Meet the Devil: A GRENDEL All-Star Retrospective Part 2
Grendel: War Child
CREDIT: Dark Horse Comics
Welcome to the conclusion of our look back at Matt Wagner’s series Grendel, currently being reprinted in omnibus form by Dark Horse Comics. In this part, we take a journey through the dark future of the Grendel series, explore Grendel’s journey into prose with Greg Rucka, and more. And be sure to check out Part One !
“The Incubation Years”/”God and the Devil”/”Devil’s Reign”
Though Grendel had included elements of science fiction and fantasy – with vampires, the lycanthropic Argent the Wolf, and the cybernetic eye of Grendel’s police pursuer Captain Wiggins, Wagner brought these elements to the forefront as the series continued, once again willing to completely alter the setting, artistic style and very premise of the book.
The transition was gradual, taking place over four one-issue stories that are only now being reprinted in the third Grendel Omnibus (missing art and a lack of reproduction technology were the main reason for this). After witnessing the fate of Captain Wiggins, we see the world destroyed in nuclear war, and civilization rebuilt…into a world ripe for the return of the Devil.
Over the course of the next two storylines, featuring art by such comics masters as John K. Snyder III and a young Tim Sale, Grendel would be reborn, first as a designer drug, then as a masked anarchist named Eppy Thatcher, then in the form of Orion Assante, who would battle, among other things, vampires, a corrupt church and massive corporations to rise to the mantle of “Grendel-Kahn.”
With samurai-like Grendel knights roaming this destroyed world, the idea of Grendel had seemingly gone as far as it could go…but things were just getting started.
Matt Wagner: “At some point, I realized that I couldn’t just keep having the “next person in line” picking up the mask and alter-ego of Grendel without falling into the same sort to trite conventions that I’d been trying to avoid from the very beginning. And so I decided it was time for Grendel to conquer the world.
“I began the long and jagged course of transforming ‘Grendel’ from a twisted individual persona into an accepted societal phenomenon, from a term of repulsive villainy into a rank of honored authority. Here again, I was playing with form, trying to impart a sense of established history through how the story was told. In the world of the future, the term ‘Grendel’ came to signify the military elite, akin to saying ‘knight’ or ‘samurai.’
“It was a pretty bold and potentially reckless decision to go in that direction but, hell…that’s what made it fun!”
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): “John K. Snyder lived in Boulder when he was drawing the Eppy run - it was cool to see that being produced, and John and I have remained pals ever since. I think Tim and I worked together on The Amazon before he caught Matt's eye for the Orion run - great wood block style. Who does anything like this in comics these days? Maybe just J.H. Williams? Anyway, Grendel had turned from a nasty guy with a sword to a religion! Who does anything like that with their lead character in comics these days?
“Somewhere in here, I wrote a history of Grendel that appeared in a cool little black and white booklet. I remember being amazed at how far the concept had already grown and wondering how much more it could grow. Then came War Child - another direction - another great artist. discovery for me. And while I'm plugging things that came after, Pat McEown's new book Hair Suit is out and looks great - can't wait to read it.”
Chris Roberson (Masks, Monkeybrain Comics, many other titles):): “The "Grendel-Khan" storyline was probably my favorite incarnation of the character at the time, and remains so after multiple rereadings over the years. The woodcut quality of Tim Sale's artwork, the opposition of silent images with blocks of historical text and dialogue transcriptions, the contrast between the majestic quality of Orion's story and the more chaotic comic book narrative of the vampires that ran in the back of the books--it was a narrative tour de force that has rarely been matched in the long years since.”
“War Child” and Grendel-Prime
At this point, 40 issues of the regular Grendel series and a handful of short stories/tie-ins had been published through Comico. However, Wagner’s plans for a follow-up nearly got scuttled when Comico went bankrupt – and took the rights to Grendel with them.
A few years later, Wagner was able to get the rights back, and brought Grendel to Dark Horse Comics, where it’s stayed for more than 20 years. And once again, the series changed radically in look and tone.
Returning as artist in addition to writer, Wagner created the longest-lived Grendel to date with Grendel-Prime, a massive cybernetic creature utterly devoted to the service of its Khan. Perhaps not coincidentally, Wagner had also done a Terminator comic around this time.
