Everybody here at "Are You A Serious Comic Book Reader?" is the type of comics nerd to spend two hours flipping through a quarter box of comics with the hope that there will be at least something sorta cool in there. Every once in a while, the nerdity pays off and you end up with something greater than you could've ever expected...a white box hero!
In the strangely forthright introduction to Gringo, writer Kyle Garrett tells readers that the intention of the issue is to “test the waters” for future Caliber western comics. Why this one-shot Western comic put out by Caliber in March 1990 even has an introduction is the first of too many times you'll say “what the hell” if you read through this thing.
Garrett—the perfect surname for a western writer by the way, extra funny because it's a pseudonym for Caliber publisher Gary Reed—also uses this introduction to provide a small but interesting look into the struggles of a comics publisher and comics writer: “Let me tell you, it would've been a lot easier to do a mini-series than just 32 pages. How much can you do in 32 pages when you know you have to place a character in a situation and resolve it in such a short amount of space?” The tension between publisher—it's cheaper, less risky to do a one-shot—and writer—writing a one-shot is tough—isn't one most comics types are willing to address, especially with such sobriety, so that's pretty cool.
A few paragraphs later, Garrett/Reed even wrestles with the anxiety of influence, stating that “one of the hardest things to do with a western is to remove it from the images of the movies.” Gringo's story does read like a western comic raised on the movies—a mysterious stranger who can't remember his past enters a town and helps save the day—but it doesn't feel like one, which you know, is more important anyways--that feeling.
Where Gringo stops having much of anything to do with western movies--and western comics for that matter--is in the art and visual narrative from Wayne Reid. Namely, the comics bounces around from a really rigid, conventional panel design to sudden, awesomely awkward page-high, panel-less whirls of images and dashes of ink. Gringo is is all weird amateur experimentalism, and in its simultaneous adherence to western genre conventions via the story and rejection of expectations with its comics grammar, is one really weird book.
Let's start with Wayne Reid's awesome-terrible style. Everyone in the comic is kinda handsome or like ruggedly beautiful, the men and the women, and they're often rocking like perms, and sometimes their faces are a bit too small for their heads? And sometimes their heads are too small for their bodies? Whatever. In short, he's got a style. An identifiable, tangible style, and like, everybody from Jack Kirby to Gene Colan to Rob Liefeld to Frank Quitely has that and on a good or bad day, some snob could say how any of those guys' art isn't "realistic" or messes with anatomy or is just plain bad, so those asides about Reid are totally not a critique, but a celebration. Nothing else really feels like the art here, even though it might even come off as a bit generic or third-rate, it's really damned consistent and has a scratchy, line-y thing to it that helps to counteract the idealized sexy cowboys.
Maybe the best example of this tension is on the first page of the book: A six-panel, time slowed-down page that shows Gringo, sunbaked, confused, wandering up over a sand dune. The first three panels illustrate a basic elapse of time and then, the small fourth panel gives us a close-up of Gringo.
He's stunned, his eyes all glazed-over, his hair sticking up and messy, all kinds of crap of his face. There's a sincerity to Gringo's face, the result of Reid's bizarre art; the guy looks cherubic, or almost like a baby-faced actor with some B-movie grit and grime slapped across his face, not a guy, even a guy in a comic, who's actually wandered through the desert. And then, just as we're introduced to Gringo, he falls flat on his face. The page's final panel is presumably a few hours later, when Gringo's discovered and taken back a local ranch.
The next page begins with a similar, slowing-down time technique, illustrating Gringo's return to consciousness via four panels that move from black, to hazy indistinct confusion, to comic book clarity. The rest of the page introduces the setting (Ranch De Macido), two of the important characters (Juanita and Manuel), and the fact that Gringo doesn't remember his past...or does he?
The title/credit page comes next, and it's the first of many panel-less inky whirl of images--dollar store Gene Colan--and in the very corner, Gringo, answering Manuel's question from the previous page ("Hey Gringo, who are you? Where'd you come from?"): "I-I don't know." This page kinda plays on the readers' perception of this comic as goofy and amateur because it's hard to tell what's going on or if you're supposed to take it literally. You're kinda in this zone of "this comic's out there so maybe some shit just doesn't make sense" but, it's all really awesome set-up. Later in the comic, it's revealed that Gringo does indeed remember and so, the page functions as a hint to the reader that he does remember (the cloud of images, his memory), but at first view, it seems more like Gringo's being bombarded with pieces of memory and he can't parse it all out--which is more like actual memory loss, it isn't blank, just the details don't fit together yet. Either way, it's a cool way to represent Gringo's hesitant mind-state.
Let's step back for a second because just three pages in, you're getting a sense of Gringo's kitchen-sink approach to visual narrative. The first page was a word-less sequence. The second page introduces a lot of information but begins with a slowed-down montage pretty much exactly like the one on the page before. Then, the comic opens up into a splash-page. It's all just a little bit too much, like one too many ideas crammed in there. But then you turn the page and it's all straight-forward panels for a while, until another splash page and some weird panel/montage tricks. And then there's a relatively normal page and a panel-less splash page across from a big wordless panel?
There's a nutty structure to the thing. As Gringo goes on, the amount of pages that are "normal" decreases, there's a bunch more oddball splashes and panel-less explosions of images, and even the panel construction gets pretty nuts. More and more pages are based around a main image that's panel-less and then, stuck on top of that, are some typical panels. Again, none of this is groundbreaking or new on its own, but the sheer amount of weird stuff going on, page to page, builds up.
The weirdness really hits its breaking point, appropriately enough, during a duel between Gringo and one of comic's villains, Stoner (I'm purposefully avoiding plot summary because it really doesn't matter). At the top of the page, there's the shit-talking, experience-less Manuel dropping out of the duel, Gringo stepping in for him. It's done in small, wordless, close-up panels.
The middle panel is your classic Western medium wide shot but it's effective and then it gets really effective further down the page, when the panel's copied and reduced and surrounded by the nervous eyes of Gringo and Stoner. It's just like, what?
And then, to increase the tension even more, before the men fire, there's another one of those panel-less splash/memory pages, and then finally, the duel, in another world-less panel.
You turn the page and you get a cool, awkward montage of how the duel plays out--Stoner gets shot--and again, Reid's odd approach to anatomy makes the sequence work. Stoner twists and turns around with each hit and it's awkward and strange-looking, unhinged, not cinematic, or barely cinematic really--a little closer to what a person may look like when they're shot.
After this, Gringo just gets AWESOME as the mysterious cowboy systematically takes revenge on every one of the land-stealing Dardin's men, of which Stoner was one. He throws a guy through a window--the build-up is established through that slow-motion four panel thing again--and then uses a fire-poker to burn Dardin's eyes out. Then, he returns to the ranch to inform Manuel, Juanita, and their father that their farm will be okay and he rides off into the sunset--illustrated with one final, four-panel montage.