Grunt: The Art and Unpublished Comics of James Stokoe – James Stokoe, Daniel Chabon (editor)

5 out of 5

Firstly: buy this friggin’ fraggin’ book.  Er, okay, I mean, look at the cover and then decide; if the name James Stokoe – the man behind the brilliance of Orc Stain – doesn’t already make you scrabble to plonk down dollars, then glancing at any given page will tell you if he’s yer guy or not.

Of the hyper-detailed vein of Geoff Darrow, blended with some of the frenetic oddness of fellow ‘Yosh Comics’ studio member Brandon Graham, topped with the psychedelic color scheme of Brendan McCarthy, Stokoe’s work is of a type, but it’s also instantly recognizable by not being exactly a copy of any of those.  Stokoe also, in my opinion, exceeds those guys by always maintaining readability while also always one-upping himself: every James Stokoe cover and page is shifted into his other-worldly weirdness, but by the same token, whether it’s French fiction or Marvel heroes he’s detailing, the extras and details he tosses in are a fit for the subject.  So it’s not just James inserting X character into his scenes, it’s him inserting himself into that character’s world and then painting over it with his own brush and brain.  It’s glorious.

And so it’s the perfect kind of stuff you want to just look at, and re-look it; I don’t get bored studying James’ work, and having several of his covers and pieces side by side is all the better.  He’s oeuvre is also such that it rewards seeing it grow over time, and Grunt gives us early, unfinished comics alongside bits and bobs (and unpublished bits and bobs) from Wonton Soup, Orc Stain, his Godzilla, and his Aliens, so you get a sense not only of pinups but of his sequential work, printed in slightly over-sized bright and clean color, with full-bleed, thick pages.

Now, there are a few hinky bits in the collection, so I’m admittedly letting my bias bump this to five stars.  One: while the binding is sturdy and the book is flippable, the spine is maybe a bit too tight for showing off the splash page work, which is relatively frequent.  Details (and the edge of panels in the sequential parts) get lost in the crack, which is a damn shame.  Two: this is nit-picky, but I hate that there’s not a table of contents.  In art books, especially, you remember something you want to go back to and find yourself flipping back and forth between pages, only to realize it’s in a different section of the book.  There are page numbers; there should be an index.  Third: this falls under more of an opinion, but I wish there had been more process pages.  We get some Orc Stain sketches – and maybe Stokoe doesn’t keep process pages, but I would’ve loved to have seen how his stuff goes from idea to a final.  Along these lines, the lack of any explanation behind the unfinished work is sort of a bummer – what were these for?  Why were they unpublished?  There’s even a short bit that has no title, leaving it kind of floating in the ether for identifying what it was or is.  In place of these things, we do get a hilarious comic introduction from Stokoe, describing (and showing) him as a ‘misbegotten species’ known as the Speckled James Stokoe.  Had the book closed with a similar zinger, I likely would have forgotten the issues listed above.

But I still wouldn’t hesitate to encourage: buy, buy, buy.  Dark Horse’s art books are generally of a certain level of quality, and this follows suit.  If not for James penchant for filling up every inch of his page with stuff you want to slobber over, the splash page thing would obviously have been a non-issue, and the amazingness of the material – supposing, again, that it’s a style you enjoy – is absolutely worth the cover price.