Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, opened twice monthly to champion a book that we adore. This week Arpad recommends the hardcover edition of ‘Grunt: The Art and Unpublished Comics of James Stokoe’, out May 22 from Dark Horse Comics.

'Grunt: The Art and Unpublished Comics of James Stokoe': DoomRocket's Required Reading
Cover to ‘Grunt: The Art and Unpublished Comics of James Stokoe’. Art: James Stokoe/Dark Horse Comics

by Arpad OkayHere comes alligator overload. Get out the goddamn magnifying glass. Classical draughtsman chops collide with retro Fire and Ice aesthetics to spin out something knobbed, scaled, wreathed in smoke, steeped in street culture. We’re going to get Grunt and good grief it’s gratuitous.

Throughout Grunt, we get multiple servings of James Stokoe’s favorite dishes. Science fiction armor and ancient religious imagery. Fantasy forbidden palace architecture rendered as realistically as possible. Central American ceremonial garb as seen in the pages of a Monster Manual. Actual food. Stokoe lingers on the connection between organic sprawl and ingredients and the intricate creations of man’s hand.

Think of its wackadoodle humor and gritty tendencies as some kind of alternative world Eastman and Laird. The joint has been dipped in formaldehyde and every pore on a face is brought into high relief, each speck of dirt and inner ooze crawling its way out of skin, growing its own head, and staring back at its creator. Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot amount of detail—texture, intricacy, omnipresent street detritus—that makes the eyes fold in on themselves before the circuit breakers pop and your brain fries. Vaughn Bodē risky, underground in style, and 2000 AD pulpy in story. Mix in a heavy dose of Snarfquest and you’re ready to Grunt.

Stokoe’s style is detailed but cartoonish, a symphony of unrelenting organic alien textures. A honeycomb of eyes, mouths, and ears. The bumpers, pipes, and bolts fastened over every surface of lurid fantasy future tech. Each individual ingredient in a soup dish. Studs on a gauntlet. And his staging is cinematic, striking. Fascinating layouts that rely heavily on using the height of the page to script in dynamic long vertical takes.

Funny in a smirking way when Stokoe wants it to be. But his roots are in classical illustration. The sketchbook work is Romantic and trained and dense. He leaves a lot of it for the inks (his sketches are nearly flawless anyway), but leaves out what suits the mood to lose. Stokoe is consistent and recognizable without being one-note.

His franchise work is straight bananas. Got the Alien stuff, perfect for Stokoe. The insectoid textures Giger loved worming their way up and out of the ropey gristle of tendons, muscle, and human insides. Then there’s his Marvel Battleworld covers, a hundred Silver Surfers who are every hero, a pile of MODOKs who are also everybody but as a big head in a chair. Same for Hulks and Devil Dinosaurs. Head Lopper, Troll Hunter, Stokoe gives us demons in quantity. Legion.

For me, the real charm of Grunt is in all the unfinished or semi-finished pencil sketches. This is a book for those who still luxuriate in drawings, turning pages, arts of old. Anatomical cross sections of monstrosities you wouldn’t want to explore the insides of. Pin up girls who wear and wield weapons that come from tropical lizards. Big fat dude butts and alarming orc penis.

To see these intense, frequently brutal worlds rendered in the delicate pencilwork of a sketchbook—it’s a blast. That tenderness is the spark. Quiet solemnity to hardened marauders. How gently monsters are often brought into life. To dive into the guts of an artist, to see the frail figures whose bones hold up a world of chaos.

Stokoe’s imagination is a fierce resource that could power rockets. We get close to that in Grunt. What makes him such a modern legend is that he is mad, yes, but he has the skill and patience to show us clearly what those frightening visions of his are. Stokoe makes the images real. What’s more, makes them tread a line between real and unreal, visually diverse and uncertain, stately museum pulp trash, dark portraits of the raw mind.

Dark Horse Comics / $39.99

Written by James Stokoe.

Illustrated by James Stokoe.

Lettered by James Stokoe.

‘Grunt: The Art and Unpublished Comics of James Stokoe’ hits stores May 22.You can pre-order it now. (Diamond Code: JAN190469)

Enjoy this 4-page preview of ‘Grunt: The Art and Unpublished Comics of James Stokoe’, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics!

More Required Reading…

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‘Crowded’ a far-too fun ride though a hellish, commodified future