Throughout his long and prolific career in comics, Grendel has always followed writer/artist Matt Wagner. From the initial stories of the criminal mastermind Hunter Rose in the 1980s to the devastated future of the cyborg Grendel-Prime in War Child, Wagner’s creation has grown to where, within the comic’s universe, the identity of Grendel has grown to cover the Earth itself.
Where to go from there? Why, space of course!
Returning to the future world of Grendel-Prime for the first time since the illustrated novel Past Prime with Greg Rucka in the early 2000s, Grendel: Devil’s Odyssey picks up when things are, typical for the series – not going well. Earth is devastated, wars are rampant, and Grendel-Prime is summoned to try and find a new planet for the humanity to survive. Given that this is Grendel, even if humanity does make it…the universe might not.
With the eight-issue series debuting less than a month away on October 2, Newsarama talked to Waigner about the series, the future of Grendell, phallic spaceships, and working with his son Brennan.
Newsarama: Matt, Grendel has always played with genres and styles, but it's also been – figuratively – Earthbound. It's merged science fiction and horror before with such elements as cyborgs, vampires, Argent, etc., but how did you arrive at the premise of “Grendel in Space"? Note: I am pronouncing this in my head like “Pigs in Spaaaacceeeeee!" from The Muppet Show.
Matt Wagner: Ha! That’s funny you should mention that phrasing since that’s the only art direction I gave to all of the various artists we have doing variant covers for the series. “Grrrrrendel-Prime in Outer Spaaaaaaacccceee!” Y’gotta growl during that first part.
But the idea for this series came about as a result of returning to the Grendel-verse after some years of other projects and deciding that it was time for a bit of a change… a narrative shake-up. As you mentioned, Grendel has always been a bit of a genre masher with elements from all over the board - crime, super-hero/villain, horror, sci-fi, etc… Within the Grendel-verse, the future has devolved into a long-lasting second Dark Ages, wherein technology and societal norms basically stagnates into an endless cycle of codified rituals and continual warfare. As a result, humanity never really makes that exploratory leap off the planet and fails to evolve past their worst instincts. Finally breaking that barrier seemed like a good idea to really reset the narrative.
And of course, this being Grendel, the impetus for such an odyssey is grounded in disaster and desperation.
Nrama: For that matter, it's been about two decades since you've visited the future of Grendel - longer if you're only counting stories you've both written and drawn yourself. Why did you decide to revisit Grendel-Prime after so much time exploring the notorious history of Hunter Rose?
Wagner: I always say that Hunter and Prime are the Alpha and the Omega of the Grendel-verse. Both are such larger-than-life characters that they demand more and more time on stage. But, as I said, coming back to the Grendel-verse made me feel that it was time for a change and, obviously, that meant delving into the future instead of reexamining the past.
Nrama: The flashbacks also indicate some of the chaos that occurred since War Child and Past Prime. Do you plan to revisit this in other stories, either within this limited series or other formats, such as flashbacks or short stories?
Wagner: The flashback motif continues throughout the series but not so much regarding the worldwide geo-political scenario but rather focused on Grendel-Prime himself. For a character who’s been depicted in many adventures, he’s still something of an enigma regarding his origins and motivations.
Additionally, he’s a character whose face we never see and who, in fact, is now more mechanical than organic. That makes it hard to define such a being’s humanity and the flashbacks will help to clarify his history as it relates to his journey to other worlds.
Nrama: How would you describe Prime's state of mind at this stage in his existence? The premise resets him very much as the “only” Grendel, after previously depicting him as part of this greater clan and society, albeit still isolated.
And you have a case where a Grendel actually acknowledges the cycle of violence and that it will just begin again and has lost faith in his crusade - something previous Grendels seem to have only done right before their deaths, as the violence closes in on them.
Wagner: As a character, Prime is a real contradiction in many ways. His entire existence, the very reason he was re-created as a cyborg, is based around honor and sacrifice. So, on one level, he can be seen in a very heroic context… acting as a paladin and protector of the empire’s future at the charge of his ultimate Commander-in-Chief, the Grendel Khan. And yet he’s also basically a walking, talking, killing machine.
