immediately, recognize. That category is less densely populated than you might suppose. Comics have always been a derivative, imitative industry, with creators liberally borrowing (and sometimes, outright plagiarizing) from one another. Publishers contributed by mandating rigid “house styles,” patternized approaches that their staff artists and freelancers were duty-bound to mimic. (When Jack Kirby — without question the most influential artist in mainstream American comic books — moved from Marvel to DC in the early 1970s, DC editors routinely had other artists redraw the heads of Kirby’s Superman figures, because Kirby’s likeness of the Man of Steel strayed too far “off-model.”)

Even artists who rate among my favorites can be easy to confuse for one another. Keith Pollard’s work evokes John Buscema’s, for example, while Geof Isherwood evokes Barry Windsor-Smith. Comic artists who got into the business via the tutelage of others often evolve similar styles. A dozen or more name artists came into comics in the early 1970s as assistants of Neal Adams, and retained some measure of Adams’s influence — guys like Bob McLeod and Joe Rubinstein, to name two. So, even though I’ve looked at scads of comic art, I can’t always tell at a glance who drew it, even if it’s an artist I enjoy.

One artist whose work I’ve always recognized in a heartbeat, and whom I’d never confuse with anyone else, is Mike Grell.

Green Arrow, pencils by Mike Grell, inks by Joe Rubinstein

Mike Grell burst onto the comics scene in 1973, as the artist on DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes. His run on that book is still fondly remembered by Legion aficionados. Grell also drew attention with his well-received work on Aquaman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow. His unmistakable style garnered Grell (no pun intended) legions of fans, as he became one of the era’s signature artists. The striking pinup above features Grell’s version of Green Arrow, as inked by Joe Rubinstein over Grell’s original pencils.

Grell’s true talent, though, shone through when he began to create his own characters. In 1975, he devised, wrote, and drew The Warlord for DC, a series that melded sword-and-sorcery heroic fantasy with space opera-style science fiction. When he left DC in the early 1980s, Grell developed a similar series — Starslayer — as a creator-owned property, published first by Pacific Comics, then by First Comics. The drawing below, penciled by Grell and once again inked by Joe Rubinstein, depicts Tamara D’Orsini, the female lead of Starslayer.

Tamara D'Orsini, pencils by Mike Grell, inks by Joe Rubinstein

Then, in 1983, Grell unleashed his magnum opus: Jon Sable, Freelance, a series about a safari hunter turned mercenary whom Grell described as “a cross between James Bond and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer.” The independent comic proved sufficiently popular that in 1987, ABC-TV produced a dreadful action drama based on it. And when I say dreadful, I’m being kind.

The short-lived TV show, entitled simply Sable, bore only passing resemblance to Grell’s comic book. It’s probably most noteworthy for its unaired original pilot, in which Gene Simmons of the rock group KISS starred as the title character (Simmons was replaced for the seven episodes of the series by an unknown — then as well as now — actor named Lewis Van Bergen), and for its female costar Rene Russo, who though then unknown did not remain so, but instead went on to A-list motion picture stardom. Unlike Lewis Van Bergen, who so far as I know went on to the night shift at In ‘N’ Out Burger.

In the Common Elements commission that leads off this post, Mike Grell teams Jon Sable — who in the skilled hands of his creator looks nothing like either Gene Simmons or Lewis Van Bergen — with another mercenary turned hero, Silver Sablinova (code name: Silver Sable), who in the 1980s and ’90s battled bad dudes in the pages of Marvel Comics’ Silver Sable and the Wild Pack. I’ve often wondered whether these two stalwarts, who bear similar names and chose identical professions, might be somehow related… in a cross-dimensional, trans-universal sort of way.

But that’s an exploration for another time.

That’s also your Comic Art Friday.

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