Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 174 (7/27) -- Grendel: God and the Devil by Wagner and various artists

More than twenty years ago, when I read God and the Devil as issues 23-33 of the Comico color Grendel run, I thought it was an excellent, gripping, story about a believable, textured future with a lot of exciting "action." This time through, I found it slick but obvious, with a buffoonish Catholic Church both run by a vampire and featuring Elvis as a Saint (either one of which would be enough to swallow), and featuring incredibly overwrought and unnecessary narration.

So either I was an idiot then or now; I'll leave that question open.

This was only the second "big" Grendel series, after the Christine Spar story ("Devil's Legacy") and a bunch of shorter pieces. This time out, writer and Grendel creator Matt Wagner shifted the focus away from the person possessed by Grendel -- Eppy Thatcher, a secretly brilliant assembly-line worker addicted to a very convenient drug and who has equally convenient genius-level tinkering abilities, whose characterization is limited to being a tormented drug addict who repeatedly gloats that God hates him -- to the society around him. Unfortunately, Wagner isn't subtle about any of his background, tossing in vampire popes, torture-happy nuns, smirking corporate government officials, and the maniacally cackling Eppy, who wanders in and out at random to provide Grendelian anarchy as needed. His real hero, Orion Assante, is also pretty blandly comic-booky in this story, out to audit or rein in or topple the power of the Church and otherwise without a lot of personality. (Though he does have an incestuous relationship with his twin sisters to spice him up)

If the original Grendel, Hunter Rose, was something like an attempt to do "evil Batman," the later stretches of the Grendel timeline are like the result of playing an iterative game of "and then what's the worst thing that could happen?" with the world, salted with a slightly more "real-world" version of DC's old Crime Syndicate Earth-3.

The various dystopic elements of this world -- a libertarian-ish independent police force, those corporate governments, the evil Catholic Church, the supposedly ecologically-ravaged planet -- don't come together all that well, with each of them remaining a separate flavor in the Grendel gumbo. But it is a big, complex world, filled with odd things -- Wagner avoided most of the major mistakes of similar SF, though his 26th century is stereotypically obsessed with our own times, as usual.

The art is energetic, moving the story ahead well (even weighed down by all those narration boxes). But the style bounces around, as a "chapter zero" by Tim Sale gives way to a main story told by John K. Snyder III, Jay Geldhof, and Bernie Mireault -- each a distinctive and interesting artist, but quite different from each other -- in some kind of unspecified rotation; each artist seems to be inking himself, but the book doesn't say who did what. (Some sections are clearly Snyder and others are equally obviously Mireault; it's harder for me to say what was Geldhof, unless he's just the remainder.)

The story putters along, as the evil Pope schemes, Eppy-Grendel capers, Orion investigates, and other background stuff does its thing as well, for about three hundred pages. There really isn't an overall structure here; each of the original issues has some events that mostly hold to the Aristotelian unities, but they just stack up next to each other until the last issue sees the giant climactic battle between the forces of vampire-pope, another band of vampires, Orion's conjured-out-of-thin-air army, and Eppy, the least scary and dangerous Grendel. (Sure, he does kill people, but they mostly deserve it, and he mostly goes in for unpleasant pranks, not mass slaughter, like the other big Grendels.)

God and the Devil is a solid late-'80s adventure comic, following in the footsteps of American Flagg! and the earlier Grendel arcs to tell a story that audiences then thought was vastly different from Big Two superheroics -- though, at this distance, it looks like very much the same thing, and very much a precursor to the particular excesses of the early '90s.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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