Monday, December 15, 2008

GrimJack: "A Shade of Truth"

At long last, after a brief run as a back-up series, and a major crossover event, we have reached it. Cover date: August, 1984. Cover price: $1.00. (Those were the days.) Published by First Comics. Written by John Ostrander, drawn by Timothy Truman, co-created by both. I give you the 26-page tale "A Shade of Truth": GrimJack issue #1.

I apologize if this post tries your patience by running even longer (a lot longer) than the generous length I have established with previous GrimJack posts. But this happens to be one of my favorite single issues of any comic, ever -- in fact, it may be the most valued treasure of my collection. And I own Action Comics #1! (Note: no I don't.)

We open with a young woman scribbling in a diary, while John Gaunt muses narratively about the nature of truth. The woman finishes her writing, steps onto the ledge of her window, and plunges several stories to her death. And then the splash page, which frankly, given my history with and love of this character, gives me goosebumps:

The most interesting man in the world: 'I don't always drink rotgut. But when I do, I prefer Old Piss.'

"Call me a mercenary. Call me an assassin. Call me a villain. I am all that and more." That he is, that he is. One of my favorite comic book quotations of all time. And surprisingly useful in real life, too.

In the background, but not referred to in this issue: bartender Gordon.

For the newcomers, who may have missed the Starslayer stories, Gaunt re-establishes his hang-out of choice (Munden's Bar), and his location (the Pit, the ghetto of Cynosure, which is the intersection of the multiverse). And he once again displays his method of assuring he drinks alone: shot glass in one hand, loaded pistol in the other. Take my word: it works.

In the foreground, but not referred to in this issue: gatorlizard Bob.

In walks a posh older woman, distinctly out of place in a dive like Munden's. Which immediately attracts some bad attention.

How to distinguish between Hearsehead and Toque: Hearsehead has a skull and crossbones on his headgear. Toque wears a toque.

Hearsehead and Toque would become semi-recurring if not especially important characters, again underlining the strong continuity of GrimJack's world.

Mix and match the previous four panels to reveal the title of this issue!

Anything for which Gaunt's tolerance level has plummeted, I do not envy (even if Gaunt doesn't know how to spell "tolerance"). Gaunt now illustrates the consequences of his low tolerance:

I prefer bars which don't allow fun. Makes the depression so much easier to achieve.

Gaunt makes a couple of new enemies while wearing his trademark grin. As always, wouldn't be GrimJack without some totally necessary gratuitous violence. Hope Hearsehead has dental!

At last, the posh woman has the chance to plead her case to Gaunt, in a composition I really dig:

Mrs. Sondra Grant's first husband was William Honesworth, now Cynosure's Minister of Finance. And since Cynosure's one overriding impetus is money, that's a damned important position. William and Sondra had a baby girl, Marcie, who grew up to commit suicide in the opening pages of this issue. When Sondra went to collect Marcie's belonging from her university apartment, she found the ghost (some might say "shade" -- see title, see title) of her daughter reenacting her final moments over and over again, all through the night.

Gaunt is not unfamiliar with ghosts -- in fact, they're a common occurrence in certain parts of Cynosure. Ghosts act out the remorse of their previous life, until said remorse is relieved. Sondra is convinced the key lies in her daughter's diary, which she wants Gaunt to locate.

Gaunt tries to protect Sondra from the dirty details of his job, but Sondra demands to know the whole truth. She insists on accompanying Gaunt through every step of his investigation. He admires her for her determination, while she will come to regret it.

Marcie had written home about her boyfriend at the university, a jock named Mitch Sewell, who seems a likely first subject to interview. And thus Gaunt has to pay a visit to the University of Cynosure, the only artificially created dimension in the city, in which all rules of every dimension work -- science, magic, alien technologies, etc.

The U of Cyn. Don't forget: "Cyn" rhymes with "Sin."

Gaunt tracks down Mitch, who claims never to have heard of Marcie. Gaunt begs to differ.

Nice POV.

Gaunt doesn't take kindly to Mitch's reluctance to share, and things get ugly quickly.

That's always been one of my favorite threats: "You're gonna wear your ass as a hat." Does that mean he's going to rip off his ass and place it on his head, or he's going to bend his head backward until his ass perches atop it? Either way: disturbing, and hilarious.

Mitch cockily confronts Gaunt with the knowledge that he is much younger and stronger than his opponent. Shame Gaunt doesn't play by the Marquess of Queensberry's rules.

If you try to tell me you don't get a kick out of a big dumb jock getting punched in the nuts ("BLAMP!"), you are lying.

Mitch, persuaded to talk by Gaunt's charm and finesse, insists that he broke up with Marcie a few weeks back because of Marcie's involvement with drugs. When Gaunt presses him, Mitch swears he has no idea what kind of drugs, nor where she got them -- his scholarship would've been at risk had he gotten involved. Gaunt suspects he's not getting the whole truth, but leaves it for now.

