The Devil is Epic. Propaganda takes a look back at Grendel.
Matt Wagner’s Grendel is over 25 years old this year. It’s had a long and rather troubled publishing history, but now, thanks to Dark Horse Comics, the whole series is being reprinted. Initially I was just going to review the latest reprint; Grendel: God And The Devil, but after reading it and thinking about it for a while, realised that it’s necessary to discuss the entire series.
From the very start Grendel was a fantastic exploration of the nature of evil, although when he started Wagner had no idea of how epic the series would eventually become. What started out as a highly stylised tale of a criminal assassin evolved into a sweeping epic tale that’s reaching it’s zenith with the current reprints.
The Devil is Born: Devil By The Deed.
(Two starts to the series: On the left; my choice of start point Grendel: Devil By The Deed. On the right; Wagner’s actual first comic featuring Hunter Rose. Both published by Dark Horse Comics.)
My earliest Grendel comics were all about Hunter Rose. I discovered the character as a backup strip in Wagner’s other signature series Mage. At this point Wagner had already had one abortive attempt at the character, the results of which he’d steadfastly refused to reprint until this year, when he finally allowed the publication of The Grendel Archives. These very earliest appearances of Wagner’s Hunter Rose incarnation of Grendel were very definitely a false start for the series. I believe that the Grendel saga starts properly with the material collected in Devil By The Deed and The Grendel Archives really are for the hardcore fan only.
In Grendel: Devil By The Deed we’re introduced to Hunter Rose; a brilliant and successful writer with a tortured, brutalised past. His brilliance is only matched by his capacity for wrongdoing and he embarks on a terrible career as an assassin. Opposing him in this is Argent, a twisted, mysterious wolf-like creature who takes a personal stake in bringing the Grendel down. Devil By The Deed is a short story, a mere 37 pages long. But it’s power and beauty laid the foundations for the entire series that was to follow. Wagner designed the book beautifully; crafting each page as a single art-deco inspired unit, without speech, with the events reported through captions from the biography produced following Hunter Rose’s death. Today, 22 years after the original publication in collected form, it’s still ground-breaking, still beautiful.
(Page from Grendel: Devil By The Deed in it’s recently reprinted, newly recoloured in black, white and red stylings. Art by Matt Wagner, inks by Art Nicholls. Published Dark Horse comics.)
The Devil is Vengeful: Devil’s Legacy.
And if Devil By The Deed would have been it for Wagner’s Grendel saga it would be enough. But Wagner saw a way to continue the series. The mask would pass to another and the Grendel cycle would continue. Following the death of Hunter Rose, he switched the series to concentrate on Christine Spar; the biographer responsible for Devil By The Deed and the daughter of Hunter Rose’s tragic ward. In the second collection of Grendel material; Devil’s Legacy, Christine Spar finds herself slowly and tortuously manoeuvred, by forces completely beyond her control, into taking up the mantle of Grendel. Not this time as a force for crime, assassination or evil, but as a terrible instrument of vengeance.
(Volumes Two & Three of the Grendel series: Devil’s Legacy, art by the Pander Brothers & The Devil Inside, art by Bernie Mireault. Published Dark Horse Comics.)
This time around Wagner decided to merely write, rather than illustrating the series. The art duties went to the Pander Brothers, whose art style of dynamic, razor sharp edges meets Dave Stevens characters was completely at odds with Wagner’s style yet suited the action and extravagance of the story perfectly. This fitting of artist to the mood of the storyline was something Wagner continued with each new story-arc of Grendel and it (almost) always worked.
(Three examples of the dynamic art stylings of the Pander Brothers from Grendel: Devil’s Legacy. Top; pencil art from cover to Grendel #5. Bottom; finished art from #5 & cover to #7. Pictures borrowed from Vivat Grendel website.)
The Devil is Discovered: The Devil Inside.
Where Christine Spar’s Grendel was an exploration of a gradual loss of reason and free will set against the bright lights and beautiful people of New York society, the storyline following Spar’s inevitable death was so low key and depressing that it saw the book haemorrhage readers. Yet Grendel: The Devil Inside is the most important in terms of understanding the essence of Grendel. At this point everyone began to imagine they knew what Wagner was doing with Grendel; new storyline, new character picks up the mask, clashes with authority, meets grisly death.
