This week, one of comics’ most diabolical minds finds out who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men in the new miniseries Grendel vs. The Shadow from Dark Horse. The original Grendel, Hunter Rose, finds himself thrust back in time to the 1930s – and as he builds a new criminal empire in this new world, he’ll go up against the man who believes the weed of crime bears bitter fruit, the Shadow himself.
Manning this crossover is a man well-versed in both characters, Grendel’s creator Matt Wagner – who’s also been writing the Shadow for Dynamite. Wagner writes and draws this tale with his signature character, and talks about what makes this collaboration unique – along with an upcoming project with Oscar-winner Quentin Tarantino and a special Grendel project premiering this weekend.
Newsrama: So, Matt – Grendel vs. the Shadow. This is really interesting to me because the two characters of Hunter Rose and Lamont Cranston/Kent Allard have some similarities, but the sorts of stories they inhabit are usually on two different ends of the spectrum. So how did this miniseries come about?
Matt Wagner: Well, I was wrapping up The Shadow: Year One from Dynamite, and I got a note from Joe Rybandt that went, “Hey man, I couldn’t sleep last night because I kept thinking about a Grendel/Shadow crossover. What do you say?”
After doing the Batman/Grendel crossovers in the 1990s, I was offered a lot of Grendel crossovers, and I turned them down because once you’ve had Batman, where do you go? But the Shadow was kind of a precursor to Batman, and I was a huge Shadow geek back from when I was a teenager. So my response was “Ohhhhhhh, that’s a good idea, and I think I have to draw that too.”
Hunter Rose going back in time – I’m a firm advocate of Shadow stories set in the 1930s and 1940s, not that they can’t be done in different times, but there’s something about that era.
Nrama: There’s a certain atmosphere. I think of the Shadow, I think of that Elliot Ness/The Untouchables type of city of crime, and also radio shows sponsored by Blue Coal.
Wagner: Exactly, and that’s a thing about the Shadow’s background in radio – the Shadow doesn’t work as well when you’re not in an era where every man on the street doesn’t have a hat on. Because, otherwise, you’re going, “Who’s the bozo in the hat?” And in the 1930s and 1940s, cities still had shadows! I don’t know if you’ve been in New York lately, but it’s lit up like a pinball machine all the time!
But if you look at Hunter Rose, he kind of missed out on the 1930s – he was meant to be in the 1930s and it never happened. So he fits into the narrative really well. Of course, I had to find a way to get him back in time, but I found a way that works really well, and ties into the Shadow as well.
Nrama: Where do we find Hunter in his career when he’s taken back in time?
Wagner: It’s the middle of his career, just when he’s starting to get bored with being the boss. And when he realizes he’s back in the past, he’s like, “It’s a whole new world to conquer!”
Nrama: Well, what’s interesting to me about comparing the two characters is that they’re both in high positions in society in their non-costumed identities, and they’re both very wealthy and prone to the manipulation of others to achieve their end goals. It’s just Lamont Cranston is about taking down gangsters to make the world a better place, while Hunter Rose is about his own amusement and ruining lives.
Wagner: Mmm-hmm. Yeah, and that sense of two manipulators does play into how things pan out. I referenced the Batman/Grendel crossovers coming into this – this was the first time I drew the Shadow! I’d written him for 10 issues, but never drawn him. And he shares so many similarities with Batman – man about town, secret identity, dressing in black, operating at night – that I hadn’t realized he’s physically not like Batman!
Fighting’s not his thing – he prefers to stand back in a fight. He’s more bloodthirsty than Batman, so in that regard he’s well-matched to Hunter Rose. So that was a need discovery, finding the unique body language and approach to the action from the Batman/Grendel crossovers.
Nrama: Yeah, and it seems like the biggest influence the Shadow had on Batman, aside from the dual identity as a wealthy playboy, was that sense of theatrical manipulation. Depending on whether you go with the turning invisible version, or just messing with people’s heads, he’s more about messing with people’s heads than the big fight scene.
Wagner: My deal with The Shadow: Year One was to try to distill the many versions of the Shadow into one version, kind of my version. So, for instance, most people consider the pulp novel the absolute canon, but those are hardcore fans. For the public at large, the radio show is the best-known version, where everyone knows the catchphrase, where Margo Lane comes from…you could argue it was a far more popular, far-reaching version than the pulps ever were.
But in the radio show, he hardly did anything! He’d just turn invisible and spook people!
Nrama: He’s kind of a disembodied conscience.
Wagner: Yup. So in my version, he has sort of limited ninja-type powers. He has these limited psychic abilities to distract you and deflect you. Initially, once I started working on the character and talking to young people, I realized the only version of the Shadow they knew was from the Alec Baldwin movie! So I tried to incorporate some aspects of that as well.
So yeah, my version is kind of a distillation of the many versions of the Shadow that have been perpetuated over the year. And it’s a lot of fun! I love the Shadow, so I love getting to have my say on the character a bit, and pitting him against Grendel feels right. They don’t team up! I should be clear on that.
Nrama: Well, they’re both very malleable characters. Grendel’s identity has passed from character to character, while there’s been, like you say, the pulp magazine Shadow, the radio version, the movie version, and all manner of comics, from pulp adaptations to Howard Chaykin’s oceans-of-blood satirical version.
Wagner: Yeah! That’s a good point. I’ve done all manner of versions of Grendel, while there’s all these versions of the Shadow. That’s a good match as well.
Nrama: And it’s interesting to see Grendel go into the past, because what you’ve established with the identity is this relentless march into an increasingly dire future.
Wagner: Yeah, exactly!
