Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Let’s take a look at the middle part of Matt Wagner’s Grendel epic. This post was originally published on 26 December 2007. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!
Grendel by Matt Wagner (writer; artist, issues #16-19; colorist, issues #13), Bernie Mireault (artist, issues #13-15), Hannibal King (penciler, issues #20-22), Tim Sale (artist, issue #23; inker, issues #20-22), Joe Matt (colorist, issues #13-15, 20-23), Tom Vincent (colorist, issues #16-19), Bob Pinaha (letterer).
Published by Comico, 11 issues (#13-23), cover dated October 1987 – September 1988.
After the madness of the Pander Brothers’ art and a pulpy script by Wagner in issues #1-12 of the series, we get some interesting issues leading up to the next great Grendel epic, which comes after these issues. I wouldn’t say these are the best issues of Grendel, but Wagner writes them in order to change the way we view Grendel itself. It’s a fascinating collection that gives Wagner and the artists some opportunites to experiment with writing and artistic styles. They don’t always work, but the fact that the issues are a little weird makes them compelling.
We can break these eleven issues down into easy, discrete blocks. Mireault’s issues deal with Brian Li Sung, who fell in love with Christine Spar, the heroine of the first 12 issues of the series, and is now struggling to deal with her death at the hands of Argent. The next four issues are two separate Hunter Rose stories, illustrated wonderfully by Wagner. Finally, the final four issues show what happens to the world as Grendel becomes more of a universal force, and we fast-forward 400 years to a world that is both wildly different and strangely familiar. Wagner explains in issue #20 that he needs Grendel to have a “certain symbolic importance” in the world, and these four issues helps construct that. Each of the final four issues tells a complete story while moving the story forward to a point in the future. When issue #23 is over, we’re at the point where Wagner can tell his next Grendel epic. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Unlike the fairly dense plot-driven story of Christine Spar, these issues pull back and focus instead on the characters and why they succumb to Grendel. With the exception of the first Hunter Rose story (issues #16-17), the plots are rather standard, from Brian’s pathetic attempts to kill Wiggins, the cop from the first arc who helped bring Christine down, to a Romeo-and-Juliet story in issue #22, which signals the death knell of the great cities of the East Coast and shifts the focus of the book to the West. The plots are largely immaterial – we can predict, for instance, that Brian is going to die a sad and lonely death, and that the four short stories in issues #20-23 won’t end well – but what makes these books compelling is the way Wagner and his artists tell the story. By experimenting with the storytelling, Wagner is able to create a Grendel “mood” much more effectively than he did with the story of Christine, where Grendel’s influence was more subtle and only came to the fore later in the arc. Christine, after all, has a clear purpose throughout most of the book. With Brian, Grendel is present on the second page of the first issue, and it struggles with Brian throughout the book. Wagner does much the same thing in this brief story as he did with Christine – Brian tells the story through a journal, but as he moves closer to his fate, he realizes that Grendel is there, reading over his shoulder as it were. In a terrifying climax to issue #14, when Brian puts on his home-made Grendel mask and kills a mugger in Central Park, he discovers that on the back of the journal’s pages, he’s been writing notes in the “voice” of Grendel. “Scrawled with the hand of a madman,” his feverish entry reads. “Probably my left from the look of it. But it can only be mine. And spoken with the lips of the Terror. Him. Grendel.” Later in the same entry, he writes, “But then, suddenly, [the notes] are no longer reflex, but commentary. The Terror is independent. It thinks for itself, regardless of me.” But while Brian is coming to that realization, Grendel is puzzled by its host: “He doesn’t succumb, he doesn’t wallow … He feels … He thinks …” On the final page of the issue, both Brian and Grendel suddenly have an epiphany that the other knows about the relationship. It’s a horrific sequence and sets up the final issue in the arc, in which Brian struggles against Grendel, which wants him to kill Wiggins. Of course, Brian hates Wiggins too. He is torn as to what he truly wants, and this is why he is ultimately ineffectual as Grendel. He never gives in, and this leads to both his death and redemption. The final sequence, in which Brian and Wiggins have a showdown and Wiggins shoots Brian, is a masterwork of storytelling. The way Wagner has told the story, with two levels of narration from Brian and Grendel, leads to a final irony in that Brian thinks he is saving the world from the Terror but all he is doing is setting it free. The plot