***Warning: there will be spoilers contained herein for the Grendel series. It’s almost impossible to do with talking about the entire saga, and please bear in mind this all began 30 years ago, so it’s not like we haven’t had ample time. Nonetheless you’ve been warned.***
This year marked the 30th anniversary of the beginning of Grendel, a saga that has become one of the seminal stories in independent comics. First appearing as a black and white series, it only lasted three issues due to publisher Comico’s financial woes at the time. The publisher and Wagner soldiered on, and later Grendel became a backup story in Wagner’s Mage series and took on a legacy all its own. Grendel – the character, the series, and the entity – has become a legend both as an expansive saga and the redefinition of a medium.
The story of Grendel is so many things at one time. It goes from a crime thriller to a futuristic story of love, vengeance, and the undead. From there, a political drama and a war story about the forging of an empire. Indeed, the devil takes on many forms – from Hunter Rose to Christine Spar to Eppy Thatcher, to the cyborg Grendel Prime and an entire army in service of the ruler of the world – who also where’s the face of the devil . Noir, suspense, horror romance, intrigue…Grendel is all of those things wrapped into one massive story.
To mark the anniversary, Dark Horse Comics (the home of Grendel for the last 20 years) has been releasing a series of Omnibus volumes collecting (almost) the entire saga – in proper reading order – throughout this year. The last volume and the end of the series was recently released on November 27th, chronicling the details of Grendel Prime after the passing of the first Grendel-Khan, Orion Assante. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For now, we start with Volume 1: Hunter Rose.
Our tale begins with the seminal Devil by the Deed and immediately defies convention in comic storytelling. Rather than being a series of panels on pages, the story is written almost as a novella – more accurately, as excerpts from the eponymous “biography” written by next-in-line Christine Spar. The text throughout is lavishly framed by Wagner’s illustrations. Devil by the Deed chronicles the life and death of Hunter Rose, an immeasurable genius who became so bored with life that he forged his own criminal empire and begat a legacy for centuries to come. In public however Rose was a brilliant best-selling novel list who adopted a young girl named Stacy Palumbo…who in turn befriended a (were)wolf named Argent that would come to be Hunter Rose’s arch nemesis. The names and possible likenesses of the characters in the epic poem Beowulf are where the similarities begin and end. Devil by the Deed is a brilliantly execution of a fantastic tale that captured fans imaginations in the early 80′s that would go on to serve as an introduction to what was to come.
At the time, the story was conceived as an open-and-shut examination of lost love and subsequent aggression with Wagner adding a very personal touch to give this story a life beyond the “experimental throwaway” it could have become. This was a time when The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were happening, and the proper launch of Grendel, while having started before those landmark stories, would become part of the new wave of comic storytelling.
The next stories – and really the bulk of Volume 1 – are the short story collections Red, White, and Black and Black, White, and Red (from 1998 and 2002, respectively). As the titles might suggest, these are very similar to the Batman: Black and White stories first published in 1996. Whereas Batman: Black and White were the visions of Batman rendered by all-star creators, the stories in the two Grendel collections were written entirely by Wagner, with a cadre of notable artists (David Mack, Mike Allred, Teddy Kristiansen, Chris Sprouse, Stan Sakai, Jill Thompson, and Kelley Jones, among many others) illustrating the stories in mostly black-and-white with spots of red. The tales are meant to fill out the exploits of Rose as an assassin-turned-crimelord, as well as a novelist and “father” to Stacy Palumbo. The tales are expertly written and only some of the artists involved struggle to keep up with Wagner’s subtle, deft storytelling. For the most part, all of them achieve the goal of portraying Rose as a caring father, a cunning genius, and a terrifying badass. Other tales culled from various anthologies and one-shots (such as Comico Collection, Decade: A Dark Horse Short Story Collection, issues #49-50 of Dark Horse Extra, Dark Horse Maverick 2001, and Liberty Annual 2011) fill out these short stories of Hunter Rose and also lay the groundwork for what would follow.
The story formats of the collections listed above is the tip of the iceberg of where Grendel can be compared to Batman (though none of that was even a thought in creating these stories). Hunter Rose – a middle-class kid who can barely scare up a true challenge purely because of his intellect and has to reinvent himself to find true invigoration in his double identity – is the antithesis of Bruce Wayne. The two make natural foils for each other (which will be discussed at a later date), but the comparison is beyond even those two. Batman is a character who, in several stories, becomes a legend long after Wayne has passed on, whereas Grendel achieves this feat and more. The seeds laid in Red, White, and Black and Black, White, and Red give credence to this, but it is the final story, Behold The Devil, that fully links Rose to the legend he would spawn.
