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
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.
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?”
of these questions were asked overtly, but they were implied by the
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
and I almost had the chance to participate in this, but that's a story for the next blog.