One of Gilbert Hernandez's long-uncollected works will be uncollected no more, as Dark Horse has announced it will release a hardcover edition of Grip, The Strange World of Men on July 2.
While the original 2002, five-issue miniseries was in color, the 128-page trade collection ($19.99) will be in black and white but will feature two new pages by the Love and Rockets co-author.
ROBOT 6 readers with good memories might recall that I wrote about Grip earlier this year, lamenting that it was, to my knowledge, the only work by Hernandez that had never been compiled into book form.
To describe Grip's plot takes some effort, as this is one of Hernandez's more surreal and deliriously and wacky stories, involving a wide cast that includes an amnesiac young man, a pair of police detectives, a trio of Amazonian adventurers, another trio of gun-wielding gangsters, a sweet little old lady, a dwarf couple and a little girl with an eyepatch. As I wrote in May:
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.
2013 has blessed us with a bumper crop of great books by Hernandez that includes the critically acclaimed Marble Season and Julio's Day, as well as Children of Palomar and Maria M. With Dark Horse planning to release Grip in addition to the collected edition of his more recent Fatima miniseries, it seems as though 2014 will continue that trend well into the new year.
I talked with Hernandez over the phone a few days before Thanksgiving about the new collection, the not-so-secret origins of Grip, and what else he's working on.
Chris Mautner: Grip originally came out around 2002, but to my knowledge it’s never been collected or published in any trade format until now. What took so long?
Gilbert Hernandez: Well, actually [that’s only] in America. In Spain it was collected. But ‘till now? There was no interest (laughs). I mean, as far as I know. The editor for Grip always pushed to have it collected in paperback, but I guess they had so many copies left they just didn’t bother.
Give me a little bit of history about the series. How did it come to be?
Part of it was I had worked with my editor Shelly Bond on Yeah! with Peter Bagge, and she asked, “Have you got a graphic novel in you?” I just gave it a go. I thought, “I’m going to do it the way I used to do it” – just a sci-fi romp as it were. I wanted to go nuts with my imagination.
It turns out it was a lot of extra work because I was dealing with Vertigo/DC, and they’re a little more hands-on with the editing, a little more in control about what’s going on. That was a little difficult for me because previously with Love and Rockets I just winged it, you know? And as far as the story goes I just wanted to do a fantastic story. I didn’t see doing many of those [types of] stories in the future, so I thought “Why don’t I just do it now, get it out of my system and go as wild as possible within Vertigo’s editorial demands?” So that was it really, just a stream of consciousness, crazy story.
Were you improvising the story as you went along or did you have a basic outline before you started?
I had a rough outline that was mostly in my head. Working closer to an editor than I ever did before, you change your course a lot. So whatever I came up with in the beginning was changed a lot as I went along.
Can you give me an example?
Not so much with Grip. It was more with Sloth, the book I did after that. That went to different roads. Grip wasn’t so bad about that. Even though it was so nutty I didn’t have too [many] problems.
I remember the first issue had problems with it. The editor and her boss didn’t feel they were connected to it. So I kept rewriting dialogue and it wasn’t working, so I basically rewrote the entire book with captions and dialogue. I’ve got to find my notes, but there’s a whole issue or two of Grip written [in a] completely different [style] because I used captions instead of thought balloons. That was the only time. I learned a lot.
Having no editorial interference with Fantagraphics, did you get any takeaways from the more hands-on relationship at DC/Vertigo?
It benefited me quite a bit, actually. Right before Love and Rockets, I was telling my stories more like a mainstream comic, [with] big splash pages and stories that start on the left-hand side and end on the right-hand side. Things like that: Using a large panel and starting a scene at the beginning of the page, real simple stuff like that. That’s what I used to do normally.
And then once I started doing Love and Rockets, I dropped all that and started telling the story straight through – starting scenes in the middle of a page or even at the bottom of a page, that kind of thing, I got used to that, so going to DC and being reminded of what [makes for] a better read for the reader who grabs a book and opens it up, you know where you are right away just with panel arrangements and where a scene begins and ends. I was reminded of that and had to restructure the way I was doing my comics. I just learned a lot on how to make the story more direct and easy for the reader to jump into.
You’re working with a very large cast in Grip. Do you prefer working with a larger group of characters versus just one or two people?
At the time I was still coming off doing Palomar and Love and Rockets stories, which had lots of characters, so that was actually the norm for me. For Grip – and I won’t tell you which ones – there are about three or four too many characters in it (laughs). But … the characters are all spread out. They weren’t all together like in Palomar. In those days I did like using a lot of characters. Now I’ve narrowed it down to just a few.
Where did you get the idea for people being able to literally shed their skin?
I don’t know. A psychologist friend of mine said I was basically shedding my skin after Palomar. It wasn’t conscious. I’m trying to go back to those years and [remember] what weird comics or movies I saw that influenced me to do that and I can’t remember. A lot of times the crazy stuff I do in my comics come from my unconscious. I find out later where I might have picked up that idea.
Around the same time you had just finished doing the New Love series, your mini-series of experimental work (collected as Fear of Comics). I wondered if that informed Grip at all.
