Get A 'Grip' On This Goofy Noir Sci-Fi Tale
Remember how it felt when, as a kid, you opened up a fresh-from-the-library book to discover the illustrations weren't in color? It wasn't a good feeling. Most of us still have a foot planted firmly in childhood when it comes to the ol' rainbow. It means that sticking to black and white — whether it's to save money on your independent film or to approximate high-end austerity in an Ikea-furnished apartment — usually entails a sensory sacrifice.
But in the case of the reissue of Gilbert Hernandez's Grip: The Strange World of Men, a black-and-white palette confers benefits all its own. The editors at Dark Horse Books haven't just done without color — they've stripped out the carnival hues Hernandez chose when he created this comic for Vertigo in 2002. As a result, the new Grip is less zany and more mythic than the original incarnation. Thick lines and minimal shading give these pages the same luscious tactility of Hernandez's famous Love and Rockets and Palomar sagas — other mostly black-and-white works in which the absence of color lent an iconic quality to the proceedings.
The editors have left in just one startling touch of red: On the otherwise austere cover, they've picked out bleeding, flower-shaped bullet holes and a lipstick print. Grip, the cover promises, will be stylish and dangerous, sexy and noir. But as it turns out, it's pretty much the opposite of all those things. Hernandez organizes his story around pulp-comic tropes, giving each chapter a cover like "Grippingly Romantic Western Mystery" or "Mysterious Grip of Laughs," but the story is far too weird to be anything but sci fi.
At first, it's true, things do have a noir flavor about them. The (sort of) protagonist, a young man with no memory and the aforementioned lipstick on his cheek, must face off against the local crime bosses with the help of a long-haired, bearded hood who claims to be his friend. But the Overboys, as they're called, look more like bankers than thugs, and they're suddenly dispatched by a couple of babes in boots and shades called the Mystery Girls. These women know something about the hero, whose name seems to be Mike Chang, and who appears to be connected to any number of other strange individuals: a grandmotherly woman with a disfigured dog, a young girl with an eye patch and extraordinary mental powers, and two little people in love.
If this is all starting to sound arbitrary, it does feel that way — that is, until the real plot emerges. Mike Chang, we learn, grew up in an underground lab out in the desert, where he was treated as a god by a bunch of acolyte-scientists. As a result of their ministrations, he's able to slip out of his own skin and walk around. His skin has some sort of life of its own, too, as do his clothes. The questions of what the full range of his powers are and how he came into existence are genuinely interesting — to say more would give too much away — and the sudden shift from the noir plot into sci fi is jarring but satisfying.
By the end of the book, most of the weirdest aspects of Mike Chang's story have been explained — an unusual state of affairs for a surrealist work. But Grip doesn't have the symbolic resonance of most surrealism, either. The symbols don't strike off or build upon one another.
What, then, makes Grip so intriguing? Basically, it's the goofy joy that bounces around unfettered throughout the story. The asides are priceless: A police detective, encountering the little people's car, notes into his tape recorder, "One of the vehicles has got brake and gas pedal extensions. Must belong to a dwarf or to a real lazy person." With Grip, Hernandez seems to be saying the id doesn't have to be a scary thing. Or at least, if it is scary, it can also be silly — in color or in black and white.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at @EtelkaL.