Dealing with the Devil: Grendel Omnibus, Vol. 1

The two stories bookending the first omnibus of Grendel, recently reprinted by Dark Horse after some years out of stock, are, in a way, the same story: they both tell the tale of debonair novelist Hunter Rose and his master-criminal alter ego Grendel, both at the height of their powers; while Grendel scales the underworld ladder from mere mercenary to the de facto puppet-master of New York’s organized crime, Hunter Rose is an overnight literary superstar whose personal exploits command as much attention as his literary efforts, especially when he adopts the daughter of a mobster he murdered, Stacy Palumbo. Both stories reach their climax more or less at the same point, with the fight between Grendel and his nemesis, the Native American werewolf and police-collaborator Argent–a fight that leaves Grendel killed and unmasked and Argent paralyzed. 

Where the stories diverge is their viewpoint and narrative engine: Devil by the Deed was not the first Grendel comic but the second, yet it engages itself, cleverly, with the distance of narrative hindsight. Rather than opting for the straightforward comic approach of the very first Grendel comics (reprinted by Dark Horse as Grendel Archives and long out of print), in Devil by the Deed, Wagner (with inks by Rich Rankin) constructs each page almost like an art-deco stained-glass work, accompanied by text boxes typeset (occasionally too tightly) by Chris Pitzer purporting to quote Grendel’s biography, written by Stacy’s daughter, Christine Spar. With this combination of visual and narratorial, the intent is obvious: a mythologizing approach, apostolic twice over, with Christine trying not only to make narrative sense of the story of Hunter Rose–but also to achieve some proxy-closure for her mother, who lived her life as something of a perpetual victim, first of the families she found herself in and then by the authorities and psychiatrist who abused her and left her irreparably broken. The way Wagner draws characters is, understandably, cruder than his later work, but in a way that doesn’t detract from the story at all—the contrast between the cartoonish, heady character work and the ornate page structure somewhat-unintentionally heightens the conflict at the heart of the character whose internal nature is a performance more than it is a reality in any significant way; no given element fully “fits” its surroundings, making for a bit of formal friction that elevates the work.

By the time we get back to 2007’s Behold the Devil, Wagner might as well have become a completely different artist; his lines have grown more assured and more consistent, and they’ve taken on a chunky, smooth quality. It’s a refinement that was, of course, inevitable, after more than twenty years of work, and it also comes with a sort of “mellowing out” in Wagner’s visual storytelling. Unlike the first story, here Wagner opts for traditional comic layouts, but that does not make it any less interesting; to his credit, he is a very skilled and dynamic storyteller, who makes a conscious effort to change up his page structures, deftly going from theatrically-dramatical splash pages or double page spreads to pages with frenetically-overlapping and cluttered panels. This dynamism is complemented in the writing, too—we frequently shift between Grendel’s own viewpoint and internal monologue, the detective and investigative journalist who investigate him, and Christine Spar’s narration (often repurposed from the earlier comic). There’s still a hint of Wagner’s ‘80s headiness, of that ambition kept in check by a still-developing command of skill, but that youthful restlessness is now countered by an increased capacity for articulation, resulting in a smoother, more immediately pleasing feel. It’s generally a more “hands-on” approach than the initial telling of the story: where Devil by the Deed mythologized, Behold the Devil displays the origins of the myth, or the myth in action. Tom Orzechowski’s lettering also serves as a contrast to Pitzer’s in the first comic, opting for a more decompressed and elegantly stylized look, as opposed to Pitzer’s largely-utilitarian density. 

This taps into the underlying theme of the whole book, and of the aesthetic and narrative schools that inspire it: performance and theatricality. The mindset of Grendel appears to emerge largely from the narrative category of the “masked superhuman protagonist,” both from American superhero comics (and the pulp serials that preceded them, such as The Shadow) and from European crime noir such as Fantomas and Diabolik. As such, it very joyfully plays a game of ego and alter ego, which goes deeper than many works that operate in this thematic field; Wagner uses different stories to examine various aspects of Hunter Rose and Grendel’s personality. While Christine recognizes Hunter Rose as a master manipulator of people, he is perhaps most manipulative to himself: Grendel eagerly transforms from a primal and brutal murderer to a gracefully-athletic leaper and quoter of poetry; he is indulgently loquacious at one moment and monosyllabic the next. The cliché is that Batman is the “prime identity” while Bruce Wayne is the alter ego and disguise; the Shadow operates similarly, having effectively constructed a network of alter-egos and cover stories, to the point that, while there is an “original” identity, it is in no way the prime one. Grendel is the next logical step: he is, explicitly, a product of profound and total self-annihilation, an elastic void. There is no prime identity, no real identity at all beyond the pragmatic need or want of the moment. He plays, catlike, with his prey one moment, and goes for the jugular another. In theory there are two identities at play, Hunter Rose and Grendel, but this is only in theory–as in practice both identities are about as malleable, and as all-encompassing, as all of the known universe.

