Go to hell and burn
During my senior year of college, I was 22, reading a story about a man drinking alone on his 50th birthday, visited by the ghosts of those he’d killed, presented with no particular interest or revelation concerning whether they’re “real” or not. I sit here now just after my 51st birthday and the story is as good today.
This was the most important comic to me as a reader and participant in the scene. I’d enjoyed reading the comics my friends loaned me in the 80s, and playing Champions as a way to enjoy our mutual regard for the superhero thing, to varying degrees of success. But this is the one that brought me back to comics in terms of attention and participation. I would never have gone to a convention to meet a creator except for this one, and I would never again have written to a comic except that this letters page inspired me. If not for Grimjack, comics would be a part of my childhood history along with Ranger Rick.
It’s also important to me as a part of my 80s autobiography, which I talked a bit about it in Kim Yale, but will address further in that Cynosure is Chicago, period, and I was now living there as a young and very free adult – the images and constant references were tied to my daily experience in ways most comics were not.
And thirdly, it’s an important comic for comics and pop culture in general. I wrote a bit about that in Spawn of Zap, and here I call attention to the way that, like the 60s and early 70s characters, its content bled and spattered out into the culture way faster, and past, the details of contracts or marketing or merchandising.
Still, there was a quality to this exact title that simply cannot be captured by imitating its tropes. You know that Mel Gibson’s agent or board or whatever manages him received a pile of First Comics in the early-mid 80s, right? Nothing official came of it, but the actual effect is plain to anyone with eyes, that his character in the Lethal Weapon series simply is the Badger, and the first (good) half of Beyond Thunderdome is visually Grimjack.
But even the latter is qualified just as I said it: visually. The essence isn’t there. It’s not there in Ravage (an imitation of a later version), or in any of the many other obvious influences. If Grimjack ever does get its full-on high-profile day in the sun, everyone will say it’s derivative …
The quality in question is the intersection of grief and rage, particularly regarding child abuse, and a huge fuck-you without one bit of apology. This is without question the single most psychologically nihilist and defiant character in comics history, throwing all this modern talk of the Joker into complete shadow. Because Gaunt (and Twilley) doesn’t retreat into taking out his hatred and anger upon society and others, which when you come down to it is infantile and pathetic. No – he does what he can to be a good person, however well or badly given his skill-set and limitations. When it doesn’t work out so wonderfully, well, that’s how things go a lot of the time. And if you don’t like it? Well, you’re dead, aren’t you? And I’m not, yet. So fuck you.
I had a lot of reasons to like it, and to adopt it as my title, the single comic I’d brandish, and the one I’d write to every month.
- It’s literate, referencing and borrowing from all sorts of good books and legends without ripping off the plots, especially the better work by Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, which it led me to, and – no surprise given the protagonist’s name – William Shakespeare.
- It’s brutal, physically and emotionally; John claims he had a happy childhood but more than one letter-writer asked him with genuine concern whether he was, you know, okay.
- It’s audacious: if and when the creative partners decided simply to go berserk for a given issue, they did. The “cosmic crossroads” city served mainly to permit them to write and draw whatever they wanted, usually with no explanation. Have to spin the comic to read it? Sure! (and they did it before any of the more famous examples you know about) Cannibal unicorn boy-prostitute? Sure!
- It’s funny: hard to believe in a comic that prided itself on noir, grit, deranged depression, childhood trauma, utter cultural corruption, and unrelenting violence, but every so often there was just this wicked gallows humor that came up and mugged you. Especially when it combined the literacy and audacity … like when we get to see Blacjacmac relaxing at home, and he’s hanging out all Eldridge Cleaver half-naked with his mouthy chick, reading Rimbaud.
- Two dead girlfriends. Don’t ask.
- It’s drenched in underground sensibility – the backup strip Munden’s Bar fits right into my history in The way underground, but c’mon people, this is the 80s and you did not find this sort of wonderful horribleness anywhere but gay comix and in Munden’s. I got yer “offended” right here! The main story had its share too.
John is a serious Warren Zevon listener and in one letters page mentioned this album, released during the series’ heyday, as a fine accompaniment, specifically the title song (yes, it’s Zevon; Garcia is being cited as the guitarist in the link):
It had something else going for it (TMI; highlight to see): this comic got me laid a lot. Women freaking loved it. Someone else will have to figure out why; all I know is, you need to decide whether you’re going to leave a few issues lying around, ’cause that’s a decision with consequences.
