Saturday, December 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #349: Matt Wagner's Grendel Omnibuses (4 Vols.) by Wagner & various collaborators

Grendel was an adventure-story anti-hero in an anthology before anything else. He later became an idea, or a project, or a grandiose vision, or a symbol. But, in the beginning, he was a cool idea from a very young creator, a crimelord with a shock of white in his hair and a unique weapon who could have awesome fight scenes and overly dramatic dialogue.

Those very early Grendel stories, by a very young Matt Wagner, don't appear in any of these books. They're apprentice work, and Wagner later reworked the bones of those stories, and that initial idea, into the first "real" Grendel story, Devil by the Deed. This series of omnibuses collect the legend, not the false start that was the raw material for it.

(You can find those early all-Wagner Grendel stories in the 2007 book Grendel Archives, if you like. They're not as good as anything in the main series, obviously.)

In the version of Grendel continuity in these books, the first Grendel -- that we see, at least -- was a boy from the American midwest named Eddie. He's was preternaturally smart, collected, and good at fencing, in the way of a comic-book hero, but he was also almost completely devoid of any human feeling. Somehow, at the age of fourteen, the fencing team he was on went to London for a championship, where Eddie deliberately lost in his final match. A beautiful trainer for a rival team, with the unlikely name of Jocasta Rose, found Eddie and seduced him because of that, whisking him away for a whirlwind few months before she died of the usual popular-fiction Ali McGraw Disease.

Somehow Eddie got back to the US, took up the name Hunter Rose, became an immediately best-selling author under that name at the age of eighteen and simultaneously became the mysterious masked mob assassin named Grendel. Within a year or so, he'd taken over the New York mob he worked for, and not much longer afterward, he controlled crime on the entire Eastern seaboard.

(The details of Hunter Rose's career were locked in by Wagner when he was 21, and are about as believable as most of the fictions any of us make up at that age. You may notice my description has a lot of "somehow" in it. But they're baked into Grendel. And we'll see Wagner tack hard in the opposite direction with later Grendels -- if Hunter is the Grendel who makes no mistakes, several others are Grendels who make little but mistakes.)

All of the stories of that first Grendel are collected in the first omnibus, Hunter Rose. Devil by the Deed is the essential story, those early stories distilled down to an illustrated storybook format. It is overwritten, much like Wagner's straining-for-significance dialogue in the contemporaneous first Mage series, but that's only to be expected of comics writers: they've been overwriting madly since Stan Lee discovered adjectives. The later stories collected in that omnibus (mostly written by Wagner and drawn by others, in two different mini-series from 1998 and 2002) are only occasionally overwritten, like the tedious "Devil, Deed, Denouement," which is written in bad verse to boot. Most of the short pieces are solid crime stories, only slightly flawed by having the can-never-loose Hunter Rose in them: the better ones treat him as a force of nature or an evil god, giving a noirish mood.

There are two later all-Wagner stories in Hunter Rose as well. First is the very short and question-begging "Sympathy from the Devil," from some benefit anthology or other, in which we learn that Grendel is a murderous evil crime boss who slaughters innocents for no reason but is not prejudiced against homosexuals, so he's actually a nice guy. Yes, exactly. Last up in this book is Behold the Devil, a nine-issue series from 2007 in which a policewoman and reporter chase Grendel a few months before his inevitable fall and end up the same way as everyone else who encounters the Hunter Rose Grendel in any of these stories.

Hunter Rose is a boring character: he can't grow or change, since hie entire story arc was baked into that very first story. I've called him "evil Batman" before, but he's even more than that --in the '80s, he was already the evil version of the omniscient Grant Morrison Batman, able to not only do everything but already knowing everything. Literally nothing can harm or foil him, except that inevitable final fight with Argent (a large wolflike and semi-immortal being affiliated with the local police and with a vague and possibly racist Native American origin), so every later Hunter Rose story boils down to "see this new character get crushed by Hunter in some new and inventive way." It's a lot closer to horror than I'm interested in.

The remaining three volumes collect material mostly in between the stories in Hunter Rose, which is slightly odd. Wagner launched Grendel as an ongoing series in 1986 with a series of artists working from his scripts, following the idea of "Grendel" into the future from Hunter Rose's death. That comic lasted for forty issues, until 1990. Two years later came Grendel: War Child, officially a ten-issue miniseries but internally following the issue numbering of the main series. Omnibuses two to four reprint that material -- in a slightly different form as reprinted by Dark Horse a decade or so later, but that material, with a few later additions.