Nrama: I’d be curious to see how the Shadow would fare against Grendel-Prime, but I don’t think that would end well…
Wagner: (laughs) It’d have to be the version that Andy Helfer and Kyle Baker put into a giant robot body…
Nrama: I was about to say that! Yeah, the one they never got to finish!
Wagner: But the unique thing for me about this is that for all the things I’ve written set in the 1930s – I wrote Sandman Mystery Theater for five years or more, Green Hornet: Year One – this is the first thing I’ve drawn that’s set in the 1930s. So I have to incorporate all these cars, these fashions, all these designs, and they all feel like things that fit Hunter Rose to a T, you know? Hunter almost feels like he missed out on living in the 1930s, when high fashion was at its peak in America.
Nrama: Now here’s something I’m just now wondering, and I’m playing fanboy here – wouldn’t Argent the Wolf (Rose’s nemesis) be alive back in the 1930s as well?
Wagner: Yes, he is. And I actually mention that in the book! I do reference it, and I do use some of the Shadow’s agents…Margo’s significant, but the Shadow has a lot of agents.
And there’s a whole new emotional reality for Grendel, because this is before he was ever born, so he has a whole different opinion of himself, and things play out in different ways.
Nrama: And this is, I think, the first extended Grendel story you’ve done since Behold the Devil…?
Wagner: Yup. And it’s the first extended one I’ve done with my son as my colorist!
Nrama: Very cool! What’s it been like collaborating?
Wagner: Really well. He’s been knocking himself out, trying to please the old man. (laughs) But more importantly, we talk over every scene, he knows the language I speak, and that makes an enjoyable collaboration. There were a few instances where we weren’t quite on the same page, and then everything clicked and it was great.
There was, for example, this two-page spread showing Grendel’s effect on the criminal underworld, and he wasn’t sure how to color it, because there was all this overlap, this montage effect. And I went to the studio with him and we sat there at his computer, and explained, “Okay, you want this to come forward, and this to be here visually,” and after about 15 mintues he said, “I got it, go away.” (laughs) And he nailed it!
Nrama: From your comments, this sounds like one of the more elaborate projects you’ve tackled, artistically.
Wagner: I think artwork-wise, it’s some of the best stuff I’ve ever done. It looks terrific! As far as the demands of having to draw a different time frame, and making it believable, and getting to collaborate with my son, it’s been a blast.
Nrama: And that elasticity has been a big part of the Grendel cycle – both your collaborating with other artists, and doing different styles of your own art for different stories.
Wagner: That’s just what keeps it interesting for me. If every day is a new adventure, it’s a great job to have.
Nrama: Again, getting into fanboy mode – the last time you really visited the future of Grendel-Prime was the novel Past Prime with Greg Rucka. You’ve said for years you have an end to the saga in sight. Do you see yourself visiting that future again?
Wagner: Yeah, sooner or later. I don’t know quite when. The nice thing about Grendel-Prime is that he’s an undying cyborg, so I can come back to him again and again. Hunter Rose had a pretty short life—he burned out fast like a comet – so every time I go back to him, it gets harder and harder to find something like, “Here’s what happened the month he had nothing going on.”
Nrama: That reminds me of Neil Young, “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust,” though Grendel-Prime could literally rust, being a cyborg.
Wagner: Good point. Though I made sure he was made of rust-proof material.
Nrama: That’s the advantage of being the creator. So, you’ve got other things coming up after Grendel vs. The Shadow –
Wagner: Yeah, there’s another crossover, the Django/Zorro crossover I’m co-creating with Quentin Tarantino. We crafted the story together, and I’m writing the actual script.
Nrama: So what’s it like working with Quentin?
Wagner: It’s great! I had various trepidations about it when the possibility first arose, but once we met, it was like we’d known each other for years. We’re about the same age, and we have the same points of reference, we dig the same sort of stuff…it was like, “Haven’t I really known you a long time?”
Nrama: He comes off as such a powerful personality in his interviews, so I could see where it might be intimidating to collaborate.
Wagner: I’m no shrinking violet! So it all works out fine. The two story meetings where I went down to his place and we got to hash through story stuff had a lot of mutual “Yeah! I love that!” going back and forth.
Nrama: Had he read Grendel or Mage or your other books?
Wagner: He knew Grendel, and Mage a bit better than Grendel, but he’d really dug my Zorro stuff. He got what I was going for, that tone of the original Spaghetti Westerns – he’s got the original posters up at his house, big huge ones. He’s got a great predisposition to Westerns, as you can tell from Django and The Hateful Eight – and you can see how some of his other films are Westerns disguised as crime or ninja stories as well.
Nrama: And you’ve been doing a lot of books with Dynamite, with those pulp characters – what’s the appeal of that collaboration and those characters?
Wagner: I love those types of characters, those types of stories, and Dynamite’s the place that has them! So I love getting my hands on ‘em. And I’ve known Nick Barrucci for many, many, many, many, many, many years, and we just click.
Part of what I want in a working relationship from a publisher is to be left alone, creatively. If you’re going to hire me, you know what you’re getting. And they’ve been one hundred percent supportive of me, all the time. Dynamite backs me up, and they’ve been fun to work with.
Nrama: Anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet?
Wagner: Yeah! Let me throw out a plug. This weekend, my son and I will both be attending the Baltimore Comic-Con. And Dynamite will be set up there because it’s their 10th anniversary, and there’ll be a special variant cover of this book at the show.
Additionally, the Baltimore con every year publishes one of these European album-style yearbooks, where the artists at the show do pin-ups, and there’s an art auction. The theme at the Baltimore con is always creator-owned characters, and the theme this year is Grendel! So the con’s yearbook is all Grendel-themed art, 50 or 60 pages of original pin-ups. So if you’re at the show, check that out!
Grendel vs. The Shadow hits stores Wednesday, September 3, 2014.