For all its Eastwood-meets-Chandler trope-mining, Grimjack was written for the thinking reader. This is Nasty Detmer, my favorite character despite her few appearances and minor plot status. The voice-over panels are part of a two-page spread worth of Gaunt’s monologue about his own past, delivered without knowledge of the depicted images, so you can make the connection between his post-Wolfpac experience to hers, “those who survived” being placed with the close-up on her. Nasty is what Gaunt would have become if he’d been one hair more broken during his early days in the arena, i.e., raped or beaten one more time, or not come under Willy’s protection. Like him, she’s disfigured (her face is never shown, just a squicky sequence when she takes the mask off for her husband). She’s what all the kids she’s training in the current Wolfpac will become. This is never spelled out in so many words; there is no “Nasty’s tearful flashback” sequence, no “goodness gracious she is me” recognition. It’s simply there to be seen, put together … in short, to be read.
I will never understand how John got pilloried as a company-man or some kind compliant, unchallenging comics writer, in comparison to, say, Byrne or Miller. I will write something incisive … I choose the word carefully … about this later.
Above all, the one thing that never got dropped was how messed-up Gaunt is. Yes, there are all the macho super-skilled lethal problem-solving and snarled-at-you wise-old-timer one-liners that a comic can stand … but always underpinned by his crouching, haunted posture when he sits in the bar, self-medicating with shots (like his dad), talking to his lizard.
One early episode seems like a throwaway, when a young bruiser beats the shit out of him, and he has to recover his rep. When his pal Roscoe calls him out on the false myth he’s set up, that he intended the whole thing just as it happened, Gaunt flinches and looks away. It’s not a throwaway issue at all. “Fuck you” only goes so far, and in this ward we’re all terminal. In #24, the issue I referenced at the start of this post, including this bit of unhealthy horror, the ongoing sound effect is TICTOCTICTOC …
Every so often, John ran a poll in the letters pages. One time, one of the readers cited Gaunt as his favorite villain, and that guy totally had a point. The book is an odd one in my list of favorites because it never does manage a credible mondo-bad guy despite some horrifying-good lesser ones … and the reason is that Gaunt’s self-destructiveness is the real plot-driver, especially because he is trying to be the good guy. Characters like Major Lash work not because they are more complex or driving than he is, but because they can trigger things in him. These characters typically work really well, but the attempts at major bad guys like Kalibos, the Dancer, and the demons don’t manage it. The Dancer works best when he’s a villain-dad figure, like the aforementioned Major, Mayfair or Mac Cabre (what is it with the letter M?). And poor Katar never got a chance to shine.
Even rebooting the character into the much younger Jim Twilley doesn’t change this. In one of the rare cases of such a reboot actually working, Twilley’s over-amped, spiky posturing, his constant confusion between memory and hallucination, and his willingness to hurt anyone – I mean, he cuts the scar into his own fucking face – all read as extreme defense, kicking in the anger and hurt before anything can matter to him.
The best way to understand the course of the title is to follow the artists. Co-creator Tim Truman brought something to it that practically rejuvenated comics art, easily on a par with Steve Rude’s Nexus. It’s in the same zone as Spain and Berni Wrightson. Spattered ink everywhere, graffiti all over everything (something none of the later artists could quite do; you got the idea that Truman was actually tagging his own art), crazy alien plug-uglies everywhere, eye and face makeup on everybody, some kind of looting the costume-closet going on with all those half-baked uniforms they’re wearing, this weird soft-inky texture full of blacks that reminds me of Smith’s Conan and Buscema’s Conan at the same time, Gaunt with his earrings and longhair styles (braids at one point, what?) and Kubie-from-hell sort-of Native American features …
[completists will start in about guest artists like Sean McManus and Kelly Jones, and re-visits from Truman, but OK already! this comic will yield many posts, so shut up already]
[also, no one really ever managed a consistent face for him – even Truman varied between long-nosed blade-face and squared-jawed action-hero face, and I challenge anyone to decide whether he’s handsome or ugly at any point in the run]
… anyway, this early/original story mainly keeps the protagonist a mystery, and focuses on the Dancer’s scheme to take over Cynosure; Gaunt learns to trust his friends, or anyone for that matter, and gets a new (dead, don’t ask) girlfriend. The main reveal about his past concerns how he got his facial scar as a child. Right at the climax the art shifted to Tom Sutton, which a lot of readers didn’t like, but I enjoyed him – I’ve liked Sutton ever since Man-Thing. The main change in the character was that most of his hand was blown off and for a little while used a gadgety prosthetic.
