Paul Grist: white panel blues

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(An interview with British cartoonist Paul Grist about his work and in particular Kane and Jack Staff will appear here shortly. At one point I wrote an introduction to that interview, which has since become, very probably, surplus to requirements. This is what it said.)

Seventeen years after the thought to do it first crossed my mind, I finally interviewed Paul Grist.

Back then it was because I wanted to gush about Kane, a comic strip whose energetic layouts and clear understanding of how cartooning actually works had felt like a slap in the face, just at the time when mainstream comics and I were calling it quits due to irreconcilable boredom.

Plus it was conspicuously full of love for Hill Street Blues, and any friend of Lieutenant Howard Hunter is all right by me.

Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics landed on my coffee table at about the same time, complete with McCloud’s theories about the effect of cartoons on the human mind, their power locked in place even before someone first scratched a figure onto the wall of a cave. Ten minutes of reflection on my part was enough to spot that Grist had proved the point beyond all refutation, by latching the impact of cartoon figures and the drama inherent in creative page layouts onto an ongoing cop opera, and then absorbing the bathos-rich tactics of Steven Bochco – apparently through his skin.

Witness Kane, a story fully stocked with ambiguous, shady characters of dubious criminality and unclear motivations, many of whom happen to be serving police officers in the city of New Eden. In a move almost radical for the mid-1990s, Grist opted out of reliance on all the damp erotic frustrations and black widows that would have dragged his book into conventional noir country. He certainly declined to dive head first into the soft source as Frank Miller’s Sin City had done, the biggest single reason why reviewers trying to yoke the two books together could find themselves tied in knots.

Instead of such simple pastiche, Kane set about doing something more interesting. The glory of Kane’s high contrast black-and-white artwork is that despite the million watts of illumination apparently blazing down from the gantry, everything stays as murky as ever. Sharply delineated individuals of messy and unclear morality; such a potent mix for drama.

imageThis is the currency of Grist at his best: anxiety, focused by the lines of perspective and accumulating in the space the artist chooses not to touch. One great beauty of comics storytelling lies in all the undrawn bits between panels, and in Grist’s art that ambiguity gets absorbed back into the panels themselves. It lurks behind the eyes of the unfortunate Mister Ween thanks to the artful caricature, but more to the point it hangs in the air around him in all that pitiless negative space. Grist taps this vein consistently; the fear of a white panel.

Kane looked all set to roll on forever, a nest of shifting allegiances in which the plot could be misdirected onto a new path at any point its creator required, just by the reveal that yet another established character had feet of clay. But things never came to a head. Whatever Grist’s final destination was, it was receding into the distance one issue at a time. The last issue, suitably titled Killing The Hero, looped the story’s flashback structure further into the past than ever, pausing on the way to repeat an earlier affectionate dig at costumed superheroes as the products of mildly unhealthy minds and a mildly unhealthy business. Kane duly ended with the most emphatically Hill Street-flavoured episode of all.

All of which I had wanted to say years ago.

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These days, I wanted to ask about the inevitable compromises involved in Grist’s transformation from mainstay of the British small-press scene to long-term fixture at Image Comics, the US publisher whose house-style lay behind all the comics I was excitedly declining to look at in 1995.

This one turned out to be easily answered: He hardly compromised at all.

If Kane is Sin City policed by Frank Furillo, then Jack Staff is Hellzapoppin’ rebooted by Galton and Simpson.

The family resemblance is clear enough; all the parallel storytelling and shifting viewpoints and wry discontent, plus a hefty helping of the barmy, are present. But this time the mood is a fever, especially when the strip shifted into colour.  All the white space and looming blocks of black ink, last seen pushing Detective Kane into tight shadowy corners where his id was lurking, became tilt-a-whirl slabs of primary colours and perspectives slipping sideways off the leash, while Grist’s cast continually adjust their bewilderment threshold.

Hints of the bizarre used to turn up all the time in Kane, but it was mostly the madness of the urban nightmare, the skin-crawling unpleasantness of rotten tenements and rats in babies’ cradles, however cartoonishly rendered.

In Jack Staff, the universe is simply out of whack, built to the wrong blueprint, and the designer seems to have finally noticed. The series is a trippy, mournful hangover; it’s an underground comic from a more interesting Britain, one where Dreams Of The Rarebit Fiend somehow wound up in the back of Eagle.

Despite having more jokes per page than Kane, Jack Staff is even more clearly a serious product from a serious creator. It perfectly embodies another of Scott McCloud’s points: that cartooning can also be camouflage. The art is a giggle, the sight gags are a blast, the appearance of Dad’s Army in a World War Two flashback a moment of inspiration. But the style is also a beckoning trap-door into a story where getting away from your own history is so impossible that living embodiments of time itself turn up just to clock you over the head about it.

Where Kane is a punchy, emphatic treatment of sophisticated themes, a story about adults making bad decisions, Jack Staff is almost the reverse. Under Grist’s pen, a superhero strip is a fractured ramble through a universal idea, the one that says the past isn’t even past, for characters who seem stuck in a perpetual adolescence.

All of which is to say that Paul Grist is up there in the top flight of inventive comics creators. Almost a couple of decades later than planned, I got the chance to tell him.

(art by Paul Grist, scanned for review purposes. Copyright the respective publishers.)

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