As such, the fluidity of Wagner’s artistic approach invites a comparison to that same performative/theatrical urge (albeit taken in a decidedly less violent direction). This is most evident, perhaps surprisingly, in the two anthology series, Black, White, and Red and Red, White, and Black, published in 1998 and 2002, respectively. Given that they both predated Behold the Devil, and given the way in which Dark Horse reorganized the stories, I am given to understand that this was the first time readers got to see Hunter Rose as Grendel “in action,” unmediated by Christine Spar, since the very first Comico comics that were only reprinted as Grendel Archives after the two anthologies came out. Wagner writes all of the stories in the anthologies (forty-four stories in all), but only draws a small handful, and uses this opportunity both to expand the world his characters inhabit (at times revealing additional parts of Grendel/Hunter’s backstory, at other times allowing him to recede into the backdrop by revealing how he figures into the lives of others, both intimately and incidentally), and to expand the way he thinks of the many ways a comic can tell a story. This process of constant rethinking for its own sake is, frankly, a pleasure to witness. It is a rare breed of formalism, in that it only needs to promote itself rather than a larger commercial franchise, yet preserves a wide appeal, evidently emerging not from a theory-steeped background but from within Wagner’s existing artistic instincts. Some of the stories, then, are more straightforward (but still, for the most part, entertaining), such as the Tim Sale-drawn Devil’s Advocate, telling the story of the man unfortunate enough to be Grendel’s lawyer, or the Duncan Fegredo-drawn Devil’s Tongue, in which Grendel interrogates (which is to say, tortures) a mob henchman; others attempt a divergence in form, most commonly harkening back to the anteceding pulp illustrated-prose look (be it in a straight prose story, like in Devilish Escapades with art by Phil Noto, or in a more “worldly”/organic attempt such as in the Tim Bradstreet-drawn Devil’s Coup, which offers images rather than panels—typically a shot of a character that takes up most of the page, surrounded by contextual illustrations and newspaper clippings).

Given that Wagner does not appear to explore the form of comics as a first-and-foremost goal—the formal awareness is welcome and engaged with, but the prime objective is the story—the modes often tend to repeat themselves, but, when they do, it is at least with variations: it would be easy to compare, for example, the story Devil’s Toll drawn by John Paul Leon to Devil Say, Devil Do drawn by Stan Sakai—they both display Grendel’s focus on one victim, and the inevitability of Grendel’s success, with one-word narration (in the former’s case) or one-word commands in dialogue from Grendel (in the latter’s); but the tone is completely different, thanks to the artistry on display—while Leon sets the story on a three-panel grid occupied by his typical rich inks and chiaroscuro, playing up the tension through set rhythm, Sakai’s story, with its panels of varying sizes (and pages of varying panel counts) occupied by cartoonishly expressive people in a simplified world, makes it almost grimly comedic. The Andi Watson-drawn Devil’s Karma, similarly, can be compared to the closing story, Devil, Deed, and Denouement with art by Ashley Wood, as they are both, broadly speaking, verses of poetry (haiku in Watson’s case; a balladic verse and chorus in Wood’s) lettered upon full-page illustrations, but the tone clarifies the wide gulf of difference: Watson’s Japanese-aesthetic art, complemented by Wagner’s haiku, attempts to evoke the elegance and artistry of Grendel’s brutality, the ballad in Wood’s story, accompanied by Wood’s serrated and grimy art, is more about the brutality than the elegance.

