In It's Grip

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In a move that seems more like a smart company's buy-in rather than an artist's sell-out, DC comics has just finished publishing Gilbert Hernandez' five-issue "Grip: The Strange World of Men." With his brother Jaime, Gilbert's work on "Love and Rockets" set the benchmark for an entire generation of post-underground comix artists. (They were selected as one of TIME's 21st Century Innovators.) Though the publisher better known for its superhero "properties" clearly didn't know quite what to do with it, Hernandez's "Grip" combines all the elements that have gone into making his work so celebrated.

"Grip" uses the 1950s crime, horror and sci-fi genre comicbooks as the guide for a new, postmodern comix narrative. Hernandez sets the tone by beginning each of the five issues with a full-page mock cover of a 10-cent pulp book: "Grip of Fear," "Grippingly Romantic Western Mystery," etc. But once inside, the rules have clearly changed. Freaks, unrepentant violence, monsters and sex have been jumbled into a dizzy story that sends up the genres it revels in as much as it honors them.

Page one, panel one: a well-dressed, handsome young man with lipstick on his cheek and a surprised look on his face asks, "What??" It's an appropriate question for a guy who doesn't know who he is or how he got there, and it's a question we'll be asking ourselves many times through the course of this series. But this sense of disorientation never feels out of Hernandez' control. Bouncing between the present and the past, the characters come on thick and fast: Tigre and Sammy, the tiny couple of questionable morals; Joe Hook, sporting a fu-Manchu and looking to boost his petty criminal rep; the Overboys, a criminal gang; the Mystery Girls, a crime-fighting duo; and Echo, the little girl with the mysterious eye-patch. They all swirl around this mystery man who turns out to be Michael Chang. Born in a secret compound, able to control men's minds, he can shed his skin like a suit. Is he a monster or savior?

Echo makes a friend in Gilbert Hernandez' "Grip"

In the end, we don't know; this tale doesn't really add up the way Hernandez' similarly deconstructed storylines have in the past. Nor does it have the emotional depth of his other stories. Still, Hernandez has a lot of fun spicing up the old conventions with farcical sex and violence. Like Robert Crumb, Hernandez seems to be blessed with the ability create things mostly for his own turn-ons that also work as art. Though a bit undeveloped in this series, he has always had a way with women characters in particular, somehow indulging in every imaginable fetishist "type" (included here: the voluptuous dwarf, the anorexic yet unaturally buxom stripper, and the usual amazons) while managing to give them some of the most credible and sympathetic voices in any medium. The absurd violence likewise plays with the old scenarios. Issue three begins with a daring horseback rescue that quickly ends with an explosion, raining horse and man over the desert.

Unlike nearly all of Gilbert's previous work, "Grip" has been published in color. This makes sense for a send-up of the old four-color books. The bright color scheme combined with Hernandez' thick-lined, cartoony drawing style makes for a more punchy comedic effect than his black and white work.

Gross, creepy, sexy, action-packed and weird, "Grip: The Strange World of Men," completely satisfies your basic comix needs. For years Gilbert Hernandez has weaved the themes of pulp comicbooks into his narratives. Now he has put them all into one story. DC says it plans on collecting the series into a paperback but doesn't have it on schedule yet. Though it would be a relief to read this series without all the intrusive videogame ads you might not want to hold out for this top-notch comicbook.

"Grip" can be found at any comicbook store