James Stokoe is brilliant. It’s a trite statement, considering the genius’s reputation, but nevertheless, it’s incredibly true. Leaping with the dynamism of the best of manga and colored in eye-popping palettes, Stokoe can pull off virtually anything. His meticulous attention to detail, his careful and deliberate framing alongside a long-trained skill for composition make him one of the premiere talents of the industry. To say he’s a gifted artist would be a criminal understatement. Whether it be double-page spreads of Kaiju chaos or Alien terror, or even superheroic cover imagery, few boast such an explosively dynamic, idiosyncratic and bold style that refuses to bow to anything or anyone and recasts everything in fiery textures, oranges and careful chaos to elicit an intended effect. The visceral power of Stokoe’s cartooning is remarkable, as his work is eternally aware of when to halt the detail for a simple line or two, elegantly conveying a point, while going all in on pain-staking lines in other scenarios.
So the notion of an artbook that collects not only a lot of the published artwork of this genius draftsman, but all his unpublished work as well? That’s exciting. That is very, very exciting, to put it mildly. And that’s very much what Grunt is: a book full of promise, both known and unknown, seen and unseen. Boasting giant reptiles smoking, jumping out of gigantic cosmic food dishes, from ramen made of impossible ingredients to sentient, emotive eggs and more on the cover, right out the gate the collection lets you know what you’re in for. This is a book of madness, of kinetic power, of pure raw imagination, spilled across the page and refined in chaotic process.
From lovely black-and-white sketches and designs of ancient egyptian gods rendered in spectacular detail to wildly manga-esque figures with giant hats and massive tentacles protruding outwards from their belly, Stokoe delivers a heightened reality of exaggeration with his work. And that’s reflected even in the opening, which, much like the rest of the work inside, is lettered incredibly well. Right out the gate, black captions on yellow boxes begin to weave a cheeky and fantastical tone to set things up, casting Stokoe in a cartoonishly exaggerated light, as a rare kind of elusive creature of a unique species, as Stokoe designs himself as a weird grumbly, seemingly middle-aged, cross between a goblin and an elf. He wears tattered pants held together barely with rigorous stitching efforts and is surrounded by coffee cups while prepping to cook up an egg. He even describes his mad ramblings in the night while showcasing a Twitter-facsimile.
If by now you’re grinning, that’s good. That means you get James Stokoe. That self-aware, cheeky, “well, why not?” sensibility and sense of imaginatively cocky humor, that colors every single page of this book. It is, after all, that same cartoonish charm that permits his work to have the weight it does when he chooses to go the other way. He can do classical imagery as good as any artist, capturing grandeur, majesty and gravitas, but he can also be more and do more. He’s never constrained. He’s a free spirit and that’s the point of the book. From incomplete comics work that dives deep into the mind of this master to the pure illustrative imagery present in here, that’s what comes through more than anything.
Sci-fi or Fantasy? Does it really matter, Stokoe asks, throwing them both into a dish like two eggs and whisking them together in one go, as preps up the next exciting dish of madness you haven’t yet prepared yourself to witness. There’s a sort of Heavy Metal ‘screw it’ vibe throughout, as the dystopic mesh with the utopian, as the incandescent meshes with the sterile. Stokoe is the wild chef that blends together familiar ingredients together in a way that you’ve never quite considered and then presents his dish in a way you never quite expected with his layouts which just break loose yet are carefully considered and are built to accommodate letterwork to be able to tell a good story. And that’s an important thing here: Lettering. The work has good lettering, which really helps make it pop, sometimes quite literally, like with the SFX in the page above.
Whether it’s comics about a soldier dressed up for Vietnam, who inhabits a reality of kaiju monsters and actually works as a cook, with names like ‘Corporal Mongolius Grahm’ and scavenges for ingredients across an apocalyptic wasteland of corpses, gear and more, dealing other bizarre alien beings or artwork for franchises like Alien, it’s all in there. If any of that sounds appealing or entertaining to you, this will be absolutely worth it for you. It’s the collection of a remarkably accomplished artist, all in one place.
You owe it to yourself to grab Grunt if you are in any way interested in Stokoe or just plain good artwork and process. And even if you’re not any of the above, give it a look and see if it’s doing anything for you, because there’s a load of fun to be had here, regardless.
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