is incidental, because what Wagner has done is turned the monster loose on humanity. It was Bernie Mireault who asked Wagner what would happen if Grendel possessed an entire population rather than one person, and in this arc, we see the seeds of that possession planted. Mireault’s art is partly responsible for the terrifying atmosphere Wagner sets up. He does a wonderful job showing Brian’s downward spiral, and the ghosts that haunt our hero are very creepy. The final issue, which mimics issue #9 of the series (in which Christine stalked another corrupt cop and eventually killed him), is a tension-building journey through the city, as Wiggins lures Brian back to Central Park and sets him up for the kill. Bob Pinaha’s letters also contribute to the effect, as Brian’s journal is written in a constrained cursive while Grendel’s thoughts sprawl across the bottom of the page with crazed intensity. Wagner and his cohorts care far more about the way a comic looks having an effect on the reader than most people, and that’s what makes these three issues gripping to read, even though the plot is somewhat slow-moving and lightweight. It’s Brian’s inner struggle that matters, and the comic illustrates it beautifully.
Wagner decided to illustrate the next four issues, which is a nice treat. With Christine and Brian dead, the focus shifts to Wiggins, the corrupt cop who killed Brian. It’s late in Wiggins’ life, and he decides to write books about Grendel, because he’s so intimate with the creature. However, he tells tales about Hunter Rose, the Grendel he didn’t know. Interestingly enough, we never learn how Wiggins actually knows these stories – does he invent them, or does he have access to old police files? The second option seems likely, but we don’t know. Wiggins tells us two stories, and they show the versatility of Wagner nicely. The first one, in issues #16-17, is a complicated story of diamond smuggling and attempts to corner the diamond market that turns into a tale of a daughter’s desire to kill her father, using Grendel as her weapon. The second, in issues #18-19, is the story of Tommy Nuncio, a low-level punk who finds out some information about a hit that Grendel has accepted. He tells Argent about it, but it’s all an elaborate deception to fool the Wolf. When Tommy finds out he was set up, he locks himself in his apartment for months, growing more paranoid every day. When he finally decides that Grendel isn’t coming after him, he goes back out into the world. Unfortunately for him, Grendel was reminded about him, and Tommy finds out you don’t cross the boss. This is a retelling of a story that Wagner originally told in “Devil by the Deed,” and he gives us more depth to the story. Although the first story is a nice twisty tale, with plenty of surprises throughout, neither story breaks new ground, although they are entertaining. Why these issues are so interesting is the way Wagner chooses to tell them, especially in the art. Wagner has always been inventive in the way he composes a page, and it’s no different here. The story of Lewis Polk, the policeman who discovers the scheme to corner the diamond market, is told almost completely in a 25-panel grid on each page. Yes, you read that right: 25 panels. If Keith Giffen is the master of the 9-panel grid, Wagner trumps that. The panels are tiny, of course, but Wagner gives us meticulous details in each one, and it allows him to reproduce individual panels without making us feel that he’s cheating. A lot of artists today reprint panels, but there are so few panels per page that it looks lazy. With Wagner, he does it for the same effect, but the way the panels are interspersed throughout makes them more powerful. Polk’s world-weary face is reproduced often, letting us know that he’s a cop who is beaten down and sees in this case a chance to regain some of what initially inspired him to make a difference. As he discovers more of how Grendel is involved, Wagner does something very cool. He puts a Grendel mask in the dead center of a page, and as Polk explains how the plot has led him to Grendel and how the villain will use the assassin, the Grendel mask becomes larger and larger behind the panels, showing how he dominates everything that goes on in the city. Finally, on the page following the one where the mask has expanded to the borders, Grendel appears and immediately draws all the attention. It’s a very nice effect, one that Wagner had toyed with in the prior issue, when Polk’s face dominated a page. When Grendel finally appears, Wagner breaks the grid format, as if Grendel himself is too large to contain within the structure. He still uses small panels, but they are scattered throughout the page, while Grendel’s fight with Argent, who also shows up, seems to exist outside of the story itself. Without breaking the fourth wall, Wagner takes the fight between the two adversaries and makes it something higher than the mundane plot of the vulgar villain. It’s the climax of the story, so of course the art bursts out of the rigid structure Wagner has imposed on it, and it’s breath-taking.
