Collect This Now! | Gilbert Hernandez's 'Grip'

What's that, you say? You find it hard to believe there's a comic book series by Gilbert Hernandez that's not only out of print but has never been collected in trade paperback?

Oh, but it's all too true. Read on to learn more ...

Grip: the Strange World of Men was a five-issue miniseries Hernandez published with Vertigo in 2002, right around the time he and his brother Xaime brought back Love and Rockets after a brief hiatus, this time in traditional comic-book size and format.

This wasn't the first work he produced for DC Comics – he did the all-ages series Yeah! with Peter Bagge from 1999 to 2000 – and wouldn't be the last (he wrote a handful of issues of Birds of Prey in 2003 and returned to Vertigo in 2006 to produce the stand-alone graphic novel Sloth). It is, however, the oddest work he did for that publisher and might well be one of the strangest, most off-kilter comics Vertigo has ever published. And I say that having read Rogan Gosh.

Hernandez has always had a yen for a large, wildly eccentric cast of characters and strange, supernatural plot devices, but Grip is something else entirely. The first issue alone introduces a multiracial group that includes an amnesiac young man, a pair of police detectives, a trio of Amazonian adventurers, another trio of gun-wielding gangsters, a seemingly sweet little old lady, a dwarf couple and a little girl with an eyepatch. Oh, and there's also a guy with a handlebar mustache, and a willowy stripper with impossibly huge breasts, who has bright pink/purplish hair for some reason.

The story begins with the amnesiac young man wandering around a nondescript city and being assaulted by some of the people mentioned above for reasons that are murky at best. The story takes an even stranger left turn, however, when the man literally loses his skin at the end of the first issue and starts walking around beaches spouting seemingly half-remembered phrases. The skin starts to take on a life of its own as well.

From that point Hernandez stirs in bizarre cults, mind control, messianic figures, a cute Michael Jackson reference, a huge shootout at the end where everyone dies (sorta) and a talking suit. Attempts are made in the ensuing issues to tie all of these seemingly disparate plot threads together -- although there are loose ends. (I'm not exactly clear why the dwarf couple is important to the main character's story or what the significance of the lipstick in Issue 1 is. Perhaps it's a red herring?)

Of all of Beto's comics, the tone of Grip resembles Birdland the closest in style and tone, although obviously there's much, much less explicit sex (however, Grip certainly as no problem with the occasional bit of gore and ultra-violence). It also feels like Hernandez is using the chance to break free of the character-driven, serious drama found in his Palomar stories and to indulge in a variety of genre styles (crime, sci-fi, mystery, etc.), but with a very light touch. In that sense, Grip points the way towards the more genre-inspired stories Hernandez has produced in recent years, like Speak of the Devil, The Troublemakers and Love in the Shadows.

It's also worth noting that this is one of Hernandez's few comics printed in full color. Colorist Pamela Rambo gives the comic a nice candy-color pop sheen throughout the series that underscores the goofball, "anything goes" tone the comic frequently strikes.

In an interview with The AV Club, Hernandez describes Grip as a "flawed experiment." That might be part of the reason why it's never been collected or reprinted. While I certainly wouldn't rank Grip along with Hernandez's best work – at times it feels like Hernandez came up with a series of indelible images and then tried to find a way to connect them all together –  it remains an fun and wacky carnival ride. Certainly it seems a shame that any work by one of the finest American cartoonists living today is not easily available to the public, let alone one this delightfully weird and silly.

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