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 I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now.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 let’s look at the final chapter of Matt Wagner’s epic masterpiece! This post was originally published on 11 March 2008. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!
Grendel by Matt Wagner (writer; inker, issues #41-50), Tim Sale (artist, issues #34-40), Patrick McEown (penciler, issues #41-50), Ken Henderson (penciler, issues #48-50), Monty Sheldon (inker, issues #43-50), Bernie Mireault (colorist, issues #34-50), Kathryn Delaney (colorist, issues #42-50), Bob Pinaha (letterer, issues #34-35), and Kurt Hathaway (letterer, issues #36-50).
Published by Comico (issues #34-40) and Dark Horse (issues #41-50, subtitled “War Child”), 17 issues (#34-50), cover dated August 1989 – June 1993.
There are a few reasons why I chose to pair the final seven issues of Comico’s Grendel with “War Child,” the ten-issue mini-series Wagner wrote a few years later, after the legal hassles of Comico’s demise had been cleared up and Wagner regained control of his character (as he writes in the first Dark Horse issue, don’t assume that just because something is “creator-owned” that you can walk away with it if the publishing company goes bankrupt). First, I don’t think each section of the story merits a column on its own, as these two parts of the Grendel mythos are less successful on their own as stories. Second, and stemming from this, they fit naturally together, despite a drastic shift in tone from the first part to the second part. What these two stories do is track the rise and fall and rise of the Assante dynasty, and therefore, “War Child” is an inextricable part of Orion’s tale as told in issues #34-40. “War Child” completes, in essence, the cycle begun with Orion’s conquest of the Earth. That they are so different in style doesn’t obscure the underlying theme of the entire seventeen-issue span, which is the nature of Grendel in a post-Christian world and the nature of the cult of Grendel, which is far more important.
As I re-read these issues, I was reminded of Charlemagne. Charles the Great, in case you’re not up on your early medieval European history (and shame on you if you aren’t!), was the King of the Franks from AD 768-814. His father, Pepin III, usurped the throne in 751, and Charlemagne’s legitimacy was partially based on the blessing of the Papacy. In 771 he became sole ruler of what we would now call France (the Franks back in the day didn’t practice primogeniture, which led to many divisions in the kingdom and therefore many petty civil wars) and began conquering Europe. He was pretty good at it, too – he conquered most of modern Germany, subjugated the tribes in Bavaria and Hungary, took over northern Italy, and managed to rule tenuously for a while in southern Italy. On Christmas Day, 800, Pope Leo III crowned him Emperor (the last Roman Emperor ruling from Rome had been deposed in 476, although the Eastern Roman Empire – the Byzantine – was still around), and what we call the Holy Roman Empire was born (although nobody called it that for centuries). When Charlemagne died in 814, his will followed the standard division of the kingdom between his sons, which led to the inevitable squabbling among the heirs. The Carolingian Empire lasted less than a century, with Charles III – known to history as Charles the Fat and deposed as ruler in 887 – commonly accepted as the last Emperor of the line (he was Charlemagne’s great-grandson), although other descendants of Charlemagne claimed the imperial title until early in the tenth century. The title of Emperor, however, kept being revived for a millennium.
Well, that was a fun little history lesson, wasn’t it? What in the hell does this have to do with Grendel, however? The parallels between Charlemagne and Orion Assante are quite striking. At the end of issue #33, the world is in a bit of a chaotic state. The Pope, Innocent XLII, has been revealed as the vampire Tujiro, who stole Christine Spar’s son back in issue #1 and allowed the Grendel-force to re-enter the world (ironically enough). When his regime comes down in an apocalypse of fire, Orion must step in and fill the void. He becomes a despot almost by accident, and by the end of issue #40, he rules a global empire as Grendel-Khan Orion I. He achieves this by an assiduous attention to every detail, a somewhat judicious use of violence, and the acknowledgement that people crave a spiritual element in their lives. The Catholic Church has failed them, so he gives them the cult of Grendel. With the creation of this cult, Wagner is simply bringing to apotheosis the ideas first explored in issues #20-23, when the Grendel-force changed the world, and even the ideas about “Grendel” being something separate from Hunter Rose that survived his death. Grendel, the ultimate outsider and villain, has become the saving grace of a world from which God has fled.
