Beholding the Devil: Wagner on Grendel's Latest

Grendel: Behold the Devil #8

Fans of Matt Wagner’s Grendel who’ve always wanted more Hunter Rose have gotten their fill in the currently-running Grendel: Behold the Devil miniseries from Dark Horse.

Spoilers ahead

The story, written and illustrated by Wagner chronicles a “missing chapter” from Hunter Rose – the original Grendel’s life, taking readers back to early ‘80s New York, when Grendel was at his height of power. But the thing is – there’s pressure from all sides: Hunter can’t shake the feeling that something is following him; the Korean gangs are thinking that this “Grendel” who rules the underworld isn’t so tough; the NYPD’s Grendel Task Force is looking at every nook and cranny of crime scenes to try and find a clue, and reporter Lucas Ottoman has accomplished the unthinkable – he has drawn the lines connecting Grendel and Hunter Rose.

Oh, and in issue #6-7, Hunter captured and confronted the individual that has been following him – a demon imp who tells him that the devil has always had an interest in Hunter, and shows Hunter a vision of the future – one that begins with his death and ends somewhere past Grendel Prime (shown in six glorious double-page spreads by Wagner). Ever the voice of pure reason and logic, Hunter rejects the notion and the supernatural as a whole.

Behold the Devil #8, the final issue hits stores next week, so we caught up with Wagner to talk about the series to date, and get some hints about what’s to come.

Newsarama: Matt, in preparing for this series, you knew, of course, that you wanted to tell a Hunter Rose story, but where did the notion of tying Hunter in with the more supernatural and spiritual elements that are so important come in? Was that something that was always on your Hunter Rose "to do" list?

Matt Wagner: It never really occurred to me that this might be an element that some readers would consider “out there” in regards to Hunter’s portion of the Grendel saga. After all…even though Hunter is a crime lord, his arch-nemesis is a freakin’ werewolf! The idea that Hunter’s persona and his motivations might have some supernatural basis isn’t so unusual when you consider that, as of the Brian Li Sung story, it’s fairly accepted that Grendel is some kind of entity or presence or, at least, phenomenon unto itself. So why’s it so hard to accept that this same thing/being might have been present for Hunter as well? Well, for anyone who’s read issue #7 now knows, it’s certainly hard for Hunter to accept that fact. Impossible, even.

NRAMA: For you, what were the risks and benefits of building this bridge between Hunter and his legacy?

MW: As I’ve often said in the past, every time I return to Hunter, he’s just a bit more evil than the last time I portrayed him. Well, in this case, that idea really comes home to roost. To my mind, destroying those journal pages, purging his reminiscence of an account that might have helped turn the tide of history away from the tragic legacy we now know was yet to come is one of the most evil fucking things he’s ever done. It upped his body count by, literally millions of lives. So far as the risks go, I always stand the danger of making Hunter just too goddamn unlikable to really appeal to my readers any more. Still, I think the distinction I just described is a fairly subtle one that I think will grow on people the more they consider the selfish egotism at work in the finality of his actions during this segment of his life.

NRAMA: That said, what were the core questions you wanted to address with Hunter and Grendel with Behold the Devil ?

MW: Well, again, the great tragedy of Hunter Rose is the misery of lost potential. He’s a genetic anomaly, physically superior with a genius intellect and a highly creative talent. At its core, his story is about what could have been coupled with the horrors of what actually occurred. The trouble is, Hunter never sees that irony. He never once stops to consider that he might have been equally brilliant and not fallen prey to the megalomania that spurs him to create a criminal masterpiece rather than something more humane. So, in this instance, I wanted to hold that bloody mirror up in such a way that he couldn’t ignore the impact of his own actions and decisions. I knew, of course, that he’d never accept responsibility in the way a normal, psychologically healthy person would’ve reacted. Still, I wanted to rub his nose in the squalor and loss that his actions would one day gestate. I suppose his final death sits a little too much in line with his own vision of himself and here I wanted to try and make him acknowledge that fact that he isn’t, in fact, a bright shining star that fell from the heavens to burn all it touched here on earth.

Rather, he’s an egocentric waste of such vast potential that his moral failings set off a chain of events that ultimately engulf the entire world. Obviously, this is my older, more mature, perspective on the character coming into play again but, in the end, Hunter’s overwhelming vanity and youthful vigor trumped even his creator’s efforts to rectify his actions. Grendel triumphs once again!

