Well, it’s 4/20 and I have a Read Pile with the word “Grass” in the title.
HA! Am I clever or what?
That’s definitely a way to ensure today’s post gets both the right and wrong types of attention.
Seriously though, this post doesn’t really have anything to do with that other than the notion that the main characters are part of a “counter culture” type commune, so they most likely thumb their noses at any sort of government regulation including that surrounding occasional recreation drug use. So if you showed up for some discussions on the green leaf instead of some in-depth analysis of a pretty decent indie comic book you might not have heard about previously, then yes, Virginia, you have been catfish-ed.
But that being said, here’s hoping that you stick around long enough to get a eye full of said review because it’s definitely been a comic that I’ve been meaning to talk since at least the beginning of the year. That was about the time that I started into somewhat of a now “not so” secret pact with my wife to read twice as many indie comic series in 2020 as I did in 2019 in hopes of expanding our comic book horizons. This was especially true in regards to those indie books which either won or were nominated for Eisner awards in the past couple years, given they would be the cream of the crop.
Over a quarter of the way through the year, I have to admit that I haven’t done the best with this goal, but at least the COVID isolation has given me time to polish off a couple that I had stacked up, including this one which was nominated for both best writer for Matt Kindt and best new series overall back in 2018.
So without further ado, here comes a review of the first volume of high drama in a small off the grid shanty town. It’s Grass Kings by Matt Kindt and artist Tyler Jenkins from Boom! Studios.
10 Cent Synopsis:
For 100 years, the independent community of Grass Kingdom has led a modest self sufficient existence away from the prying social strain of the rest of the United States. Nestled on the banks of a great lake, the small shanty town like nation state is ruled by the eldest of three brothers, Robert, although since the disappearance and possible death of his daughter Rosa, he has given up most of the day to day governing activities to his brother, Dave, who acts as Grass Kingdom’s lawman.
This all changes when a mysterious young woman named Maria is pulled from the lake by Robert one evening. Claiming to the abused wife of Sheriff Hubert of the nearby town of Cargill, she swam across the lake in search of asylum and possibly a new life.
The appearance of young woman galvanizes the perpetually drunken Robert to clean up his act as it were and come to her defense, especially when Hubert comes knocking, demanding the return of his “property”.
What follows is a standoff between the police force of Cargill and the residents of the Grass Kingdom over the principles of freedom, and it’s a standoff that’s about to get ugly.
Oh…and there’s a possible serial killer stalking both towns adding to the suspense…
Initial Thoughts :
It’s always about a dame, right? Going as far back as Homer’s epic poem, The Illad, it always boils down to a woman. That’s the spark, the catalyst, the initial drive to send men to war although they often pile on other reasons on top of it to help make the reason to kill, mame, and conquer. And from that perspective, Grass Kings is actually a very “old” story.
In fact from the opening scenes which depict the former Native American inhabitants that used to call the land surrounding the lake which houses the current “Grass Kingdom”, it seems as if this story desperately wants to evoke thoughts of some sort of bygone era. And honestly, as I was reading it, I felt like it should have stayed in the past.
You know how I mention that at times there are things that take me out of the narrative, challenge that old suspension of disbelief. And the most positive suggestion I would have about this book would be that it would been easier to tell if it took place in the old west. More of a frontier style tale, about settlers that thumbed their noses at the established United States at the time and attempted to create their own sovereign community in some uncharted part of the Pacific Northwest. Sort of like what Brigham Young did with the Mormon communities that settled in the Salt Lake City region to escape what they viewed as religious prosecution.
However as a modern story about a group of “off the grid” libertarian types trying this kind of stuff in our modern interconnected society, it actually made them seem more like one of those cults that you hear about on the news every so often. Doomsday preppers defending their compound from outsiders with illegal firearms before they are swatted down by the ATF in a bloody standoff that lasts for days while cable news networks rake in the dollars from providing media coverage. Whether it’s Waco, Jonestown, or the Rajneeshpuram group from Wild, Wild Country, these types of fringe communities don’t last very long in grand scheme of things before the government comes down on them hard.
So the basic premise of the Grass Kingdom, enforcing their borders with violence and firearms that include a Gatling gun style machine gun turret, and doing so for nearly 100 years, that just doesn’t ring true. In fact, at one point towards the end of the first volume, Hubert threatens Dave with calling in the SWAT teams and wiping their little community off the face of the Earth, to which I said to myself: “I doubt Hubert needs to call anyone. I’m sure the Grass Kindgom in on some federal watch-list already and the fact that they shot a sheriff and several other law officers has not gone unnoticed”.
