or, How a Lunatic Murderer Coached My Teen Years
It’s the smile that makes Grimjack who he is. You might argue his trademark characteristic is the scar on his eye — and it’s true that was the first thing I noticed when I discovered him a lifetime ago — but it’s not, nor the streak in his hair, nor how he dresses like the most militant member of the E Street Band. And though “grim” is right there in his name, it’s not his brooding, a legitimate character trait of his long before it became pointlessly de rigeur in comics’ leather-clad ’90s. It’s not even his moral complexity, brought to comics ahead of Vertigo or Watchmen. All of those are defining traits of the character, but not the definitive one that answers the question: “Who is Grimjack?”
Nah, it’s the molon labe grin that only comes out when someone offers violence. Why, sure, says that mad smile, we can dance. Who is Grimjack? The cheshire cat of bloodshed. As for what is Grimjack? A comic book which, more than any other, made me want to create comics…while also giving me an outlet for my standard-issue teenage aggression, and all the other high emotions now available to me.
If you want a more concrete summation, Grimjack is a sword-for-hire in a fantasy city where every dimension — and literary genre — meets. This has given him a diverse skill set, since he might take a case that’s a time-travel/western tale, but leads him into a detective/ghost story. He’s not an expert in most things, but he’s dangerous in all things. This (Grim)jack of all trades is a master of one: he’s the guy who can deliver when the situation explodes. If the fight can be won, he’ll win it. if it can’t, he’ll get you out of it.
I was 10 years old in 1991, and had recently found comics as an outgrowth of my affection for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — which catapulted quickly from snatching up an Archie Comics adaptation of the animated series at a school “free book day” to an eye-opening, gorgeous, bloody TMNT time-romp by the great Richard Corben on my first trip to the comic shop. The berth between iterations is a handy parallel to my impending discovery of a comic book that had an NC-17 morality and mortality but a PG-13 code of conduct. That wonderful comic was Grimjack #55.
From a pile of two dozen or fewer floppies stacked atop my dresser, I declared myself a collector of comic books. One of my classmates soon offered me a few issues that his older cousin had discarded. That unnamed cousin’s taste in indie titles had a pivotal effect on my life — and if you’re reading this, Nathaniel Scott, I owe you and him some beer for diverting my entire career from comedy to comics.
Instantly my collection had doubled — not with DC or Marvel mainstream, but independent publishers like Eclipse, Continuity, and First, as well as Epic, Marvel’s laudable creator-focused imprint. And there I met Grimjack, whom I’ve been buddies with for nigh-on three decades now. Standing in a swirl of souls that might well have doubled as the city’s version of sewer steam was a baroque pirate holding a sword and an electronic gun. It was a two-fisted summary of the series, and the cover copy promised “A Dangerous New Beginning.”
Grimjack taught me the honorable qualities of decent bad people…
Things only got crazier inside. The previous issue recap suggested a parade of high concepts, while also reassuring me that everything I’d need to know lay within that issue’s pages. The character had been reincarnated, the series had rebooted, and all continuity was firmly ancient history. I was entering Munden’s Bar for the first time, and so was James Edgar Twilley III — about to embark on his nascent outing as Grimjack. If he barely knew his own past as John Gaunt, why should I?
Merrily and madly, we went down the path together. Creator John Ostrander writes his characters rich with feeling, while alien caricatures of big city types conduct their own business around the corners of the panels. Grimjack’s hometown of Cynosure, itself a self-destructive character with schizophrenia and BPD, was the embodiment of NYC’s 1980s madness cubed. Now matter how elaborate the city’s hyperstructure, there was a realism pervading its transdimensional streets. Everything my guy Ostrander wrote had a depth of emotion that gave stakes to the omnipresent danger, and often explored the relationship between those two.
Grimjack (or GrimJack or Grim Jack, depending on his editors — I’m partial to the third version myself), was an odd sort of mature readers title. Guts painted walls, but nipples were only ever suggested, with sex scenes tamer than what was airing on basic cable primetime. Still, this was a book that had no shortage of cannibalism, incest, cat torture, infanticide, fratricide, patricide, genocide, suicide, deicide, drug addiction, and abusive relationships to the point of mind control (The Major was such an excellently loathsome villain).
