Sunday, 24 February 2013

Not Just Another Pretty Face: Grimjack

Last year, I had the privilege of spending several months being paid to write. It was probably one of the best times of my life, in terms of creative fulfillment. For someone who has long dreamed of having the ability to spend each day doing the thing he loves, it was an embarrassment of riches. Also, my cat loved having me around the house every day.

As the project came to an end, I had a brainstorm and -- with the kind permission of my boss -- contacted a longtime favourite comic book artist of mine through his website. A couple of e-mails later, Tim Truman had agreed to produce a piece of artwork for the project I'd been writing for three months. I was over the moon.

Tim has been a part of my life for a long time. I first encountered his artwork in some of the early Dungeons & Dragons books and adventures. He's had a long career producing a vast number of terrific comics for a variety of publishers, including his post-apocalyptic .44 magnum opus Scout, a re-imagining of Hawkman's origin called Hawkworld, a gritty Western about Superman's adopted family called The Kents, and two excellent Jonah Hex weird westerns with (another one of my favourites) Joe Lansdale. More recently, Tim has been writing Conan and has teamed up with his son to produce a Western comic called Hawken.

But I'm here to talk about my favourite Truman comic, another classic from the early days of First, the science-fiction fantasy noir western horror epic Grimjack, drawn by Truman and written by John Ostrander.

Grimjack got its start as a backup feature in Mike Grell's Starslayer comic, which (although I love Mike's stuff) never got much love. My friend Steve once said of that comic that "It was a comic everybody read for the back-up story." The same was probably true of The Rocketeer, which got its start as a backup feature for Eclipse comics (I can't even remember what the "A" story was). Where Starslayer felt dull, hearkening back to old-style Flash Gordon-esque science fiction/fantasy mash-ups without improving on them, Grimjack had a fresh, anything goes edge.

My apologies to Mike Grell. If it softens the blow any, Mike, you wrote and drew my single favourite comic of all time, Jon Sable Freelance, and I'll be writing a column about that soon.

Grimjack is set against the sprawling backdrop of the pan-dimensional city of Cynosure, a place where all dimensions intersect and meet (something that changes like the phases of the moon) and the laws of physics and reality can change from one block to another. It's a place where small hovering "tourbots" used to explore the slums are a constant pest, and alien gods might just belly up to the bar for a drink.

John Gaunt, AKA Grimjack, knows the territory. He knows that there are times it's better to have a sword in your hand than a pistol (in case technology ceases working temporarily) and he can handily kill most people with both -- or his bare hands, if it comes to that.

Gaunt is the world-weary Chandleresque hero at the center of the tale, a chameleonic mercenary who is whatever the story demands of him: a hard-boiled detective, a gladiator, a soldier (Gaunt is a veteran of the Demon Wars that once scourged Cynosure), a thief, a sorcerer, a politician, an assassin, even (in one memorable storyline) a time-travelling cowboy. He's like the city he inhabits -- a little bit of everything, and all of it dark and cynical.

Gaunt is a killer, and he makes no bones about it. He's done a lot of bad things, and killed a lot of people. He's not a nice person. But he's loyal to his friends, brave, and like all good noir heroes he stands by his own code: "There are standards. If you can't see one, you make one and stick by it come hell or high water -- until you see a better one."

Grimjack in action.
When Gaunt is not on a mission with his mercenary buddy BlacJacMac, he drinks himself into a stupor in Munden's Bar, a seedy dive in a dangerous part of Cynosure. Gaunt's long-suffering manager Gordon keeps things quiet, the way the boss likes it, so he can quietly poison himself with rotgut in the corner with Bob the lizard. Bob drinks and smokes and talks a little, but he doesn't judge. It's worth noting that Munden's Bar had its own back-up feature in Grimjack (which likely owes a great deal to Spider Robinson's great Callahan's Crosstime Saloon books), where the colourful guests who visit the bar are introduced in more detail. Even the then-brand-new comic stars the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles dropped into Munden's on one of their early adventures, in an early colour appearance.

Grimjack is full of action and intrigue, by turns dark and humourous (Gaunt's adventures include a journey to a dimension inhabited by anthropomorphic "funny animals" and a turn as campaign manager for a con-man in blackface who has adopted the persona of Michael Jackson), and always unpredictable and full of imagination.

Ostrander's stories are tight and full of great tough-guy dialogue. His yarns tend toward "done in one" or short arcs of two-three issues, so the slow build over the first year-and-a-half of the series toward an epic climax (The Trade Wars, when rival interdimensional corporations are provoked into open military conflict with one another by Grimjack's old nemesis, The Dancer) creeps up on you as a surprise. The grander tale is assembled slowly, with a collection of tiny brushstrokes and pieces of backstory. And then everything blows up good.

There is much in John Gaunt that hearkens back to Michael Moorcock's "Eternal Champion" cycle (Gaunt once comments that "one poor mook" had mistaken Cynosure for Tanelorn). As the Grimjack series continued, Tim Truman left the series and a number of other artists took a hand -- Tom Sutton, Flint Henry -- and the Moorcock analogy became more overt. Further storylines followed another incarnation of Grimjack in a future Cynosure. The series was never the same without Truman's artistic touch, though -- Truman has a gift for drawing tough guys, guns, and whatever weird thugs and monsters Grimjack ran afoul of (and then ran through). Zombies, robots, assassins with pumpkin heads, vampires, the skull-faced villain Mac Cabre with his Uncle Sam style top hat and red-white-and-blue outfit -- if Ostrander could dream it, Truman could bring it to life on the page.

The good news is that recently, like a number of the other creators who made First great back in the day, the rights to Grimjack have been returned to Ostrander and Truman and they've begun producing new adventures of the original, indispensible John Gaunt. (And the original tales are back in print from IDW too, in inexpensive omnibus format. You can even get the early Starslayer shorts in the first volume.) Truman's style has changed over the years, but he still makes the weird denizens of Cynosure -- and its cloaked, scar-faced champion -- as vivid as ever. Check it out.

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