After leaving Mitch crammed in a locker in the gym, Gaunt and Sondra argue over Gaunt's rough modus operandi.

He makes a good point.

Gaunt's next visit is to Sondra's ex, Marcie's father: William Honesworth.

A Trade War, you say? That sounds destructive. It also sounds like ominous foreshadowing. I'm not sure why.

Honesworth greets Sondra coolly, but cordially. She asks if he has any idea why their daughter would have killed herself.

Here we meet Heinrich Krupp, Honesworth's giant, monocle-wearing, Iron Cross-brandishing, right hand bird creature.

While Honesworth and Sondra commiserate, Gaunt snoops, eventually running into Honesworth's current wife, Vinula.

She's kind of a freak, and she appears to be clothed only in her own hair, but she imparts this advice to Gaunt: "Seek the Candyman. Beware Krupp."

Gaunt knows Candyman: he's a small-time dealer in the Pit. But why, he wonders, should he be wary of Krupp? And just as he is wondering this, he turns and bumps, slapstick-style, directly into Krupp's massive frame.

Krupp doesn't care to laugh, I guess. Although he does have his own prop comedy routine, which he performs for Gaunt, using Gaunt as the prop.

Ah, but as the old saying goes, "He who laughs last, gets a steel-toed boot to the face." Or something like that. My point is: GrimJack kicks Krupp in the face.

After they vacate the premises, Gaunt confers with Sondra as to what he's learned. And Sondra confides in Gaunt that her daughter had always been lonely, looking for approval from her father that never came. She also tells him of her own loneliness, first as the wife of the cold, work-obsessed Honesworth, then with her current husband, who is incapacitated and dying.

She frets that she is being silly, telling Gaunt these things.

Next morning, Gaunt and Sondra visit Candyman, who has recently acquired some new, well-armed muscle. Candyman, puffed-up and feeling he has nothing to fear, deigns to answers Gaunt's inquiries:

Gaunt translates:

The reality gets uglier and uglier for Sondra. She angrily denies Candyman's assertion, but Gaunt begins piecing things together. They leave, but not before Gaunt taunts Candyman with the existence of Marcie's diary, as yet undiscovered.

The Alpha Centauri (spelled differently in the panel above) commercial empire provided soldiers to the low-level thug Candyman, hoping to get hold of Candyman's client, Marcie Honesworth, and through her get their claws into Finance Minister William Honesworth, whose coerced influence could net them untold profits. But should this manipulation by the Alpha Centauri become known to the other corporate giants, a Trade War would be inevitable.

Gaunt spells this out to Sondra. She becomes convinced her daughter is as bad as Candyman claims, maybe worse. Her memories of her daughter are being destroyed. She asks Gaunt to drop the case.

That's not who John Gaunt is. Gaunt will always want the truth, no matter whom it hurts, nor how much. Even if it's himself he's hurting. As it is here. In tears, Sondra vows to continue rooting out the truth with Gaunt -- but the emotional connection between them, their mutual recourse from loneliness, is dead and gone. That's the kind of price Gaunt is always willing to pay, when he's got his mind set on something, but it's a price that also continually takes its toll on his soul.

Gaunt and Sondra return to the U of Cyn to talk to Mitch again, suspecting he was the one who got Marcie hooked on the drugs in the first place, but Mitch is dead, and his killer is not hard to find.

Krupp explains himself: Mitch indeed got Marcie addicted to some vicious drugs, at the behest of his boss, Candyman, for whom he had been selling on campus. Candyman's Alpha Centauri bosses tried to use her addiction to control her father. Krupp confronted Marcie, and persuaded her that the only honorable way out, the only way to preserve her father's name, was suicide. She accepted that fate, but first she wrote down her confession in her diary -- which also could be used to blackmail Honesworth. Mitch found the diary and kept it for himself, thinking to sell it to the highest bidder. Which naturally led to Krupp tracking him down and killing the hell out of him.

Krupp wraps up his story by sharing how fiercely Mitch fought him:


Gaunt is surprised to find Candyman has followed him, along with one of his Alpha Centauri gunmen.

Candyman wants the diary. Gaunt is reticent to comply.

Gaunt makes his move, but, as everyone keeps reminding him, he's lost some of his game in his later years. He takes out the Alpha Centauri hired gun, but Candyman shoots him in the shoulder and sends him reeling. Candyman and his lone remaining henchman close in on Gaunt for the kill.

Krupp, the stubborn bastard, keeps coming for Gaunt, even with a bullet in his brain. Gaunt grabs a metal javelin from a pile of gym equipment and makes sure Krupp stays down for good.

That just about wraps things up, save for a final act of redemption which releases Marcie's ghost... well as Sondra's final recriminations directed toward Gaunt's painful use of truth as a weapon.

And Gaunt is left with his flawed but unwavering moral code, which sets him up on a high ground that always seems to leave him alone in the end.

Next week: the return of Blacjacmac!

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