Right now is perhaps the best time ever to catch up on classic comics, with massive, affordable reprints available of series from all genres. So we thought we’d take the opportunity to introduce readers to some cool books – while offering some new insights for their longtime fans.
To start, we went with the comic that gave evil a new face: Matt Wagner’s Grendel.
Though the individual stories are very accessible, Grendel can be an intimidating book for some readers to try out, because it’s not only a tale that takes place in different eras with different characters, but one that’s done in a variety of styles, from detail-packed pages to stark, silent sequences heavily influenced by Japanese manga.
But Dark Horse Comics, Grendel’s long-time home, has made it easier for fans to catch up with the Grendel Omnibus volumes, which reprint the tales in their (internal) chronological order. Two volumes have already been released, with a third due out this July just in time for San Diego Comic-Con.
With a ton of pages provided by Dark Horse, we’re here to take readers on a two-part guided tour through the history of Grendel, with commentary from creator Matt Wagner, along with a number of pros who’ve worked on the book, or are just longtime fans. If you’ve never tried Grendel, here’s everything you need to know – and for those who already know these tales, there’s plenty of memories and insights from the people who’ve brought the Devil to life.
Before we begin, we’d like to offer a special tribute from Mike Allred, creator of Madman and artist of many other books, including X-Statix and currently FF with Matt Fraction at Marvel. Take it away, Mike!
By Mike Allred
Grendel is a masterful creation that is ripe with inspiration and endless re-interpretation! But I can't talk Grendel without talking up its creator.
Matt Wagner was the first Comic book pro to reach out to me. We were living in Europe at the time and he was living in San Jose where Slave Labor Graphics publisher showed Matt some of my Dead Air and Graphique Musique work they were about to publish.
Out of the blue I got a nifty "Mage Postcard" with the most encouraging message from Matt and his phone number(?!). We sent him a chunk of the Berlin Wall(which had just come down and I had covered as a TV reporter) and then left Europe for Oregon, where I began my full-time comic book career in January of 1990.
Soon after, Matt moved to Oregon and we've only gotten closer over the years (even enjoying his astounding cooking at our book club get-togethers). Matt is in the running for smartest person I've ever known (and gives great bear hugs). I could fill a book on why we love Matt and his family and never even mention his masterful skills as a comic book artist and story teller.
So let's go there shall we?
First off, the double whammy. Mage and Grendel. Two of the most powerfully iconic and timeless creations in comics. And they're created by the same dude! Matt is a genius when it comes to simple pure storytelling. He can get creatively wild with layouts and compositions, but never at the expense of the story. So pure!
Also, I've never known any other creator who has been so generous with other creators, Particularly with Grendel. Using its success to provide a platform for electric up and comers like Tim Sale, Steven T. Seagle, John K Snyder, Dave Cooper, Pat McKeown, Teddy Kristiansen, and the enigmatic Bernie Mireault (whose shockingly original "Devil Inside" still blows me away) among many others.
And, of course, yours truly. It was Matt who introduced Neil Gaiman to my work and prompted a phone call from Neil and our future collaborations.
I remember when Matt scored the ultimate gig of when his Hunter Rose Grendel become the first creator-owned character to have a full-blown crossover with Batman (still one of my fave Grendel AND Batman stories (right up there with "Year One"). And this was quick on the heels of Batman's movie success resurgence of the Tim Burton flicks. Thrilling! Then his nifty Terminator one-shot with the "pop-up" page right around T2 mania. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.
Matt knows how to have fun and break ground at the same time. An example I've tried to follow throughout my own career. He is simply one of the very best!
Thanks, Mike! To check out Madman and his other work, visit his site at http://www.aaapop.com/ .
And now, the history of Grendel, as told by his creator and fans. We’ll jump around in few places, but try to combine the internal chronology of the stories and their publication history as best we can.
“Devil by the Deed”
Few characters made as deep an impression in so few pages as Hunter Rose, the first to wear the mask of Grendel.
First appearing in Comicon Primer #2 and then a few manga-influenced issues of his own comic, the character truly came to life in this tale, which originally ran as a series of comics-and-prose backups in Matt Wagner’s other major comic of the 1980s, Mage.
Turning the concepts of hero and villain upside down, it was the diabolical tale of a young genius who crafted an identity for himself as a playboy novelist…and a secret identity as Grendel, a staff-wielding masked criminal mastermind who ended lives as casually as swatting a fly. Pursued by Argent, an immortal werewolf-like crimefighter, their fates became intertwined with Stacy Palumbo, a young girl who would bring about their downfall…and her own.
Condensing years of potential storylines into a tight, compressed 48-page “novel,” the story was acclaimed by Alan Moore and others, and turned the once-unsuccessful character into Wagner’s most memorable creation.
