Grass Kings is a really interesting comic that doesn’t quite fit what you’re most used to seeing on the release rack each week in your comic shops, but week by week, month by month, those categories are opening up to greater variety anyway as comic content expands.
It’s not that Grass Kings is unlike any other comic in every way—it might remind you of some of the social dramas you’re seeing out there, like Briggs Land from Dark Horse, which is about a secessionist group, or even the Sons of Anarchy comic, also published by Boom! Studios. But Grass Kings has even more in common with European comics, and in particular European original graphic novels for its novelistic qualities, looking at a group of characters in a small town—and that shows that what was once the domain of more “literary” graphic novels which might not reach a wide audience is now possible territory for monthly comics.
Which means we can now consider the lives of others, their conflicts, fears, and nuances, on a monthly basis in a way that we haven’t been able to in comics, at least in a long while. Grass Kings is very unpretentious, much like the people who form the unusual “off the grid” town founded about a hundred years ago. Cut off from government or state support by choice, they have their own cop (one of three brothers who rule the town), their ever-present lake view, and a very quiet pace of life. We have characters to whom family is very important, characters to whom independence is very important, and characters who have curiosity about the outside world and long for greater amenities. But there’s a very stubborn streak holding it all together, and a very big flaw of unhappiness threatening to tear it all apart.
One thing I really appreciate about the comic is that writer Matt Kindt and artist Tyler Jenkins have couched each of the first two issues in an understanding of the Native American history behind this American landscape. They’ve attempted to show a continuum in the kind of struggles and the kind of violence that pops up whenever humans are in an isolated location together, and a violence that seems inherent in European settlers creating American identities and towns. That forms a realistic bedrock to view our town that seems fairly tranquil. It serves as a reminder that if the town folk seem primitive at all, it’s because we all are, and any veneer of social development is pretty thin.
The flaw that I mentioned embedded in the Grass Kingdom is that the main “king” of the realm, Robert, has never gotten over the disappearance of his young daughter, Rose, presumed drowned in the lake, and whatever internal destruction this has caused for him, particularly in also separating with his wife because of this loss, he’s also become prone to drinking and listlessness. This is an interesting hark back to “ineffectual kings” in fairy tales, literature, and even medieval history. King Lear, for instance. That flaw has only rotted over the years, becoming a bigger problem, and the pressure point that Kindt and Jenkins are applying is the arrival of a young woman who might or might not be Rose, all grown up.
The how, why, and maybe not of all this seems like it’s going to draw the Grass Kingdom into conflict with their small-minded and antagonistic neighboring town of Cargill, who have been orchestrating their own reasons for a showdown.
It’s interesting that this story is a kind of reverse Mayberry situation, meaning the town in The Andy Griffith Show, where the somewhat idyllic location is the “squatter” town just getting along and living their lives, and the “law-abiding” town of Cargill seems to be breeding murderous rage. Not only does that make for a compelling story that runs off the beaten path, but it’s grounded in believable aspects in human nature’s tendency to react with aggression to difference in their neighbors.
A final thought is that we’re reading this excellent drama—with fully painted artwork by Jenkins that really captures a rural feel and a certain degree of simplicity in the lives of the Grass Kingdom residents—and this is exactly the kind of thing we’d watch in serialization as a TV drama during this golden age of TV. The cinematic quality we praise in current dramas like Fargo, The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul, and more is partly about giving drama enough space and attention, expecting it to be enough to hold our attention. And yet it’s taken a number of years for comic readers to look for the same types of things in comics that they probably consume on TV.
It’s a further breaking down in the divide of what we expect from stories based on their medium, which is a good thing. Starting to think of “story” as the basis for what we want to know more about as readers or viewers, and allowing that to take form in the medium most natural to the creators, is a good way to make sure we always have well-crafted stories to enjoy. That’s not to say that Grass Kings might not, someday, make a jump from comics to the screen, and handle it well, just that this story is being told in a way natural to comics and we should celebrate that.
Issues #1 and #2 of Grass Kings are currently available . Issue #3 comes out on May 10th.