In the story of Tommy Nuncio, Wagner shifts his style once again. He loosens up his pencils a bit so that it’s more cartoony, which works well as Tommy becomes more paranoid. Wagner exaggerates Tommy’s physical features as the hood hides out in his apartment, locking himself in and setting up elaborate traps to stop anyone who tries to enter. Tommy’s eyes bug out and his hair stands on end whenever he hears a noise, and it’s goofy, sure, but also shows how his sanity is hanging by a thread. When he spots Grendel on his fire escape, Wagner draws him with inhumanly large eyes and mouth, and as he runs for it, his legs spin like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Tommy is a figure of ridicule, but Wagner does manage to make him a figure of pity as well. The interesting thing about the drawing in the story is that when we see Hunter Rose, the style changes. The greater story is how Grendel humiliates Argent in front of an audience that includes Hunter’s adopted daughter, Stacy. Stacy was Argent’s friend, and when he is made the butt of a joke, Stacy becomes withdrawn and isolated. When Wagner checks in on Hunter and Stacy in issue #19, his style is much more like his usual drawing, with controlled lines and refined composition. When Grendel and Tommy meet at the end, Tommy remains a cartoonish figure, while Grendel is a stylized killer, like he always is. It’s a wonderful contrast. The art style stands out, but Wagner also designs the pages in an interesting way. Instead of the grid structure, Wagner uses long and thin panels that run across the center of the pages. Above and below it is the text. On the bottom of the page is Tommy’s narration, in first person. Above the panels is Wiggins’ notes, scrawled almost illegibly. Both narrations explain what happen, but from slightly different points of view. It’s another nice way to keep the reader a bit off-guard. It’s the same device Wagner used in the Brian Li Sung story, so although it’s not new, it still works. Both of the Hunter Rose stories don’t give us much insight into his character, but they are entertaining and show how Wagner plays with the form of comics, which too many writers and artists shy away from.
Wagner continues to experiment with the four issues that take the story into the far future. He writes them in second person, and although he never states it, the implication is that the narrator is Grendel itself. He dispatches with Wiggins in the first issue, as the cop who has become a superstar through his Grendel novels goes slowly insane. His prosthetic eye, which functions as a lie detector, begins showing him the true nature of everyone around him, who are simply grubbing for his money. He succumbs to his madness and Grendel’s influence like those before him, but in a much more frightful manner. In issue #21, Grendel pushes a multinational corporation and the Russians into World War III, and the world burns in a nuclear conflagration. As the world rebuilds in issue #22, gangs roam the burned-out cities of the Northeast, but Grendel abandons it for the West Coast. Finally, in issue #23, we get our first glimpse of the new world of Grendel, in which the new Catholic Church, based in Colorado, has forged alliances with the corporations and set up a dictatorship.
The stories aren’t that memorable, as Wagner needs to get to a certain point and does what he can to get there. However, he still tells them in interesting ways. The narration is “normal” enough, but Wagner plays with the dialogue. In issues #20-21, almost every spoken word is a one-word sentence. It’s a bit jarring, but what it does is make the characters more inhuman, as if Grendel has turned them all into puppets, which is what he has done. Wiggins, his wife, his agent, and his doctor in issue #20; and the corporate heads and government leaders in issue #21 are all playing the roles that have been designated for them. They become a bit stereotypical, but that’s to be expected, because Grendel has turned them into stereotypes, fulfilling its destiny without the ability to recognize that their paths have already been chosen. In issue #22, Wagner switches things up just a bit, using short rhymes for all the dialogue: “Danger stranger”; “No smoke. It’s a joke”; “I’m sure. You’re pure.” Again, it’s overly stylistic, but it fits with the Romeo-and-Juliet theme that Wagner uses – the issue reads like a bastard version of Shakespeare after nuances of language have been lost in the nuclear annihilation of the world. Throughout these three issues, Wagner also uses pictograms to represent the thoughts of some of the characters. He slides the Grendel mask into the thought balloons to show how these people are being influenced even in their thoughts. Grendel has permeated society.