Matt Wagner: “The Hunter Rose version of Grendel was the first comic book character and narrative I ever developed. I wanted to feature the villain/anti-hero as my title character, a motif that just wasn’t done in the commercial comics of those days.
“After I moved my attentions to developing my first color series, Mage, I began to hear back from readers, asking me whatever happened to the story I’d abandoned in Grendel. So, I adapted that narrative to fit into 4-page segments as a backup feature in Mage.
“The result was that I had to really stretch my storytelling sensibilities and find a new and innovative way to tell that tale, little realizing that motif would become a hallmark of Grendel throughout its long history.”
Chris Roberson (Masks, Monkeybrain Comics, many other titles): “When I was in high school, I first discovered Matt Wagner's Mage, and I instantly became a fan for life. I had missed out on the original black & white Grendel series, but obsessed over the airbrushed pages of ‘Devil by the Deed’ that ran as backups in the pages of Mage.
“The economy of the storytelling, the art deco-inspired linework, the brilliant colors--it was like nothing I'd read before.”
Steven T. Seagle (Grendel Tales, co-creator of Ben 10, Generator Rex and the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon as part of the Man of Action Collective: “I bought the original B&W Comico issues right off the stands, so I feel like I was in from the zero hour of Grendel.
“Matt did a signing at my local college store - Boulder Colorado's still-awesome Time Warp - and I remember Matt being dismissive of those issues even then - promising something better for Grendel soon to come. That was the incredible art deco retell in ‘Devil by The Deed.’”
“Devil's Legacy"/Christine Spar
After “Devil by the Deed” revived interest in Grendel, Wagner launched a new series doing something that would be unthinkable today – he not only changed the main character, but also completely altered the visual style of the book.
Exit Hunter Rose, enter Christine Spar – the daughter of Stacy Palumbo and author of the “Devil by the Deed” book chronicling Hunter Rose’s history. Set in a near future, the abduction of Christine’s son leads her to assume the identity of Grendel to rescue him…and sets her on a path of damnation that leads to a fateful confrontation with Argent the Wolf.
For fans anticipating the style of “Devil by the Deed,” the new series came as a shock – not only was the main character gone, but the dense, atmospheric artwork was replaced by the colorful, angular style of the Pander Brothers. It was a risky move, but one that would pay off time and time again for the series, creating a sense that this was a story where anything could happen.
Chris Roberson: “I was onboard the Grendel ongoing series from the very beginning, and the work of the Pander Brothers was unlike anything else then on the shelves –or on the shelves now, for that matter.
Matt Wagner: When the idea arose to continue Grendel past the initial story arc, I founded myself confronted with a fairly limiting factor – I’d just killed the main character.
“Still, I knew that if I was going to continue the title as a running monthly, then I had to do something to really shake up the narrative box. I had to find some way to keep the entire process fun and interesting for myself as a creator if I had any hope of equating that same thrill to my readers.
“I fairly quickly hit upon the idea of having the character of Grendel becoming a generational legacy—a persona that was continually reborn and reimagined in as many intriguing ways as possible. And so the daughter of Hunter Rose’s adopted ward took up the mask and identity of Grendel, eventually being consumed by the darkness of that inheritance.”
Steven T. Seagle: “Matt's ability to flip the whole cart over and start again from a new angle was firmly on display from the first issue of ‘Legacy.’ I was captivated by Christine Spar from the get go and in no small part due to the equally game-changing art of the Pander Brothers - looked like nothing that was out at the time. I was thrilled to get to work with them later on House of Secrets.
Brian Li Sung/ "The Devil Inside"
The shape of the Grendel saga came into focus with this short but essential storyline with memorably abstract art by The Jam creator Bernie Mireault. Christine Spar’s lover Brian Li Sung attempts to take up the identity of Grendel, but he hardly cuts the larger-than-life vengeful figure of his predecessors.
Still, his descent into madness leads him to come closer to understanding the true spirit of Grendel better than Hunter or Christine ever did – or those who will take up the mask after him.
Chris Roberson: “This brief arc made a huge impact on me. The handwritten ‘notebook’ pages of Brian Li Sung that ran alongside the panels inspired me to start keeping a notebook of my own, a practice I've continued to this day.”
Steven T. Seagle: “This was and remains my favorite arc. Something about the little scrawled notes, Matt's third reinvention of his narrative devices, and the incomparable art of Bernie Mireault just hit home for me. One of the first premium hardcovers I ever got, and it still sits on my shelf of fave comics.
“Bernie has a new book out, by the way, To Get Her which is a very smart synthesis of auto-bio and his earlier The Jam comics. People should definitely pick it up,
Matt Wagner: “In addition to shaking up the predictability of storyline in Grendel, I decided that I also wanted to shake up the visual style and, to do that, I opted to work with other artists.
