Five hundred years ago. One hundred years ago. Today. People are born, die, kill, live, create and destroy, but the land remains.
Grass Kings is an endlessly fascinating tale about a seemingly very mundane location. It follows a family of brothers that run a sovereign town on a piece of land with a lot of history and a lot of bloodshed to its name. The people of the Grass Kingdom and the neighboring town of Cargill seem to be simple, down-to-Earth folks trying to live their lives without any trouble, but when someone starts something, they aren’t afraid to finish it. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like there’s much to these people, but Grass Kings is about a lot more than just two communities. It’s about loss and the things it makes us run towards and away from. It’s about a man who uses the community he’s created to run away from a world where his daughter is dead. It’s about a sheriff who aggressively runs towards this community because its existence threatens his sense of lawfulness. It’s about the sanctity of land and whether or not it cane truly be owned. All of this is brought to life through the lens of a deep-seated murder mystery. It takes place on a seemingly mythic and historic scale and tone, but set in such an unremarkable place. In many ways, it’s a story of contradiction.
Law is a concept used to keep order, maintain peace, or provide a sense of comfort. How unusual it must be when the law is invoked so often by these two communities but achieves none of the above. At the core of the Grass Kingdom is a community of people tired of system of law that doesn’t keep order. Their community may be more primitive in some ways, violent in others, but when that violence occurs or when anything occurs, it’s on everyone’s terms, and the people in the Grass Kingdom are more comfortable with that than they’ve ever been with the law. If the Grass Kingdom were simply left alone, there’d be no story, but trouble always seems to find it’s way there. Perhaps it’s the land.
Every issue begins with a brutal murder on the same piece of land, showing the history and pain that nature can carry. We see a wide range of emotions flow through the cast of characters, but we seldom see happiness. No one is Cargill is happy, and no one in the Grass Kingdom is happy. Instead, many feel a sense of longing, a sense of duty, loss, anger, or even just an emptiness or a feeling that there should be something more. Perhaps our code of law isn’t helping. Perhaps those who are suffering need something else, but the Grass Kingdom is more of an impulsive reaction, and it’s definitely not the answer.
Despite being a relatively small story, creators Matt Kindt, Tyler Jenkins, and Jim Campbell make it seem as big as possible by giving us plenty of characters, a myriad of ideas, and a variety of emotionally charged moments occurring across time throughout the first volume. Jenkins’s art lets you know that this is a story. It is mythic, grand, and filled with character and emotion. You can feel that this land is treasured and valued, and you may not know why in your head, but you can understand why in your heart. Jenkins displays an incredible level of detail with his line work in every panel. If you grew up in a small town, you’ll see similarities and differences. It’ll feel like home but with something a little off-kilter. The watercolors are what really set this book apart from anything else on the shelves, however, because there’s nothing else like it on the shelves. Each page could be it’s own painting and each landscape tells its own story. The Grass Kingdom may not be anything special, but it feels sacred. The bright blues of the lake and the deep reds of the blood that’s been shed exist across time. Add that Jim Campbell uses a seemingly hand-lettered font and this book suddenly feels as off-the-grid as you can get.
There are a lot of feelings in this book, and it make take a second, or a second reading, to soak them all in. Even so, the story moves slowly, never tries to force your understanding, and can be read on multiple levels. If you want to read it as simply a conflict between two towns centered around the threat of a murderer, that works, but there are deeper levels for those who want them.
Grass Kings is an important book telling an emotionally charge story set in a place we normally wouldn’t care about. The first volume is a beautiful look at one of many stories a piece of land can tell brought to life by a great creative team. It’s a great look at the significance of land, loss, grief, and life with great care put into each and every character.
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