In the anthology series especially, it helps, of course, that Wagner’s collaborators are for the most part celebrated and immensely skilled artists; even when there is awkwardness (and the latter couple of stories are a good example of that—while I commend them for the attempt, Wagner’s writing in poetry or balladry is often forced into its formal conceit), his collaborators, a veritable who’s who of many of the best artists in the past forty years or so (it’s certainly not every day that you see Stan Sakai draw a story that does not feature anthropomorphic animals), help preserve a baseline of craft skills that many books could only dream of. However, Wagner’s theatrical performance occasionally falters. It is noticeable, for example, in the awestruck mentions of Hunter Rose’s stature as a majorly successful and talented writer, whose writing we never really read, only hear about repeatedly. As an Israeli reader, too, I was also rather entertained by the Tim Bradstreet-drawn short story relying on a British Airways flight from the airport in Haifa to New York—given that the Haifa Airport has never been an international airport, especially not one with flights to New York, or that British Airways does not, as far as I can tell, have any direct flights in which the United Kingdom is either origin or destination. 

I will note, too, that, despite appreciating the breadth and the richness of the craft on display in this omnibus edition, I cannot help but see this display as somewhat accidental or artificial. By focusing on Hunter Rose and bringing together in one volume stories written and drawn by Matt Wagner from 1984-1986, 2007, and 2011, and written by Wagner but drawn by other artists in 1998 and 2002, the book fails to account for the context of the work within the larger corpus and progress of its author. 1984 Wagner is a completely different artist than 2007 Wagner, both because of a natural evolution in style and sensibility and because the intent is clearly different in each case, but the book presents them within the same book and ignores that there were dozens of Grendel comics between the end of 1986 and 2007, featuring different characters and storylines. This is, in my mind, a disservice to Wagner’s artistic evolution, that ignores the chronologies of both author and work almost to the point of historical (or at least archival) revisionism. I can’t help but see this as another manifestation, albeit far subtler and less explicitly sinister than the usual, of the ever-diminishing stature of the creator amidst the prioritization of “intellectual property,” and, as is usually the case in this type of scenario, the choice to eschew context ends up hindering the work it attempts to sell. See, for example, Grendel’s meeting with a demon in Behold the Devil, wherein the demon shows Grendel his future and legacy, stretching into the far future–readers of the publication chronology would recognize the characters, as they’ve been widely featured in preceding comics, but the chronological revisionism strips the choice of its original intent and impact. I cannot say that these choices ruin the book, per se, but both the curatorially-inclined part of my brain and the “simple reader” part of my brain find themselves frustrated by them.

Perhaps the most disappointing result of this is a-chronological order is that it shows all-too-clearly the way in which Wagner’s writing hasn’t changed over almost thirty years: his narrative is often at least a bit too convenient, revealing less curiosity or risk than a reader might desire, extending not just to the formal delivery but the world as Wagner’s authorial viewpoint chooses to see it. In a way, one can say that the major problem begins at the exact same point the work itself is born: at the impact of the meeting between artist and influence. Wagner’s writing, competent as it may be in craft and stylizing, suffers from an unfortunate lack of political introspection; the amount of thought that Wagner puts into his characters (especially, somewhat understandably, his main character) and his stylistic choices is patently clear, which makes the points he tends to look over all the more glaring. Wagner’s ostensible influences, most evidently American noir fiction (and, perhaps even more so, noir- and pulp-influenced works—the specter of Frank Miller looms high over certain points of the book, be it the Sin City-esque stylizing and inner monologues of Grendel: Behold the Devil or the elegiac romance of the David Mack-drawn Black, White, and Red story that loudly echoes Miller’s Daredevil/Elektra writing) and European franchises such as those mentioned earlier, are a rich well of stylistic inspiration, but this inspiration comes with significant race- and gender-related caveats that Wagner does not seem to particularly mind. It would be unfair, of course, to attribute any and all flaws to the influences, steeped in bigotry as those may at times be; it is more likely that the aesthetic and its progenitors revealed pathways of thought already extant in Wagner.

This is how, for example, many of his stories come to invoke sexual violence as a shorthand for “evil” but never really handle the harrowing emotional complexities of that violence; more often than not it is used to reinforce a “bad guy/victim” dichotomy without really wanting to dwell on the human that exists under, or beyond, the “victim” label, existing only to underscore the “bad guy” label (so as to say “Oh, of course he rapes, he’s a bad guy, no need to touch on this beyond this observation”). The major exception here is the one time sexual misconduct is directed against a man: Hunter Rose himself. 

