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 I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now.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. Today we’re continuing with Matt Wagner’s Grendel epic! This post was originally published on 4 February 2008. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!
Grendel by Matt Wagner (writer), John K. Snyder (penciler, issues #24-25, 27-28, 30-31, 33; inker, issues #26, 29, 33), Jay Geldhof (penciler, issues #26, 29, 32-33; inker, issues #24-25, 31-33), Bernie Mireault (inker, issues #27-28, 30-31), Joe Matt (colorist), and Bob Pinaha (letterer).
Published by Comico, 10 issues (#24-33), cover dated October 1988 – July 1989.
Major SPOILERS ahead! You’ve been warned!
(The two pictures above are an example of how the covers were done in this arc. On the back of each issue was a smaller drawing, and then the cover showed a smaller section of that drawing. I wonder how Snyder and Geldhof felt about their beautiful drawings getting relegated to the backs of the books?)
I spoke to Matt Wagner recently at the Phoenix Comic Convention, and he mentioned that he wanted this arc to be “Dickensian.” It certainly is that, as of all the stories in the series, this is the most tightly plotted and most complicated, but it is also the most satisfying in terms of entertainment. It’s my favorite arc in the series, but these are Comics You Should Own for better reasons than that! (Wagner also said he occasionally reads the blog, which puts me under more pressure to write well! Sheesh!) [Edit: Well, this ages this sucker, don’t it? I spoke to Wagner when the convention was small enough to be held in Mesa instead of Phoenix, and I remember waiting in line to get in on a fairly frigid January morning – frigid for Arizona in winter, which meant it was probably in the 40s – and George Pérez coming out and chatting with a bunch of people who were waiting. That was awfully cool of him. My wife met Wagner in San Diego some years later and got along with him quite well, and she loves talking about how we were sitting at a table at the pop-up bar across the street just talking about our families with Wagner and, I believe, Francesco Francavilla (who’s also awesome) and some fans came up to get his autograph. My wife finds it fascinating that Wagner immediately went into “pro mode” – he certainly wasn’t rude, but you could see him kind of put up defenses – until the fans left, and then he relaxed. I’m sure it’s a phenomenon that most “famous” people exhibit – Wagner is famous, but only to a very tiny percentage of the population – and she thought it was interesting to see it up close, as it were. Anyway, this part of the post is certainly showing its age.]
After the four issues that set up the new world of Grendel in issues #20-23, we learn in the first issue of this arc that it’s A.D. 2512, a great deal of the world is unliveable because of the nuclear devastation of issue #21, the Catholic Church has set up a new Vatican in Colorado, and the United States (meaning the West Coast) is run by corporations, in conjunction with the Pope, Innocent XLII. This allows Wagner to examine a tried-and-true theme – the corrupting influence of religion. The very first words of the arc are narrated by Eppy Thatcher, a down-and-out scruffy bum: “I bought a prayer balloon the other day. Although I don’t know why I bother. I didn’t even watch it rise. I know God won’t receive it. And even if he does, he won’t listen. Because I know God hates me.” Eppy, as we discover a few issues later, has taken up the guise of Grendel, and he is striking at the Church because he believes the Devil, meaning Grendel, tells him to.
But this arc is fascinating because there are two Grendels in this story arc, and that makes this story much more complex. Eppy Thatcher is the force of chaos, representing the darkness and insanity of Grendel. We never think Eppy is anything but crazy, but he is focused on his mission and quite brilliant. The other Grendel in the story is Orion Assante, representing the cold calculating side of Grendel. When Eppy plans, his plans are noisy and messy, full of style and aimed to create a publicity nightmare for the Church. When Orion plans, he plans quietly, attempting to rein in the Church’s excesses through legal and somewhat boring means. Both of them have the same mission, but they have different ways of going about it. This contrast leads us through the complex plot, which is necessary, because Eppy’s whirlwind punctuates Orion’s more deliberate efforts.
