Monday, March 19, 2012

Favorite Comics Part Four – Grendel

I introduced the topic of my favorite comics by saying that I wanted to talk about the ones that were “heart” books, those that resonated with my feelings more than my thoughts. However, as I think about the books I was most into, those that were influential in the way I think about comics storytelling, and more importantly, those that served as some sort of inspiration, I realize that it's a bit more complicated than that. For the most part, this series is still going to be about the “heart” books, but there are a couple of exceptions that have cropped up.

Chief among them, and the one that made me rethink my original goals with these blog posts, was Grendel, by Matt Wagner. Grendel was a book I loved, but it is certainly not one that inspires the warm fuzzies that Zot! or Beanworld do (or several of the others that will eventually appear on this list). Grendel was a book that was dark, and full of pretty extreme violence. You know... the kind of book that I really don't typically read much of these days. Grendel stands apart from most of my favorite books in this way. In general, I'm not a fan of gratuitous violence and graphic gore. But, the key word in that last sentence is gratuitous. If you have read any of my novels, you know that do not shy away from graphic violence if I believe it is necessary for the story. What I'm not a fan of is violence for violence sake, violence as voyeuristic pornography. If violence is part of a story it needs to have a reason.

The violence in Grendel never felt gratuitous, at least to me. Grendel was a meditation on the nature of violence. As dark as the story sometimes became, Grendel was always an exploration of the the theme of violence. It always asked questions. “What are the underlying causes of violence?” “What circumstances would lead an otherwise normal person to extreme acts of violence?” “What is it about darkness that we find so appealing?” “What does it mean to live in a culture that celebrates and indoctrinates us into violence while at the same time desensitizing us to it?”

None of these questions were asked overtly, but they were implied by the narrative.

I first saw Grendel in the early 80's in an ad for four new comics from a new Black and White publisher called Comico. The other three didn't really spark my interest very much at the time, but there was something about this character called Grendel. It was a simple black mask, with white designs over the eyes.

The stripes over the eyes probably reminded me of the pattern of Alice Cooper's eye makeup. But I'm pretty sure that it was the white circle on the nose that won me over. This tiny detail gave the mask a harlequin-like appearance. It was a clown's nose. This mix of the evil-looking eyes with the hint of the absurd worked for me. It was the mix of comedy and tragedy, an iconic representation of the idea of laughter in the face of darkness, and of how suddenly laughter can turn to tears.

Grendel first appeared in Comico Primer #2, an anthology title.

To this day I have never owned a copy of this book (though I have read reprints of the story).

He graduated into his own title, the first run of which lasted three issues. I picked all three of these up at one time.

This series told the story of Hunter Rose, the first Grendel. Hunter was a wealthy and famous author by day, and in the guise of Grendel, the ultra-violent leader of organized crime by night. He had an arrogant swagger. His ruthlessness was coupled with erudition and humor. This was no simple thug. The written complexity and duality of the character met the promise held in that brilliantly designed mask. Wagner was young and new to the business of comics, and his art style was raw and undeveloped. Many of his figures were crude, and his ink line did not have the control he would eventually master. But there was something about it that really clicked with me. As crude as his actual drawings may have been, there was a sense of design, pacing, and storytelling that promised great things.

The series was cancelled after three issues and Grendel next appeared in full color as a backup feature in the pages of Wagner's next series, Mage: The Hero Discovered (about which I will have a whole lot more to say in another blog). Wagner went back to Hunter Rose and began his story again, this time told in a series of art deco-inspired, beautifully designed pages accompanied by text. 

It can be said that this story was not “Comics” per se, but an illustrated story. Whatever you want to call it, we saw the life story of Hunter Rose unfold to its inevitable, tragic conclusion. This story was eventually collected under the title Devil By the Deed.

But that wasn't the end of Grendel. The series came back, in full color with a new #1. In the first story we are introduced to Christine Spar, the daughter of Hunter's ward, Stacy. Though written by Wagner, the art was done by The Pander Brothers. In this story we see Christine, a normal woman, driven to acts of extreme violence by the abduction of her son.

She eventually dons the mask of Grendel and we see the first hint that Grendel is something much larger than Hunter Rose, or any one person. Though never made explicit in any of the many stories that follow, Grendel is the spirit of violence. It is a manifestation of our own darkest nature. In the case of Christine, it starts with a noble motivation: to protect her child. But the line between the warrior who protects and the monster who takes joy in slaughter can be a thin one.

As the series progresses the nature of Grendel changes with it. Christine's lover, Brian Li Sung, is seduced by the spirit of Grendel as well (in an arc drawn by Bernie Mireault), and his tale is more sad than tragic.

Over time the series moves far into the future. In a world controlled by religious fanaticism, madman Eppy Thatcher dons the mask of Grendel to bring down a system that he sees as a corruption of his pure faith. Eppy communes with his visions of Grendel, and like Joan of Arc, believes he is acting on divine inspiration.

More time passes, and the image of Grendel becomes part of culture. Grendel can no longer be contained by a single person, but has become a motivating icon. An elite band of samurai-like soldiers, known as Grendels, arise to wield power. In the last story arc of the original series, Orion Assante rises from their ranks and becomes ruler of the world, The Grendel Khan.

This was followed by Grendel: War Child, a twelve issue series that focused on the young son of Orion, Jupiter Assante, and the war machine/cyborg killing machine designed to protect him, Grendel-Prime.

Each story arc was drawn by a different art team, in order to give each character a look and feel distinct from the others. Over the course of forty issues Wagner expanded his universe and dealt with huge issues. There was a central concept to lead the reader forward, but not a central character. The art and storytelling was, at times, very experimental and challenging. The stories and characterization were complex, and everything had consequences.

Eventually, the concept of Grendel outgrew Wagner. He had introduced an idea that spanned centuries of time. If Grendel was an idea that possessed many people, Wagner decided to allow it to possess other artists. This was an idea he had already established by having different artists on the book. He expanded this idea by introducing a series of miniseries called Grendel Tales, where other writers and artists could take the concept and play in his sandbox.

Fred and I almost had the chance to participate in this, but that's a story for the next blog.

Grendel and all other characters are copyright by Matt Wagner. Check out his web site at

1 comment:

  1. I forgot to mention that starting this summer Dark Horse Comics is beginning to release the entire Grendel saga in a series of Omnibus editions. Most of this has been out of print for ages, and some of it has never been collected. Phantom of the Attic will of course be stocking these.