The Legacy, the second book, picks up with "Grendel's granddaughter." Christine Spar is the adult daughter of Grendel's ward, Stacy Palumbo. Palumbo had her own tragic story, partially explained in Devil by the Deed and expanded in Devil Child, a 1999 mini-series written by Wagner's long-time editor Diana Schutz and drawn by Tim Sale, the first story in Legacy. Next up is a twelve-issue story, Devil's Legacy, featuring Spar, a journalist and single mother famous for writing the definitive book on Hunter Rose, puckishly titled Devil by the Deed in-universe. She runs into a small group of vampires, who kidnap her son almost immediately. Since the true message of all the Grendel stories is  that the authorities are at best useless and usually corrupt functionaries of evil, the police are not only no help, but actively hostile to Spar, who turns herself into the second Grendel to get vengeance. Since she is not Hunter Rose -- and I think Wagner was deliberately working against those superhero expectations he'd set up with Hunter -- it does not go very well for her. Devil's Legacy has dynamic, angular art from the Pander Brothers, and starts the transformation of Grendel from the vaguely mid-century mobster feel of the Hunter Rose stories to the various flavors of dystopian SF that it became from that point.

Next in The Legacy is a shorter story, The Devil Inside. Brian Li Sung, who had a brief relationship with Spar in Legacy, is the next, even lesser incarnation of Grendel, and is pretty much the opposite of Hunter Rose. His story has cramped, claustrophobic art by Bernie Mireault. Last in the second volume are a few transitional stories drawn by Wagner under the title Devil Tales, as Wagner sets up a substantially more dystopian world a few hundred years in the future for his next major story.

The third volume, Orion's Reign, collects the two long storylines that ended the late-80s Grendel comic, but starts with four more transitional issues of the '80s Grendel first, under the title The Incubation Years. (These loosely continue from the transitional stories from the second book, and continue seeing Wagner using lots of captions to set the stage for his crapsack twenty-fourth Century world.) Art for those stories is by Hannibal King and Tim Sale.

The first major storyline in Reign is God and the Devil, in which the local American incarnation of a Balkanized Catholic Church is the particular evil oppressive authority. This time, though, Wagner separates Grendel in two -- first there's the obvious costumed figure (the anarchic, violent destructive impulse) and then there's a cooler, corporate-based opposition to the Church, which will eventually lead into the next story. This piece is drawn mostly by John K. Snyder III and Jay Geldhof (swapping out pencils and inks, and working with Mireault as well), and is less dense than the transitional and Li Sung stories, coming back to more of an adventure-comics style.

The rest of Reign is the much denser Devil's Reign storyline, drawn by Tim Sale, in which the text boxes explode and the action stretches over years without any single incarnation of Grendel to follow. (In retrospect, far too much of Grendel was made up of long stretches of text talking about political struggles and social upheavals just to set up another story with someone in a neat costume actually doing things.) This is the story that sets up the end-state of the Grendel universe: a loose global confederation, run by a militaristic somewhat merit-based warrior class of Grendels, which in practice seems to be less "government" and more "local thugs." From that, Wagner launched a new series of miniseries, entirely by other people, under a Grendel Tales title...but I'm not here to talk about those stories today.

The last volume of the Wagner Grendel Omnibus series is Prime, collecting stories of the superpowerful cyborg Grendel-Prime, his contribution to the grim & gritty early '90s. Prime contains the main Prime story, War Child, in which he abducts the young heir of the dead Grendel-Khan and the two take a violent tour of how horrible Wagner's world is at that point. (Art by Patrick McKeown with Wagner inking.) Then there's a short prose novel by Greg Rucka, Past Prime, which I've never read and didn't read now. (There's enough endless text from Wagner earlier in this series, and I'm not particularly fond of two hundred pages of prose interrupting my two thousand-plus pages of comics.) It ends up with two shorter all-Wagner stories. The longer, directly related one is Devil Quest, a very episodic, very violent, very dark set of events that ran as backups in a bunch of Grendel Tales comics and served mostly to winkingly explain this universe's end of the Batman/Grendel Prime crossover.

And then, at the very end, is A Grendel Primer, a short abecedary summing up the entire series.

Grendel, at is core, is a deeply pessimistic, cynical concept: people are horrible, evil creatures, and (even without the occasional supernatural elements of the series) will kill and destroy and exploit each other all of the time as much as they possibly can. Grendel itself is possibly some kind of semi-sentient spirit -- it seem to be so in the Spar/Li Sung/transitional era, but that disappears in the later stories, possibly because the spirit has by that point incorporated itself into every living human. Along the way, Wagner made some great comics out of that concept -- the Legacy, God and the Devil and War Child stories are the best -- but also spent a lot of time filling a myriad tiny text boxes with all of the minutia of how the world went from Horrible State B to Horrible State C, which I might suggest is not necessarily the best use of anyone's time.

There's also a lot of good art in this series -- in particular, a lot of Wagner's most interesting and formally inventive stuff is in the odd transitional issues and sidebars -- not so much the late Hunter Rose stories, which are crisp noir exercises. A lot of his collaborators do very good work as well -- The Panders, Mireault, Snyder and Gedlhof, and Sale all have strong work here.

There's a lot of good stuff in Grendel. My only caveat is that you need to wade through a lot of words about the specific ways this world has gotten really lousy -- and do so repeatedly -- to keep getting to the good stuff.

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