In 2007′s Behold The Devil, Wagner returns to writing and art duties as Rose finds himself in an unusual position – that of prey. Rose’s paranoia almost gets the better of him until he discovers it is not the cop or the journalist working together to find his secret, nor is it his old foe, Argent. Rather, an imp is the one stalking Rose and ultimately catches him long enough to show him what his actions would lead to in the future as other individuals and then an entire society would take on his alter-ego. Rose is staggered by the vision he sees, but ultimately does not believe what he would give birth to. The story is a lesson in building to a payoff, with the drama and action brilliantly handled. However, the reveal of Rose’s “hunter” and the revelation lead to one of the weaker endings of the series; the connection of Rose to the future of Grendel feels almost forced; it almost would have behooved Rose to be completely ignorant of this, as he should be too self-absorbed to notice any of this. At the same time, the overall story wouldn’t be the same without Rose knowing what would come. In any case, the stage is set for the next to don the mask of Grendel.
Volume 2: Legacy is exactly that – the legacy that Hunter Rose himself leaves behind in the wake of his storied final battle with Argent. The volume starts with a final double-shot of Hunter Rose stories, this time by Captain Wiggins (who we’re about to meet soon). Wiggins, having dealt with others taking on the mantle of Grendel, writes a book of his own focusing on Rose. The tales presented here are, in content, very much like the stories from the Red, White, and Black and Black, White, and Red collections reprinted in Volume 1. However, this is where we see Wagner’s penchant for abstract layouts that help convey the mood of darkness and desperation that the world of Grendel is plunged in during this particular period in the story. Chronologically, it’s out of place but serves as a bridge between the two volumes.
As we learned in Volume 1, that final battle between Rose and Argent was actually engineered by Palumbo herself out of feeling abandoned by her “father” (Rose) and her “best friend” (Argent). Palumbo’s own aggression comes back to haunt her in one of the darkest stories in the Grendel canon, Devil Child. In another bridge between then and now, we see what became of Palumbo after that fateful final battle and why she became institutionalized. Her daughter, Christine Spar, comes to visit and sees the toll taken on Palumbo by carrying the legacy of Hunter Rose. It’s almost a shock that this tale, written by Diana Schultz and illustrated by Tim Sale, hasn’t put them on the “Women in Refrigerator’s” hit list for its depiction of what happens to Palumbo. Whether you agree or disagree with the graphic depictions of what Palumbo would face in her marriage, the intent is to show the darkness Rose left behind to those he loved – and those they sired. The series also stands on mostly conventional comic format for this and our next tale.
Set in the near-future, Devil’s Legacy is the tale of Palumbo’s daughter, all grown up and somewhat of a celebrity thanks to her bestselling biography of Hunter Rose, Devil by the Deed. As the author of said tome, one would think that Spar knows better than to tempt fate and don the mask of Grendel herself. However, Spar does just that when her own son, Anson, is kidnapped by world-renowned touring kabuki dancer Tujiro XIV (apparently people dig on kabuki dancers in the future). As she hunts down Tujiro, Spar becomes lost in the aggressive persona symbolized by the mask even though she is grounded in an affair with Tujiro’s touring manager, Brian Li Sung. It’s here we also meet (chronologically) Captain Wiggins, who sees career aspirations in hunting down the new Grendel and hounding Spar as to any knowledge of the devil, not helping her mindset one bit.
Devil’s Legacy scored several Eisner Award nominations for Wagner (as writer) and the Pander Brothers (who provide excellent sequentials as artists) and, even though Spar is the second-most recognizable Grendel (aside from Rose), the story serves more to establish the overall theme of Grendel and simply feels like a continuation at times. This may be due to the more conventional layouts and structure more than the actual writing and art, both of which are without reproach. There would be some characters – Li Sang, Captain Wiggins, and Tujiro – and other elements introduced that we would see much later, so more foundation is laid even in this continuation.
The ramifications of Christine Spar’s fate in Devil’s Legacy pick right up in our next tale, The Devil Inside. As Li Sung is hounded by Captain Wiggins as to the journals of Spar, Li Sung feels he is becoming possessed by the spirit of Grendel. Li Sung’s descent into madness ultimately leads to a donning of a makeshift Grendel costume and to a confrontation with Wiggins, who guns down Li Sung after the two do battle. The story itself only furthers the mythology of Grendel as an aggressive spirit rather than the invention of one singular person. However, the brilliant bit here is that the reader is unsure if Grendel is indeed a malevolent spirit or if Li Sung is just plain losing his mind. Here, the abstract layouts of Wagner do the heavy lifting in conveying the mood of both a hopeless future and the impending doom of Li Sung. The question of Grendel being an embodiment of aggression or Li Sung inventing this new incarnation due to his illness is posed deliberately, and the art by Bernie Mireault hauntingly provides little answers.
The question of Grendel being an entity that inhabits people would soon be answered, however. Join us next week as we examine Grendel’s occupation of the entire world in the last two volumes of the Grendel Omnibus.