Grit, meet grot

I’ll go out on a limb and use James O’Barr’s The Crow (1989) as the “now we’re through the door” example in the visible comics business, when direct-sale stores had fully become the new normal. The “door” refers to an economic and subcultural transition: no longer deriding explicit content as underground or using “mature” as a euphemism for porn (no slam on porn implied; it is what it is). Obviously The Crow isn’t the starting point, as 1989 is pretty late after all, but it’s a pretty good touchpoint for the aesthetic once you’re through. Another is Andrew Vachss, the novelist I mentioned in Unpleasantries, by that time well-established in popular media, especially since O’Barr was a contributor to the first comics anthology dedicated to Vachss’ work, Hard Looks (1992).

To no one’s surprise who’s read The way underground, I’m generally a fan of excess. It interests me that this new “acceptable” kind of excess fit into a pretty specific of issues and human problems. Tons of comics expressed or dipped into it, especially at DC, but The Crow and Hard Looks seem to me actually to be it, especially since they included no comedy or satire. These and a lot of similar comics have led me to think about how the following two things interact.

  • Grit – authenticity about the worst moments of the human condition, and the continuing tragedy and perpetuation of violence of all kinds; season with humor, hope, or nothing as you see fit.
  • Grot – detailed physical display, of any number of kinds, positive (minor) and negative (major): anatomical, traumatic injury, misery, sadism, orgasm, mental illness, and lots more. Explicit verbal reference counts too, especially when it’s well-timed.

A bit of history: there’s no actual beginning to it, of course; people have been drawing psycho-sick fascinating stuff since we could draw. In immediate comics lore, there’s the EC body of work in the 1950s, S. Clay Wilson as the obvious standout in the comix, and all things Berni Wrightson for sure. If there is a stylistic transition in the mid-80s, then it’s a stronger focus on short-story and cinematic structure which I associate with the old Creepy and Eerie, rather than the Wilson-mode of crazed “I’m drawin’ from one corner o’the panel t’every damn other corner I kin find!” in a terrifying blend of design-sense and detailed release (although that is never fully lost).

Considering the Vachss and O’Barr connection, you’ll see some overlap in this post with the ongoing series of posts about comics vigilantes I’m doing with Steve Long, but this one isn’t about that topic exactly, which is primarily political-historical. It’s about the stylistic-to-content variable, and I’ve got three titles in mind, partly because each includes stunning art, simply beautiful, and they provide varying examples of grit-and-grot imbalance to different effect.

Right outta the gate there’s David Quinn and Tim Vigil’s Faust (begun 1987), including its famous scene in #1, quickly much-parodied, with the drink-and-drug-addled woman puking up all over as her boyfriend fucks her from behind.

I’ll keep it quick: Faust involves an on-the-loose mental patient who’s insanely buffed, wears retractable metal claws, a “comedy” mask with horns, and sometimes a cape. Why? Um, something mob/corporate boss cultist leader guy something something experiments for super-assassin something demons occult something something unerotic unbeautiful sex and surprisingly gorgeously-drawn mutilation and evisceration. (PSA: it has nothing to do with Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus or Goethe’s Faust.)

I also can’t help but quote this exchange, which I consider the one really good line of the whole thing, probably not precisely as it’s from memory:

[the leading lady is being sexually-sadistically assaulted by her vicious ex-boyfriend; then the psychotic hero arrives and slices the guy’s dick off]

Leading lady: Oh my God, he’ll bleed to death!

Hero (pleased, grinning, calm): Don’t worry, love, I won’t let that happen.

So grot we got, and those examples only begin the parade thereof … but to its detriment. The grit, meaning any connection to genuine human problems or concerns, was tenuous to start and it soon vanishes. In the sixth issue (nominally the end of the story, although by that time “story” as a concept is rather distant from the title), there’s a full-scale orgy including a woman summoning a demonic serpent from her vagina … and this is me we’re talking about, saying it’s incredibly boring.