Orion narrates most of the arc, and he introduces us to Innocent and speaks of earlier Popes and their abuses of power. The religious aspects of the comic are perhaps the least interesting, because Wagner simply returns the Papacy to its medieval roots, when the Pope was a secular ruler as well as a religious leader (a situation that Napoleon ended, in case you’re wondering). Innocent and his machinations are necessary for the story, but somewhat of a caricature. Luckily, Wagner concentrates far more on how Orion and Eppy try to bring the Church down rather than how the Pope runs it. Therefore, we can forgive the stereotypical portrayal of Catholicism, especially when we learn who Innocent is and what he’s really up to.
Soon after the introduction, we learn more about Orion. He is the chief head of labor for BASIC, the Bay Area Systems of Inter-Communication, and he explains that the “central fund would match any monies raised by an authorized religion.” This means that taxes have been raised twice a year for the 12 years of Innocent’s reign. Orion wants access to the Church’s accounting to make sure that it is not doing anything shady. This is somewhat of a MacGuffin to get Orion interested in the Church, but Wagner does a good job of keeping the plot going, even as Orion gets more deeply involved in his crusade. He is also a member of the Deva Princes, a covert group of four people who plot against the Church, and he is part of an incestuous relationship with his twin sisters. These two points will come back to haunt him, especially his love for his sisters. Orion starts to investigate the Church’s finances, and he finds some connections that are clues to something big: he learns that the Church is siphoning off the employees of a mega-corporation’s Solar Division and putting them to work; one of his allies discovers that the Church has a very old diagram for a nuclear bomb in its records; and, most enigmatic of all, he finds out that Innocent is making a deal with the South American government to deliver 600 tons of bananas to the Vatican. None of these things makes sense, but Orion presses on. We learn before he does that Innocent plans to build a gun that he will fire at the sun, reacting with the world’s ozone layer to form a shield that will block out ultraviolet rays, except in Colorado. The beam will collect sunlight as well, and people will be forced to turn to the Church for life. He’s lying, as we find out later. The true purpose of the gun is more diabolical, but it remains a bit of a MacGuffin, as Wagner is more concerned with the conflict between Innocent and Grendel and his avatars than its cause.
Orion’s shift to a Grendel-persona comes, really, at the end of issue #28, when he has become immune from the newly-revived Inquisition (just in time), but discovers that others are not. On the final page, he explains through his narration: “But, most of all, I felt like Christine Spar. This world suddenly seemed determined to play its unkindly game of chess with me. Like all of them, I was determined that it wouldn’t. Like all of them, I am surrounded by enemies. Like her, I am afflicted with a feeling for Grendel.” I would argue that, unlike Christine, Orion brought this on himself. He attacked the Church, which is now fighting back. That’s not to say his cause isn’t just, but the idea that he was “in a war [he] couldn’t avoid” (as he narrates just before that which I quoted above) is a bit specious, given that he initiated the attack. But, ignoring that bit of semantic arguing, Orion’s affiliation with not only Christine Spar but Grendel is a marked shift in his attitude. Prior to this, he was content to chip away at the Church’s all-powerful façade. The presence of the other Grendel, Eppy Thatcher, is a distraction that he could use, but not in any meaningful capacity. After this issue, Orion begins to wonder if he can use Eppy more actively. This is where the two Grendels begin to fuse into one symbiotic creature, as the two halves that Grendel represents begin to balance each other.
As Orion comes to accept his “Grendel-ness” (for lack of a better word), it’s interesting to note that he begins to exhibit some of the Devil’s reckless tendencies, which he had not done earlier in the epic. He holds a press conference to decry Innocent’s purchase of the bananas, even though his bosses expressly warned him not to. He begins to break into televised Church ceremonies to tell the public about the nuclear diagram it has. He flees to Mt. Rushmore and his sisters are harassed by the police. Finally, he infiltrates the Cathedral itself, trying to find out the connections between all the clues he possesses. All of this rebellion comes with a price, of course, and his sisters die in a high-speed chase as they’re pursued by policemen. By the final chapter of the epic, Orion has a white streak in his hair, just like Hunter Rose and Christine Spar, and he’s assaulting the Vatican itself, first alone like Eppy has done, and later with his rebel army. Perhaps because he represents Grendel’s more calculating side, Orion survives the final apocalypse (unlike Eppy), and his final narration gives us a clue as to how he will use Grendel in the same way that Innocent used God: “Are we so hollow that we need to be filled? By anything that’s available? Or is it the way it’s always been? Only the images ever changes. These vessels are fragile, translucent, and weak.” This is a bitter ending, but it leads from the Age of God to the Age of Grendel. When God has failed, Wagner asks, do we need something else? Orion finally comes to realize that we do need a replacement, and he offers Grendel. Only time will tell if he makes the correct choice.