While all of those topics are innately awful, they sprung from the book’s intellectual curiosity about the complexities of subjects like religion, sex, drugs, and living with purpose. These big pillars were stress-tested against the story’s ongoing theme that love in all its forms is the only wealth. Love didn’t conquer all — it had to fight tooth and claw just to win a noir victory — but it sure as hell sustained the characters through some unnecessary bullshit.
I was a kid becoming an adult, and actual mature topics were outside my experience but entering my purview. Only religion, an unexamined march through Catholicism the same as most of Irish-American New England, was available to me at that age to examine its power to build or destroy happiness and love in life. In Grimjack it frequently did both — often in the same issue. It taught me to separate ethics from a rote code of conduct — something cemented by my reading of Preacher a few years later.
…And the dramatic plotting qualities of great writers
Some memorable faces from the book’s run: a pair of mercenaries who committed horrible acts of sadism but loved each other despite/for all their scars. A fallen god’s last acolyte who helped him get sober and taught him an altruistic morality. A transwoman (at the time, considered freakshow fodder for daytime talk shows) who fled an abusive home, finding love and acceptance with a husband whose quiet exterior hid true steel: standing by his wife through her trials both before and after he learned her history. Children would break parents’ hearts with their loyalty, servants would demonstrate untoward fealty to flawed employers, and Ostrander, through it all, examined what ties people together in a mad world.
In these test tubes for moral complexity, I learned about writing better conflicts external and within. And pondering those tense tugs of obligation gave me practice pondering points of view different from my own. The higher the concept, the more grounded Ostrander’s characters became. Grimjack didn’t just punch a parade of do-badders under a truculent moral authority. Sure, he might get in a fistfight with an aristocratic pachycephalosaurus, but only to help a grieving couple find closure in their drug-addicted daughter’s suicide.
After a lifetime of trauma, Gaunt tried –not always successfully–to keep his moral compass pointed towards the most valuable and endangered currencies in this city: integrity, honesty, and loyalty. This series came along at a time when I was turning into a sulky teen with fantasies of violence, and instead taught me humanism, which I like to hope is still my guiding principle. And even in sweet, cynical Cynosure, where the dimensions meet, love will carry you through corruption…if not the loss of loved ones to dimensions where their species can’t survive.
Grimjack introduced me to what comic art was capable of doing
And the art! Flint Henry was called upon to cram a city that was New York multiplied by Chicago and then cubed into a pan-dimensional Babel, and he delivered ably.
The artists of the ’60s and ’70s crammed 40 pages of story into 12 pages of comic, and today comics enjoy a precision and hyper-detailed acuity afforded only by working digitally. But in between there was a rich and beautiful movement in the ’80s as print quality improved with the onset of computers. Just look at the action and layout in Henry’s lines, brought to life by Martin Thomas’s splendid colors:
First Comics was at the forefront, with much more vibrant colors than their mainstream competition, and an eye for truly talented artists — especially writer/artist creators who had a vision all their own.
Even now my mind illuminates just looking at the house ads in these books: Angel Medina on Dreadstar, Steve Rude on Nexus, Howard Chaykin on American Flagg!…Henry was in able company, and he earned his spot. From his hand pipes leaked, brains flew, shadows coated their shapes, and characters’ faces were expressive in nuanced ways…it was all soul food for a burgeoning artist like myself. Successfully depicting those half-dead/half-wild with insanity eyes of Gaunt’s was my first drawing breakthrough — as well as a way to channel the negative feelings first trickling into my transforming pubescent brain.
Exciting crossovers…but not within the story
All of those house ads put me in mind of what a diverse time the indie scene was by the mid-to-late ’80s. Young creators, jamming together would get you a crossover between Cerebus and TMNT, or any number of indie characters dear to their creators sipping a drink in Munden’s Bar, the backup feature running through most issues of GJ. It’s something I wanted to make integral to DOSE: bringing in a couple of colleagues or art heroes each issue, anyone whose work I enjoyed and admired.
(Evan Dorkin, you will forever have my gratitude for saying yes to my stupidly inferior knock-off of Dork!–and doubly so for agreeing to my minimal-fuss request for completed pages you weren’t going to use elsewhere, but then creating and contributing original content).
