There must be a party going on inside the head of James Stokoe at any given point in time. Or a riot. Either way, I picture a lot of activity, much of which probably makes its presence felt whenever he chooses to put pen to paper. Turn to any page of Grunt, a collection of his art and unpublished comics, and one is hit most often by the sheer density of every space. It seems crowded, at first, but a second glance usually unveils a mini-universe full of rewards for those willing to put in the time to explore it.
Irrespective of what you stumble on, be it in the form of a rough sketch or full-colour illustration, the thing that will impress you almost at once is the sheer attention to detail that sometimes borders on the obsessive.
Consider Stokoe’s work for the Alien franchise, where bits and pieces of ruined spacecraft float in space in the aftermath of an attack by a Xenomorph. If you zoom in — simply by moving the page closer to your eye, because that’s how we did it before smartphones — you can see the way he fills in dots and lines, even gaps no reader will turn to given how they occupy corners furthest from where the action is taking place. One can make the argument that he doesn’t need to worry about those neglected spots, but the fact that he does anyway is testament to the artistic integrity he brings to his work. It may explain the title Grunt as less a sound than an expression that fits strenuous activity.
This is supposedly the largest book of Stokoe’s art ever published, which allows it to offer fans as well as newbies a fairly comprehensive look at the sheer breadth of his work. There are remnants from his early efforts for various anthologies — a personal favourite is ‘Mr Zebra’, his contribution to the anthology Comic Book Tattoo based on the songs of musician Tori Amos — as well as bits and bobs from his successes like Orc Stain and Aliens: Dead Orbit.
In between lie pencil drawings and assorted covers, along with all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures great and small. It is in the lesser-known characters, away from the flashy work for Marvel and established franchises like Godzilla, that Stokoe’s real interests reveal themselves. There’s Sobek, his 36-page full-colour work for ShortBox, set on the banks of the Nile and featuring a gigantic crocodile god. Stokoe has spoken of his love of epics, and it’s easy to see why something as mysterious as Egypt’s mysterious past would captivate an artist in possession of an imagination as vivid as his.
There are a number of reasons why a collection like Grunt matters, starting with its importance as a chronicle of Stokoe’s artistic development. The unfinished, rough drafts reveal a lot about how he plans his pages, while his use of colour speaks volumes about how underrated that particular aspect of illustration can be. The nicest thing is how it points to where Stokoe can go; there are no signs at all, given the range and variety of his expression, which means a strangely-coloured sky really is the limit.
James Stokoe (W/A) • Dark Horse Comics, $39.95
Review by Lindsay Pereira