In the many years since his creation and despite his best efforts, he’s seen the empire he once loved and defended fractured into a hodgepodge of warring sects and incompetent leadership. As a result, Prime has gone through various stages of increasing isolation from humanity and its affairs. He briefly found companionship with the cynical but still idealistic Grendel warrior, Susan Veraghen, but his cybernetic lifespan outlasted their many adventures together.
Since then, he’s wandered a dark and lonely path, willing to do terrible things in the quest to reclaim what he once found sacred. Prime is the Grendel-verse version of the Knight Errant, separated from his own world and forever doomed to never finding the Grail that will complete his mission and heal the world. At this point in the narrative, he hasn’t been seen for nearly a century.
Nrama: Despite the apocalyptic stakes, this is, unusually for a Grendel story...fun. There's a sense of discovery and possibility, comic relief with the Siggy character, and the opportunity to have Prime fighting some weird creatures. I'm curious if A) you're having fun doing this or wanted to do something a little lighter, and B) if I'm correct in assuming this won't last.
Wagner: As I mentioned, Prime is a tough character in whom to portray a sense of humanity since we never see his face and, as this point, he’s basically a human consciousness locked inside a mechanical casing. And, in fact, that’s what makes him the ideal candidate for this mission since his cybernetic framework enables him to withstand the rigors of extended space travel.
I knew I needed a companion for Prime as he explores these various other worlds and so he’s accompanied by a PDA-drone, Sigma Seven. But that leaves me with two mechanical creatures as my lead characters and so I found that I needed a lot of conversation between the two to define their personas. Some of that leads to a bit of levity here and there but more significant is the philosophical context in their ongoing discussions.
In searching for another world to act as a new home for humanity, what are the moral implications of such an excursion and how far is Prime willing to go to achieve his mission? As you said earlier, he knows mankind’s propensity for violence and, of course, he exemplifies that quality as much as anyone. How does it work… sending the world’s most fearsome warrior on a expedition of discovery and, hopefully, peaceful settlement?
Your suspicion that this might not end well is certainly justifiable.
Nrama: How did you update your visual style for a story that's so explicitly SF, and that features few landmarks from Earth in the backdrop – even the previous stories set in the future had a heavy amount of cultural context. Perhaps it's the space element, but I do get a hint of Al Williamson influence in what you're doing here, possibly due to Prime having the equivalent of a lightsaber.. good lord, that is one phallic 1950s-style rocket, though, and I'm pretty sure you did that on purpose.
Wagner: As I said earlier, in the future of the Grendel-verse, technology hasn’t really advanced much over the centuries and that gave me the opportunity to utilize some classic sci-fi design motifs for this story.
And yeah…the design of his rocket ship was definitely on purpose. He is “seeding the stars”, after all. And it’s certainly not the first time I’ve used absurdist phallic imagery in Grendel; in God and the Devil, there’s the huge dick-of-death Sun Gun, mounted atop an enormous cathedral tower and powered by… bananas.
Aside from the flashbacks, we have no human characters featured in this Odyssey to determine the fate of the human race…a nd I like that dichotomy.
Nrama: You've worked with Brennan before on the Grendel/Shadow crossover, but this is the first time he's done a Prime story with you. What's your collaboration like on this particular book?
Wagner: We have a good working relationship and at this point, it’s almost an instinctual understanding between the two of us. I tell him the general vibe I’m looking for regarding color theory and he basically takes if from there.
Part of my inspiration for this series was to pay homage to a bit of comics history that was transformative to my own concept what comics could be and what sort of creator I would one day become. As a young comics reader in the 1970s, discovering Heavy Metal in my local magazine racks - as opposed to the more kid-friendly spinner racks - did a lot to stir my imagination beyond the realms of mainstream comics. So, I pointed Brennan in the direction of artists like Moebius, Corben, Caza and Druillet as the basis for how this series should look.
As always…he’s knocking right outta the park. Or, I guess I should say…right outta this world!
Nrama: With the possible end of humanity at stake in this story, how many more Grendel epics do you feel are left in the story at this point?