So while Gaunt hung out with very few of his fellow First characters (except for Judah Maccabee, because everyone loves Judah), and then mostly in company-wide crossovers outside of his title, there was a vibrant exchange of creative services that feels like rock ‘n’ roll in the ’60s. Just as that fertile time got you Jimi Hendrix reinventing Dylan, or the mish-mash of covers and collaborations between the Stones and the Beatles and Cream and whathaveye, Grimjack was in the thick of people around the globe united by the work that excited them, theirs and others’.
I can’t find a trace of Flint Henry these days, and that is a loss for comics. Ostrander introduces him with a funny anecdote from Chuck Dixon, whom I would soon connect as the author of another book in the fabled cousin-comic pile, Alien Legion #7, which utterly awed me with its strobelike murder of half the cast I hadn’t even met yet at the hands of a sadistic assassin. Comics were teaching me a lot about storytelling in short order!
Henry came recommended as a worthy successor to/by Grimjack co-creator Tim Truman. Truman’s shadow loomed large over the title even then, and that stack of comics from Nathaniel’s cousin included a couple issues of Scout, Truman’s all-in-one work on another nuanced survivor.
My introduction to Scout found the title character on a vision in a sweat lodge — perhaps the most believable way to cross over with Larry Marder’s Beanworld. In the back of Scout lay “Beau LaDuke’s Tips for Real Men,” by Stephen Scott Beau Smith. Smith didn’t know Tim Truman when he wrote into Grimjack‘s letter column…
…but they would soon collaborate on Scout, before Smith followed Dixon on my favorite superhero title, Guy Gardner, and brought in Henry for that title’s first annual (which, proving my long-winded point here, featured a character named K’wp’zz — almost certainly a nod to artist Gary Kwapisz). My definitive artistic influence drawing my favorite superhero! By the by, the “Beau Outlet” in the image above is almost certainly a nod to Smith.
If these trivial connections amass geekery on a picoscale level, forgive me, but they illustrate how much burbling, sprawling creativity awaited discovery. Unearthing these creative connections, I became an archeologist for a culture that, unlike real civilizations, returned to full life as soon as it was refueled by my readership. Imagination and attention give fictional artifacts their reality, and here I was, resurrecting dead series.
I’m still amassing those connections. In trying to characterize Grimjack at the start of this article, I looked up Dungeons & Dragons character classes, figuring I’d find some mixed-skills adept to compare him to. I never played D&D, and discovered he’s damn near all of them, but the closest would be the Rogue/Thief. (Heck, Gaunt’s first appearance found him trying to steal the Manx Cat, a piece of cursed art.) And that’s where I found this interesting bit of trivia:
Shadowjack, eh? That bears inspection. Living in a world that’s half magic half science (well isn’t that familiar?) Mr. a.k.a. Jack of Shadows, is the creation of one Roger Zelazny, a noted fan and undeniable influence on Ostrander. In fact, I first heard of him when he wrote a letter into Grimjack’s letter column, “Spill Your Guts!” but Ostrander’s response was elated: “This is Roger freaking Zelazny, folks.” And Zelazny’s presence is incarnate in “Mortal Gods,” an early Grimjack outing.
So, look at that: even now, crossovers make themselves manifest. In trying to describe Grimjack’s superpositioned skills, I settled on a character class that was based, it seems, on the same inspirations that created him.
Finding all of these as a kid made me want that creative camaraderie. I’m happy to say I’ve found it twice, first among other comic creators and then with the coalition of comedians writing Cracked in its heyday. All of us bound by the desire to make the same kind of amazing thing, not competing but drawing fuel from each other’s experiments. I’ve made friends and collaborators, and this fun jam session of a series showed me that such a star was worth following.
The importance of pragmatism in an absurd world
Costume is character in drama, and for that, I’ve always loved trenchcoat & duster detective characters. My teen years saw me doodling The Shadow, Darkwing Duck, Obsidian in Kingdom Come, The Stranger from the highly underrated game Nocturne…all iterations, I suppose, of Humphrey Bogart in his numerous roles as a (contradictory) practical romantic taking up arms against a sea of troubles. There’s a simple symbolism in donning all-weather armor to face whatever waits in the trenches or on the trails. But of all those, Jim Twilley came first for me.
