"Dear Logan" in Strange Tales II #1. By Rafael Grampa. Marvel.
I believe I've said this before, but Rafael Grampa's 2008 graphic novel Mesmo Delivery hit like an atom bomb. The book is so fresh, so propulsive, so utterly drunk on its own stylishness that it requires less from the reader than pretty much any other comic on the stands. A pair of eyeballs is all you need to let yourself into Mesmo; Grampa's massively individual approach to the comics language, from caricature to color to staging, is enough to seduce just about anyone from there. It's such a unique, wild ride that I don't know how many of its readers will have given much thought to the possibility of Grampa's stylistic evolution. Myself included, plenty of folks would have been happy to read Mesmo variations for the next decade or so. Given the tiny amount of other visible Grampa comics work, I'd imagine that's what's expected of him to a certain degree. We haven't seen anything else he can do. And especially on a somewhat random Marvel anthology short that he pumped out in between pages of the creator-owned epic he's working on, it would have been a stretch to expect anything more than a reiteration of Mesmo's dark red, queasily humorous blood-churning aesthetic.
But the best are relentless. The best have a wanderlust that takes them deeper into who they are as artists with every page, every line, every decision made -- not just the ones in the big marquee books. And it's certainly looking a hell of a lot like Grampa is one of the best. Not only does this eight-page mature-readers Wolverine story swagger up to be counted among the current rash of instant classic superhero shorts, it sets the artist's personal bar even higher than his last comic took it, outpacing the art-brut Mesmo rocketship in a scattering of panels so indelible that they numb the fingers holding them.
While it's the story content that really puts "Dear Logan" in the stratosphere, Grampa's art deserves as much mention as anything that's been printed this year. The big steps forward are immediately noticeable: here Mesmo's dirty-OCD penmark flurries are ground up and sprinkled liberally over a backdrop of gravel-rough brush blacks that rival Paul Pope's for fluidity and Frank Miller's for brute strength. The gloom they hang from the ceilings gives the story a claustrophobic, thrashing feel entirely different from the hellish panoramas of Grampa's previous work -- perfect for a short piece that's got no time for explicit atmospherics. One look at the rusty, jagged blacks spreading out between the panel borders and we know exactly where we are. The brushwork's set off beautifully by streams of psychedelic color that dash through the slipstream mazes of the lines in nastied-up primary-tone derivatives. There's not a single shot in this story that depicts any natural light whatsoever, and Grampa takes full adavantage of his underground-boxing-club setting to slash the spray of cracked, multicolored klieg bulbs across his characters. Nothing is hidden in this comic -- the blurs of motion boil to the top in deadly accurate scabs of ink blotting, and the high-contrast color job brings out every last smudge and hair and bead of sweat on the bodies of those it lacerates.
Grampa's switched up his staging here, as well, and though it's certainly the product of necessity in a comic that has to begin and end in as much space as the best Mesmo sequences used to show maybe thirty seconds passing, he takes up the challenge and turns it out in style. Where Mesmo took pains to construct slow builds from pure-atmospheric silences to towering heights of violence, there's revelation in in utter noisemaking here. "Dear Logan" is a nonstop carnival of blood and dark absurdism on par with the best of Josh Simmons or Johnny Ryan, but Grampa takes up different threads of degradation -- desperate lives, psychological fugue states, sexual violence, plenty of samurai swords to guts -- and weaves them into a glittering tapestry of broken glass and trauma. It's like watching Mesmo get run through a blender, with all the crescendos and he-can't-get-away-with-that moments chopped together and held up with panel-gutter duct tape. There's no room for a build to the bang here: it's just scraping and slamming all the way through, getting louder and louder until everything cuts out for a final page of desolated silence. These layouts are full of money shots, points of impact stretched out in sharp processionals, and the panels that let us catch our breath are the still shots of monstrous fight promo posters or hearts flying through smoke-scented air. It's not all ugliness here, though. The refinement and consideration of Grampa's maximalist linework must be beheld to be believed, and the deep-focus establishing shots come close to Kurosawa in their harmonious placement of pictorial elements.