One thing Wagner always seems to do is find interesting artists work with. The Pander Brothers and Mireault are two examples, and in issues #20-23, he finds Hannibal King and Tim Sale, both of whom were just starting their careers (and one of whom, of course, went on to much bigger things). King, especially, does a wonderful job, and I’m not sure if he ever did much else or, if he didn’t, why not. His depictions of the “truth” that Wiggins sees through his red eye are grotesque parodies of real life (beautifully colored by Joe Matt), looking like something ripped from Mad magazine, which contrast nicely with the veneer of high society through which Wiggins stalks. When Wiggins finally goes insane, it’s amazing to watch as his wife, Dyna, comes to resemble the horrible creature he sees through his prosthetic eye. In issue #22, King lays out the fight scenes in an interesting way. He has a central panel showing various stages of the fight, from the two combatants shaking hands in two of them to the moment of death in others, and then ringing the panel with smaller panels showing close-ups of the people involved in the fight, from the combatants to the spectators. It gets across the chaotic nature of these brawls and the way they involved the entire society. As the artists do throughout the series, he incorporates the Grendel mask expertly into the drawings, and the final page of issue #22, showing Cyanide Ivy shedding a bloody tear that takes the shape of the mask as her world comes to an end is chilling. Sale’s work on issue #23 is slightly more conventional (the layouts, that is, as his figures in this early stage of his career are even more distended than later), but he still shows how the Church and Big Business have taken over, as broadcasts of sermons by the two competing cardinals are set against advertisements for all sorts of pharmaceuticals and horror movies, many with Grendel themes. Like most Grendel artists, Sale packs a lot of panels and information into the issue (that may be a function of Wagner’s stories, of course, but Sale, like others, is up to it). And, like the other stories in this brief “arc,” we end with a disturbing evocation of Grendel, this time in stained glass. This sets up the next great storyline, which we’ll get to next time.
These eleven issues give Wagner a chance to flex his creative muscles and the artists a chance to go a little crazy, and they do a great job. Wagner continues his epic but also manages to look at psychosis, grief and how people deal with it, forbidden love, the union of politics and business, and the union of religion and business. It’s this last one that turned people off, judging by some of the letters the book received, but although it’s not an original theme, Wagner makes it interesting because of the introduction of this force that can actually counter Christianity. The Grendel force is very present in this world that Wagner has created, and issue #23 gives us a hint at how the Catholic Church has to deal with it, something that will become much more crucial in the next arc. Wagner doesn’t break any new ground thematically in these issues, but the ways he and the artists tell the stories make them fascinating to read, because they are true blendings of writing and art, which isn’t always the case with comic books. They’re entertaining comics and get us to where Wagner wants us to go, but the way they are presented makes them Comics You Should Own. Issues #13-15 and #16-19 have been collected and are still in print, but it doesn’t look like the others are in trade. In fact, the rest of the Comico series appears to be lacking a collection. But they can’t be that expensive!
[My last statement has changed, as Dark Horse did collect all of these issues in their Grendel Omnibus series some years back, although they appear to be out of print. I’ve linked to the digital copy below, in case you’re interested. These remain the weird stepchild of Grendel, as it’s still clear that Wagner wanted to get to the future and had to figure out to get there, but the storytelling techniques he used remain brilliant, and his artists – him included – made these issues really marvelous examples of how to create cool-looking comics. It would be nice if Dark Horse brought them back into print, but who knows if that will happen?]