“’Devil’s Legacy,’ which was drawn by the Pander Brothers, marked a change from what I had done in ‘Devil by the Deed,’ but it still had a certain sense of high style and design. In ‘Devil’s Legacy,’ Bernie Mireault brought a much grittier and haunted visual approach and this storyline really made the declaration that this was not going to be a typical commercial monthly.
“Additionally, this arc was where I first entertained the idea that perhaps the heritage of Grendel wasn’t just situational. Maybe, it involved a certain consciousness.”
The Hunter Rose shorts: "Devil Tracks/Devil Eyes" and the “Black, White and Red” miniseries
Great characters never truly die, and there were plenty of tales from Hunter Rose’s evil life left to tell. After “Devil’s Legacy,” Wagner rewound the clock for a series of tense tales from Rose’s earlier career, including a memorable tale illustrated in the style of comics legend Harvey Kurtzman.
After doing a few Rose stories over the years, Wagner took things several steps further with a pair of Eisner-winning miniseries for Dark Horse where a massive variety of artists illustrated tales of Hunter Rose and those whose lives he touched…usually for the worst. Those tales are collected in the first Grendel Omnibus after “Devil by the Deed,” with many of them fleshing out incidents hinted at in that story.
Steven T. Seagle: “I love that Matt's experimental in his writing, but to see just how far he could push his visual form was also sick. Be it layout, color palette, technique - whatever the tools, Matt was willing to swing them all kinds of different ways in Grendel and that's why I still remember all these issues years later.
“Sometimes the book was like a dare to readers - I dare you to read all these tiny panels! - but if you took the challenge it was worth the ride and the form almost always fit thematically in a cool way.”
Matt Wagner: “Eventually, the looming presence of Hunter Rose always seems to draw me back. He’s just such a larger-than-life character, his stories present a really fertile canvas for storytelling and experimentation.
“In the case of ‘Devil Tales,’ I wanted to really play with format and execution; in the first storyline, I utilized a 25 panel/page grid and, in the latter, I tried to treat the pages as a rapidly progressing filmstrip.
“The two Hunter Rose minis (Black, White & Red, and Red, White & Black) represented a chance to take my collaborative efforts to the extreme as I got the chance to work with 40 of the industry’s hottest established and up-and-coming talents. Some were my longtime pals and some were brand new ones…it was a total orgy of creativity and I had a blast!”
Chris Roberson: “While he's best known as a writer these days, the brief flashbacks to Hunter Rose's adventures that followed ‘The Devil Inside’ make clear just what a fantastic artist Matt Wagner can be, and also make plain what a tireless innovator and experimenter he is.”
Grendel vs. Batman
Wagner has done his share of memorable Batman stories, including the haunting Two-Face tale “Faces” and the retro-styled Batman and the Monster Men/Batman and the Mad Monk, and Hunter Rose is in many ways a dark reflection of Bruce Wayne. The Dark Knight encountering the Devil was a conflict that seemed almost inevitable.
Published in the early 1990s, the dense tale brings Hunter Rose to Gotham just as the Sphinx is also in the city for restoration. Bruce and Hunter’s game is interwoven with the story of two women who become pawns in their conflict – and with any Grendel story, tragedy is on the horizon. As it turned out, it wouldn’t the last time Grendel and Batman’s paths would cross…
Steven T. Seagle: “I found these the hardest to get through for me, personally. And that was mostly because Batman was in them. I think I always felt that Hunter Rose was a cooler, nastier analogue of Batman so I didn't really want them together. But when I finally read them, I realized I didn't need to worry about that - it was Matt!”
Matt Wagner: “The crossover with Batman was an instance where I actually had to stop and take a breath and pinch myself. Here I was, under thirty years old, and actually presented with the chance to team up my own character with an icon that had inspired and delighted me since I was a pup.
“I poured my heart and soul into that project, wanting to make it so much more than just a thrilling romp; I wanted to construct something dense and challenging.
“Of course, both characters had to emerge from their epic clash basically unchanged and so I struck my notes of consequence via my two supporting/narrative characters, the very human, female counter-parts to the grandiose title demi-gods. It was a very special moment in the trajectory of my creative journey and my professional career.”
Chris Roberson: Grendel is, in some ways, Matt Wagner's own personal Batman – just as Kevin Matchstick (Mage) is his personal "Man of Steel" -- so it only made sense for Hunter to meet Bruce Wayne at some point. It took years for readers to see the finished product, but it was worth the wait.”
Next: Our journey concludes as Grendel heads into a dark future – with more commentary from Wagner, Seagle and Roberson, along with a special look back from Greg Rucka at his Grendel prose novel.