It probably did because New Love was done after Love and Rockets and I just wanted to move away from the continuity with all the characters, especially a close community like Palomar. I wanted to move away from that for a while and use my imagination, cause when I was a kid, more often than not I used my imagination to draw comics. But then with Palomar I became more focused on telling a story and being more down to earth – not with the stories, but with the characters. So I just wanted to break free from that and Grip was a place to do that.
Another influence seems to be Birdland, not just with the large cast, but also the wacky interplay and shifting relationships.
Well Birdland was supposed to be a break from my Palomar stuff but once again it got convoluted, overly plotted. That’s just where my brain was. I just happen to have a really, really busy brain.
That was a period in Love and Rockets and other projects where I didn’t want to curb it. I wanted to go as far as I could, where my imagination would take me. Unfortunately, my brain is so busy it makes for very busy and clotted comics. Poison River, Love and Rockets X and Birdland are done around the same time and they’re all told the same way, in this rapid-fire, really super-dense way. I can’t even look at my old comics (laughs). I just decided to spread them out and slow it down and I’m actually happier doing it this way.
I was going to ask if you went back and look at Grip at all. There’s an interview on the AV Club where you call it a “failed experiment.”
I was just downplaying it because that was the response it got. I wasn’t going to argue with anybody. Looking back at it, it’s so weird. My brain is so busy. I look back and I don’t even remember coming up with this stuff. There’s stuff in Poison River where I’m like, “Where the hell did that come from?”
I think this is one of your first comics where you’re consciously playing with genre, in that you have thriller and sci-fi elements, and there is this big, action-film blowout at the end. It seems like you’re consciously playing with genres in a way that you do in some of your more recent books like Chance in Hell or Love from the Shadows. Did Grip help you work in genres more comfortably?
Probably. Every book I do becomes an exercise for making the next book better. So Grip was one of those very difficult books to try to just push myself to do and I had to do it pretty quickly and work closely with an editor. It was real work even though it comes off as light and goofy and nutty.
It’s also one of the few works of yours that is in full color.
Yeah, that was the chance to do a full-color comic, so I thought of a lot of stuff I would like to see in color.
Did you change your approach to drawing because it was going to be in color?
Just simpler lines, not emphasizing so much on cross-hatching and playing with the black and white imagery. I kind of made it look like a coloring book. And I was drawing much larger because normally I don’t draw that large. You have to draw a certain size for mainstream comics and it’s a lot larger than what I normally draw so I was able to go nuts with the brushwork. That was a lot of fun.
Did you try working larger again after that?
Only with Vertigo books and now with Dark Horse books. They just like you to use larger-sized paper.
You’ve had a really prolific year this year. I know some of it is compilations of earlier material, but there was Marble Season, Julio’s Day, Maria M., the new Love and Rockets, and that’s not including all the L&R tribute books that have come out. I think at least one person declared 2013 the year of Gilbert Hernandez.
That means nothing to the mainstream. That means nothing to Comic-Con or the Eisners.
Well, for you personally, does this year feel different for you in any way? Does the sheer fact that you have this volume of books out have any special significance for you?
It does actually because both Marble Season and Julio’s Day are books I’m very proud of because they are books that are closer to what I’ve been trying to achieve. With Maria M. I’ve always wanted to tell that story condensed in one place instead of serialized in Love and Rockets and make – not a cleaned-up version but a tighter version. [Something] a little more direct is what I was interested in. It furthers the personalities of the characters. Even though it’s based on Luba’s mother it still reflects a lot on how the characters are part of that story.
That and then the reprint book of Children of Palomar, I got to have a new Palomar book that not a lot of people saw, so that was fun. Yeah, I’m happy just because of the actual books and luckily they all came out in one year. The actual books are what I’m pushing myself to go for and improve on.
Getting back to Grip for a second, how was it received at the time?
I guess it did OK, 'cause they let me do a graphic novel after that. But it didn’t change the world. It didn’t change anyone’s mind at Vertigo. It was just another one of their books. That’s OK with me.
The reason I want books like that to do well, more than “Oh, I want more reviews or awards” – it’s not anything to do with that – I just want to establish myself as someone who can do books like that. In my position, I’m always looking for the next book that’s going to do me good. In that way I just wish the books would do better. It’s not necessarily that I’m looking to be called some genius. Books like [Grip], I just like doing them. Cause there’s that and then there’s Fatima, the zombie comic I did for Dark Horse. I also did Girl Crazy.
The thing I have to say about Girl Crazy, Fatima and Grip, if they feel unfinished it’s because they are. They were meant to be series. All those books were meant to be series.
Yeah, but no one wanted to continue them (laughter). That’s why they feel like they’re just starting at the end of the story. It’s because I wanted to continue them but there was just no interest in it.
Will the collected version of Grip contain any new or ancillary material?
I didn’t really have notes for that one. The Fatima collection does have an extended epilogue and this and that. Oh, I did add two pages at the beginning [of Grip], just to clarify what happens later on.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on my next graphic novel for Drawn and Quarterly. It’s called Bumper Head. Instead of the life of a 10-year-old boy, it’s the life of a guy in his late teens.
Completely different. Completely isolated from that work. It’s probably not going to get the joyful response Marble Season did, because it’s more specific about being a teen-ager and being into rock and roll music. That’s where you start to lose people. Marble Season is about all of our childhoods. Even though the details are different, it’s pretty much about all of us. But my next book is about some of us.(laughs). It’s a little more specific to a certain type of person.