Mike Grell’s Warlord has always been one of my all-time favorite comics. It is one of the first series I ever collected, anxiously awaiting each new issue to appear on the spinner rack at my local grocery store, and Grell’s artwork was some of the first that I can remember noticing a distinctive style that made it stand apart from the other comics I was reading.
The story is deceptively simple: in 1969 a US spy plane is shot down over the North Pole, its trajectory taking it through an immense opening leading to the interior of the Earth, which is hollow and has a whole other world on its inner surface. It is a savage world of dinosaurs, magic and adventure, and Travis Morgan, the spy plane’s pilot, takes to it like a fish to water, abandoning any attempts to find a way home almost immediately.
DC first began publishing The Warlord in 1975, when Marvel’s successful Conan comics had spawned hordes of imitators. The Warlord offered readers more than just a Conan clone, however. It had a lush, visually striking setting, a well developed cast of supporting characters, and in Travis Morgan, a hero with a modern point of view who could comment on the fantastic situations using contemporary language that readers could easily understand and relate to.
From the start, Travis Morgan is portrayed as more than just a vanilla hero. While he quickly rises to the challenges of the primitive world he finds himself in, it is clear from the start that he does so more out of a thirst for adventure than any particularly noble need to protect the innocent or do the right thing. In the first storyline he leads a group of slaves to freedom, and even manages to marry the restored queen of the kingdom he frees from a tyrannical sorcerer, but when it comes down to anything resembling actual responsibility, he quickly sneaks off to have more adventures.
The series’ original run lasted for 133 issues over 14 years. The first fifty were written and drawn by series creator Mike Grell, which largely accounts for the consistency of the main character and the distinctive look of the series. Other writers and artists such as Cary Burkett, Dan Jurgens and Michael Fleisher who took on the series after Grell’s departure had a highly developed series and cast of characters to work with. Grell wrote a revival miniseries in 1992 which had a somewhat darker tone, putting the focus squarely on Morgan’s shirking of responsibility and downplaying the high adventure.
The character and setting have made occasional appearances in other DC comics, most memorably in Mike Grell’s 1990s run on Green Arrow. Grell used to get friendly criticism about the fact that the way he drew them, Travis Morgan and Oliver Queen looked very similar, so when the Warlord wanders into Green Arrow’s home town, he is mistaken for the emerald archer and constantly attacked by Green Arrow’s enemies.
After an extremely ill conceived and poorly received reboot attempt in 2006, Mike Grell returned to the series in 2009 to tell the story he had always wanted to finish the series on, that of Travis Morgan’s death and succession as Warlord by his son Joshua, who he believed he had been forced to kill years ago. Grell alternated art duties with Joe Prado and Chad Hardin, and while it was nice to see Mike Grell draw his characters again, there is a roughness to his artwork that may be a telling testament to Vince Colletta and the other inkers he had on the original series.
Issue 16, published this week, is the current series’ final issue, and while according to Grell and DC it is a planned ending rather than a cancellation, it still feels abrupt and rushed, as Morgan’s son races to prevent an alien invasion of the interior world while also warning the people on the surface of what’s coming.
The Warlord’s appearances in other media have been scarce. A line of toys based on some of the series’ characters was released in 1981, no doubt intended to compete with the very successful Masters of the Universe line. Morgan’s only on-screen appearance so far has been in the Justice League Unlimited episode “Chaos at the Earth’s Core” (which sadly did not also feature Green Arrow).
To my knowledge, no serious thought has ever been given to a Warlord film or TV series, not even during the 1980s fantasy film boom brought on by Conan the Barbarian, or the slew of 1990s syndicated TV series inspired by Hercules and Xena, Warrior Princess. This is probably just as well given DC’s poor track record with translating their more obscure characters to the screen (see Constantine or Jonah Hex, or better yet, don’t). But if the upcoming Conan and Thor films are successful, Hollywood may give Warlord another look. Hopefully they’ll recognize what made the series different, rather than what made it the same.
– Jefferson Powers