Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Graphic Novels: The Grendel Omnibus, Volume 1

Grendel started (for me, any way) as the short Devil by the Deed segments at the back of the Mage comic books. Their style has been described as more like a "stained glass window" and the prose, no-bubbles, unconventional panel style was striking, as was the story of the costumed man who was better and smarter than everyone else and so eventually ended his boredom in the only way he could, through crime. I think initially the idea of being different than everyone else (maybe with some level of contempt for them) appealed to me, but over time I've grown to appreciate Matt Wagner's signature title for a number of reasons.

And let's face it: Grendel is Matt Wagner's signature title. I thought in the 80's that it would be the potentially epic Mage, but Mage has really only become an occasional departure from his work on Grendel. Consequently, he Omnibus really ends up being a collection highlighting the length of Wagner's career (well, maybe not the entirety -- but I'll get to that in a bit). Collected in this volume are Devil by the Deed (in its black, red, and white incarnation), the anthologies Grendel: Black, White and Red and Grendel: Red, White and Black, and Wagner's most recent version of a Hunter Rose story, Behold the Devil. Let's treat each in turn.

The "Stained Glass Window"
style of Devil by the Deed
Devil by the Deed is an interesting telling of the Hunter Rose story, and the first exposure many had to this title. It is told in that unconventional, stained glass window style, solely through prose (that is, no bubbles). When I first encountered Devil by the Deed, it was a series of short  appendices to the individual issues of the Mage series. I love the story of Hunter Rose. He is a bored young man who turns to crime in order to find a challenge in his life. I think at least part of it was the whole idea of being bright and bored which appealed to a young Jason White for some reason. Hunter takes on the persona of Grendel, a costumed assassin, and eventually grows into a crime lord who takes over the entire eastern seaboard of the United States.

But two things make Grendel work. The first is his adversary, Argent. Argent is a wolfman, seemingly a nod to the Native American wendigo legend. He is allegedly hundreds of years old and a transformed shaman. He is the crimefighting mirror to Grendel, incredibly violent, but, through his choice of targets, on the side of "good." While both are incredibly violent, Argent is successful through his aggression while Grendel is successful through his calculating coldness. Argent is strong and savage, Grendel is lithe and civilized. Argent is an outcast who lives on the streets, Grendel is a socialite who is among the highest social circles. And, in the end, Argent kills Grendel but is crippled in the process.
Grendel and Argent

The other thing that makes Grendel work is the presence of Stacy Palumbo. She is orphaned three times, once through her parents, once when her guardian Uncle Barry tries to double cross Grendel and is poisoned, and, in the end, when Rose, her guardian after Uncle Barry's death, is killed. Here is the innocent counterpoint to both Grendel and Argent. Their love of Stacy and her love of each of them is what makes each character just a bit more sympathetic. Hunter Rose cares for her as a reincarnation of the deceased love of his life, and, in Stacy's presence, Argent goes from monster to teddy bear. It makes what could be a hackneyed storyline somewhat original and the fact that Stacy herself is the one to ultimately double-cross Grendel is a great and fitting twist. She ends up the central character in an incredibly dark denouement. Her decline is what moves Grendel from an interesting story to a brilliant one.

The three-color anthologies are interesting in their style. They were inspired by the less interesting Batman Black and White series. The Grendel series works better because of its one defining voice: Wagner's. Batman Black and White gathered the writing talents of the day along with the drawing talent. The result was an impressive looking set of short vignettes, but one with a number of different visions for Batman. Each issue read as disjointed, with no central story and a menagerie of "Batmen" running through its pages.

The Grendel series, though, was, first of all, more adult, both with the "Red" violence and with its occasional sexuality (with one annoying tendency of Wagner to depict sexual excess through one act again and again). And Wagner writes every story, drawing a couple, but having a number of the famous comic book artists of the day (Mike Allred and Tim Sale being a couple of them) draw the rest. The stories have a number of original story-telling styles (including a series of haikus), but Hunter Rose's story from Devil by the Deed (along with a couple of other canonical moments, again, to be mentioned later) remains the thread holding them all together. Some of the images and events mentioned in Devil by the Deed are expanded upon and given a new perspective. Not every story hits a home run, but a number hit doubles and triples. It is definitely interesting to get a new perspective and new details on some of the aspects of Hunter's life and career.

The Omnibus closes with what I think represents both the best and worst of Matt Wagner, the Grendel mini-series Behold the Devil. There are two main stories. The first involves the people in New York who are investigating the Grendel killings: an investigative reporter and the head of the NYPD's Grendel Task Force. The two are also having a secret (and decided R-rated) affair. While they love each other, they also have certain professional obligations that mean that they have to hide facts from each other. As the reporter begins to truly close in on Grendel, he closes himself off from his lover for her safety and because of her concerns for his safety. The climax to this story is poignant and dark and, really, a perfect Grendel story.

