Saturday, July 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #195: Grass Kings, Vol. 1 by Matt Kindt & Tyler Jenkins

We all need to learn to read descriptions and understand what they mean. Sometimes the prose is beautiful and evocative, but afterward you realize it was talking about things you're generally not interested in. Beauty and evocation are very nice, but substance is what you end up with.

I've had that lesson more than once from restaurant menus -- one of the greatest strongholds of purely evocative, adjective-drenched writing in our world, and a place where we all need to stop and think "wait, do I like the taste of fennel?" But it can happen anywhere.

Matt Kindt and Tyler Jenkins's Grass Kings, Vol. 1 sounds evocative -- "the critically acclaimed rural mystery series chronicling the tragic lives of the Grass Kings, three brothers and rulers of a self-sufficient trailer park kingdom -- a fiefdom of the hopeless and lost seeking a promised land." But what does "self-sufficient trailer park kingdom" actually mean?

In this case, it's something like a group of sovereign citizens: who declare they can separate themselves from the country they live in by pure force of will and ignore all outside laws and powers. To be positive about it, the Grass Kings and their vassals seem to be substantially less racist than real-world sovereign citizens -- and may actually shade somewhat to the left-wing back-to-the-land side rather than the right-wing this-is-mine-because-I-can-hold-it side, despite the regal language. But they're our heroes, and they're emblematic of one of the worst kinds of rot in America today, the idea that you can separate yourself from the bad people and make a purer, true society with just your hand-picked few.

If I'd realized that, I don't know if I would have read Grass Kings; I don't want to any way normalize that kind of radical separatism, the idea that if you're smart enough and have enough guns, you can hole up on Your Land and keep the rest of the world out.

Or maybe, like so many of the smarter comics series these days, Grass Kings is a lower-budget version of classy cable TV. No one thought Breaking Bad was advocacy for the meth-dealing lifestyle, after all. But a certain rot sets in when too many of your heroes are the wrong kind of outlaws.

Anyway, Grass Kings is the story of "the Grass Kingdom" -- a peninsula on a lake, somewhere in the USA (my guess is the Upper Midwest), just outside the small town and presumed county seat Cargill. The Grass Kingdom is home to a group of squatters, and has been for a century or more: there's no indication, in the first six issues collected here, of who the actual owner of the land is or if that entity knows or cares about the squatter community. Three brothers, Robert, Bruce and Ashur, are more or less in charge of the area, seemingly just because their father was before them.

How many of them are there? We see perhaps a couple of dozen: about as many as might be extras if this were a TV show. Maybe that's the whole Grass Kingdom, maybe there's as many as a hundred people. But that's the upper limit of their size, and it's shown as hermetic enough that new squatters arriving is a major event and anyone leaving would be a shocking event.

The land is full of real houses and barns -- built according to some building codes, sometime, by professionals who we won't think about too much -- and some bashed-together dwellings from shipping containers and other materials that we similarly won't think about how they got there or who assembled them. (Insert a vague speech about "barn-raising" here, heavy on the community spirit.) The Grassites -- they're not actually called this; they're not called anything; I just need some word to describe them -- sneak into Cargill, now and then, but mostly seem to be self-declaredly self-sufficient. They do have a small general aviation field, and so presumably can do some small trade with other people. But what other people, and what kind of trade goods can this postage stamp send out that's valuable enough to ship in a small plane?

They wear manufactured clothes and use manufactured guns and drive manufactured cars. Their houses have sinks and lights, which I assume work, somehow. They have all of the trappings of modern consumer society, achieved mysteriously, while they insist that they are entirely separate and distinct from that society. They need plumbers and carpenters and farmers and mechanics and shopkeepers and light industry and water works and power generation. What we see they have is an alcoholic "king" and his brother the ex-cop and a whole bunch of guys with guns.

(They seem more like a sedentary biker gang: it would all make a lot more sense if they were making and dealing meth.)

You might guess that I don't actually believe them, or think what they claim is a good thing at all.

I said I thought Cargill was a county seat. That's because there is a Sheriff there, and I'm afraid Sheriff Humbert is  just what you'd expect: autocratic, declared to be corrupt, clearly fond of his power. We see no sign Cargill also has courts or anything else county seats have; this is presumably a very, very rural county in a state that has a very light hand and Cargill is just the widest part of the road in those parts.

On the other hand, the Grassites are mad at Humbert mostly because of a single criminal investigation more than a decade ago, where there may have been a serial killer terrorizing the area. Their complaint is that Humbert buried the investigation, but it seems like all or most of the deaths took place in "the Kingdom" -- and don't they claim to be independent? How can you demand to be sovereign and separate and in the same breath whine about a lack of police protection from the people you insist have no power over you?

So Humbert is definitely a power-mad asshole, and probably a deeply horrible person in multiple ways (including, I would bet, either being the serial killer or protecting him), but he's not exactly wrong here. And the way to deal with a corrupt Sheriff is definitely not to wall yourself off on a peninsula and pretend he doesn't exist.

The story in these issues is set in motion by Maria, Humbert's wife. She's an illegal immigrant, trapped into marriage and trapped into staying with her horrible husband, who sneaks away and swims all the way to the Kingdom. Humbert, being a monstrous asshole as well as a possessive creep, now has two reasons to destroy the Kingdom: not only does he hate it because it's a thing he can't control, but now they've stolen something he considers he owns. So there's small violence and threats and lots of yelling, and, eventually, a major assault by law-enforcement on the Kingdom, which leads to multiple very serious federal felonies being committed by our heroes. (And by the faceless goons on the other side, if that helps any.)

Now, Matt Kindt is a fine writer: his people are true and believable, and he molds events skillfully in the directions this kind of story should go. I haven't seen Tyler Jenkins's art before, but his work is stunning: evocative watercolors that sometimes flirt with expressionism on borderless pages but usually give this story a dark, autumnal feel. They are telling this story very well, even as I think it's a bad story saying entirely the wrong things.

There's a vogue these days for stories about naked power and violence, about societies without democratic controls and where scheming and ruthlessness win the day. Think Game of Thrones, or Walking Dead, or a dozen others. Grass Kings is very much in that tradition. It may be alarmist of me, but I think too many stories like this are bad for a democratic people: they tend to make us think in terms of hard power, of righteousness, of situations in which any action can be justified, of destroying our opponents rather than talking to them.

So I can't really recommend Grass Kings, no matter how good it is. There's too much of this already.

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