If I made it to the top of the Hollywood heap and directed the highest grossing film of all time, I know exactly what my next move would be: Grimjack. I’ve mused on how it could be done a hundred times — all of them terrible ideas because I’m not a film-maker. But to my amazement, reality is doing a better version than I ever could by dropping it into the ablest of hands. Grimjack‘s the Russo brothers’ newest project — currently in development for an Amazon pilot — and I am 12 years old again with glee.
I’ve waxed at overwrought length how the series entranced me as a child. I instantly fell into the world of Cynosure, and keep a pied-a-terre there for my own work. Well, apparently the First Comics series did the same to Joe Russo — an issue of Grimjack already made a cameo in Deadly Class. For me, a Grimjack / Russo Brothers sandwich comes fresh from pop culture heaven’s kitchen.
(And given how hard-bitten his work is, I would not be in the least surprised to learn that Rick Remender could be influenced by John Gaunt & co. )
My school notes are full in the margins with evolving depictions of Grimjack. Here are all the reasons it captured my attention as a kid.
Grimjack is every genre you can imagine
Grimjack is a genre-jumping epic. It’s the passion project of writer John Ostrander (who also created Suicide Squad, a book wildly underserved by its kinda fun film version) and artist Tim Truman (Scout). And it’s more than a passion of mine. It’s the reason comics weren’t just a passing fancy for my younger self. Grimjack showed me the visual insanity the genre is capable of, as well as the emotional sine wave.
John Gaunt, a.k.a. Grimjack, a.k.a. Grinner, and a few other aliases besides, is a hired gun in Cynosure, a city where every neighborhood is a different dimension, and crossing the street means leaving a sci-fi future for a foggy fantasyscape. It’s the kind of book where the hero casually turns into a werewolf for six pages just to sneak past security, tumbles into a financial fraud scheme, then goes to a prison run by Javert from Les Miserables.
Gaunt is an all-purpose troubleshooter. Depending on who hires him, he’s by turns a bodyguard, bruiser, detective, enforcer, and more. He’s also the uncelebrated savior of the city on multiple occasions during riots, corporate trade wars, and the cataclysmic incursion of Hell. He dies a couple times, eventually makes his way to Heaven, then walks out to save his friends, dooming himself to reincarnation for as long as Cynosure exists.
The only unifying truths with this lead character and setting are that swords work everywhere, and Gaunt’s a man of his word.
Its moral complexity makes it perfect for Amazon Prime TV
Yes, Gaunt has a moral code, but you might not agree with it. In fact, it sometimes makes him the villain of his own title. He’ll do whatever is most in keeping with his character. The series prompted outraged fan letters when Grimjack shot a man who had lowered his gun on him. Ostrander’s response? Gaunt’s not a hero, and he doesn’t want to look over his shoulder later.
In another issue, his friend Elvanna argues for the innate sanctity of life, which Gaunt flatly refutes as case-by-case. Ostrander is a strident humanist, but his character is not, and it’s interesting to watch protagonist and author test each other’s beliefs.
Amazon’s been killing it of late with highly faithful adaptations of indie books that nevertheless add a layer of complexity to satires like The Tick and The Boys. But Grimjack comes preloaded with moral ambiguity that was rare in its day (it preceded Watchmen by about two years), and quickly earned it praise from genre giants like Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazny.
Gaunt’s complexity extends to his vulnerability
Tough as he is, Gaunt cries throughout the series. His life is pretty miserable. His maniacal smile doesn’t mean he’s all steely when he remembers killing most of his family, or the lovers he’s lost, or just his godawful childhood in Cynosure’s slum district The Pit (rumored to be the remains of a sentient dimension that committed suicide — metaphor runs hand-in-hand with surface meaning in this town, but not in a clumsy way).
Sometimes Gaunt’s depression and regrets overtake him, and he slips into “the dark” — a brooding nihilism that’s sends him headlong into catastrophe. Think of Wolverine’s berserker fury: though more cold-blooded than savage, The Dark is a state where Gaunt’s just as likely to harm a friend as a blood-crazed Logan.
It’s also really funny
No emotion goes unenjoyed in these stories. The premise of Cynosure is that you suspend your disbelief for any concept. It’s not a deus ex machina when Gaunt knows about an artifact or instrument that will turn the tide of danger, because Ostrander excels at making these convenient circumstances a challenge to execute in their own right. And in a city where everywhere intersects, not only is anything possible, but everything’s inevitable.
Which is why for all its heartbreak, Grimjack remembers to show lots of absuridty and the comedy that arises from it. In this and the backup stories from Starslayer, laughs abound, such as Ch’ukee, the cartoon dimension populated by talking funny animals. Gaunt gets stuck there, and leaves an indelible impression on the bears and bunnies who play-act his adventures after his escape. He also strands the pompous Lord Phaeton among them for fish-out-of-water comedy.
The same issue sees a dragonfly spoof of Spider-Man get splattered on the windshield of an omega-level Smokey & the Bandit rig, before lines like “Who needs sex when you’ve got overdrive?” keep the fun rolling.
Grimjack can run forever
You think it’s weird how James Bond switches bodies across the decades? With Grimjack that’s built into the story. After he walks out on Heaven to save his friends on Earth, Gaunt’s banished from the afterlife, reincarnated for as long as Cynosure exists. If the lead actor departs or Gaunt’s story concludes, it’s no problem to reboot with Grimjack’s next incarnation, Jim Twilley, or any other identity – including other species – that you can think of. New cast, new conditions, but same old city amid a fresh reset for the character. From a storyline logistics perspective, it can be the American Dr. Who, except entertaining, starring a character with a consistent moral code, and about something other than the supporting characters tediously remarking how special the lead is.
