Friday, August 3, 2012

Recommended Reading for 8/3: Grendel

A dark figure sneaks through the night, a figure of fear to all who perceive him. He arrives home, and assumes the identity of a fantastically wealthy man with a young ward. It might sound like I'm talking about Batman, which I do a lot. But I'm not. I'm talking about Hunter Rose, the first Grendel in Matt Wagner's generational saga. And believe me, while the two characters share a lot of similarities, Hunter Rose is definitely no Batman knock off.

Grendel is a series of stories that take place over the course of hundreds of years, tracing the history of the mask and mantle of Grendel, something that goes from the identity of one man into a force that conquers the world. The scope of the various Grendel stories and series is something truly impressive; stories run the gamut from superhero-tinged crime to supernatural thriller to psychological drama to dystopian future, and all are tinged with a dark social commentary.

I will discuss various aspects of the Grendel mythos in this piece, and touch on various Grendels, but I intend to focus on my favorite of these characters, the one I mentioned at the beginning: Hunter Rose. Hunter made is first appearance in Comico Primer #2, and his exploits continued in a three issue series that ended when the publisher, Comico, went under. Wagner returned to Grendel as a back-up feature in his other opus, Mage, only this time as a text with spot illustration format. This is the piece that would form the foundation of all things Grendel, Devil by the Deed, telling the entire story of Hunter Rose.

Hunter Rose is another character in the tradition of Batman or Doc Savage, a man who has worked to make himself the pinnacle of what a human can be, with a touch of Arsene Lupin and Professor Moriarty tossed in. Born with the name Eddie, Hunter was a genius, an exceptional person; his mind was turned to the idea that he was superior, and so he decided to prove it, changing his name to something that would reflect his uniqueness. He created the mask of Grendel (or did he? The exact nature of Grendel is a central question in the entire mythos), took up the fork, his trademark weapon, and began his career as an assassin in New York City. Eventually, Hunter conquered the underworld, as he also conquered high society as a best selling novelist. He dueled with New York's defender, Argent the Wolf, a sort of wolfman who was a vigilante, and adopted Stacy Polumbo, the young niece of one of his victims and a friend of Argent. In the end, it is Stacy, discovering Hunter Rose is Grendel, the man who killed her father, that orchestrates the final confrontation between Hunter and Argent.

Hunter Rose strides across the page of a comic and draws all attention to himself. He is charming, brilliant, and, at his core, completely amoral. Crime isn't something he does for the money, although it doesn't hurt, but because it is something that lesser men won't. Hunter believes that he is above the laws of men, and flaunts them because he feels like obeying them would be conforming. Crime also gives Hunter one thing that he never had as a youth: a challenge. Hunter was so brilliant, everything came easy to him. Only when he met Jocasta Rose, a beautiful woman twice his age, did he feel challenged and loved; but Jocasta died, and Hunter Rose was born. Wagner has described Grendel as, "the demon of society's mediocrity," and this is true of Hunter: in a society that cherishes conformity and mediocrity, what is left for the exceptional but to throw off society and create something new for themselves.

While Hunter is the star and central figure of Devil by the Deed and the few other stories that feature him, he has an interesting supporting cast. Argent is Hunter's opposite. Where Hunter is subtle, Argent is direct. Where Hunter is suave, Argent is savage. Grendel's one close associate is Larry Stohler, an underworld information broker, who walks in criminal and high society circles, and provides Hunter with intelligence. While Hunter looks down on Larry with the same contempt he looks at others, Larry is a little more clever than Hunter thinks, and is interesting to watch how he moves about on Grendel's game board. Stacy is Hunter's true daughter, even if they share no blood. She is as brilliantly manipulative as he is, and when she realizes how much she has been hurt by Hunter, she arranges his death with no remorse. She might be the next Grendel, despite never wearing the mask herself. Argent and Stacy both have their own spotlight miniseries, Stacy in Devil Child and Argent in Silverback.