In “War Child” (one of the only Grendel stories not to use some form of “Devil” in its title), Prime was tasked with protecting Orion’s son Jupiter in a journey that took them across this future world – with the dialogue-and-panel-dense looks of previous storylines replaced by a stark, manga-style tale filled with brutal action and haunting landscapes. Even after this tale’s conclusion, there were plenty more stories to be told in the world of Grendel-Prime…and more creators coming on board to tell them.
Chris Roberson: “Grendel by way of Lone Wolf and Cub. What’s not to love?”
Matt Wagner: “After the dense and political tone of “Devil’s Reign,” I decide to again switch directions 180°and cap off this entire saga with an all out balls-to-wall action romp. At the far end of the spectrum from the elegant and cerebral Hunter Rose, I created the embodiment of the militaristic Grendel élan in the steel and leather encased form of Grendel-Prime, a relentless and merciless cyborg who, like his original ancestor, would do anything to achieve his goals.
“I pared down the story-telling to match the mood and pace of the tale—no captions, little or no exposition, just go-go action from beginning to end. And of course, this being a Grendel tale, there was plenty of mayhem and tragedy along the way.”
Grendel Tales Miniseries/“Devil’s Quest”/Batman/Grendel II
For much of the 1990s, Grendel took the form of a series of miniseries that allowed different writers and artists to tell their own tales of the Devil. A Murderer’s Row of creators worked on the book, from James Robinson (“Four Devils, One Hell”) to the late Edvin Biukovic (“Devils and Deaths” and “Devil’s Choices”) to Steve Lieber of the upcoming Superior Foes of Spider-Man (“The Devil’s Apprentice”).
Toward the end of this time, longtime Grendel editor Diana Schutz even wrote her own Grendel story with “Devil’s Child,” a very, very, very, very dark tale of the fate of Stacy Palumbo illustrated by Tim Sale that’s reprinted in Grendel Omnibus Vol.2.
It wasn’t as though Wagner had stepped away from his creation altogether – in fact, he was building to another major story with “Devil Quest,” a serialized fully-painted tale with Grendel-Prime seeking to contact the soul of Hunter Rose. In the climax, he vanished briefly…
…only to appear in Gotham City to face the Batman in Batman/Grendel II. As different stylistically from the original confrontation as “War Child” was from the Hunter Rose tales, this was a knock-down-drag-out fight with the skull of Hunter Rose as the prize. By the end, a barely-functioning Prime was back in his future, one that Batman had vowed to prevent. Insert “New 52” joke here.
Through the ups and downs of the comics industry in the 1990s, Grendel remained a mainstay on comic shelves – with the series continuing to evolve its style and storytelling along the way.
Matt Wagner: Grendel Tales was an attempt to take this grand experiment even further by opening up the Grendel tableau even wider to include the work of other writers as well as artists. With the futuristic scenario established, we had the opportunity for telling tales about literally thousands of different Grendels.
“The results were as creatively eclectic as I possibly could have hoped and there were so many great interpretations of my original concept that came to fruition within this series.
“When we first launched this all-new variety of the title—just past the initial story arc—it was thought that a back-up feature by me would help to cement the idea that these versions of Grendel were merely continuing the tradition of bold experimentation that I had done in the original saga. Also, the aspect of running a four-page back-up series took the entire concept of Grendel back to its roots. Plus, with the four-page format, I got to experiment with a fully-painted narrative, something I’d never done before.
“The result was ‘Devil Quest,’ which acted as a bridge to the upcoming sequel, Batman/Grendel II. This second crossover event took a similar approach to War Child and presented a brash action tale that stood as a stylistic bookend to the first series, much as the two featured versions of Grendel presented the Alpha and Omega of this epic saga.”
Chris Roberson: “Wagner also has a fantastic eye for talent, as his choice of collaborators over the original Grendel run shows. But he was just as adept at picking writers and artists to expand on the world of Grendel on their own – James Robinson, Teddy Kristiansen, Paul Grist, Patrick McEown, to name just a few.
“All of them phenomenal talents who were just starting out, but who would go on to produce some of my favorite comics.”
Steven T. Seagle: “I wrote the first Grendel Tales story - the flip side of issue 40. Ho Che Anderson drew it. He said he didn't enjoy the result at the time, but we made up about it in Barcelona years later. Then I had the great fortune of working with the inimitable Paul Grist on Devil In Our Midst. It was great to get the pencils in each month - he's a natural.
