Sunday, July 11, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 158 (7/11) -- Grendel: Behold the Devil by Matt Wagner

Some characters are immortal because of their own intrinsic qualities, inspiring new stories every generation -- like King Arthur or the Flying Dutchman. Some are immortal because their fans just won't let the stories stop coming -- like Captain Kirk or Dirk Pitt. And some are immortal because their creators have already killed them once and it didn't take -- like Sherlock Holmes and Elric.

Matt Wagner's Grendel can be added to that third category; the original Grendel, Hunter Rose, died at the end of Wagner's first major Grendel story, Devil by the Deed. He was followed by a long line of masked lunatics using the same name -- for hundreds of years in Wagner's fictional timeline -- culminating in an android murder-machine rampaging through a world ruled by a hierarchy of mostly corrupt and venial Grendels. At that point, apparently, Wagner regrouped and dropped back -- since then, his Grendel stories haven't continued from the end of his timeline, but have circled around and around the beginning, telling more Hunter Rose stories.

Hunter Rose's death is known, of course. So any new story about him must be set before his death. And it must also not make any radical changes in Hunter Rose, or injure him in any noticeable way. When one adds to that the fact that the Hunter Rose Grendel is essentially "Evil Batman" -- a omnicompetent creature of the night, utterly sociopathic and completely indifferent to the feelings or existence of anyone else, meting out violence at whim and ruling all of the crime of New York with an impeccably gloved fist -- one realizes that new Hunter Rose stories can be nothing more than stylish exercises in the pornography of violence.

And so is the case with Behold the Devil, a gorgeous and utterly hollow story serialized in comics form during 2007 and 2008 and then collected earlier this year. Hunter Rose is literally untouchable; in one of the opening scenes he effortlessly slaughters twenty men armed with guns, using only a stick with two knives sticking out of the end. I would like to think Wagner is toying with his audience here; playing with the conventions of superhero comics and the standard ultra-fine control of violence and space that comes with the skintight costumes and domino masks. But that, sadly, is giving Behold the Devil too much credit -- there's nothing subversive here; it's just another story indulging the comics readers' taste for blood and willingness to consider a hero anyone in a funny mask.

I won't bother to explain the story of Behold the Devil in any detail -- Hunter Rose kills some people, because that's what he does, and a policewoman and a reporter try and (obviously) fail to find out who Grendel really is, because wearing a mask renders one utterly unfindable in a comic book -- because it's all pointless, an exercise in cheap drama. Nothing can or will happen to Hunter Rose in these pages; we all knew that going in. And nothing does. Along the way, Wagner draws some strong pages, and uses his red ink freely to represent gallons of spilled blood. There is an unlikely and odd supernatural element, with no real connection to any manifestation of the previous Grendel mythos, which Wagner tries to milk some pathos out of. (I found that attempt entirely unsuccessful.)

There's an amusing artifact of Hunter Rose's origins -- about thirty years ago, in a much pulpier comic than this terribly classy one -- as he berates (and does some minor casual murder, of course) a room centered on one of those old fashioned boardroom tables, which in turn is lined by the inevitable line-up of impeccably-suited men, representing the unified, though carefully delineated by ethnicity, gang bosses of New York. Wagner doesn't give us too much comic-opera dialogue from these men, luckily, but there's enough to remind us of how old and creaky his plot levers are.

Grendel started off as a meditation on violence, and the slippery slope to evil. But Wagner has long since run through all of the permutations of his initial concept, and has been reduced to focusing on his most iconic, and least savory manifestation of the naked will to power. He hasn't had a new thought for Grendel in a good decade now, and its long since time to let Hunter Rose stay dead. There's no reason for him to stop telling stories about violence, or of masked weirdos calling themselves "Grendel," but he's worked the Hunter Rose vein clean long ago, and any further digging will bring the whole mine complex down.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Mountain Goats - New Monster Avenue
via FoxyTunes

No comments:

Post a Comment