Wagner: Good question! Only time will tell whether this is the end of the Grendel saga. But Grendel has always been grounded in the concept of re-inventing itself.
Once I decided, years ago, that continuing beyond Hunter Rose’s storyline was an intriguing idea, I knew that I had to do something to keep these stories vital and compelling. I knew I had to keep things interesting for me if I was ever going to manage to keep things interesting for my readers. And the only way I could see to do that was to continually reinvent not only the character but also the style, tone and motifs of the series as it progressed.
Don’t know if you’ve ever noticed but we even retool the logo for each incarnation of Grendel… still the same basic letterforms, but rendered differently to reflect that new particular version of the character’s persona.
With such a wide-open narrative arena at my disposal, I suspect there’s always going to be more I can do with this epic beast I’ve created.
Nrama: What can readers expect as the story goes on?
Wagner: Another aspect of Devil’s Odyssey is that it’s a bit of a play on Gulliver’s Travels, with our cyborg hero visiting different worlds that each offer some reflection on how things are/were f***ed up back on Earth. All the various worlds and races he encounters will be vastly different from each other and present different challenges in regard to completing his vital mission.
Nrama: What keeps drawing you back to Grendel as a concept? How do you feel who you are as a person and where you are in your life affects the way you approach the stories?
Wagner: Like I said, Grendel is just a wide-open palette for me. Its very structure and history make it so that literally anything is possible and, as a creator, that’s a very rich and satisfying opportunity.
And, yeah…there’s an old saying that all art is autobiography and that’s true in my case, most obviously in the pages of Mage but also in Grendel as well. When I created Hunter Rose, I was indulging in a bit of a bad-ass wish fulfillment, but I also felt too aware and disconnected from the world in a way that a lot of young 20-somethings experience.
The character of Christine Spar came about as a result of my dating a woman who had a young child and so I got to see the fierce maternal instinct up close. Following that relationship, I had dropped out of school and felt very alone and isolated in a vast urban environment, much like Brian Li Sung. Around the time of the Eppy Thatcher run, I’d married into a large Catholic family and was faced with a deeply ingrained and unquestioning religious culture that I found kinda frightening.
So, obviously, the events of my own serve as inspiration and fodder for the stories I tell. I think most successful storytellers would say the same.
Nrama: If mankind encountered life on other planets now, how do you think we would react?
Wagner: At this point, I wonder whether that will ever happen at all. In lieu of some ground-breaking new technology like warp drives or worm-holes navigation, the vast distances involved in space travel make it all but impossible for human beings to survive such excursions.
So, perhaps it will end being like I’ve envisioned for this series…space will be colonized by thinking machines that can then breed and cultivate human settlers once those interstellar distances have been breached.
But, if it were possible for humans to travel to distant worlds beyond our solar system, I’d like to hope that we have advanced enough as a culture and a race to treat such encounters with grace and diplomacy. Of course, seeing as how we currently seem to merely shrug our shoulders at wave after wave of mass shootings in our society…I’m not holding my breath that that will be the outcome.
Nrama: What are some other books you're currently reading/enjoying?
Wagner: I’m a voracious reader so that question is a bit of a black hole that could take far too long to answer. But I will share a fun reading experience I recently enjoyed. About a month or so ago, I read Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. And, I’ve gotta say…it was a bit of a slog. First published in 1819, the writing is dense and the language pretty archaic. Scott was of a generation of novelists that embraced the theory that if 10 words makes a narrative good… a 110 words will make it great! And, even though it makes some attempt to portray the grotesquely unfair treatment of Jews during the middle ages, it’s also full of really appalling anti-Semitic stereotypes.
But it’s still a rollicking romantic adventure that’s full of knights and castles and jousting tournaments. It’s also responsible for codifying a lot of what we now accept as canon in regards to the Robin Hood legends. What made the whole experience of reading Ivanhoe special was the fact that I also read it, page by page, alongside the Classics Illustrated edition that I’d had since I was a kid. It was so neat to revisit that version because I vividly remembered every line, character and badly off-register color from when I was just a young’un.
Kinda like Grendel…the past and the present merged their way into the future.