But Wagner had other plans. Instead of Grendel being a strong, determined, misguided character a la Hunter Rose or Christine Spar, the Grendel in The Devil Inside; Brian Li Sung is a pathetic, tragic man. Devastated by the death of Christine Spar, he finds his life disintegrating as anger and rage slowly take hold and the mantle of Grendel is assumed once more. Yet even as he takes on the role of Grendel, Brian fights against it. In many ways, his is the most heroic battle of all. It’s a struggle he just can’t win, but it does finally show us that Grendel is not just the mask, not just the person, but something else, something far more. Grendel is a spirit, a force of nature. Powerful and intelligent, capable of altering perceptions, fostering feelings of anger, rage, hopelessness and fear to finally find expression through death and destruction. That Brian realises this before his death, that we finally see Grendel for what it has always been is a revelation and a stunning one at that.
Again, Wagner’s choice of artist is perfect. Bernie Mireault’s art is claustrophobic, introverted and dark. A complete antithesis to the near gaudiness of the Pander Brothers, but perfect for the low key tale he’s responsible for telling. And Mireault is also responsible for providing Wagner with the idea to take his series to it’s final, epic conclusion. But more on that in a moment.
(Bernie Mireault’s atmospheric, claustrophobic style on Grendel: The Devil Inside capturing the conflict between Grendel and it’s host. Art borrowed from Mireault’s website.)
The Devil is Influential: Devil Tales.
Following the incredibly muted response of readers to this pivotal story in the series Wagner seemed stung and retreated to familiar ground, telling tales of Hunter Rose, the first Grendel in the next volume in the series: Grendel: Devil Tales.
What Devil Tales did prove is that Wagner as an artist was capable of great invention and experimentation. Whereas his previous Grendel artwork was the flowing, art-deco styling of Devil By The Deed; Devil Tales saw Wagner adopt a strict artistic rule for his two stories. The first was based on a 25 panel grid page, whilst the second made extensive use of large vertical panels across the page. Both art styles work wonderfully well in the context of the stories he tells. Wagner’s Grendel in Devil Tales is barely present. It’s the spirit of Grendel that is important, the effect that he has upon others, whether it be the detective investigating a diamond market or the small time hood who finds out a little more than he should about the devil.
(Matt Wagner’s artwork from the two tales in Grendel: Devil Tales. On the left, Grendel arrives and Wagner bursts out of his carefully constructed 5×5 panel page layout. On the right, the Harvey Kurtzman-esque vertical panels. Published Dark Horse Comics.)
Both tales in Devil Tales are crisp, concise and exquisite exercises in storytelling. Both further the legend of Grendel and act as a mere prelude to the next evolution of the character. Because at this point Wagner had decided where he wanted to take the series. The Devil became epic.
It was all triggered by a throw away comment made by Bernie Mireault:
“Can Grendel inhabit a crowd?”
The following 20 issues of the series saw the evolution of Grendel, no longer just a game of pass the mask, Grendel inhabits more and more people until eventually an entire society becomes part of the Grendel spirit and the very idea of Grendel becomes more to do with the nature of agression and the way this can be channelled and controlled. Sadly, the pivotal issues 20-22 are reported by Wagner as being impossible to reprint due to deterioration of the artwork. But in these complicated, difficult (and at times, near incomprehensible) issues the story careers ahead across the centuries, with the Grendel spirit inhabiting more and more people against a backdrop of increasing social unrest, outright war and ultimate nuclear war and environmental breakdown. Throughout it all, the Grendel spirit plays a key role in triggering the disaster, engineering it’s rise from a clichéd pop culture icon to a figure of immense importance, particularly to the church, where Grendel was synonymous with Satan.
(Grendel Volumes 4 & 5. Grendel: Devil Tales, art by Matt Wagner. Grendel: God And The Devil, art by Sale, Snyder, Geldhof. Published Dark Horse Comics.)
The Devil is Ubiquitous: God And The Devil.
At the start of Grendel: God And The Devil we’re at the point where Grendel infects many things; the corrupt church, the corrupt corporations, the bitter and angry populous. Grendel is everywhere; the Devil is ubiquitous.
