I’ve always enjoyed Simon Roy’s worldbuilding. There’s a certain griminess that pervades his work, a sense of things broken that adds verisimilitude to every place he depicts. By showing a world that has been ‘through it’, he also gives hints of what was. This goes for the distant past of Tiger Lung (co-written by Jason Wordie),1 the constructed environment of Habitat, or the distant future of his latest effort, Grip of the Kombinat. Here, Roy works in concert with writer Damon Gentry;2 there are no credits other than the names of the creators, so I assume they wrote it together. The result is extremely ridiculous and over-the-top, but still manages to contain that lived-in quality. Even when pushing the comic's world past believability in the name of comedy and social critique—though 'critique' might give the readers the false notion that there’s any degree of subtlety involved in this comic—Roy’s work still feels concrete.
From spaceships to combat uniforms, to the robots inhabiting all levels of this reality, Roy’s artwork plays with the expected aesthetics of science fiction, moving from the clean sheen of space operas to the grittier notions of cyberpunk. What we are seeing here is a future that has been used and abused, though there are some people with enough money to cover up all this devastation with a fresh coat of paint: a façade of success, underneath which everything has gone to shit.3
Taking place centuries in the future, Grip of the Kombinat find humanity spread across the solar system, with much of the power consolidated between two warring mega-corporations attempting to out-muscle and out-politically-maneuver one another. In between them are the teeming masses: workers, soldiers, rebels and robots. The narrative takes the form of several disparate shorts, many of them standalone anecdotes from this reality, which slowly grow into a larger narrative. My first thought when leafing through the book was 2000 AD,4 what with its bleak humor, violent futuristic action, and plotlines that dig into the guts of dystopian existence: all hallmarks of the house that Judge Dredd built. However, when glancing a bit deeper, one sees a different (if none-too-distant) point of comparison. Grip of the Kombinat feels like something ripped from the pages of Toxic!, the short-lived 1991 weekly comic answer (or was it a challenge?) to the mainstream British SF comics establishment.
As in Toxic!, the stories here come with an added dose of not-exactly-mature sexuality and gleeful bloodshed: multiple people discuss and attempt oral sex with robots; someone drinks a man’s piss with pleasure; bodies (human and mechanical) are beaten, broken, burnt and many other b-words. And like the 'alternative' movement of 1990s UK comic magazines (Deadline, Revolver), Grip of the Kombinathas the sort of political statements that are not so much ‘preaching to the choir’ as they are ‘cranking the volume to 11 at the choir’ - Pat Mills would be proud.
Reading this book, you will not be surprised to discover that corporations are bad, that politics are a filthy business, and that employees shouldn’t try and suck up to their bosses (figuratively and literally). And you know what? I’m fine with that. As long as the stories are entertaining and executed with right amount of assuredness backed by talent, I can take being preached to at high volume.5 Grip of the Kombinat is a fun comic. The choice to do it as a series of shorts was certainly the right one, as the whole affair feels like a series of violent bursts that never overstay their welcome. Even the as the larger story picks up, and the book becomes more ambitious in its aims, it never abandons its bleak comedic heart. Cheap laughs can still be good laughs; the never-ending parade of poor robots programmed to serve, happily, their abusing masters,6 muttering with rage that humans are taking away their job, never fails to rise a smile - the kind of broken smile that recognizes this fictional hellscape is not quite as far removed from our own as we would like to believe.
One story, “Blue Dwarf”, begins as ‘regular’ corporate espionage tale, before taking some well-deserved potshots at the way modern fandom has become entangled with corporate interests. Again, this is not a particularly novel point,7 but it is preformed with just the right amount of energy, and a particularly funny sense of misdirection. More than anything else, it shows the broadness of Roy’s and Gentry’s vision: corporate culture has become so overwhelming, so all-pervasive, that it has crept into every aspect of our culture. The people who make missiles make entertainment as well, as both are just tools in the corporate arsenal: remember when Marvel tried to publish a cutesy Northrop Grumman/Avengers crossover? It’s not about any single issue, it’s about all these problems sharing a common root.
It’s probably a wise choice that Roy and Gentry give the book a rather definite ending. Maybe they'll do new stories in the same universe, it’s certainly large enough (both spatially and chronologically), but I don’t think there’s much more to these particular scenarios. Grip of the Kombinat is rather one-note, with just about everyone human depicted as a different kind of asshole. It’s the price a comic pays for making its jokes so relentlessly bleak. Previous works by either creator had more pathos to them, and thus more depth and a greater sense of potential.8 Roy’s art also feels more cartoonish here than in previous efforts, which reflects the simpler tone of the story. There’s less of the tactility he brought into the world of Habitat. Faces throughout are smoother than the line-dug features of his older work, and reaction shots tend towards the exaggerated - eyes and mouths agape, arms flailing wildly, all of it played in glorious contrast with the ultraviolence. I only wish it were colored; this is the type of story that sorta demands dripping goo in visible splashes. Alas, one can’t always get what one wants - even if one runs an interplanetary corporation, there’s always something just out of reach. Grip of the Kombinat gives us a vision of tomorrow that is not a brave new world, but one that can still be fun to visit… just as long as we don’t overstay our welcome.
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- A sadly-ignored work that I come back to over and over again.
- Who scripted the pleasurable, if a bit too wink-at-the-reader, look-at-how-wild-we-are Dark Horse series Sabertooth Swordsman a few years back.
- In this way, Grip of the Kombinat feels much closer to what the pioneers of cyberpunk envisioned, rather than what the term has become associated with today.
- Which shouldn’t surprise anyone who's followed my previous writings on this site.
- It probably helps that I’m not that far away, ideologically, from the views expressed here; your mileage may vary
- Shades of Walter the Wobot!
- Note that artist Juni Ba's contemporaneous Image series Monkey Meat took aim at similar targets.
- I again weep for the lack of more Tiger Lung.