Thursday, April 14, 2011

Grendel: the Devil in black and white


I have been fortunate enough to indulge in more comics this week, so I thought I would talk about one of my favorites.
I had known about Matt Wagner's Grendel for quite a while, but didn't start actually reading the books until around 2008.  The first sector of that year was an especially rough one for me and I don't recall the exact circumstances in which I came across Grendel, but it was serendipitous.  Perhaps it's true that your subconscious draws things to you in ways which you are not aware.  But I digress.  First, a bit about Grendel.
The character of Grendel was created by comic book legend Matt Wagner.  Wagner is both a writer and an artist and used each said talent in the creation of this fine character (rarer than you think.  Few comics creators can do both of those tasks with equal skill.  Wagner is one of them.)  In case you are wondering, the character is indeed named after the antagonist in that epic work of literature, Beowulf.  Fitting really.  Grendel is not in the mold of your typical comic book superhero.  In fact, I wretch a bit at even writing the word "superhero" as I don't think that it applies.  Grendel is, at best, an antihero.  If you have any shred of morality or have any desire to live a peaceful life, you would not want to be Grendel.  When you look at the character's inspirations, the reasons for that becomes clear.
Wagner drew on sources varied and mixed.  There's Moorcock's Elric as well as the French Diabolik and Fantomas, yet the best character comparison, however inadvertent, for the uninitiated is Hannibal Lecter.  At least to my way of thinking.  Grendel is not a nice guy.  He is aggressive, bloodthirsty, and will "carelessly cut you and laugh while you're bleeding" as someone far less original than Wagner once said.  But Grendel is so charismatic, so damn good at what he does, that you cannot help but find him likable or at the least, love hating him.  Same with Lecter.  Lecter is not someone I would hope that any of my readers would wish to emulate, but his style, his strength, and his savage intelligence all merge together at the same high point to make him an unquestionably captivating character.
Same with Grendel.
So who is Grendel?  Grendel is the story of Hunter Rose, though that was not his birth name.  That name is only given as "Eddie" in the first Grendel book (which was really a collection of backup stories from Wagner's Mage for Comico), Grendel: Devil by the Deed. Eddie was a childhood prodigy.  And that was the problem.  Everything came very easily to him and he was bored.  With nothing better to do, he threw himself into the world of competitive fencing.  There, he began an affair with an older woman named Jocasta Rose.  Upon Rose's death, a despondent Eddie embarked on two new and bold directions.  He changed his name to Hunter Rose and became a bestselling author.  This lucrative path led him into the highest of social circles.  
At the same time, he became Grendel: an elegantly masked assassin and eventual organized crime boss with a body count too high to calculate.  Grendel was soon hunted by Argent, a Native American wolfman cursed with an urge for violence.  Argent attempted to turn his curse into a force for good by working with police to bring down Grendel.  In a bizarre twist, Hunter Rose adopts Stacy Palumbo, the daughter of a mafia boss that he killed.  Rose is a fine and loving father to Stacy, but she also develops a "Beauty and the Beast" friendship with Argent.  Stacy sells out Grendel to Argent and the two enemies meet in a fierce battle on the rooftop of a Masonic temple.  Argent is left paralyzed.  Grendel is killed.
Stacy develops severe psychological illnesses and as an adult becomes committed to a mental hospital.  Devil by the Deed is written from the perspective of Christine Spar, Stacy's daughter.  The story does not stop there, however.  There are several Grendel editions that tell tales of Hunter Rose before his demise, a few even crossover with Batman.  There are also at least two future Grendels that I know of...Wagner seems to leave me with the impression that there has always been a Grendel somewhere in the world and that all of the stories have yet to be told.

Wow.  I mean, my God what's not to like?  Look at all of the inventive devices at work here, the use of metatext and nonlinear narrative, all turning and pivoting with the harmony of some profound literary machine.  Obviously, there is a great deal of adolescent fantasy at work here, just as there is in many comics.  You have a roguish youth who is brilliant and an outcast.  He then gets into an affair with a MILF that brings him into manhood.  This youth grows into not only a wealthy sophisticate (and a writer!) but a badass killer.  Yeah, it's all there.  But it's just done with this inimitable sense of...style.  Style and elegance.  Those are the first words that come to mind when someone mentions this comic book series. 
Which brings me to Wagner's art.  The majority of the Grendel books are done in black and white with strategically placed applications of red.  There is a blending of styles at work in the book, a simply gorgeous blending of art deco and film noir that looks good enough to eat.  Trust me, you won't find art like this anywhere else in comics.

I apologize for this fanboyish peregrination.  There is simply so much to Grendel and I have neither the time nor the space to properly express all of its nuances and facets.  So go read it for yourself and start with Grendel: Devil by the Deed.  If you have any appreciation for literature or fiction, you will be glad that you did.


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