How is that even possible? Remember, I’m not speaking from disapproval of the grot, but rather from a desire to experience it to its most effective power for a given title. It seems to me that there must be a bedrock of grit down there, without which piling on the grot doesn’t work. Not one person having sex in the whole book appears to be enjoying it. Even all the butchery palls when every victim deserves it so richly. It bears careful comparison with Wilson’s work, in which a curious empathic or tragic or patently painfully-harshly funny element is almost always there.

bratpackI might get some heat from targeting Rick Veitch’s Brat Pack (1990) for anything but praise. If it matters, I’ve only ever read the story as initially published, as I understand the ending was revised for all releases since. As you know (as they say), it concerns the exploitation of teenage sidekicks by a bevy of superheroes, who basically recruit them, burn them out, and eventually kill them over and over. The setting as a whole is a deranged but pointed distortion of the typical “superhero city” in traditional titles and the heroes are extremely recognizable expys for the Justice League principals.

Considered as parody, Brat Pack delivers in force – there is no better/savage skewering of Batman than the Mink, and even a starting list of such things would fill up a post. I say strictly as descriptor that the parody is only parody, not satire, built on pure and overwhelming contempt for its subject matter and, I think, for its audience. It’s a lot like the later Marshal Law became after the initial series, best described as Mad Magazine if Larry Flynt were the editor.

The grot, delivered as only Veitch can, reinforces this just fine, in the “oh shit I can’t believe he showed that” way. As fuck-you critique delivered to a fandom culture which voted to kill Jason Todd and was otherwise uncritically obsessed with bad-ass capery-toughery, it makes sense – and that’s all it does. I’m saying that the grit of anything else isn’t there … and tastes may vary I suppose, but as I see it anyway, the grot wears off fast and due to quite a bit of it, the whole story is easily twice the length it should be.

My third example is Joe Casey and Charlie Adlard’s Codeflesh, which I first read it in the 2003 black-and-white, and although its coloring in re-release is great, I like the original too and this way it makes for a nice shared aesthetic in this post.

It might be the single most-distilled portrait of the masked vigilante I know: Cameron catches bail-bond jumpers, specializing in the super-powered ones, but since he’s been barred from actually catching them due to anger management problems, he puts on a mask to do it and then claims he’s outsourcing to “this other guy.” It’s all about the trust issue, Spider-Man style, and although the story is nothing but that portrait, it’s entirely emotionally honest, without descending into mere pathology regarding the protagonist (which is where Watchmen goes) or contempt for the source material (which is where Brat Pack goes). In twelve-page stories full of implied back-story, finely honed to pure delivery.

It’s at the opposite end of the spectrum from Faust, in that here, with almost no grot, is pure grit: most especially in the generally depressing context of the arrest/bail process and in Cam’s obvious mental/emotional problem. The grot is grim and pointed, as in the last moments of a person dying from cancer, or the gruesome result of getting surgically-implanted flame powers. That’s when grot works, with a nice solid foundation.

I could keep going title by title or, conceivably, generate some huge McCloud-esque diagram, because there are so many eligible examples through the decades within a pretty narrow family of style. One of the reasons I like the original six-issue Marshal Law so much is that it nails the balance perfectly. Off the top of my head and biased heavily toward my tastes, there’s Flint Henry’s stint on Grimjack (see Go to hell and burn), Guy Davis’ The Marquis, Drew Hayes’ Poison Elves (see The raw and real deal), James Stokoe’s Orc Stain, and Keenan Marshall Keller and Tom Neely’s The Humans, all of which bring the two G’s into harmony in very specific ways per title.

It’s an unstable harmony, though, and subject strictly to the need to punch home a story or the successful implication that a story is happening. The Preacher slipped off the log more often than it walked it, and I remain cautious about Saga, which has a lot in common with The Preacher both stylistically and in some aspects of content, and although so far it has managed itself much better, has the same tendency to slide toward wit and snark to the detriment of its power.

I wanna know – chime in here, gimme replies, about comics with plenty of grit and grot, and how you think the two things interrelate in them.

Next: I like him anyway

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on April 17, 2016, in Storytalk and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s FROM HELL would fit the bill here in spades, no?

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  2. About the three examples: I got too bored to finish the first issue of Faust (so yes, I would agree with your “boring” assessment, and I would add that the art was a total mess by someone who confused the amount of ink on the page for storytelling). I liked “Bratpack” but I was in the right mental space to enjoy it (seeing what was selling a lot at the time and the closing of a lot of comics I liked, I think my contempt for the fanboys did overshadow the one shown by Veitch) and I did never read Codeflesh.

