Monday, November 10, 2008

GrimJack: "Mortal Gods"

I've been reading comics since I was a kid, and seriously collecting them since I was 18. I've read literally thousands of comic books in my lifetime. (I am avoiding both pride and shame in that statement, merely expressing a fact.) And my favorite comics creation, by far, is John Ostrander and Timothy Truman's sword-wielding, hard-drinking, dark-brooding, scar-faced mercenary John Gaunt, better known as GrimJack.

GrimJack was a cornerstone of what I consider to be, pound for pound, the best creative run of a comics company during my lifetime: the heady heyday of First Comics. There was a stretch during the '80s, if I'm not messing up the timeline, and I don't think I am, when in the span of one month First Comics would deliver to you the gift of Ostrander and Truman's GrimJack, Jim Starlin's Dreadstar, Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!, Mike Baron and Steve Rude's Nexus, and Baron's Badger. Holy hell, you try to tell me that is not one ass-kicking of a line-up, and I will give you such a pinch.

GrimJack is the noir-flavored story of hard-living, nearly over-the-hill gun (or sword or mystical relic) for hire John Gaunt. Gaunt goes by the street name of GrimJack, and the street he works is located in the pan-dimensional city of Cynosure ("Cyn" rhymes with sin), in which every reality meets at one time or another. He's well-versed in the ways of violence, but lives by a strict if flawed and at times even dangerous personal moral code. He wears a floppy beret with feathers on it, giant shoulder pads, big hoop earrings, a cape, index-fingerless gloves, one knee guard, and jodhpurs. And he will totally kick your ass.

Once a week (optimistically speaking), ideally on Mondays, for the foreseeable future, I plan on bringing you the stories of GrimJack, sharing my love of these comics with you. These will probably all be very long, image-packed posts. I hope you will bear with me. Maybe none of you will care. Maybe this is a labor of love that no one else will recognize. But maybe some of the more devoted comic fans among you will be intrigued enough to follow along with these posts, maybe even enough to try to find the back issues in your local comic shop, or pick up the deluxe paperback repackagings currently being printed by IDW Publishing. Or maybe (and I tip my hat to you if this is the case) you will want to dig out the copies you already own and rediscover this fantastic series along with me.

We begin at the beginning, at First Comics' Starslayer. Starslayer was originated by writer/artist Mike Grell (who went on to create Jon Sable Freelance for First), but turned over to Ostrander and artist Lenin Delsol with issue #9. Issue #10, cover dated November 1983, is pictured below. You can see the cover raises two questions:

And his friends Chinese Bob, Mexican Pete and Polish Joe.

#1: Why did John Ostrander have such a penchant for including the word "Black" in the names of new black characters? And #2: who is this GrimJack?

GrimJack began as a back-up series to Starslayer, by neophyte comics writer Ostrander and neophyte comics artist Truman. They both had a lot to learn, and a long way to grow, when they co-created their finest work together, but that's not to say GrimJack started out weak. It started out immediately with the hard-boiled narration and lush-but-filthy visuals for which the series would come to be celebrated, and it started out immediately laying the groundwork for John Gaunt's deep, dark backstory, a biography which would become more assiduously chronicled and emotionally detailed than most any other comic character you can name, whether 70-year-old four-color superhero or quarter-century-old b&w indie superstars.

Here we have the first page of the very first GrimJack story, called "Mortal Gods" (Part 1):

Nose rings and eye makeup will become a Truman signature artistic touch.

Cool artwork! But, uh, not exactly representative of what was to come. I include it here for its historical value. Which is priceless.

Anyway: there's this four-armed, lamprey-faced desert god named, as you may have surmised, Zago. His bloodthirsty minions are intent on destroying the peace-loving worshippers of forest god Manwyyes. The tree-huggers cast a spell which sends one of their own to Cynosure, to locate their god, who is MIA at a fairly crucial juncture (what with all the slaughtering and suchlike). GrimJack is the man who can help them track their god down. But he's a little busy just this second.

Is that the home of Ian Brill?

Those are the first words GrimJack ever speaks, and I love them. You already get a taste of exactly what Ostrander's going for here: the cynicism and world-weariness of a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett anti-hero in a sci-fi/fantasy milieu.

GrimJack is running down the Manx Cat, the grand MacGuffin of Cynosure. As we will see throughout the run of the series, it's always getting stolen, and Gaunt is always retreiving it.

And here we meet the man for the first time:

I'd do as the man says. Anyone dressed like that HAS to be crazy.

Dig those pinpoint eyes in the first panel! Nice.

Even without the extra-gray eyebrows in the second panel (which get darker in subsequent appearances -- must've used Just For Men: Touch Of Gray), we can see that this is no spring chicken, no wet-behind-the-ears young punk. Gaunt has had a hard life, and it shows in his face.

And we get a sample of his moral code here. Gaunt is all about choices, and living with the responsibility of the ones you make. Frequently, he presents certain black and white choices to his adversaries. I suggest choosing wisely.

Dude, he's got a sword and a gun. You've got a statue of a CAT. Not smart.

And, as Gaunt escapes the fire by leaping out a window, we get another recurring aspect of his character: not only is he old, but he feels it. Time is closing in on this guy, and it's not treating him well.


If that narration is a little too on-the-nose for you, at least rest assured that Gaunt never says, "I'm getting too old for this shit." GrimJack predates Lethal Weapon by four years, thank goodness.

