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Comics You Should Own – Grendel #13-23

It’s another section of Matt Wagner’s epic.  It’s an odd group of issues, but they’re still excellent!  And, as usual, SPOILERS abound in these posts!

Grendel by Matt Wagner (writer; artist, issues #16-19), Bernie Mireault (artist, issues #13-15), Hannibal King (penciller, issues #20-22), and Tim Sale (artist, issue #23; inker, issues #20-22).

Comico, 11 issues (#13-23), cover dated October 1987-September 1988.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 war-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.

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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.

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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 frighful 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.

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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; 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.

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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.

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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!

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The archive has been restored, so if you’re curious about some old Comics You Should Own, you can check them out now!

24 Comments

I dunno if it was an oversight or what, but you neglected to mention that the first MAGE interlude was the back-up stories in Grendel # 16-19.

Of course, Grendel # 24-33, 34-40, and 41-50 (or War Child # 1-10 Dark Horse) should always be the next “comics you should own”!!!

Despite your opinion that they aren’t that memorable I wish you could get issues 20-21 in some sort of reprint form. But Wagner says the film is lost and it might be impossible to reprint those stories.

I believe God and Devil will be collected in either a trade or hardcover next year. ANd I know Devils Reign has been reprinted at Dark Horse.

No fair! I can’t even read this! It starts right at the place where I stopped being able to read Grendel! :(

Devil Inside is pretty readily avalible. The need to put Devil Tales back in print (featuring the Hunter Rose stories). And issue 22 became God & Devil 0 when the series was reprinted at Dark Horse.

Crap got my numbering wrong. 23 is now God & Devil # 0 and 21 and 22 probably won’t be reprinted.

To Grant,

To fill in what you don’t have:

Try e-bay.

or try this place:

http://www.dougcomicworld.com/

It’s 20, 21, and 22 that won’t be reprinted.

I just found them at my local comic shop during a 40% off sale a month or two back; they had all of the latter half of the run, and much of the former, but I only got the ones for which there will be no trade.

I thought the stylized dialogue worked really well in a weird way. It had a very similar effect, to me, to the ‘Devil by the Deed’ story. The dialogue was so minimal that it might as well be as non-existent as dialogue in ‘Devil by the Deed’, which makes the whole thing seem bigger because it gives you gaps to fill in from yourself.

Fret not, Tom – more Grendel is coming! I didn’t mention the Mage back-ups because I have never read Mage (I’ve read a few issues, but decided to try to get them through the trades and haven’t gotten around to it), plus they’re not really part of the “Grendel” story. They do have that nice Wagner art, though.

It’s nice to know that Dark Horse reprinted (or will reprint) the latter part of the Comico run. I didn’t see them on the Trade Paperback List I use or at Amazon, but it’s good to know that they exist!

I cannot believe that you’ve never read Mage 1 and 2 (except for a few issues).

Holy Mary Mother of God!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

How can you read GRENDEL and not read MAGE?!?!?!?

They’re practically not only mirror-counter parts, but what put Matt Wagner on the map as an established writer/artist.

Get the collected tpbs that collects the 1st and 2nd Interludes, the collected editions (first or second series) doesn’t include the interludes.

Anyway, Dark Horse has been pretty good at collecting all of Comico run, except for Silverback (the origin of Argent) # 1-3.

I actually ordered 20-22. Greg’s review inspired me.

Dark Horse can only reprint what they have film or original art for. So Silverback looks unlikely as well.

As for Mage Image has two giant trades and hardcovers collecting Hero Discovered and Hero Defined in their entirety.

Buyer Beware on the Hero Defined HC the first run has a major printing error where several pages are repeated (replacing other pages). Image sent replacements out but the bad versions still exist.

I bought the trade with the Christine Spar (“Devil’s Legacy”), and would love to buy the rest of Grendel. The problem is that the Brian Li Sung trade is expensive for the number of pages, and I’m not sure “God and the Devil” and subsequent stories are actually collected. That said, I’ve read everything in scanned format. I loved it. And I’d really love to buy it.

As for Mage, the second series is way better than the first, and I’d love to own a trade of both, but when those came out, I wasn’t interested in reading it, and now I am and the collections are nowhere to be found.

I think Grendel is far more nuanced (and therefore interesting) than Mage, and I think that Greg is absolutely right to spotlight this batch of issues. In my mind, these are the best Grendel issues of them all. I especially love the Mireault run.

Matt Wagner once described his creation(s) in an interview, that MAGE was a dream of what could be, and that GRENDEL was the nightmare of what could be.

Grendel may be more interesting as its complexity is more machiavialian than Mage.

“As for Mage, the second series is way better than the first, and I’d love to own a trade of both, but when those came out, I wasn’t interested in reading it, and now I am and the collections are nowhere to be found. ”

I’ve seen them around in stores in NYC. I’d keep looking. I’m sure Wagner will eventually get to Mage III and they will reprint those books as well.

“It’s nice to know that Dark Horse reprinted (or will reprint) the latter part of the Comico run. I didn’t see them on the Trade Paperback List I use or at Amazon, but it’s good to know that they exist! ”

So far issues 23-40 have been reprinted as single issues. I heard God and Devil will be out next year.

Looks like we’re getting Batman/Grendel in March, Devils Quest in April and Devils Child in May. Hopefully God and Devil follows in the summer (or a reprint of Devils Tales which collects 16-19). Not sure if we get Devils Reign in TPB form this year but it’d be nice.

Oh, man…I admit, the first time I read “The Devil Inside”, it scared the shit out of me. Easily one of the most psychologically taut thrillers in comic history (IMHO, of course).

Also, any one that’s a GRENDEL fan should definitely track down the hardcover ART OF GRENDEL that came out a few months back. It’s a pricy 40 dollar hardback (mine was an X-Mas gift from my totally awesome mother), but it’s absolutely worth it. Beautiful stuff from Wagner and most of his collaborators.

Also, over the last year I’ve managed to track down a near full-run of the Comico GRENDEL series – *except* for “Devil’s Reign”. I know its not out in trade, but Dark Horse DID reprint “Reign” a few years ago, right?

Grendel #16-19 are two of my favorite Matt Wagner stories. He used the “lots of tiny panels” techniques in the first Batman/Grendel mini-series, too. However, does anybody else think that the DH reprinting of the Grendel #16-19 seems really washed out?

And can’t they do a reprint from actual comics if they’re in good enough condition? I’m pretty sure Comico sprung for better-quality paper than newsprint.

While we’re talking about Wagner reprints, the giant Image reprint of “Mage: The Hero Discovered” also seemed to have a misprint I’ve never seen acknowledged or corrected. In the scene when Edsel is using the magic ATM card, the Image reprint doesn’t show the text she enters, while the original Starblaze oversized TPB reprints did. Is that supposed to be that way?

To Liu,

Yes. It’s supposed to be that way.
In the original run (Comico), the text appeared back then.
Dunno why it doesn’t in the Image reprints, tho’ with all the advances that reprinting has made in this day and age.

Go figure.

Mage and Grendel are some of my favorites. I actually own a couple of Mage pages (from the first series) and I own a page from Wagner’s original run on Grendel that was in black and white. I bought the issues you speak of here off the stands as they came out. There wasn’t anything quite like Grendel at the time..Great stuff.

And Greg…GO READ MAGE TODAY. I dig the first series the most of all. It’s the comic form at its best!

Chip

[...] Grendel #13-23 by Matt Wagner, Bernie Mireault, Hannibal King, and Tim Sale. [...]

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