Friday, September 24, 2004

The Man Who Created Sergeant Gritt

It's been quite some time, I know, so here's a special treat. It's a little-known fact that the Sergeant Gritt stories I've been reprinting for you were by and large the work of one man - one of the giants of the comics field, reknowned legend Rip Karnage. I recently found a copy of Fantasy Inquest from late 1982 containing an interview with this oft-forgotten creator and have taken the time to reprint it here for your attention. Enjoy!

How did you start work at Mighty Comics?

I was the horse. Mighty Comics were a winged pegasus, and I wanted to fly. At that point I was willing to have horse ride horse, which is silly when I look back because my hooves couldn't hold the reins. I feel better now I have more control over my horse - my work, that I ride into a golden sunset.

Oh. Of course.

I have wings now, which is nice because I don't think I'm a horse any more. More of a centaur.

I see... If I can change the subject, you've written a lot of controversial stories in your time - "War's no place for an ethnic minority", "Mighty Cat versus Mighty Dog" and of course, "War's no place for a rodent". What made you want to write such powerful works?

I don't remember any of these. They sound terrible.

Well...

What's that rodent one? Has it got rats in it? If a freelancer brings me rats in a story it's a sign of lazy writing. He can't be bothered to have his hero savaged by interesting animals, like stoats or wild ferrets. If I see a rat in a script I tear it up. This guy Harvey Kurtzman came to do some work on our WAR AND GORE book...

That's the one with 'Mickey And His Magic Mortar'.

Right, the anthology book. He sent me this script once, and it had a rat in it, like, off on the side of the page. It was set in the trenches. And I called him into my office and attacked him with a knife. (laughter) He needed about seven, eight stitches.

Oh my god. What happened?

Basically, he agreed to replace it with a tiger, and everybody was happy. I let people have one chance.

I don't remember Kurtzman working for WAR AND GORE...

No, the story never came to anything. In fact he ran out of my office and moved to another state, which is sad because an attitude like that is a very lazy attitude to take, especially when you're talking deadlines.

To get back to the earlier question about "War's No Place For A Rodent"...

What was it about?

It's the one where Sergeant Gritt thinks he's rescued a hamster from a minefield...

But it's a rat.

Yeah, that's the one.

Doesn't mean a thing to me. No, wait. I remember the first page. I got Sal [Salowski] to draw Gritt in the jaws of a giant rat, and its eyes were little swastikas. Sal was the fire in Gritt, he was the flame - but I was the ice. (laughter)

Ha ha ha ha... Would you say that Gritt's character mirrors your own?

To say 'mirror', that's saying that when I raise my right hand, Gritt raises his left. That's a fallacy - but a truthful one. Gritt is not the writer in me. The writer in me is not the reader in me. And the reader in me is not the warrior in Gritt. Or vice versa. It's ground rules like that which keep him young and strong. I think he had a twin brother at one point...

In the story "War's No Place For A Twin Brother".

Right.

Gritt shoots him.

Right, right. Adolf Gritt. In my head, that was there from day one. Gritt was born in my head, and aged, and his mother produced another son, and in a way I was the father. But I wasn't Gritt's father - that was something else inside me. My soul, maybe. So it was only natural to have my true son killed. Horribly. I remember the ending to that very well, with Gritt standing over the body and crying... or laughing. I forget which.

Actually, that was the ending to "The Screaming Skulls Of Slaughter Company"...

I'm just singing in the rain. (hearty chuckle)

Hmmm. What was your relationship with Sal Salowski?

I once asked Sal to draw Gritt killing a ratzi. He drew it - no question. Then he said to me: "What now?" That's our relationship - "What now?" Always striving, from a creative point of view, to say "What now", to see what could happen now, in this moment - now. And it's a kind of buzz to know that we live in the now.

Yes. Did you get any input from him on a story?

You don't put a general on a boat. I'm the Admiral, I'm sailing the ship, and Sal's on the front line, staring Gritt in the face. But my ship's on the front line too, facing the tanks with Slaughter. And we're carrying different backpacks but we wear the same uniform.

So that's a 'yes'?

No. He drew what I told him to. But his work was really great - lots of lines.

Didn't he once do the script for an issue?

That was a mistake on my part, I think. I let him do the script for an issue...

"Angels Are Weeping", in War Is Hell #103. It won an Eisner, didn't it?

It was atrocious. He's got this bit where Gritt's in a church, and he makes a long speech...

"Sometimes, padre, I feel like a man walking a tightrope... a tightrope that leads -"

Yeah, a big speech about a tightrope.

"- over a chasm of evil and suffering. How can I justify -"

Anyway, he makes this speech about a tightrope...

"- all the wrong I do? The killing? The pain and suffering I cause by my actions? Is one country so just that it can force a man to kill and then save his soul?"

This big speech about a tightrope...