So how does this relate specifically to Charlemagne, as opposed to all the other would-be world conquerors? Well, if you’ll indulge me, let’s look at some of those would-be conquerors, especially those pertaining to Europe and the Middle East (I’m not as familiar with the Mughals in India or the great sub-Saharan empires like Mali, for instance, so you’ll have to forgive their exclusion here). Two of the greatest empires in world history, the Roman and the Arab, didn’t have a signature warrior-king who forged them, but it’s significant that both the Romans and Arabs knew enough to offer perks for the common people – citizenship in the case of the Romans, tax breaks for people willing to convert to Islam in the case of the Arabs. Alexander the Great brought a Hellenistic, cultural force with him, one that long outlasted him. The Ottomans, most notably Suleiman the Magnificent and his immediate predecessors, offered land to their followers. Genghis Khan and Tamerlane forged empires mainly on the strength of their personalities, offering little else to their armies besides plunder. Charlemagne did many of the things other conquerors did – his empire was held together because of his dynamic personality, he doled out conquered lands to his followers – but he added a crucial element: Christianity. Only the early caliphs of Islam were as forceful at converting the conquered as Charlemagne was, and they didn’t have an established church behind them. Charlemagne brought the muscular version of Christianity, forged from two disparate elements, that of the Frankish church and the Celtic church, to Central and Eastern Europe, and though his political efforts didn’t last, his religious efforts made a continent think of itself as “Europe” for the first time. This “Europe-ization” took centuries to achieve, of course, but through Charlemagne’s conquests, the unifying force on the continent became Christianity, and this allowed an identity to be established. Much like Islam in the Middle East, Christianity transcended political boundaries in Europe. And this was due in a large part (though not totally, of course) to Charlemagne.
We see the parallels to Orion, who uses Grendel in the same way. As we read issues #34-40, we do not get the sense that Orion is establishing the “church of Grendel” for cynical reasons. At the end of issue #33, as the Catholic Church shattered around him, he wondered if people need something to believe in. In these issues, he gives them that something. Again, that’s not saying his move is cynical. The evolution of the cult of Grendel comes rather naturally. Orion’s Sword begins as Assante’s broadcasting network but quickly becomes an organization to rein in the outmoded police force, COP. Throughout Orion’s conquest of the planet, Orion’s Sword is his elite army corps, but when he finally destroys Great Japan in issue #39, he shifts the focus of the army. There are no more wars, so the Grendels (as they are now called) engage in gladiatorial games. In the introduction to issue #40, Wagner writes, “Like the Roman and medieval knights and the Japanese samurai before them, the Grendels were a privileged class forbidden to own property, yet maintained on pain of death by the populace, through which they moved at their will. Their word was binding and their honor a thing (theoretically) above reproach. To be a Grendel was one of the highest ranks to which an ordinary civilian could aspire, and this, too, only added to their mystique and wonder. Anyone could become a Grendel. It was only a matter of discipline and achievement.” The idea of egalitarianism behind the Grendels is why I consider this a religion – one does not need the nobility of birth or vast wealth to become a Grendel, just as anyone can confess their faith in a religion like Christianity. The Grendel oath, which we see for the first time in issue #40, is less like the “archaic” pledge of allegiance, as Wagner puts it, and more like a profession of faith, such as the Nicene Creed.
(The top picture is Charlemagne receiving oaths of loyalty, from the Chroniques de St. Denis, while the bottom is the Wagner and Sale picture it in a fictional setting.)
Obviously, the parallels aren’t perfect. Charlemagne often forced new subjects to accept Christianity, even though his priests and monks who went out to proselytize found it prudent to simply rename pagan shrines with saints’ names and add just a patina of Christian faith to older beliefs. Orion doesn’t force anyone to become Grendels, but the benefits are obvious, just as Christianity offered benefits to Charlemagne’s subjects. Of course, Grendel itself is seen as the “devil” (in issue #34, we learn that Orion’s nickname is “scourge of Jesus”). But we have to remember that Christianity was seen as a peculiar cult when it first made itself known to the Romans, who thought the idea of Communion meant that Christians were cannibals. Grendel has been a force in the world for a few hundred years by the time this story begins, and, of course, history is written by the winners. It wasn’t until AD 325 that Christianity was sanctioned by Rome, and that was because Constantine the Great, a pragmatic politician, recognized which way the winds were blowing. By the time Orion comes to power, Christianity has been discredited, and Grendel – embodied in Orion, who brought down the obscenely corrupt Innocent – is the “savior” of the planet. It’s not surprising that Orion uses this to solidify his grip on power.