NRAMA: Scene-setting - time-wise, when does this "missing period" occur in Grendel's life, relative to what we do know about him in Devil by the Deed?

MW: We find out in the final issue…it’s nine months prior to the events of his final battle with Argent. So, in a sense, this shaking of his psychological reserve, this chink in the armor of his own self-regard…because, try as he might, he would certainly never be able to forget what he had seen and experienced…this was the moment of conception for the inevitably of his downfall and death; Le Morte d’Grendel.

NRAMA: Your artistic style here - as we've talked about in our various discussions of the different "chapters" you've kept each period with a particular artist who had their own approach. Here, in your first long-form Hunter story since Devil by the Deed, it looks as if you're working in your original Hunter style as best you're able, with 20+ years under the belt... That a good way to describe it?

MW: I’d say that’s a fair description although I’d also have to say it wasn’t such a conscious decision as an instinctive one. I knew I wanted to start the series off with a bang and so my first visual conception was of that seven-page blood smear that kick start this story. This, in turn, led me to keep things fairly large and open—certainly a factor in those early B&W issues, specifically the second one. But I also decided that I wanted to incorporate an essence of Devil by the Deed without making this book so outside the normal panel-to-panel conventions of traditional comics. So, yeah, I guess you could say this was an attempt to pull all the many strings that have made up Hunter Rose over the years and gather them into a tidy package that would still have a devastating effect on his narrative and

character.

I think I mentioned earlier that, when I was first thinking of this project, Diana Schutz pointed out three criteria that she thought were important; 1) It needed to concern Hunter Rose, 2) I needed to draw it, not simply write it, 3) It needed to be something significant about Hunter and his character arc, not just another caper tale. I’d say the final product of Behold the Devil meets all those points quite nicely.

NRAMA: Why black, white and red? Aside from the symbolism of the colors for Hunter that you’ve adopted in your short stories about him, why not go for your line art and color?

MW: Over the years, those color restrictions have just seemed to become Hunter’s milieu, even to the point where we re-colored the recent re-release of Devil by the Deed to now fit into that schematic. It’s the first time I’ve actually played so extensively with that design motive in my own art and, I must say, I had absolute blast with it. Now, it’s how I think about Hunter…he lives I a world that’s Black, White and Red. In fact, I’d love to see that factor some day translated to the cinematic version of Hunter’s story .

NRAMA: Your storytelling style in this story - we've got Liz, Lucas, Hunter and Christine allcontributing to the story through their various points of view. Previously, we've been between Hunter and Christine. Why did you want to bring in the other voices?

MW: I couldn’t have just Hunter’s and Christine’s voice as the only perspectives because they’re not immediate nor emotional enough. Hunter’s viewpoint is too lordly, superior and disdainful while Christine’s narrative speaks from an historical coldness. I had to introduce another, more mundane perspective that would give a sense of urgency and consequence to the proceedings. There had to be a voice that the reader would be afraid might be silenced. We know that Hunter doesn't die this time around and Christine isn't even born yet, so the other viewpoints are there to heighten the sense of danger and intrigue.

NRAMA: Let’s talk about the crime story the series is following - as we saw in Devil by the Deed, there were occasional flare-ups of rebellion among the factions Grendel kept in line. Is what's going on here unrest typical of that nature, something more serious, or everyday maintenance that takes on new danger because Hunter is distracted?

MW: I’d say they’re fairly typical but he’s a bit less efficient at dealing with them. If were on top of his game, the Korean gang wouldn’t have even come as close as they did to nailing with that bomb set-up. Part of the fun this time around, though, was showing Hunter doing the sort of bad-ass activities that are generally just alluded to in Devil by the Deed. So, in a bit of nod to the War Child mentality, I tried to throw in at least a bit of the kitchen sink; high-body count, rough-and-tumble encounter with Argent, his bloody calling card, a death trap, and-hell-just for the fun of it…zombies and some martial arts masters. Oh yeah, I also included a buncha hot sex. What can I say? I aims to please!

NRAMA: Picking up that thread about the supernatural - take us inside Hunter a little in regards to it. Countering what you said earlier, you have Hunter admit that he never really considered Argent a supernatural being, and essentially dismisses such things even as he's fighting through zombies. Is all of that just a defense mechanism for Hunter? That is, he can be the master of the world if the world extends from point A to point B, while the supernatural exists from point C to point Z...thus he must reject it?

