Year of the Artist, Day 65: Matt Wagner, Part 1 – Comico Primer #2
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Matt Wagner, and the story is “Grendel” from Comico Primer #2, which was published by Comico and is cover dated 1982. These scans are from Grendel Archives, which was published by Dark Horse in 2007. Enjoy!
Matt Wagner doesn’t do a ton of art anymore, which is too bad because he’s so good at it. Still, any art from Wagner is cause for celebration, and I hope to show some of his development over the course of the next five days. He’s changed quite a bit, especially from Primer #2, which features his very first published work. I will try not to show too much Grendel during these posts, but we have to start with him!
This is the first page in the first Grendel story. Wagner was 20/21 when he drew this (he turned 21 in October 1982, so who knows when he actually drew this), and you can see the rawness to it. Hunter Rose looks younger than he would in later years – he is very young, but later Wagner would draw him as slightly older – so that he looks almost like he’s play-acting in his tuxedo. Wagner keeps things simple, although the layout is nicely done – Hunter stays on the left side, while Argent dominates the right side of the page. Hunter does other things than sit there and brood, of course, so Wagner needs to show him doing stuff, but this is also a nice reflection of their relationship – Argent the hulking presence in the center of a web, Hunter the gadfly buzzing around him annoying the hell out of him. Wagner draws a nice Argent – the black mass shows just enough to let us know that Argent is something weird. The ears stick up, the small traces of fur cover the head, and his teeth don’t look quite human. Wagner leads us down his body to the hand/claw clutching the phone cord (what the heck is a phone cord?), which helps lead us to the panel in which Hunter gussies himself up and also leads us back up the phone cord to the next page. Wagner’s art is rudimentary, but he already knows how to lay out a page fairly well.
Here’s the first appearance of the iconic mask, one of the best masks ever in comics, in my humble opinion. Notice how it’s so simple, but the design is so flexible, as Grendel looks both angry and bemused in Panel 4, the close-up where he says that he’s the “evil Grendel” (the narration on the first page makes mention of the “evil Grendel,” and as it’s Argent narrating – I guess – it assumes Hunter is eavesdropping). The fact that Wagner can get the emotion into that panel plus the fact that the mask is infinitely variable as bloody hands (which it is) makes me marvel at the design even more. I wonder how long Wagner spent on it, or if, in a moment of genius, he just scribbled it out?
Anyway, despite Christie’s somewhat goofy design – like Hunter on Page 1, he’s a bit too young-looking, as if he’s a boy playing dress-up – this page is pretty solid. Wagner uses blacks really well. The fact that Hunter is in a tuxedo means he can uses large black splotches with just hints of white, and he lines Hunter’s frame with white so that he stands out a bit. We saw on the first page that Wagner tends to draw hands a bit disproportionately large, and we see that on this page, too, especially in Panel 1. I’m not sure why he does it. I also like that in Panel 5, he keeps Hunter large in the frame so that the arc of his “fork” – the two-pronged weapon – moves outside the panel borders. It makes the whirl seem more expansive, as if Hunter is describing an arc so big Christie can’t hope to escape. Notice how Wagner leads our eye nicely from that panel to the bottom one, too. He knows what he’s doing!
This is the first time we see Grendel in his complete costume. Wagner draws him as a lithe figure, which fits with his past as a the greatest fencer ever (Hunter was the greatest at everything he tried, including needle-point!). He also has large hands, and his feet look a bit disproportionately large, as well. The pants tucked into the boots and bloused out is the silliest part of the costume, and Wagner didn’t keep that aspect long, although it never quite went away.
This is the first battle between Grendel and Argent, and Wagner does a pretty good job with it. The flow is pretty good, and the shift around the axis in Panel 3 works quite well – in Panel 2 Argent slashes at Grendel with his left hand, and then rotates around to strike him with his right hand. The flow in the final panel of the first page works against the grain – Argent is leaping the “wrong” way, from right to left – but if we take into consideration that the next panel reverses it to show him jumping past Grendel, who matadors around him and stabs him in the back, it works a bit better. Wagner draws Grendel’s feet a little oddly in Panel 3, but he does a nice job contrasting Grendel’s slim figure with Argent’s bulkier body – Argent is a 300-year-old Algonquin Indian who was transformed into a wolf-like man. so he’s going to be a bit larger. Even in Panel 2, Wagner shows how evasive Grendel is – Argent only gets his shirt, not his flesh. The use of negative space in the final panel, when Grendel stabs Argent, is nicely done – it allows Wagner to add some airbrushing that makes the scene a bit more electric and dramatic. This kind of storytelling is a cliché, but that’s mostly because it’s effective.
I don’t know if Wagner was influenced by manga in his designs, because I don’t know how much he had read back in the late 1970s/early 1980s. The artwork certainly shows some influence, but whether that’s a coincidence or not I don’t know. Either way, Wagner continued to grow as an artist, and tomorrow we’ll check out some of that growth. As I mentioned, I’m going to try to avoid Grendel, but I might be forced to feature it! If you’re looking for other artists to read about, you can find them in the archives!