That's Roy Thomas's favourite moment in comics.

Gritt makes this big speech about a tightrope. But that's not something he'd say! 'Cause he's never been to a circus. I have extensive notes on the character in my attic, and they say that he never went to a circus. So his brain wouldn't have been able to make that analogy.

Really?

Sergeant Gritt has never been to a circus. He's never been to the theatre. I don't think he's been to opera or ballet either. Or the zoo. He never went to college or even high school. He doesn't know how to use a knife and fork - he bites his food, like a ravenous beast. He was born in an institution. He's clinically insane. He can't read. He's certainly never read a book...

Apart from Baudelaire.

Oh yeah. I forgot. Anyway, the man's a psychopath. If he ever comes near my house, I'm going to kill him. You tell him that. I'll break his goddamned throat open.

Oh. Er... You've created a lot of other enduring characters during your time at Mighty... you were the man behind Squealer the Mighty Moggy?

I'm really suprised that they brought her back! (laughter) That story was originally an attack on racism...

"Mighty Cat versus Mighty Dog"...

...where the cat was black, and 'cause Barko the Mighty Mutt is a little white dog, that was setting up racial tension.

Yeah, and at the end they both get together and form the Mightimal Squad... it was an incredibly brave way of tackling the subject - very controversial, especially at the end of the seventies. How do you create characters like that?

Creating is like breathing. I have to create constantly, or die, but it's become natural for me. I write constantly.

You're writing now?

Constantly. All the time. When I breathe, I write! It's that simple - and that complicated. (laughter)

What are you writing right now? (pause) Rip?

(long pause) Well, it isn't something I can turn on and off.

You said when you breathe, you write... did you mean...

I can hold my breath. For almost two minutes. That's two minutes without writing, which is something I can do. And Batman can hold his breath for almost five minutes. How long has this interview been going?

I don't know.

Superman can hold his breath infinitely. I'm not claiming I'm the Superman of writers... (chuckle) but that's what it's all about. Putting your cape on and holding your breath. I mean, when you're under the waters of the business, taking a creative breath could kill you, because all of that water could rush into your lungs. I saw a man drown in Vietnam, and that's something I wouldn't like to do, even metaphorically.

Ah yes, your time in Vietnam. Your commanding officer must have -

Can we change the subject?

Well, I've got a whole lot of questions here -

I don't like talking about my Lieutenant, or his unfortunate death. It's true that he was a hard taskmaster... some might say extreme... but he was fair and I try to live up to his memory in my stories.

Like "War's No Place For A Fragging?"

No, not that one. I was thinking more of... ah... "Heroic Commanding Officer"... in OUR GLORY HOUNDS #254.

Wait... O.G.H. #254 was "Fifteen Men Or One Scumbag?" which as I remember -

Or #264. It could very well have been #264.

Oh yes - O.G.H. #264... "I Shot My Lieutenant On Heartbreak Ridge". That was a very powerful story about hard choices. Did you get any flak over that one?

(pause) Change the subject.

Um. Sure. You've done a lot of epic stories in your time.

Not all stories need to be epics. I remember a story I wrote for TOUGH TANK. It was five issues long, but in real time it was five seconds! So it was one second per issue, and I was covering a very tiny space - the inside of the tank.

That was "War's No Place For A Stopwatch", right? TOUGH TANK #203-207.

Right! At the time, Sal said to me "This isn't gonna work". He said he'd draw it anyway, but it wasn't gonna work. And, of course, it worked beautifully!

Well, to be fair, those were the lowest selling issues in comics history...

Oh, sure, sure. Sales are sales. But from an artistic standpoint, it worked! Sales are like a barometer - they don't tell time.

That was when Sal stopped working with you.

He had to go. The comic just wasn't shifting any more. I don't think there were any acrimonious feelings involved.

He described you in the COMICS QUARTERLY as 'a shit'...

That's how we communicated. (chuckles) We kept a friendly silence. Like two old friends in a room - we didn't need to open our mouths to talk. We just had to open our hearts. (laughter)

Given his eventual suicide, do you feel you did the right thing in firing him without benefits?

Hell yes. If a plane's in a nosedive toward enemy territory, then somebody's got to pull that sucker out, even if it's only the janitor. If there's a janitor on a B-52, it's his duty to attack the pilot with his mop. And my mop is my work. And if there's some scuzzball sending fifteen men into the jungle to die, it's my duty to take that mop and bludgeon him to death with it in a lonely corner of the latrine... I mean, the latrine on the plane.

Mmmm. Finally, how does it feel to have influenced a generation of writers?

Bad. It's a sign that lazy writers think I'm a soft touch - like Alan Moore, ripping off "War's no place for a Small Killing". I think that's just bad writing. You don't eat with someone else's fork.

Rip Karnage, thank you.

(c) Fantasy Inquest magazine 1982

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