GrimJack: "Buried Past"
Welcome back to my ongoing series on my favorite comic book character ever, GrimJack. Today we look at the second GrimJack storyline, published as a backup in Starslayer #12-16, the five-part, 46-page mini-epic "Buried Past," brought to you by John Ostrander and Timothy Truman.
It begins with the introduction of Munden's Bar, the greatest dive in comic book history, and soon-to-be location of many of the greatest writers and artists in comic book history. But that's getting ahead of ourselves.
For now, just know that Gordon Munden is the bartender, Bob the gatorlizard is the mascot, John Gaunt is the owner (though we don't discover that for a while -- shh!), a bottle of Old Mink is the mind-eraser of choice, and no goddam Tourbots are allowed.
The story opens with Mick Crocker, aka Cracker, hunting down his old acquaintance John Gaunt at Munden's. Cracker's been turned into a vampire, and he wants Gaunt to hunt down the vamp who turned him.
Seems Cracker was hired by one Lucien Mastenbrook to find his daughter, Miranda, a poor little rich girl who likes to goth it up, vampire-style. Cracker tracks her to Wolfingham's, a club with a bunch of other monster- and demon-emulating weirdos. But as Cracker discovers to his dismay after grabbing her, Miranda isn't faking it like the others: she's really a vampire, and after his blood. Cracker stakes her but good, only to be cold-cocked from behind by an unknown assailant.
Cracker sums up his story:
The name "Grinner" catches Gaunt's attention: he used to go by that street name about twenty years earlier. He agrees to take Cracker's case, but time is of the essence. Cracker warns him, "I ain't had a drink yet... but I'm gettin' thirsty."
And now we get a proper introduction to Gordon, one of the major supporting chracter's in GrimJack's world, as well as faithful gatorlizard Bob.
Gordon's intro is a little rough. Ostrander didn't quite have a handle on the character yet, and his dialogue is laughably bad. "Just gotta play he-ro, doncha?" Nowhere near the stone-faced, tight-lipped, level-headed problem-solver into which he would evolve.
In addition to the items Gaunt requests above, he also takes a brace of silver "St. John knives." Thus equipped, Gaunt begins the case by checking out Wolfingham's club. He is met at the door by Wolfingham, who is costumed as a werewolf (complete with zipper on the front of the costume). He asks what Gaunt has come dressed as.
Wolfingham references the dread Demon Wars, which occurred twenty years earlier -- say, weren't we just talking about something from twenty years ago? We will eventually come to understand the Demon Wars as the most important event in John Gaunt's life. In addition to providing him with friends, enemies, weapons, and assorted other accoutrements (such as his signature star badge) he would keep with him for the rest of his days, it was the final forge of his personality. In many ways, GrimJack was born from the Demon Wars.
Inside Wolfingham's club, Gaunt finds Miranda Mastenbrook, undead and well. Guess Cracker's stake didn't quite do the job! Gaunt doses her with the vamp dust -- garlic powder -- and chases her outside, hoping she will lead him to her boyfriend, Grinner. Instead he is surrounded by a group of thugs who get the drop on him. Thus ends part 1.
Part 2 opens with Gaunt giving a recap to the reader, which amuses me:
You can get a better look at his star badge (aka the Demonstar) here.
A little piece of background detail is of interest on this page:
"CHRIS HEYMAN CAPTURED," it says. Chris Heyman was a character in Starslayer, the main book to which GrimJack was a backup. With Ostrander writing both Starslayer and GrimJack, and Truman taking over the art chores for Starslayer as of issue #14, little details began slipping back and forth between the two properties, culminating in a full-blown crossover. But again, that's getting ahead of ourselves.
Anyway, Gaunt takes down the thugs with a little bit of precision knife-throwing:
...and a little bit of dirty pool:
After he wipes them all out, he is left to reflect on why they attacked him. He can identify them as a Harlequin Squad, employed by the covert action agency known as Cadre. But there seems to be no reason why they involved themselves with his case.
Gaunt shelves the question and activates the Miller Medallion, another relic of the Demon Wars.
The Miller Medallion tracks down demonic energies. Such as, say, that of vampires. It leads Gaunt to his least favorite place in all of Cynosure:
The Medallion takes Gaunt to the home of Lucien Mastenbrook, whose daughter, Miranda, appears to be your average happy care-free teenager. But then, as Gaunt dramatically narrates, "Why was the Medallion glowing like a green eye in hell?"
We find out why in part 3. Miranda's been keeping her father in thrall, and feeding off him without his knowledge at regular intervals. When she disappeared with her boyfriend Grinner, Lucien hired Cracker to track her down. She returned on her own, playing the innocent, though we see Lucien may have subconsciously suspected she was a vampire the whole time. Lucien and Gaunt goad Miranda into vamping out and attacking, and Gaunt stabs her with the silver St. John knives (silver is lethal to vampires as well as werewolves in Cynosure, apparently).
But the job isn't done. Lest she come back -- as she did after Cracker staked her -- Gaunt has to take a few extra measures.
You get the feeling a lot of GrimJack's cases involve decapitation.
Gaunt's job is a dirty one, often resulting in unhappiness, even just plain horror, for all involved. His clients (or in this case, the client he adopted from Cracker) often feel like they've come out worse than they began.
Gaunt leaves, vowing to get the vampire responsible for turning Miranda. But he is soon struck unconscious from behind, presumably by Grinner, and appears likely to suffer Cracker's fate. End part 3.
Part 4 opens with Gaunt lost in a dream, reliving the horrors of his life.
He awakes to find Cracker standing near him. Grinner has fled, leaving Gaunt alive and unbitten for some reason. Cracker again urges haste, warning that he won't be able to keep himself from taking his first victim for much longer.