If Orion represents the calculating side of Grendel, Eppy represents the chaotic side. We have seen this dichotomy before, in Hunter Rose, in Christine Spar, and even in Brian Li Sung. When Grendel destroys the world and forges a new one, we see both sides of the Devil, and in this new world, we see it again. The previous incarnations of Grendel balanced the sane with the insane, but in this arc, Eppy is free to be completely crazy because of the presence of Orion. We first see Eppy as Grendel at the end of issue #24, when he drops into a Church service and wrecks the offering, dumping it into the streets. This is just the beginning, of course, as Grendel spreads chaos throughout the Church’s careful preparations for Easter, which is when Innocent plans to fire his gun. His schemes, which include stealing the Pope’s mitre during a ceremony, causing the city’s entire pigeon population to roost on the Cathedral right before a broadcast, and substituting communion wafers laced with an emetic, cause Innocent to act recklessly, playing right into Orion’s hands. We understand that Innocent had always been untouchable because of his lack of emotion, but Eppy Thatcher strikes at his heart and makes him a symbol of ridicule. That he’s dressed as Grendel makes it even more galling to Innocent, given what our masked fiend represents to the Pope in particular and the Church in general.
Wagner structures the story so that for each three issues, the first two focus on Orion and the third is about Eppy. This allowed for Snyder and Geldhof to trade penciling duties, as Geldhof drew the issues focusing on Eppy. What it also does is highlight the contrasts between the two men. Eppy is addicted to the drug nicknamed “Grendel” (which was introduced in the prior story arc, issues #20-23), which makes him think he’s communing with the Devil, who pushes him to fight God. Eppy is an interesting character, because he’s so very unlikeable – he’s bigoted, clearly insane, and not really sympathetic despite his insanity. His extremely Manichean worldview makes him far more akin to Innocent than Orion, and Wagner milks this to the hilt – Orion resists for a long time engaging Innocent in direct battle, because he understands the seduction that comes with conflict, but Eppy doesn’t care, because his entire life has become dedicated to that conflict. He baits Innocent because he craves a response, a battle to justify his war. He knows it, too – at one point, during his hallucinations while under the influence of the drug, he narrates: “It is I who murder life and shatter the dream of faith … I who must pay the penance at the cost of my own identity.” Eppy, in a prior issue, battled Innocent hand-to-hand and exposed his dark secret, although Eppy doesn’t learn it then: Innocent is, in fact, Tujiro, the vampire from Christine Spar’s arc. His gun is designed to destroy the sun completely, so that vampires will rule the planet. Eppy doesn’t know that Innocent is a vampire, but he equates the vampire’s life-sucking energy with the Church’s. The idea of a vampire representing a Church that does the same thing spiritually as a vampire does bodily is a nice touch by Wagner, and Eppy doesn’t realize that he is viewing his enemy literally as well as figuratively.