But most significantly, "Dear Logan" is an absolutely heartbreaking story. Stranded in the seething mass of bloat and spotted blacks that forms the audience for the story's mutant deathmatches is a beautiful woman, crying. Any eight-pager has to get a lot across with the pictures that can't fit in the words, but the sheer poetic power of that image as Grampa draws it is like a cold fist to the throat. It's especially revealing, especially touching, when we realize that this post-Lichtenstein vision of loveliness is the first actual attractive person to have made it into Grampa's comics, set down in the ugliest, most brutal environment he's ever drawn. Grampa isn't an artist who makes every woman some refined and gorgeous creature: his people are ugly in and out, playing the blackest of danse macabre roles across split, ruined inkscapes. As such, the image of a lovely person has no small amount of telegraphic effect: in this story about ugly people doing ugly things, we take it for granted that this woman's soul is as soft as her face. A reason for Grampa's blown-out, deathly setting appears. This is the world grace and good are given to survive in. The mere sight of something beautiful against this hideous background is touching. Witnessing its struggle against the stale, stenching darkness that fills its pores and brushes up against its hair is nothing less than tear-inducing.
And it's a monster of a struggle, to be sure. "Dear Logan" would be a supremely notable story even in the least of artistic hands, because it finally takes the Wolverine character to his logical conclusion. The man who can live through any wound, the man who's survived being burned alive, fragmented by bullets, ripped in half, blown up, stabbed, mauled, gassed, amputated, and reduced down to a single drop of blood only to rush back into the fray for more every time he heals finally gets his inner workings planed apart for all to see here. It's the only interpretation of the character that makes any sense, and Grampa pulls no punches: the vaunted Wolverine is a desperate masochist, a violent man who's not only learned to live with the pain but to draw his pleasure from it. A glazed, transported look comes into Logan's eyes when his claws rip through his skin, and in the fighting rings that he created he begs for his punishment, taking everything from ginsu knives to lawn darts under his rapidly repairing skin before letting loose in an orgasmic explosion of violence, ripping the heads from his tormentors.
This in itself is further than the character has gone before. But Grampa is nothing if not uncompromising, and in a move that I still can't believe got past Marvel editorial, he brings his story behind closed doors, showing us the sexual side of this bloody desperation. Our beautiful, crying girl has been shown the truth of violent men: in the red-lit room where the Claremont/Millar/Hama Wolverine we thought we knew would have taken her to the floorboards, Grampa's Wolverine, the real Wolverine, does something quite different, much realer. He lies down, hands her an awl and asks for punishment. She gives it to him, because it's Wolverine, because this is supposed to be the pinnacle of the animalistic sex thrill that's behind all these kinds of characters, but in the end she's covered in blood and unfulfilled and scared of herself. There's nothing to him that she wants anymore. The final page, that moment of silence, slowly drags the camera away from the man who was long the most enigmatic character in comics, leaving him behind in the empty locker room that's been his true home all along. Nothing left to see, no mysteries left to solve. This is the last Wolverine story.
Something that glories as hard and deep and unapologetically in pulp as "Dear Logan" is hardly the usual form of "literary comics", but I'll make the case for it nonetheless. Because they really do exist, you know: these violent men who punish themselves by hurting other people, these lost women who believe in the lie and get hurt either way. Sometimes it starts in a boxing ring. Sometimes the women are good women, even beautiful. This story may prominently feature Deadpool getting his head chopped off in a hail of perfectly drawn blood droplets as the crowd goes wild, but it's no less about a real thing, about a real kind of person who makes a real, often sad and confusing way through the real world just like the rest of us do. You may ask why Grampa doesn't just come straight with it and show us that man without the claws, without the healing factor, without the lucha mask and adamantium. But these men always have their weapons and their walls, and you may as well also ask why Burroughs made his evil men Venusians, why Wilde made Dorian Gray's sexuality a magic painting, why Dante made his Italy Inferno.
In "Dear Logan" there are men with metal skin and claws and hacked-off arms that grow back instantaneously. This enhances. It makes the real things so large we can't deny them, so immediate we can't look away. It makes this comic sell thousands as opposed to hundreds. This blood-drenched superhero boxing ring is the landscape where Grampa can best lay down his truths and his incredible art, where high fantasy can go further into the roping guts and intestines of violence than any reality, and pull more from them as well. That makes it interesting. But the ring's canvas still takes perspiration sweated out in a mix of lust and terror, and the floorboards still absorb the salt of tears cried by a good person who's been made to see the bad inside, and there's no fantasy, there's nothing superheroic about that. It's only life Grampa is putting down here -- the brutal side of life, the shriek, the crawl. That he uses our heroes to do it speaks to a bravery that no one in his story has.