Grendel: God And The Devil is first and foremost a really meaty, detailed and involving read. None of your decompressed storytelling here. Reading God And The Devil feels like reading prose. The buildup is slow, careful and complicated. There is a real pleasure in the words, the characters, the subtle action is no less devastating in it’s effects. All in all, it’s my favourite storyline of a series I’ve loved for many years. Sure, there are times when Wagner’s writing stretches itself too far and he has an annoying habit of overplaying his metaphors. But aside from that I can find little wrong with Grendel the series in general and Grendel: God And The Devil in particular.
(Tim Sale’s artwork in the introductory issue to Grendel: God And The Devil. Church in the foreground, Devil in the background. Published Dark Horse Comics.)
As we join the story elements of Grendel are everywhere as a tale of great political and religious intrigue unfolds. In addition to the general infestation of society by Grendel spirit, there are two individuals who take on the mantle of Grendel here; Eppy Thatcher, a derranged, anarchic, church-hating madman and Orion Assante; a man driven to investigate the corruption of the church and with no idea of the trouble he’s about to find himself in. Where Eppy Thatcher is the uncontrollable aspect of the Grendel spirit, Orion is the controlled, cunning side. Wagner uses both men to illustrate the very nature of Grendel and how it has evolved from a force of rage to a force of controlled aggression. Having both Eppy and Orion in the role of Grendel makes this point extremely well. As the story unfolds and an ancient evil returns from the tiem of Christine Spar, it’s Orion Assante’s controlled aggression that is needed to organise against the church yet the manic frenzy of Eppy Thatcher’s Grendel that can finally destroy the monster threatening the world. At the end of this volume, Grendel is ascendant, the church is in ruins and Orion Assante stands alone, controlled, a Grendel without need of a mask controlling a world where the idea and ideals of Grendel are the accepted norm. Grendel is triumphant at the end.
Many threads from this story ultimately bear fruit in the next volume, but this is still a self contained, long form tale. You could read it as a stand-alone volume, but that would merely rob you of the great enjoyment to be had from reading the entire saga. The art is handled first by a young Tim Sale and then by Jay Geldhof and John Snyder. Not as showy or dazzling as earlier volumes, but does what it has to do, driving a detailed, complicated story on to it’s conclusion.
(Grendel Volumes 6 & 7. Grendel: Devil’s Reign is where I leave the series. Grendel: War Child continues the title, but lacks the epic scope and appeal of the saga. Published Dark Horse Comics.)
The Devil is Triumphant: Devil’s Reign.
After Grendel: God And The Devil volume we have just two more in the saga. The next is Devil’s Reign, by Wagner and Tim Sale and due to be collected in March 2009. A direct continuation of God And The Devil, it sees Orion Assante taking on the mantle of Grendel-Khan and marshalling his forces; troops describing themselves as Grendels against first a vampire army and then the threat of all out war against Japan. The Grendel-Khan triumphs and with the victory, Grendel itself essentially takes over a world remade in it’s image.
The Devil is Diluted: What Matt Wagner did next…..
After finishing Devil’s Reign Wagner had one last major tale; Grendel: War Child. However, by this time I felt Wagner had rather lost his momentum and this tale of a cyborg Grendel; a Grendel-Prime created by Orion Assante, doesn’t really add anything to the epic tale that has gone before.
(Wagner’s subsequent returns to Grendel: Crossovers and short stories. Published Dark Horse Comics.)
Since finishing the saga, Wagner has returned to Grendel many times. He’s written and illustrated two Batman/Grendel crossovers and continued the Grendel stories of Hunter Rose with various short stories contained in Grendel; Black, White and Red and Grendel; Red, White and Black. His last Grendel series was Grendel: Behold The Devil, where Wagner returned once again to Hunter Rose. Personally I think he’s making a mistake and is actually diluting the grandeur and achievement of his original series by this continual looking back (and I said so here). The very thing that made Grendel one of my favourite series of the 80s was the epic nature of the storyline, the continual push forward, the evolution of Grendel as both character and title. Everything post that seems pale and rather insignificant by comparison.
The Grendel saga, starting with Devil By The Deed and ending with Devil’s Reign is a truly epic adventure in comics. It’s one that will bear re-reading time and time again. This is, to my mind, Matt Wagner’s finest creation and one I’d recommend to you all.
If you really want to see how much Richard Bruton enjoyed Grendel when it was first released, just ask to see his tattoo.