Gaunt's next target is Cadre HQ, a forty story fortress which, as Gaunt notes, is "supposedly impregnable." Cadre was established to protect Cynosure from threats, by whatever means necessary. But Gaunt observes: "Eventually, inevitably, the means became ends unto themselves. That's when I quit." Another piece of GrimJack's backstory falls into place: he's an ex-Cadre agent himself.
Cadre is run by the monocle-wearing Mayfair, who gets an unpleasant surprise on entering his office:
Gaunt questions Mayfair, demanding to know if the peace treaty between himself and Cadre has been terminated. Mayfair insists that is not the case, and, pressured by Gaunt, admits that the Harlequin Squad that attacked him had not been after him in the first place. They had been looking to grab Miranda Mastenbrook, and only turned on Gaunt when he blundered between them and her.
And why did they want Miranda? They were looking to recruit a vampire (or, as Mayfair pretentiously says it, "vampyr") for Cadre, as an agent or as an assassin. Grinner (before turning Cracker and Miranda) was the last vampire in Cynosure. Mayfair theorizes that he's the last enemy survivor of the Demon Wars, and has been in hiding in Cynosure ever since. Grinner had been Cadre's original target, but now they don't care which vampire they get.
Having gotten the info he was looking for, and after a tussle with Cadre security guards, Gaunt escapes the fortress, leaving Mayfair to assemble another Harlequin Squad to track him down. Mayfair puts Wolfingham in charge of the hunt -- Agent Wolfingham.
Suspecting Mayfair was wrong about the vampire having been inside the city for the past twenty years, Gaunt goes to a reliable source to dig up some more intel: Roscoe, his former partner in the TDP -- the TransDimensional Police. Another piece of Gaunt's backstory! That's two old jobs revealed in the space of six pages. Maybe he used to deliver for Domino's, too?
Roscoe's still working at the 13th Precinct, and he greets Gaunt with the hacking cough that would become a catchphrase for him:
Gaunt has Roscoe search the computer records for a "floater" dimension -- one that floats in and out of phase with Cynosure -- that is magic compatible, was last in phase during the Demon Wars, and which phased back in over the past month. You gotta love that hi-tech computer with its ticker paper printout:
The "public defender named Joyce" crack is a nod to Hill Street Blues, for those of you too young to catch that hip contemporary 1983 reference.
Only one dimension comes up in Roscoe's search: Pdwyr. Gaunt had been expecting that answer. He's more than a little familiar with the place. "I spent the best years and worst hours of my life in Pdwyr. Now I knew who 'Grinner' really was and I knew why he hadn't killed me when he had the chance."
Roscoe warns that the dimension is unstable, and could slip out of phase again at any time, trapping anyone inside it for who knows how long. But that doesn't mean a thing to Gaunt. He knows he has to go to Pdwyr to bury his past.
Part 5, the finale, begins with Gaunt standing in Pdwyr, looking at a place he had thought lost forever -- the only place he had ever thought of as a true home.
And here we first learn of two of the most important people in Gaunt's life, both long, long dead.
Gaunt, a reckless youth, had vowed to protect Pdwyr and those he loved, most of all Rhian, whom he was engaged to marry. But when the Demon Wars came, all of Pdwyr was destroyed, and every one of its inhabitants slaughtered. And Gaunt was not there to save them -- or die with them. As he recalls, "When I finally returned, I found Kaer Mathon a charnel house. The demons had ripped everyone apart. I buried what I could find and then went mad."
But he had missed one body. A young boy, killed by a vampire. One who returned to Cynosure when Pdwyr slipped back in phase, who took Gaunt's old street name, Grinner. Son of Maethe, sibling to Rhian: Gdeon, whom John Gaunt loved as a brother.
Gaunt expresses his sorrow for what became of Pdwyr, but Gdeon forgives him easily. After all, he had spared Gaunt's life earlier for old times' sake. He asks if now Gaunt intends to kill him.
Before he can answer, Cracker appears, swearing to take vengeance on Gdeon himself. Before Cracker can attack, Gaunt reminds him there were two parts to his contract.
Cracker attacks, and he and Gdeon battle in the ruins of Kaer Mathon while Gaunt stands by. Just then Cadre's Harlequin Squad arrives, led by Wolfingham. They don't care who wins between the two vampires; they just want to grab the victor.
Gaunt doesn't much care for that plan, and takes them down, leaving Wolfingham to tie up a few loose ends. Gdeon had shown up at Wolfingham's club, and Wolfingham had alerted Mayfair. Mayfair made a deal with Gdeon, and Wolfingham even fed Miranda to him, to sweeten the deal. But Gdeon reneged, which is when Cadre went after Miranda instead.
Gaunt takes out Wolfingham, then intervenes in the vampire fight, which Cracker is winning. Cracker pleads for his life, telling Gaunt that he thought they were friends.
Gaunt takes Cracker's head with one quick chop. That leaves Gdeon, the boy who had become brother to him. But he swore to Miranda's father to get the vampire responsible for turning her. And he swore to bury the ghosts of his past.
He burns their bodies and scatters their ashes, and returns to Cynosure and Munden's bearing the knowledge that he has failed Pdwyr and those he loved one final time. The final panel is devastating in its bleakness and despair. It always reminds me of the haunted eyes of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, demanding that Sam play that song one more time.
In "Buried Past," in these five short backup pieces, John Gaunt has become more fleshed-out and tragically human than many characters do over the course of 100 issues. This second GrimJack storyline remains one of the most significant to the character, and one of the best.
Next time: some laughs!