Wagner does a nice job showing how the world can be conquered, beyond just the religious aspect. All would-be conquerors must deal with the same problems, and unlike more mainstream superhero megalomaniacs, Orion understands this. He achieves his ends through merger (in North America with the various corporations and in Australia), palace coup (in South America), as retribution for the kidnapping of his lover (in Africa), and with bold military action when no one is expecting it (when he finally defeats Great Japan). Wagner condenses the ways countries achieve their ends, of course, and it’s not exactly prescient that he anticipates, among other things, the United States’ involvement in Iraq – George Bush, who decried the idea that he would “nation-build,” is doing exactly that, and isn’t doing anything hundreds of others haven’t done already. [Edit: Sorry, this dates this post, but it’s not untrue!] We might read some of Orion’s conquests as parables for the current political situation, but why this particular story is fascinating is precisely because it’s not new – Wagner simply applies the principles of conquest to a future situation. Orion is neither hero nor villain, but a man trying to do what he believes is best. If that means collaborating in the assassination of a head of state or “allowing” his paramour to be kidnapped, so be it. The wonderful thing about this examination of Orion (which, as we learn at the end of issue #40, was written by his step-daughter forty or so years after his death) is that it’s very vague as to whether the Grendel-Khan had any involvement in those crimes. His biographer, obviously, doesn’t think so, but it’s always a possibility.
It’s interesting that Wagner chooses to split each issue into two sections (both illustrated by Sale, in different styles), one dealing with Orion, the other dealing with the vampires in Las Vegas. In many ways, the vampires are the anti-Grendels, led by the anti-Orion: Pellon Cross, the COP who was turned by Tujiro in the previous story arc. Whereas Orion maintains strict discipline in his lifestyle, Cross becomes bloated on power and corruption and (literally) on the blood of his followers. Cross’s rule in Vegas is a true cult of personality, as the vampires develop no infrastructure to handle their society if Cross would die. Why should they? He’s immortal, after all. But once Orion focuses on the vampires and drives them from the city, they have nowhere to go, and when Grendel-Prime comes across them in issue #9 of “War Child,” he almost mercifully puts Cross out of his misery. Wagner juxtaposes Orion’s new society with the corruption of the vampiric one, and it’s a nice subtle reminder that the cult of Grendel is the more dynamic and “newer” religion, while Cross, with his ties to Tujiro, represents decrepit Christianity. The readers who complained about Wagner’s assualt on Christianity in the previous story arc focused on the fact that Grendel was the “devil” – very few noted the fact that the Catholic Church was represented by a vampire. No one in the letters mentions in “War Child” that Cross himself is the last link to Christianity (despite the fact that he was never a good Christian, he was still representative of the religion), and he’s a ludicrously fat, almost brain dead mockery.
In Orion’s senescence, Wagner confronted what always becomes an issue for emperors – the succession. Orion’s first wife, Sherri Caniff, miscarriages in her only pregnancy and dies soon afterward. Orion marries Laurel Kennedy late in life, but like many of Henry VIII’s wives, her inability to become pregnant leads to her marginalization (she should have felt lucky Orion didn’t have her decapitated). Orion, using the medical technology of the 26th century, has himself artificially inseminated, and at the age of 90, gives birth to a son. He dies when the child is five, leading to the events of “War Child,” in which Wagner examines whether Orion’s empire was the result of his indominable will (as was, for example, Charlemagne’s) or whether the foundations he laid down could withstand a period of rule by a regent.
Whereas in issues #34-40, Wagner looks to historical precedence to construct his tale, in issues #41-50 he looks more to heroic fantasy. The Charlemagne parallel still applies to a certain degree, with regard to the Grendels and their impact on society, but Charlemagne’s heir, Louis the Pious, was a full-grown man in 814 and failed to hold the empire together due to his flaws as a ruler, not because of a power-mad regent. The saga of Jupiter Assante and his trial to become a true Grendel-Khan finds its antecedents in stories of heroes and even in the fairy tales – there’s even a wicked stepmother, Laurel Kennedy Assante, who seizes control of the Regency on her husband’s death and locks the heir away, while her even more evil advisor, Abner Heath, conspires to remove both her and Jupiter from the throne. The too-young heir is always a concern for actual rulers, but in Wagner’s hands, it becomes something more mythic. Many people objected to the fast pace of “War Child,” but that’s the point – it’s a Quest, and after the dense prose of the previous seven issues, it’s a fine counter-point. Orion’s rise is written as a political tract, but Grendel-Prime and Jupiter’s global race is more of visceral experience. The idea of the heir being spirited away, only to return to save the kingdom, goes back to Arthur (at least; it’s probably older than that, but Arthur springs immediately to mind). Jupiter’s exile and return recalls the famous myth of a king sleeping under the mountain, returning in his kingdom’s time of need – again, Arthur is a member of this fraternity, but real-life kings such as Frederick Barbarossa and, significantly, Charlemagne, also fit this profile. In recent times, this theme has been explored in fantasy fiction and the movies: Isildur dies and his heir, Aragorn, returns to save the kingdom, for instance. Star Wars is the most obvious parallel recently to “War Child” – the heir (Luke/Jupiter) is taken away to save him from the corruption of the court; his mentor (Obi-Wan/Grendel-Prime) teaches him how to be a warrior; his sister (Leia/Crystal) stays near the center of power but becomes an exile in her own time and assists her brother to bring down the regime. Wagner, in a wink to Star Wars, even gives Grendel-Prime a lightsaber. Jupiter learns from Grendel-Prime, grows up far from the corrupting influence of his stepmother and the sinister Heath, and returns the empire to glory. But, as Crystal Kennedy writes, he didn’t. One of the last lines of “War Child” hints that Jupiter’s reign was not as glorious as his father’s. As we see in issues of Grendel Tales, the empire is in some disarray. What still holds it together? The Grendels. This is Orion’s true legacy, and it brings us back to Charlemagne.