The two Grendels, despite using divergent methods, find that their aims converge at Easter, when Orion leads an assault team against the Cathedral, Eppy attacks Innocent head-on, and Pellon Cross, the head policeman who once was investigating both Grendels but is now a vampire, leads an army of the undead toward the ceremony. The Chaos Face of Grendel does what the Control Face cannot, and that’s kill Innocent. Orion, however, does what Eppy can’t, and that’s destroy the foundation of the Church. The fascinating thing about the arc is that neither man could defeat Innocent on his own. We have seen what a formidable enemy Tujiro is, as Christine Spar was unable to take her revenge on him. As we recall her battle with Tujiro, it’s clear that she lacked the focus of each of these Grendels, as she was unable to reconcile her rage with a calculating mind. By the time Orion gives in to rage, after the death of his sisters, his dispassionate examination of Innocent’s accounting has taken its toll. Christine Spar couldn’t defeat Tujiro, because she needed single-minded focus on both sides of Grendel. Only when the persona was split could the vampire be defeated.
The dichotomy of the arc extends to the art, as well. Neither artist is particularly “gritty,” but Snyder’s lines, especially coupled with Mireault’s inks (the plan was originally to have Geldhof ink Snyder’s pencils and vice versa, but apparently Geldhof got a bit behind on his penciling, so Mireault stepped in), are a bit rougher than Geldhof inked by Snyder. As Innocent’s reign turns increasingly bloody in issue #27, Snyder’s pencils become looser and more frenzied, climaxing in the horrific reveal of Innocent’s vampirism in issue #30. In issue #33, Snyder’s pencils show more insanity, and the scraggly art reflects the ragged nature of both Eppy and the fallen Pope. Geldhof’s pencils are tighter, but what really makes his art stand out is his work on Eppy’s hallucinations while he’s under the influence of “Grendel.” They’re amazing, as a monstrous Grendel leads him through a metaphorical landscape with visions of George Washington crucified or the Pope straddling his cannon. Eppy’s battle with Pellon Cross in issue #32 is nicely done, too, as it’s a more stylized fight than the tussles with Innocent that Snyder draws. What’s unusual about the art is in the double-sized finale, the two blend pretty well, but they also employ much more cartoonish images, showing how the craziness of both Eppy and Innocent has bled into the general populace. The final issue is a wild ride, as each page becomes increasingly more bizarre, until the Cathedral is destroyed, the gun falls, Eppy and Innocent are torched in the fire (of righteousness, if we want to get metaphysical), and both Orion and Pellon Cross emerge from the wreckage to continue the battle with a new dynamic. Our final image of Orion gives him shadows across his eyes, making a perfect Grendel mask.
This is an astonishing work of comics art. Wagner shows how confident he is in his storytelling, immersing us in this world more than ever, while his artists contrast each other wonderfully. In earlier arcs of the series, there was always a bit of a disconnect, despite their high quality. It was either because of the unfamiliarity with the new world (in Christine Spar’s arc), the brevity of the arc (in Brian Li Sung’s case), the distance we necessarily feel from such an enigma as Hunter Rose (issues #16-19), or the strangeness of the storytelling techniques (issues #20-23). In this arc, despite the fact that it takes place in the future, so much is familiar that we don’t feel aloof from it, and the way Wagner constructs the story is breathtaking – I haven’t mentioned the animal metaphors running throughout the arc, from the rat that refuses to be killed to the avatars representing each character, for instance. Despite the somewhat easy target of organized religion, Wagner never takes a simple way out. This is a complex story that deepens our understanding of the Grendel mythos and what drives the people who have been “possessed” by Grendel. Despite Christine Spar’s adoption of the name, this is the first arc in which we see “Grendel” acting as a force for good, and that makes it far more interesting than it had been previously.
I could have sworn this was already out in trade, but apparently, it has never been collected. And, as usual, you can always check out the Comics You Should Own archive, if you’re so inclined.
[Well, this eventually was collected in trade, in the Grendel Omnibus that I linked to below … for $90. It’s on Comixology, which you can get at the link, too, there just wasn’t an ISBN to use for the link. It kind of bums me out that Wagner doesn’t have more cachet to keep these in print, but for now, things are rough if you’re trying to find collected Grendel stuff. Buy the single issues! They have letters! Anyway, this is still probably my favorite Grendel stories, and I apologize for spoiling so much of it, but it’s difficult to write about the next arc without the big reveal about Pope Innocent. It’s still a gripping read, and definitely something you should try to find!]