Gaunt wraps up his business with the Manx Cat, then runs into the tree-hugging priestess, Elvanna, who suddenly appears to have been light boxed. I like how Truman throws in these highly rendered artistic variations every once in a while; kind of reminds me of John Totleben, though I think Totleben was more a contemporary of Truman's than an influence. (And please note I am not suggesting that what either of those gentlemen do is anything like the liberties Greg Land takes.)

Lay off the spray-on tan, lady.

They invoked... the Rite of Llues, in case you were wondering. It was supposed to lead her to her god's abode; it brought her to Cynosure, where a local told her to get help from Gaunt. It turns out Gaunt knows exactly where she needs to go, and leads her there, taking the scenic route through the Pit.

Sweet, cynical Cynosure.

We get a nice look here at how exactly the pan-dimensional city works. Cross a street, you might cross a dimension! In fairness, the creation of sweet, cynical Cynosure can't be credited to Ostrander. It was created for First Comics' Warp Special #1. It was supposed to be destroyed in that issue, but Ostrander thought he could find a use for it in his writing, and asked that it be saved. Good call. Oh, also: the name "John Gaunt" was cribbed from Shakespeare. From the character John of Gaunt, in Richard II. If you're gonna steal, steal from the best!

Gaunt's narration here always makes me smile: "Some called it Nirvana. Some called it Hell. One poor mook thought it Tanelorn." Tanelorn, FYI, is the Eternal City in Michael Moorcock's fantasy novels, a city which is accessible from all dimensions. As opposed to Cynosure, though, it is not comprised of all dimensions.

And I love Truman's depiction of Cynosure -- more specifically, the Pit, Gaunt's home. Fantastical and filthy at the same time -- garbage-strewn, claustrophobic, plastered with graffiti and band posters. You can't really read the graffiti in this scan, but there's a reference to a "Dash Hammet" (sic), and also an ad for "Tourbot Rental." Tourbots are a concept Ostrander will expand upon in later issues, but I get a kick out of how early he is establishing the depth of Cynosure. And of John Gaunt's place in it: his birth and early life in the cesspool of the Pit are a huge part of his backstory.

Gaunt gets where he's going, prompting this exchange, which cracks me up:

Guess you BETTER.

And here GrimJack crushes Elvanna's heart by revealing to her the object of her search:

How come nobody ever calls me a god when I'm all drunk as hell?

That wacky Cynosure!

We pick up with Part 2 in issue #11 of Starslayer, where Elvanna is less than pleased with Gaunt's revelation:

This drunken bum is still looking for that 'god' block.

As Manny Weese, aka Weevil, aka the god Manwyyes, explains to Elvanna shortly, he wandered into her dimension by mistake and discovered he had powers, godlike powers which prompted the locals to worship him as a deity. But the overwhelming responsibility was too much for him to bear, and he retreated to Cynosure, and the bottle.

Cue Zago, who has also tracked down Manwyyes:

Say it, don't spray it, Zago.

While Elvanna has been gone from her dimension, Zago and his cult have destroyed every single one of Manwyyes's worshippers, and he's come to Cynosure to finish the job. Drunken, powerless Manny is no match for Zago, but Zago's powers are also greatly diminished in Cynosure, meaning it's time for GrimJack to kick some god ass.

What symmetrical teeth!

Another classic GrimJack trait: the man almost never smiles, except for when he is about to deal out some ultra-violence. Then he can't help but smile. We will later learn this earned him the nickname "Grinner" in his younger days.

As tough as Gaunt is, and as weakened as Zago is, Zago is still a giant four-armed monstrosity, and he proceeds to beat the holy crap out of GrimJack. Gaunt's guns don't work, his swords don't work. He is beaten to the ground. Manny pleads for Gaunt to stand aside, to save himself and let Zago finish Manny off. But Gaunt lays down for him the unbreakable foundation of his moral code:

Note: it is still extremely dangerous to be one of GrimJack's friends.

"I stand by my friends." The main rule by which Gaunt strives to live his life. His greatest tragedy, though, is how often he falls short. But that's getting ahead of ourselves.

Gaunt takes Manny's staff, on the theory that something from Zago's own dimension may be able to hurt him. And using the staff, he is able to strike one of the swords from Zago's grip, and recover it for himself. Now armed with Zago's own weapon, Gaunt offers Zago a choice:


And here we get a sweet, sweet sample of GrimJack's savage badassery:


Dude just performed a quadruple amputation on a god. And trash-talked him to boot. GrimJack is awesome.

"I gave you a choice, Zago. Now you're gonna have to live with it."

Wait, I was still living with it!

Looks like he lived with it for a whole second and a half, there. How's that for accelerating the relative hardcore nature of your character: having him, on page 15 of his existence, slay a god. Beat that, Spider-Man.

Denouement: Elvanna decides to stay with Manny. Her world is ruined, so there's nothing to return to. Also, as she tells Gaunt: "I dedicated my life to the service of Manwyyes. Should I abandon my vows because he needs me?" This is another theme we will see recurring throughout the run of GrimJack: everybody, even the most miserable of SOBs, needs somebody. Sometimes, even if it is as a nemesis rather than an ally.

This first GrimJack story, the two-part "Mortal Gods," wraps up with such a wonderfully cynical exchange that I want to let it speak for itself.

All of 'em.

And there we have the 16-page introduction of my favorite comic book character ever. Hope you liked it, because I'll be back next week with the five-part epic, "Buried Past."

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