Whatever the back-story is for Truman leaving, I don’t know, although I do know that First Comics’ first blush of success turned into some pretty shitty admin/exec situations and only went downhill from there. I only raise the topic here because the rest of the Grimjack run is marked by three competing things: executive threats to cancel it and thus to inject “excitement” by changing it up, John’s drive to stay fresh and to break unstated comics rules, and a similar drive, whether his or the fans’ or both, to stay attached to the original character and work backwards into the chronology rather than forwards.
Tom Mandrake became the longest-running artist, first completing the tenure of the original character, i.e., killing him; and then the second main phase of the title, with his soul inside a cloned body, i.e., a younger version of himself, sometimes calling himself Joe Chaney. This also marked “the Dancer takes over Cynosure, round 2,” which ends in the mysterious villain’s death. I confess this is also the least exciting phase of the book, although when I examine it a lot of the individual stories are very good (no we will not forgive you for killing Spook you bastard), and Mandrake turned out to be much better than many expected, especially when he inked himself. He and John were doing Spectre together at this time too, and the two titles had a lot in common.
I am usually not a big supporter of executive meddling and the concerned individual in this case was especially obnoxious … but the full-on reboot of the character into a completely different person turned out to be just what the title needed. The change featured Flint Henry as artist with his own rendition of Grimjack as James Edgar Twilley … a privileged white-boy from Suburbia (an actual dimension/neighborhood) who channels/hosts/is Grimjack. It conceptually starts more-or-less as Gaunt in a new body but quickly becomes more interesting – and scary.
I liked Twilley. He was crazier than Gaunt, less about the scarred gloomy deliverer of life-lessons and more about the weird boundary between trauma and glee. Instead of being surrounded by hair-trigger friends whom he had to organize and settle down, he was (eventually) surrounded by concerned sane friends. Instead of learning to trust, he had to learn to listen. I think I may have to do a whole post on him and especially that … therapy scene … almost certainly not the right word … not too long from now.
So, the explicit conceptual shift is that Grimjack was going to go the full Eternal Champion route, complete with an Arioch in the new character Dis (later renamed Dys). I didn’t like this much. For one thing the whole “mask shifts down the chain of differently-bodied heroes” thing was being done to death in Grendel and a bunch of other comics, and for another, I must be the single pretty-positive, pretty-interested reader of Moorcock who thinks the Eternal Champion is a stupid, lazy concept. I mean, if you want to write stories about fantasy bad-asses in a wide variety of settings, just do it, don’t hook’em all together and pretend it’s profound so you can recycle shit and run crossovers.
I bring this up because this concept never did get off the ground in the comic, and the reason is that it simply couldn’t. The original Gaunt really dominates the whole run, as despite all the concept-changing it never lets him go. The clone-body ages swiftly so that soon, he’s back to being wizened and hollow-eyed. During part of the later period, Munden’s is replaced by a ten-part sequence drawn by Steve Pugh, revealing at last the detailed childhood of the original character and the circumstances of killing his brothers; and the Demon Wars graphic novel and its in-title crossover completed the fan-tantalizing mystery regarding the long-lost Rhian that had been thrown up as a teaser since #1. When John and Tim finally recovered the rights to the character and began publishing through IDW, they stayed with filling-in and illuminating the original character too.
I think that’s far better than “look what we dressed Grimjack up in this time.” The character is simply too strong for that kind of dilution. There’s no point in messing with deconstruction when what you already have is good.
Next: Uh-huh uh-huh
Posted on November 15, 2015, in The 80s me, The great ultravillains and tagged Chicago, Cynosure, disfigurement, First Comics, Flint Henry, Grimjack, Jim Twilley, John Gaunt, John Ostrander, Munden's Bar, Nasty Detmer, Spook, Steve Pugh, Tim Truman, Tom Mandrake, Tom Sutton, Transverse City, Warren Zevon. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.