Sweet, cynical Cynosure, the city at the crossroads of dimensions. Magic works here, science works there, sword work everywhere. One of the foremost inhabitants of this milieu is John Gaunt, better known as GrimJack, mercenary-for-hire and bar owner.
Reviewed May 1998
John Ostrander has written many titles over the last couple of decades, but GrimJack is surely his masterpiece. John Gaunt is a damaged person: He grew up in poverty, and ended up fighting in The Arena when he was ten, engaging in combat to the death with other children, until he 'graduated' to the adult spectacles as a teenager. As a young man, he fought in the Demon Wars, as the forces of hell tried to take over the city, saw his true love and her entire world destroyed in the wars, and discovered his own nascent talent for magickal power.
And that's just the backstory.
GrimJack focuses first on Gaunt, and secondarily on the city and its denizens. The earliest issues, #1-19, are drawn by Tim Truman. Truman's forte in comics art is his draftsmanship; his figures often look a little stilted, but his visuals are dark and glorious.
Gaunt undertakes a series of contracts during which much of the supporting cast is introduced, such as Blackjacmac, a tough-guy black dude who is the closest thing Gaunt has to a blood brother. This causes some problems with Blackjac's lover, Goddess, who hates Gaunt and thinks that he'll drag Blackjac to his death someday. (Ostrander turns what could have been a tough-black-guy-and-his-woman cliché on its ear by making Goddess a real goddess, who could easily level a big chunk of Cynosure if she wanted to.) The early supporting cast also includes Gordon, the bartender at Munden's Bar, which Gaunt owns, and Bob, the talking lizard who hangs out at the bar. And then there's Roscoe, Gaunt's old cig-smoking partner in the police force.
These first issues include a trip to the outskirts of the city, where Gaunt forms an uneasy partnership with Jericho Noleski, cop-with-attitude-and-a-mean-bike; a look at politics in Cynosure (about as corrupt as you'd expect), and an encounter with The Law Killers, a band of bounty hunters with whom Gaunt used to ride, and led by Major Lash, a man who cannot die because he has no soul. At this point, Gaunt meets a young woman named Spook - who turns out to be a real ghost - who becomes his lover for a while.
This sequence comes to a climax in #18-20, "The Trade Wars", as various commercial (and other) forces in Cynosure battle to take control of the city, as Gaunt and his friends do their bit to try to bring the killing to an end. Gaunt feels he bears some responsibility for the Wars since it was a letter he wrote that touched off the fighting - never mind that this happened because the person who was guarding it (an early recurring character) was killed by a psychopath who turns out to be Gaunt's son and circumstances spiraled beyond Gaunt's control. As the fighting plays out, Gaunt's left hand is mangled and rendered nearly useless. In #21 Gaunt nearly succumbs to depression and suicidal impulses, but wins through in a funny and touching story about what he means to his friends.
If all this sounds a bit soap-opera-like, well, sometimes it is, but there's a lot of good stuff and variety in here, largely thanks to Ostrander's take-no-prisoners writing style. The next set of issues, #20-28, are illustrated by Tom Sutton, who isn't the draftsman that Truman is, but whose raw, angry energy fits the series to a T. Ostrander enjoyed playing with fairly standard mystery set-pieces, and twisting them by mixing them with horror elements, and often having things turn out badly (usually because the situation is untenable to begin with). It's grim stuff.
For me, the series peaked in issues #26-27, when a magically-animated android named Kalibos returns to Cynosure to wreak mayhem. Kalibos is a dark one, having fought on the side of hell in the Demon Wars, and disguising itself by flaying the skin from its victims and wearing it.
Ostrander plays a hand with science fictional cards in #30 when the lead character from another comic, a giant robot named Dynamo Joe, accidentally lands in a magickal zone in Cynosure and becomes sentient. (Dynamo Joe is another terrific comic from First Comics.)
After this, Tom mandrake comes on board as the artist for #31-54. Ostrander and Mandrake became fast friends while working together, and have produced many other comics as a team. Unfortunately, I'm just not a Mandrake fan: I find his artwork stilted and muddy, and I felt his run on GrimJack represented a low point for the comic.
During this period, Gaunt and Spook return to her homeworld where she's laid to rest (after much thrashing about). Later Roscoe, upon learning of Spook's death, sputters "Who would have the power to kill a ghost?" to which Gaunt simply responds, "Me." Gaunt followed her soon after, though, being offed by Major Lash and the Law Killers. Unfortunately, from his vantage point in heaven Gaunt sees his body being used to as a tool of another faction in Cynosure, and he elects to return to the material world by inhabiting a clone body grown by a scientist of his acquaintance.
Unfortunately, Gaunt learns that you can't just walk out of heaven without consequence, as he encounters himself in a future incarnation, and learns that as long as Cynosure endures he will continue to be reincarnated and remember all his past lives - a sort of eternal, incarnate hell. Gaunt is skeptical, of course, and prevents "FutureJack" from destroying the city.
The final turn of the comic occurs in #55, with the addition of Flint Henry as artist. Henry has some of the draftsmanship of Truman and some of the wild abandon of Sutton, but isn't quite as good as either of them, although his edgy vision of Cynosure works for this storyline. Here, we learn that Gaunt has in fact been reincarnated, some decades after his death, and remembers both his preppie childhood as "James Edgar Twilley" and his past life as John Gaunt. He reclaims ownership of Munden's Bar (hint: if you know you're going to be reincarnated, it's not a bad idea to start preparing now) and sets up shop again as a gun-for-hire.
In this life, though, Gaunt doesn't have the good friends he did in his past. The Twilley family believes he's mentally disturbed (ah, if only they knew...) and tries to get him cured. Mundens' former owner, a slug (literally) named Skorzny, wants Gaunt dead. A tantric sorceress named Leila uses Gaunt and his submerged psychic talents for her own ends (and vice-versa).
Although little of this sequence - which runs for the remainder of the series - is brilliant, there are some fine moments, such as Gaunt confronting his high school friends and facing the fact that he is both Gaunt and Twilley. But Gaunt is too full of anger and frustration in this incarnation, and everything barrels to a bad end at the close of the series, following a running backup series called "Youngblood" detailing Gaunt's early years. The comic was intended to continue in another form, but the implosion of First Comics prevented that from happening.
GrimJack represents one of the most consistent, well-rounded worlds in comic books, with an array of well-defined characters both likeable and loathed. The first 36-or-so issues stand up nicely with the best that comics have to offer, and it might appeal to fans of horror and hard-boiled mysteries alike. If we're lucky, maybe someday Ostrander will be able to get the rights to his creation and produce some more.