    About the Grit: did you read the Joseph Michael Linsner stories from “Cry for Dawn” later collected in the “Angry Christ comics” book? Before he started actually writing about Dawn as a character (and lost any Grit), I mean. They started in 1989, exactly like the Crow (that I didn’t like very much).

    Not american, not comic books, and from the 70s (even if it still published today) but it was translated into English for the first time in the late 80s so maybe qualify: ALACK SINNER by Munoz and Sampayo (and, maybe even more gritter, “Sudor Sudoca” from the 90s)

    A title that jumped all over the place from Grit to Grot and back, but without the physical violence of the other listed titles (so I don’t know if it qualify) is “Naughty Bits” from Roberta Gregory… started with grot, went full grit with the abortion storyline, and then continued to jump between the two until the end of the series.

    I actually dislike grot in my comics (big surprise…) so I can’t make a lot of example about that, but I think that Julie Doucet used grot very well in “Dirty Plotte”

    These are the first I thought of, others (maybe) later…

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    • Fantastic, yes, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. For what it’s worth, I tried to define both Grit and Grot without requiring either to include physical violence; a lot of Robert Crumb’s depictions of non-violent and consensual sex are very grotty, for instance.

      I have a love affair with ink even when it’s not top of the line, so maybe that compromises my assessment of Vigil’s art.

      Cry for Dawn was mentioned by someone at G+ too, and I emphatically agree. I had some scattered issues and bought the collection when it came out. One of the stories, “Dropping Anchor,” about a teenage father, was one of the single grittiest things I’ve ever read. I can recall it panel by panel without effort and often don’t want to, but acknowledge that it’s completely authentic – not a dishonest or counterfactual thing in there. Apparently I’m not alone in recalling the title this way, even in the understanding that a lot of the material is self-indulgent or incoherent. There’s something incredibly earnest about Linsner’s work, and I agree that it’s especially the earliest that’s best, that makes even not-very-good material compelling.

      Another example, and this one passes my own sensitivity limits, is The Push Man and Other Stories by Yoshihiro Tatsumi.

      Naughty Bits for sure! I also think you’d like Codeflesh.

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  3. Oh, yes, Tatsumi! I am still partial to his stories published in the 80s by Catalan (and translated later in Italian) in the book “Goodbye and Other stories” because I read them when I was young and there was nothing similar around and these stories really did stand out. It’s a pity that there was no other translation of his books until more than twenty years later, when they appear “dated” in style in the middle of a lot of graphic novels…

    I confess that when I think about “Angry Christ Stories” the one story that I think about is “Dropping anchor”… it’s not a story easily forgotten. Linsner probably is more happy today drawing Dawn in various poses and dresses but I would have preferred more stories in the “Angry Christ” style…

    Talking about authenticity, the book I most think of is sadly not available in English… yes, I just checked Andrea Pazienza’s wikipedia page and it doesn’t list any english translation for any of his works.. Pazienza was the perfect example of a “this is happening right here, right now” author. Reading him at the time was like seeing real life, happening in that precise moment, for the first time ever, in a comic book. Today even Italian people who were born after these times have problem understanding his works. And they are probably impossible to translate in other cultures and languages.
    The book I am talking about it his last mayor work, “Pompeo” (alternative title of the serialized version: “The last days of Pompeo”, with Pompeo being a uncommon italian first name), and I am citing it even if it’s not available in English in case someday it will. Pazienza was a drug addict, and for that story he did avoid his usually wonderful drawing style, using instead a small common school arithmetic exercise book (I saw the originals, it was really the same kind of notebook where I did my math exercises at school) where he scribbled and sketched the story of a drug addict with his face, his story, his friends, his house, and the mess he made of his life. The book end with Pompeo’s suicide. After drawing this Pazienza stopped taking drugs, changed city and life, and tried to distance himself from his previous environment.
    He died of a drug overdose in 1987, less than a year after that.

    This is one of the pages.
    The “grot” in this mostly gritter book is the detailed depiction of a drug addict life, blood and other liquids included.

    Returning to english works (sorry for the digression, but at least Pompeo SHOULD be translated in English, difficult as it may be…), would the works of Chester Brown qualify? I think of “The Playboy”, “I never liked you” and “I pay for it”. Or the explicit autobiographical element put them in another category?

    And, looking at comics about history, there is a lot of grit AND grot in Jack Jackson’s works…

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