Here was a guy equipped for anything life could throw at him. If the running jokes in comics are that Batman has all the tools he needs in a single utility belt, and that Rob Liefeld flourishes his characters with a million bandoliers but nothing to keep inside them, Grimjack was their functional medium, garnished with a hundred pockets for any scenario. But most didn’t apply, and he might have to actually search for the right tool under fire. Or he’d be out of ammo. Or there’d be a limitation to using the trick under his belt.
Unlike the action-figure superheroes, immutable for eons, Grimjack changed clothes, got haircuts, switched alliances, and generally was going through a lot of life off-panel. Small changes, sure, but change gives story meaning and realism.
Here was someone I could grow with, but also someone who clung to his core identity no matter how screwy the world around him grew. Useful skills for a teenager, and in our current days.
I couldn’t help but identify with Grimjack
And, of course, there was a thematic resonance I only recognize now. I was in sixth grade by then, leaving the only school I’d known and former friends who had begun ganging up to tease me. I was entering puberty and a Catholic education in that order.
My friends and I had X-Men to assuage the freakish changes happening to our bodies with hints that they would bloom into fantastic new abilities and gloriously exotic personas. And we all loved Spider-Man, who is Peter Parker’s trial run at adulthood.
But Grimjack? Grimjack was mine alone.
John Gaunt was a ghetto bastard, a survivor of nearly every form of child abuse and high drama. Twilley, by contrast, was a nice but weird prep school outsider from suburbia (Primrose Acres, to be exact and a touch satirical). Forsaking his past life and the people in it for no longer knowing who he was, he embraced his unearned anger, yet was careful to stay morally upright. How could I fail to identify with that?
In Grimjack’s brash–even cocky–dealings, I’d later recognize Philip Marlowe, but at the time, it simply promised me that there would be work in the world for a smart-mouthed kid.
Physically, GJ was proportionate, unlike superheroes — fit, but sinewy, and only swathed to bulkiness in a cool coat and light body armor. I might never have biceps the size of my head or Batman’s jaw, but Twilley’s physique seemed attainable to this skinny child. I couldn’t run around in spandex or swing from gargogyles, but I might get one great piece of outerwear and a knack for finding answers.
And so we went, this mad pirate detective and I, down the dripping alleyways and somehow even seedier corporate suites of Cynosure, where corruption was inculcated and somehow refreshingly candid. I was young and full of a hormonal anger I had no reason for; he was ancient and furious with righteous vengeance that destroyed him regardless of how justified it was. We carried each other on our adventures through a couple tumultuous years of our lives.
Each issue was hard won, costing the allowance of a few weeks, but it was a personal treasure hunt. I was an archeologist. These days, of course, with eBay or brick & mortar shops acting as online issue aggregators, you can snap up whole runs for less than the cost of shipping, or read it all on your phone. But back then, each find was scavenged from nameless comic stores not long for this world before they would have folded and scattered their inventory.
A few years later, after carefully saving my summer income, I found it in my budget to order a poster of Twilley’s face melting off on eBay, and a Grimjack t-shirt from Graphitti, which arrived after who knows how many years in cold storage (and yes, I’m wearing it right now as I write this entry).
In this age of distraction and more compiled media than anyone can ever hope to complete, I don’t know if the series will ever touch a fertile imagination like mine again — although with its impending Amazon adaption I certainly hope so. What I do know is that even now, I can read it with those fresh eyes, and remember the promise it made me: of a world to come, rich with adventure for every risk, and good friends to stand against a culture of corruption.
I believe that even at the end of my days, Grimjack himself will still be one of them — no less of an ideal for sussing out the right path in dim light, despite his fictionality. As the man himself once said, “Friends are family. The family we choose.”
If you want to read the series yourself in the original issues, eBay’s never without a few. If you’d rather go all-in on a collection, I’d be careful which collected edition you buy. Some are reprinted in smaller dimensions on cheaper paper. The version below is the best starting point I can find for you on Amazon, since it’s unfortunately not yet on Comixology (the rights have been a mess ever since First Comics folded).