What is perhaps the most crucial bit of backstory is the one choice I have turned over in my mind many times but have not been able, really, to “understand” in its fullness: the young Hunter Rose’s love affair with British fencing trainer Jocasta Rose. This was before he changed his name to Hunter Rose, when he was simply “Eddie” (last name, as far as I can tell, unknown)—the trainer had so captivated him, so changed his ennui-filled mindset, that he changed his name to reflect hers after she died. The problem is that when they first met and fell in love Jocasta was thirty-six years old—while Hunter was fourteen. There is certainly more of a depth to it than to the myriad other mentions and displays of sexual assault in the book, as in a tragic way Jocasta, and her death, is directly responsible for the “birth” of Grendel, a masterful killer and manipulator—he credits her with teaching him, a boy completely bored with the human and social world, “the game of life,” and her death taught him to “never bow to the forces of fate.” In other words: instead of understanding how truly fucked up this relationship was, Hunter Rose’s takeaway was to let himself become fully untethered from human morals. What perplexes me is whether or not the story—and, indeed, whether or not Wagner—intended, at the time of writing, for the wrongness of the relationship to even figure into that moral unhinging, or if the inherent exploitation of a fully-adult woman entering a sexual relationship with a fourteen-year-old completely escapes this equation. 

Similarly to the handling of gender and sex, Wagner too often partakes in the easy-but-disagreeable game of racial stereotype; very often, the people of color in the story are only there to say their line or make their move and leave, without much in the way of dimensionality; from Afro-Caribbean voodoo master Benito D’Oro whose accent is thick almost to the point of parody, to the Black housekeeper with the broken English, or even the flattening of Japanese art into a mere “aesthetic” to partake in, the story is based in New York but features more of New York’s ingrained bigotry than its organic diversity. 

I would not go so far as to say that Grendel is an archetype that inhabits a world of stereotypes, but the comic is certainly hindered to a great degree by its viewpoint: its habit of portraying sexual violence and general misogyny or racism (the mobster that uses a racial slur against a Korean crime family) and racial fetishism (the other mobster whose list of vices includes “young Asian prostitutes”) as something that only Overtly Evil People do is a way to frame bigotry as something that is inherently detached from the narrative and its author, related to them only by way of negation so as to say “I do not engage in it; as you can see, it is evil.” It treats the more insidious or “low-key” ways in which bigotry is incubated, including its own bigotry (or at least recklessness), as functionally nonexistent. (It is worth noting that, in the two anthology series consisting of over forty stories drawn mostly by guest artists, only one woman artist and one woman letterer are credited, alongside series editor Diana Schutz; the series fare slightly better with artists of color.)

I do not believe in statements like “well, the craft makes up for the bigotry” or even faux-recognitions like “well, it’s racist and sexist but it’s still a good comic”; attempts to detach message from form of delivery are fictitious and not particularly conducive to any meaningful mode of discourse. You have to take the work as a whole, to engage with the spots of beauty and elegance just as you do with the spots of friction and discomfort. The first omnibus of Grendel is a comic that is, to a great degree, defined by its internal friction, by its internal struggles: the cartoonist Matt Wagner started as versus the cartoonist he became; the ambition versus the reality of varying skill; the lack of single formal definition for what a comic is—these are some of the internal struggles that elevate Grendel, that make it more entertaining and interesting as a work of art, existing alongside the genuinely strong aspects of it. But the struggles of art examined in isolation are complemented, always, by the struggles of art examined as part of its own world: its reluctance to engage with the social and political implications of its violence beyond the incidental and anecdotal; its shoddy relations to sex. This is not an outright condemnation of Wagner and of Grendel, nor is it an unreserved and heated endorsement, but a recognition that shaving off the dislikable aspects of the works we like will do justice neither by those works nor by us; it is better to say that the chair you’re sitting on is comfortable but has a nail sticking out of its side than to say nothing and risk someone getting injured, so to speak. Indeed, to remove all doubt, I will say outright that I did enjoy Grendel and found plenty to chew on in it, and that I am in fact more likely to pick up the next volume when it comes out than it perhaps might sound, but I would be far happier, and far less reserved, if its introspective tendencies were not limited to the form but extended deeper to the world in which it operates.

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Hagai Palevsky is an Israeli writer and critic of comics, prose, poetry, songs, tweets, and pretty much any medium except author bios. When he isn’t writing, you can probably find him wishing he were writing.

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