“I loved working with Grendel - from Kent State to giant monster movies to anti-Grendels to suicidal ones, I had great time playing with Matt's versatile, aggression building-blocks. Thanks Matt!
“I also read some challenging Tales work from friends Rob Walton, Diana Schutz and had my hair parted by the haunting economy of Darko Macan and the much-missed artistry of Edvin Biukovic. Most importantly, I met my long-time collaborator Teddy Kristiansen via ‘Four Devils, One Hell’ - check out our latest, The Red Diary/The RE[A]D Diary from MAN OF ACTION/Image, and Genius from First Second this summer.”
The Devil spread to prose in this 2000 illustrated novel that teamed Wagner-as-artist when then-up-and-coming writer Greg Rucka. Wagner did more than 80 illustrations for this noir-tinged tale that teamed Grendel-Prime up with young Grendel knight Susan Veraghen at a state when the world of Grendel-Khan is falling into chaos…
Matt Wagner: “Once again, as always, I was looking for some way to try hand at a different form of visual storytelling. I had recently met and become friends with Greg Rucka, who was an experienced and accomplished novelist and so the idea arose to do an illustrated Grendel novel.
“The process of having to choose only select moments via which to depict the prose was a really intriguing challenge, especially for someone who was so used to a more sequential method of illustration.”
Greg Rucka: “I met Grendel early, Hunter Rose in all his gory glory, and that will always be the ‘core’Grendel to me. What Wagner did in those early stories, especially, is still some of the most haunting psychological storytelling ever achieved in comics to this day. Everything in those stories - the art, the script, right down to the lettering - has a delicious, decadent inevitability.
“That said, my favorite work has to be Prime, and that sordid, embittered vision of the future, at once liberating and nihilistic. It's why I jumped at the chance to write ‘Past Prime’ for Matt – and it was for Matt, to be perfectly clear; he asked, and I was practically typing the first chapter before he'd completed the question.
“When we first talked about doing something together, Matt had proposed a Hunter novel, and I told him flat-out it wasn't possible; if he wanted a Hunter Rose novel, he had to write it himself. I just couldn't imagine anyone being able to capture that voice, that feel, that psychology the way he did. He knows Hunter the way very few creators will ever understand their creations.
“We settled on Prime because Matt had an idea about Susan and his relationship to him, and we ran with that.
“Working on that project was like being on a playground with all the coolest toys. I can still remember Matt and I having lunch, and him giving me a list of the things he wanted to draw, the beats he wanted for the story. Almost every illustration in the novel is a moment that Matt knew from the start, all I had to do was plug it in and offer him ways to link it all together.
“It's funny, because I wrote ‘Past Prime’ over 10 years ago, I think, and I still end up signing one or two of them at every show I do, no matter how big or how small.”
Steven T. Seagle: “I never read Greg's novel, but again - a new form for Grendel - what can't he be used for? I want to do the Grendel ‘kids’ picture book!”
“Behold the Devil”
For Grendel’s 25th anniversary, Wagner took up a challenge from editor Diana Schutz and not only returned as both writer and artist, but crafted a new, extended story with Hunter Rose. The nine-issue tale, collected in Grendel Omnibus Vol.1, tells a lost story from Rose’s journals, as he’s ultimately faced with the true nature of his alter-ego – and gets a glimpse of the terrifying future it will bring about.
Though Wagner says he has an ultimate conclusion in mind for the saga – “It’s daaaarrrrk” he tells us – the key to Grendel, as a series and a character, isn’t so much where the story’s going as how it’s told. More than any other series, Grendel is willing to toss aside everything that readers have come to associate with the story to do something completely different – and that’s what’s helped keep it fresh across three decades.
Steven T. Seagle: “Matt created a character that immediately got up in my craw. I haven't been able to shake him out since. But the lasting Grendel lesson for me as a creator was that the form is at our command, not the other way around. For that I will always be deeply appreciative, Matt.”
Chris Roberson: “Every time Wagner returns to Grendel, he proves that he's still one of the greatest writers and artists working today. Where he goes, I will always follow.”
And until the Devil’s new, unspeakable evil is unleashed, there’s the Dark Horse omnibus editions to help readers experience Grendel’s terrible exploits for the first time – or relieve the horrors once again.
Grendel Omnibus Vol.1 and 2 are currently available; Vol.3 will be available in July.