With the death of such a strong principal character, many would think that was the end of Grendel, but Wagner decided to pass on the mantle. The second Grendel was Christine Spar, the Stacy's daughter, whose stories are set in the not too distant future, and who took up the mantle to find her son, who had been kidnapped by a troupe of travelling vampires, and avenge his death when she could not save his life. This story, Devil's Legacy, not only has a different tone than the Hunter Rose story, much less about crime and the underworld, and more a classic revenge tale, but it presents a Grendel in Christine who is not supremely confident, who is not simply a female Hunter Rose. And after Stacy, her lover Brian Li Sung became another Grendel, haunted and at war with the voice in his head that was Grendel, in The Devil Inside. Whether or not that was the voice of a possessing demonic force or simply Brian's break with reality, is left for the reader to interpret.

Grendel changes drastically after Brian's tenure as the titular character. After a few interim issues, the series jumps about five hundred years into the future, into a desolate dystopia where the Catholic Church has conquered the world society is decadent and media driven. This story, God and the Devil, leads the the ascension of Orion Assante in Devil's Reign, a man who overthrows the theocracy and conquers the world himself, taking up the mantle of Grendel, with his soldiers being called Grendels. Now being a Grendel is a point of honor and pride, with the Grendel entity possessing many and ruling the world. Wagner had taken his crime/superhero comic, and fully transformed it into something different. Rarely does a creator in any genre decide to take a formula that works, throw it out, and insert the core conceit into something that is nothing like the initial setting. And even more rarely did it work as well as it did with Grendel.

The final Grendel epic story that Wagner has written so far followed on the heels of this. War Child followed Jupiter Assante, son of Orion, who, after his father's death, is spirited away by a mysterious warrior called Grendel Prime. The series follows the cyborg Grendel Prime as he protects and trains Jupiter to reclaim his throne from his stepmother, who has corrupted Orion's intentions. This is a major sci-fi action epic, with great set pieces and incredible action, and inspirations that range from spaghetti westerns to Lone Wolf and Cub. It also presents a Grendel who, while brutal, is truly a noble warrior. Grendel Prime might be partially robotic, but he does his duty, and when it is done, he heads off into the sunset to wait until he is needed again.

There are many other Grendel stories out there as well. Wagner has written other Hunter Rose stories, including two anthologies and a mini-series, Behold the Devil. He also allowed other writers and artists to play around with his toys in a series of miniseries called Grendel Tales, which included Four Devils, One Hell by James Robinson and Teddy Kristiansen and Devils and Deaths by Darko Macan and the late, great Edvard Biukovic. There have even been two crossovers with Batman, one where the Dark Knight confronted Hunter Rose, another where he fought a time travelling Grendel Prime.

The art on Grendel has some very cool touches. For the anthology mini-series Wagner wrote, with art from many of comics' best artists, he decided to use a limited color pallet of Black, White, and Red, which gave the series its title, as well as the second series, Red, White, and Black. Since then, the reprint of Devil by the Deed and the new series Behold the Devil have used this color scheme too. Aside from Wagner's own excellent artwork, many great comic artists have worked on the core Grendel stories, including Bernie Mierault, Pat McEown, John K Snyder III, the Pander Bros., and early work from Tim Sale. The diversity of art suited the various types of Grendel stories.

Wagner still publishes the occasional Grendel short, most recently in last year's CBLDF Liberty Comics benefit book. He has said that he has another Grendel Prime story in mind as well. I look forward to any new stories set in this strange and complex world. Anyone who is interested should come and have a look. The devil awaits.

While much of Grendel is currently out of print, this coming Wednesday marks the release of the first of four of Dark Horse's omnibus editions, reprinting all of the Grendel that is available in the order the stories take place. This volume, Hunter Rose, includes Devil by the Deed, Behold the Devil, and all the shorts from the Black, White, and Red miniseries. The second volume, Legacy, will be released in December.

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