I guess there’s a possibility that we may get more information on how the Grass Kingdom has remained untouched throughout all these years of tax dodging and gun hording in future volumes, but for right now, it just didn’t sit right with me. For a book that strives to be realistic in terms of it’s dialogue, human interaction, and emotion, it seems like a large enough plot hole to create a pretty shaky premise.
But who knows? I might be incredibly naive. There might be communities like this living all over the US, and I don’t even know about it. Personally, I just think I would have to even think about that aspect of the story, if it had just been set in the Old West.
Or Post Apocalyptic times…that’s honestly what I thought the book was about from the front cover…
Often times with this section of my reviews, I talk about some pop culture related aspect of the book in question. Unfortunately, other than mentioning that Legendary Pictures as optioned the rights to turn the Grass King series into a television show at some point, there’s not much more I can say.
So instead, I’m going to circle back to another comic book series I covered just last week with my “Current Favorites” discussion of Alan Moore’s Tom Strong. As I mentioned in that previous article, this is a series I’ve been reading a couple issues at a time in between other books as a form of comic book multi-tasking. As such at the time I wrote last week’s article, I had not yet gotten to what I consider 2 of the most satisfying comic issues I’ve read in some time in Tom Strong issues #11 & #12, also known as Crisis on Terra Obscura.
Basically, these issues showcase an alternate version of Tom Strong named Tom Strange who is one of premiere superheroes of a parallel Earth on the other side of the galaxy. When evil robots start transforming his Earth into a gigantic spaceship after laying waste to a lot of the superhero community there, Tom Strange, who is pretty much akin to Superman, runs and I definitely mean “runs”, for nearly 30 years at the speed of light across the cosmos to Tom Strong’s Earth to enlist his great intelligence in overcoming the threat.
What follows in one of the most wonderfully well written “Justice League/Avengers” type stories that I’ve read in quite some time, rivaling some issues of Astro City in terms of making analogs for some of the most well known superheroes out there like Batman, Captain America, and others and telling fascinating one off tales which grip at the heart strings.
It’s another gleaming example of why I like “What If…?” type stories and find them so much more interesting than anything mainstream continuity can offer with these characters.
Now, you can look at this review as offering up two great books you should pick up and read at your leisure instead of just one. Again that’s, Tom Strong issues #11 & #12 and…
…Grass Kings volume 1 is a book you should read. It does boast some gorgeous art from Tyler Jenkins what with the water colors and pastoral motif. Heck, even in the midst of the shootout between the Grass Kingdom followers and the police, never I have I seen a hand being blown off and the resulting bloodspray look like it should have been framed on someone’s living room wall.
I especially liked the flashback scenes which were even more dreamlike in their one or two color palettes with floating wraith like characters, and march against Hubert in defense of his little town. Those scenes with Robert being re-imagined as a medieval style knights on horseback fighting blackened trolls and monsters all the while mirroring a children’s story used to tell his daughter, Rosa, are incredibly well done from an artistic perspective.
Overall it reminded me a lot of the works of American illustrator, Charles Reid, with the overlapping colors, commitment to realistic human expression, and use of white space to really make the images pop. I didn’t even mind the fact that Robert looked like the late great Tom Petty in pretty much every scene. Although a little bit jarring at first, I came to accept it and even started picturing Tom’s voice every time would speak which actually heightened my enjoyment of the book.
As for people speaking, despite what I said in my initial thoughts about the believablity, I do feel that if you can get passed that “buy in” for the narrative, the rest of the writing by Matt Kindt is top notch especially in regards to the story line of Robert coming to grips with the death of his child and lost of his marriage. Those scenes in the end of chapter 6 when Robert goes and visits his ex wife, not to beg for her to take him back, but just as a way to say he’s sorry for the mistakes he’s made, is such a wonderfully human moment that you can’t help but get a little misty eyed when reading it. Conversely, the pain and anguish that Maria has when she sees Hubert and shoots him in the gut without blinking an eye is equally as powerful but for the opposite reasons.
The story is well paced, the characterization strong, and the unfolding mystery of a possible serial killer dwelling among the Grass Kingdom faithful does grab the reader and propel them into wanting to read more. So from the perspective of getting a narrative “foot in the door”, Grass Kings volume 1 does a good job in doing that.
So in the end, maybe I’m nitpicking about the general premise of an idealized “off the grid” community being allowed to exist in modern times, and how outrageous that sounds. Maybe I should just focus on the strong writing and artwork?
Nah…that premise is bonkers. That takes it down a letter grade…
Andy’s Read Pile Grade: B