The Carolingian Empire did not long survive as a powerful force following the death of its founder. Louis the Pious faced rebellions by his sons, and in 843, the Treaty of Verdun split the empire between Lothar I, Louis the German, and Charles the Bald, essentially creating France and Germany. Charlemagne’s legacy is twofold: the concept of Europe as a cultural entity, and the spread of Christianity throughout Europe. Much like the Grendels, Christianity quickly splintered into different sects and even national churches, even as they all fell under the aegis of the Papacy. We first hear about a fracturing among the Grendels in issue #40 and see the tribalization firsthand in “War Child,” and this becomes even more prevalent in Grendel Tales. All the Grendels, however, adhere to the code and the creed, if only superficially, and we see that Orion’s creation of the religion of Grendel has taken hold far more than the political reality he forged. Wagner doesn’t belabor the irony of this “force for evil” becoming the only stable organization in the world, allowing us to draw our own conclusions about how perceptions can change over the course of centuries.
With the ascension of Jupiter, Wagner seemed to have done all he could with Grendel … but he hadn’t, because what his new religion lacked was a relic. Religions need tangible artifacts around which to focus, and the Grendels did not have one. Wagner, therefore, wrote and drew a back-up story in some issues of Grendel Tales that took Grendel-Prime on a search for a holy icon. That is, however, a story for another day (and leads to time travel!). For the most part, Wagner was finished with his future, because there really was nothing left to do with the grand storyline. When he revisited the character, it was to return to Hunter Rose, a character who had been woefully underused in his original incarnation. Wagner continues to write Hunter Rose stories, and may or may not introduce another Grendel who preceded his seminal creation.
Although the Hunter Rose stories are very good, the 50 issues that make up the Grendel ongoing form an essential block of comics. Wagner took a simplistic character – the bored rich man who becomes a crime lord – and turned it into an astonishing artistic creation, a mythic journey through the future and the way mankind can destroy and rebuild itself and how a destructive force can turn into a creative force. It’s amazing to consider what Wagner and his artistic collaborators did with this idea, and it’s a reason these are Comics You Should Own. They can be read over and over and always reveal something new.
“War Child” has been collected in a trade, but the preceding issues have not been (at least I can’t find a reference to them). Perhaps with the collection of “God and the Devil” coming out soon, Dark Horse will be able to bring out a collection of these final Comico issues. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?
The archive, as always, is consultable … if you dare!
[This was written before the Grendel Omnibus series came out, which, as I’ve noted over the past few weeks, is not always in print, unfortunately. I linked to the volume that contains issues #34-40 last week, and below is the one that contains “War Child” as well as a Rucka-written novel (which I haven’t read) and Wagner’s back-up stories from Grendel Tales which lead into the second Batman/Grendel crossover, which are beautifully drawn by Wagner and form an interesting view into the world post-“War Child.” I wish these volumes were evergreen, but I guess that’s too much to ask.
I’m back to not writing too much about the art, but Sale and McEown do a nice job. Sale’s style on the “vampire” portions of #34-40 is unmistakably his, and his slightly altered but still recognizable style on the main story is nicely done. McEown is perhaps the most “traditional” artist in the Grendel cycle, as “War Child” is the most action-oriented, and he does a terrific job, as well (McEown hasn’t done a lot of comics work, but his style has evolved quite a bit since he drew these issues). Perhaps the real stars of “War Child” are Mireault and Delaney, whose colors pop right off the page and turn the dour world of Orion Assante in issues #34-40 (which Mireault also colored, so it’s a deliberate choice to contrast) into a crazy world of pomp and pageantry with regard to the Grendel-Khan’s government while also showing, it seems, how the world has recovered from the depredations of the previous regimes. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but the colors are spectacular. But I had a point to make when I wrote this, and I guess the art didn’t factor into this. Sorry!
So that’s Grendel. I skipped Grendel Tales and the Batman crossovers, not because they’re not good comics, but because I was a bit burnt out on Grendel at the time. Wagner had done some Hunter Rose stuff, and he then did some more, and I’ll revisit all that some day, especially if he ever finishes his latest Grendel story, which goes back to Grendel-Prime from “War Child.” But that’s for another day!]