MW: Exactly. It’s just not how his mind works. For one thing, in his mind, he is the most spectacular and unusual thing that the firmament has ever coughed up. The fact that there may be creatures with powers that might exceed his own just isn’t part of the equation so far as Hunter is concerned. Obviously, he’s perfectly capable of weaving a strong tapestry of denial when comes to things he doesn’t understand or accept.

NRAMA: Lucas. Poor Lucas... he's like that guy back in the '70s who discovered Spider-Man, Superman or Batman's identity, isn't he? Is there a happily ever after for him?

MW: HA! I’m afraid you’ll have to read the final issue for the answer to that one. But, I will say…c’mon…it’s a Grendel story!

NRAMA: Speaking of Lucas – you show him to be a good, intuitive reporter. But still, why didn't Hunter notice Lucas tailing him when he felt the demon, and his paranoia needle was pegged at 11?

MW: Pegged at 11 but only in one direction. Again, that bomb that almost nails him in issue #4? Never would’ve come close if he wasn’t so thrown for a loop by that persistent itch that he couldn’t scratch. Similarly, Lucas would’ve never gotten as close as he did without such a distraction working on our titular bad boy.

NRAMA: Fair enough. Now, about the demon that Hunter discovers and traps. You had the little red guy say that it has been following Grendel, and is in part responsible for making him what he is...aren't you fundamentally changing Hunter's character? Prior to this, he was Grendel due to his strength of will and his conviction (and his particular mental illness). Now, there are fingerprints of the

supernatural involved...

MW: Okay, first off…I want to make it clear that this imp is not “Grendel”which, again, I consider more of an embodied phenomenon rather than a conscious entity. And, no, I don’t think this necessarily changes anything about Hunter’s make-up of character. After all, demons lie. They lie as a rule of thumb. Even when trapped in a containment circle, there’s no guarantee that they’ll speak the truth. So, if Hunter’s refuses to believe in the visions that the demon’s venom brought about, why should he (or we, for that matter) believe anything that very same demon says about Hunter’s past? Of course, we know that the future as revealed in that hallucination was “real” but, if that’s the case, does that in turn mean the demon was telling the truth all along? Seems unlikely given the fact that, as I said, demons lie and lie and lie.

Also, in point of fact, this wasn’t the first time that I’d featured this demon in a Hunter story…if you go back and check out “The Nasty Lil’ Devil” short story featured in the first issue Grendel; Red,White and Black—and gorgeously illustrated by Jill Thompson—you’ll recognize the imp that acts as Hunter’s invisible companion through most of his life’s journey (albeit drawn slightly differently). In that version, the demon merely observes and relishes Hunter’s ascension of power and downward spiral of spirit. So, I think it’s safe to assume that the demon threw in those comments to try and incite Hunter’s anger enough to break the circle and set him free. It worked.

NRAMA: And again, Hunter summarily rejects what the demon tells/shows him – and he remains true form?

MW: Yes, Hunter stays true to form. By rejecting anything that might sully his own over-preening opinion of himself, he’s absolutely the same Hunter Rose we’ve all grown to love and hate.

NRAMA: one last thing from the imp – it said, "Nay Neither the First..." in regards to Hunter. Does that mean that there have been Grendels previous to Hunter, or there have always been devil's playthings? You've always been cagey on pre-Hunter Grendel...

MW: Heh. And cagey I will remain. Again, trust not the words of demons (nor comic book creators)!

NRAMA: So - we've got one issue left. Hunter's rejected the devil's claims, the Koreans are dead...what's left for him to do...besides...well...Poor Lucas?

MW: What’s left is for him to step back into the malevolent saddle and gather up his reins of power once again. As you’ll see, he does that—like most everything else in his life—with a callous and

devastating ease.

But there’s other surprises to be had in this final issue, one of which concerns a dangling plot thread that was never resolved in Devil by the Deed. Let me just say that this series pretty ends as it began, steeped in blood.

NRAMA: Finally, how much more examination can Hunter take? By originally moving quickly to the Hunter-less future immediately after Devil by the Deed, you were able to keep him at arms' length for years, something which allowed him to become the legend that he is in the world. You've expanded on the "monster" aspects of him in the anthologies, and here - we see him at his most vulnerable and personal, albeit, he's still at arms' length, given the narration. That said, how much ground do you see left to plow with him after this story?

MW: I have absolutely no idea. Every time I finish a new examination of Hunter Rose…ever time I feel like I finally have the evil, captivating fucker truly dead and buried…he always manages to rise from the grave and come knocking at my door once again.

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