Grimjack may be a Green Lantern
Ostrander once created a character named Jack T. Chance in a short story for The Green Lantern Corps Quarterly. The story, illustrated by Grimjack regular artist Flint Henry, tells the origin of a very familiar alien GL on a planet that’s consummately corrupt (much like Cynosure), and whose personal style matches Grinner, as does his psychotic smile when things get violent.
Chance came closer than anyone except Sinestro to stopping a Parallax-possessed Hal Jordan’s rampage in “Emerald Twilight.” He was brought back for “Rebirth” as one of the grudge-touting “lost Lanterns” but wassoon killed again by Parallax. If Chance is one of Grimjack’s next lives, it’s an easy way for DC to bring back the deceased Lantern. Just wink and nod that reincarnation is baked into Chance’s personal religious beliefs.
You can read Chance’s first and last appearances in these books:
Grimjack and Cynosure would make an amazing video game
Long before Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row posited an endlessly crashing world where everyone is a deviant satire of their role in society, Cynosure had mercenary reporter Nadine Martine, Fredd & Barnee corporate fighter jets blowing up market trading competitors, and… [deep breath] a shopping mall that was also a mobile condominium complex where robot versions of Judge Dredd and Jim Gordon enforced nauseatingly utilitarian law along its endlessly-clogged interior highways.
Rockstar Games, please make this comic into an open-world adventure. You could play a main storyline as Grimjack (or multiple Grimjacks whose timelines intersect) and then take it online for a MMO experience. With a kajillion species to custom build, and corporate hierarchy even laced into families as legal entities, You’re looking at EVE Online meets Spore meets GTA.
The villains are the best in comics
Even the worst Grimjack villains are fun — an unstable were-bat bounty hunter with a a mind like a scratched record and a chain gun hardwired into his crotch doesn’t reflect much on our hero, but he sure is a pip to watch race Grinner to the goal line. That same moral complexity above? Yields some really endearing opponents. Other times it’s just Ostrander’s talent for noir that makes foes you just can’t help but hate. And when it combines, you get a revolutionary like The Dancer, who amasses a following that forgives the worst sins imaginable in both reality and fiction.
Many characters run afoul of Grimjack for ideological reasons when they might have been colleagues: Warden Javert, for example, shares Gaunt’s sense of honor, but his life has afforded him an absolutism denied the main character.
For others it’s the reverse: they ought to bond — or do — but their paths in life have set them at odds for being too similar. Katar seems like a flunky to the head honcho, only to hate Gaunt for a pretty good reason that takes the old man’s capacity for anger to fullest self-destruction. And when Gaunt is set against Spook by her ectoplasmic obligations, you can watch the last chance for happiness drain right out of him.
Though his only equal in combat, The Dancer, would probably claim the title of his arch-enemy for most of the book, his nemesis proves to be the utterly loathsome enigma, Major Lash.
Though Dancer’s a shadowy strategist who kills (and worse) some of Gaunt’s first friends and last ones, their confrontation is never wholly personal. The Major, however, engineers Grimjack’s greatest losses throughout both his lives. Though he does it with an eye on personal gain, even if he has to sell out all of reality, he really enjoys his work, and he goes out of his way to make the results more painful. The better to brag about even though he rightly lives in fear of Gaunt’s battle prowess.
Here’s a guy who collects broken people as tools for his posse The Lawkillers, except even tools get cared for. The Major fosters and exploits psychological damage like a malignant parent, turning a PTSD-addled veteran lizard into a living landmine.
On the same team is an eerie man of the cloth quoting some bible of the Elder Gods. It’s never clear if he knows exactly where he is, but point him at your enemy and he’ll blow them all to hell — which in his mind may be the destination of choice.
I confess fully that I have copped the “madman whose eyes are hidden behind goggle-like glasses” image and the unsettling unfamiliar scripture trope for my own work. No apology given, this guy is awesome. I’m put in mind of him when I watch Ghoultown’s “Bury Them Deep”:
And these are just backup characters! Henchmen for two issues and never seen again. Yet we can imagine so much of their backstory based on what little Ostrander gives us. I’ll grant you Batman has an A+ rogues gallery, and the Flash has somehow wrought a respectable army out of a silly panoply of fools, but Grimjack’s enemies drill into the bone.
And I didn’t even touch on Kalibos, a robot cloaked in human flesh. Say, speaking of…
Arnold Schwarzenegger almost played Grimjack in the ‘80s
I can’t find the old message board where Ostrander mentions it online anymore, but take it as unlinked hearsay. Hard as it is to believe, the Terminator in his prime was on deck to portray a sinewy old man who’s not afraid to cry. He even went on a talk show to mention the movie was in development.
Probably best that this never happened, lest we get Alien from LA: Ultra-Violence Edition, but playing a character who comes back no matter how many times he dies? Schwarzenegger won’t even have to change his catch phrase.
Eager as I am for Grimjack: The Russo Brothers Edition, I’ll be rereading the series until then. If I’ve convinced you to give it a try, the issues are plentiful on eBay, or you can nab the collections on Amazon (but beware of the Omnibus editions — they’re reprinted smaller and at lesser quality than the originals):
And now, I’ll leave you with this: probably my favorite comic book cover of all time: Grimjack #62.
All images © First Comics except for Jack Chance, © DC Comics