Sunday, June 5, 2016

Grendel, Grendel...

Original 2007 edition
Grendel: Behold the Devil (2007-2008/ Reprinted in Grendel Omnibus 1: Hunter Rose/ 2012): written and illustrated by Matt Wagner: Writer-artist-Canadian Matt Wagner's Grendel was one of the great, innovative comic series of the 1980's and early 1990's. And he's returned to it again and again over the years, ultimately building an epic that spans centuries. In 2007, he returned to both writing and drawing Grendel to present the world with the longest single narrative about the first Grendel (aka Hunter Rose).

The mysterious Hunter Rose, first created by Wagner in the very early 1980's, is a dark riff on characters that include Batman and The Shadow. He's a mysterious millionaire who dresses up in a costume. But instead of fighting crime, he wants to control it. Possibly all of it, but he starts with New York. And as he's possessed of greater-than-human intelligence and reflexes, he rapidly starts to take over all of organized crime after a brief career as a hired assassin.

Hunter Rose (an assumed name) is also a critically acclaimed writer and philanthropist. But it's as his alter ego Grendel that he shines as a genius of murder and organization. Behold the Devil fills us in on several months in Rose/Grendel's life not long before his final confrontation with the strange, ancient crime-fighter Argent, an articulate and hyper-violent man-wolf (no joking).

Wagner is in rare form in this 200-page graphic novel as both writer and artist. We learn a certain amount of new things about Hunter Rose, but much of the focus and sympathy lies with two characters trying to stop Grendel, the female cop in charge of the anti-Grendel task force and the reporter who figures out who Grendel really is. Both characters are beautifully drawn, and beautifully drawn. When horror comes, one really feels for them: Grendel is a monster.

2012 Omnibus
But throughout Wagner's Grendel stories, Grendel is also a person possessed, quite literally. There's a sort of psychic comeuppance waiting for Hunter Rose in this story, one that is many ways even worse for him than the fate we've known since the early 1980's awaits him. This story is also set in the early 1980's, though subsequent Grendel stories move decades, centuries, and possibly millennia into the future. Grendel is a force expressing itself across time, wrecking lives as it goes along.

This novel is best read in the sequence of stories provided by Dark Horse's great four-volume Grendel Omnibus. The Omnibuses are great deals, though it's too bad the market can't support full comic-book-size reprints for these stories. The smaller trade-paperback-sized format doesn't affect this story too much, but other stories sometimes need either young eyes or magnifying glasses for some of the now-teeny-tiny text. Oh, well. Still, a great tale of an anti-superhero and the terrible things he does because he's bored. Highly recommended.

1988 collected edition
Grendel: Devil's Legacy (1986-87/ Reprinted in Grendel Omnibus 2: The Legacy/ 2013): written by Matt Wagner; illustrated by the Pander Brothers, Rich Rankin, and Jay Geldhof: Approximately 50 years after the death of first Grendel Hunter Rose comes this Grendel story. It chronicles the tragic fall of journalist Christine Spar, dubbed "Grendel's grand-daughter" by the press because while she's not biologically related to Hunter Rose, she is the only daughter of his adopted daughter Stacy Palumbo.

Devil's Legacy occurs some time in the late 2020's or early 2030's -- Hunter Rose died in 1982. Besides her mother's relation to Rose, Spar has also written an acclaimed and popular non-fiction book about Grendel. But now she's about to get sucked into the underworld which Hunter Rose so briefly but completely dominated.

Originally published in 12 issues in the late 1980's, Devil's Legacy saw creator Matt Wagner hand the artistic duties over to the Pander Brothers. They really suit the story (though I also assume Wagner crafted elements of the story to suit them). Stylish, sharp cartooning gives way to a gallery or grotesques and grotesque poses and representations as the story proceeds and Spar assumes the mantle of Grendel. 

She begins by using Hunter Rose's stolen costume and weapon to seek answers about her missing son. 

She ends in conflict with almost everyone.

The art by the Panders really is nice, whether in the cleaner-lined, prettier early sections or in the distorted faces and bodies of the later stretches of the narrative. Matt Wagner's writing is sharp and expressive as well. Spar's tragic descent is narrated by Spar herself at points, an unreliable narrator becoming more unreliable by the moment. Despite the personal nature of the early stages of her assumption of the Grendel identity, Spar rapidly grows to share the obsessions and urges of Hunter Rose. 

There are flaws in the narrative. The most glaring is the representation of the reaction of the New York police to a missing-child case. Their indifference seems entirely artificial, necessary for Spar's descent into Grendel-hood but never made believable. And that's despite the fact that the police have been privatized in this future of flying cars and an immigrant Eskimo problem in the United States. 

2013 Omnibus
72 hours before the police will search for a missing nine-year-old boy? Um, no. Wagner might have been able to sell this idea by spending more time establishing the police as being completely useless and under-staffed, but these things aren't developed enough to make this particular bit of incompetency even remotely plausible. And not making the police interested in such a disappearance does make elements of Spar's later vendetta against the police seem far too Straw-Man-ish: the savagery and vindictiveness of Grendel is made to seem like a suitable response, and I don't think that's what Wagner was aiming for in his representation of Spar's late-life bildungsroman.

However, the rest of this future, while a little flying-car happy, is fascinatingly imagined. The characterization of the main characters, from Spar through her friends and lover all the way to the police who come to pursue her and the strange man-wolf Argent, is sharp and quite moving at times. Fine work all around. This part of the Grendel epic works nicely for the most part in the slightly reduced page size of the Dark Horse Grendel Omnibus series, though a few sections of text strain the eyes a bit. Highly recommended.

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