The other story involves Hunter himself. Rose kills a lieutenant in the world of organized crime then begins to attempt to manipulate the rise of the victims. He becomes convinced that he is being watched, which leads to carelessness resulting in violence Rose did not foresee. Okay, I'm still with you. He ends up wrong-footed in dealing with some rising crime figures, and even with Argent himself. But the supernatural resolution of this internal conflict is somehow unsatisfying. The artwork for the "watcher" is somewhat ridiculous, and the resolution is a weak attempt to allude to Wagner's follow-ups to the original Grendel story. It's almost an advertisement for future Omnibuses (Omnibi?). Wagner's story is at its best as it gathers complexity. But there is always a tipping point with complexity where it moves from fascinating to either confusing or ridiculous. The whole premise of Behold the Devil is that it's an account of the pages missing from Hunter's journal. The supernatural element almost makes me wish they had never been found. But the human element of the story, the reporter, the police officer, even Rose himself and his sudden unexpected vulnerability, make it quite a good read.
The "baser nature" from Behold the Devil

For me, that is where Wagner has always been at his best: in his depiction of the smaller characters who get caught up in events and people that are decidedly larger than themselves. They rarely come out of it alive (think of the characters in Mage). Hamlet says "Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes/Between the pass and fell incensed points/Of mighty opposites" and Wagner is at his best in capturing these moments. The smaller characters have histories, dreams, quirks. And they get caught up in the fights of "mighty opposites," one of them being Grendel himself. You sympathize with them, you root for them, you feel the fear as they slowly realize what they have become caught up in, then you lament whatever terrible price they pay for their involvement. 

Danger and Vulnerability
Wagner's other strength is the art itself. Wagner's style is one that does not try to recreate reality (like an Alex Ross or a Todd Macfarlane); instead, it tries to capture emotion and convey an effect. The characters many times move in dramatic ways or have exaggerated expressions (sometimes with cartoony stars and spirals in the eyes). And there is just a pinch of circa 1985 Japanese Manga. It works, combining these elements into a style that seems to have both danger and vulnerability.

I have forgotten to mention one story, Sympathy from the Devil. It is a testament for tolerance of homosexuality, which I fully support. But I'd rather keep Grendel (and maybe my comics in general) out of it, preachiness doesn't play as well as the interestingly gray area that comes with rooting for an assassin.

I also have to take a second to lament what was not included. First off comes the imperfect but fun Batman/Grendel crossover. The first crossover involves Hunter Rose and was, for me, a great moment in crossovers that I thought I'd never see. It, too, showcased secondary characters who were complex and interesting.

The other unfortunate omission is the exclusion of Wagner's original Grendel comics, compiled in Grendel Archives. While I understand that Wagner considers these a "draft" and that it may represent something of an embarrassment for Wagner, I think they would make an interesting inclusion because they make sense of certain elements of the Grendel storyline. The whole (prematurely ended) storyline in the Archives is told through the frame of Hunter and Argent talking after their climactic rooftop battle. Hunter tells of his past; Argent tells of his own (in detail unheard of until the never-to-be-reprinted Silverback miniseries). And  half of the issues end with cliffhangers.

This may be the most revealing element of these old comic books. I always thought that the abduction of Stacy by a child pornographer was awkward and tacked into an otherwise fine story. But in Grendel's original storyline, Grendel comes to retrieve Stacy after his fight with Argent only to find she's...gone! It works as the end of a comic much better than it works as a seeming distraction in the middle of a longer story.

Stacy's being the one who discovers her poisoned Uncle, while fittingly traumatic in her whole tragic story, is another cliffhanger ending. While this one works better in the eventual retelling of the stories, it still is interesting to see it in its original context.

The Archives also give many stories in the Black, White, and Red storylines a precedent. Grendel killed the King, the master assassin, in the original series, so the short in BWR is a retelling (admittedly a better one). At the end of Red, White, and Black, we see Hunter's last words to Argent, which are all the more interesting when we know that it comes at the end of a lengthy discussion of their mutual history on that rooftop.

So, I love the Omnibus for what it is: a nice collection of the Hunter Rose stories. I wish it was even more inclusive, but I accept that it is not. Batman/Grendel is almost certainly tied up in rights red tape and Wagner has never really been comfortable with the original Grendel comics seeing the light of day. I highly recommend the Omnibus as an intro to the Grendel story, the fascinating story of a young man's rise and fall due to his misplaced loves. I'm glad it's out (and available on my iPad!) and it portends more collections of some of my favorite graphic reading experiences. Go out, grab the first Omnibus and look forward to the next one, the almost-as-iconic Christine Sparr story.

Potential Future Blog Entries: Titan, Star Trek the Animated Series, Descent, God's Playground, Eclipse

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