1986 gave us several comic milestones that helped define a new generation of writers, artists, and readers, most notably, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Art Speigelman’s MAUS.
And, seemingly lost in the background, Comico began publishing a brilliant gem of a series called Grendel, by the brilliant Matt Wagner.
But, this wasn’t a new comic. Originally created by Matt Wagner in 1982 as a feature in the short-lived Comico Primer, and appearing briefly as a black-and-white title for 3 issues in 1983, Grendel was originally a noir comic that, in the words of Wagner, “evolved into a study of the nature of aggression.”
And now, with the publication of the Grendel Omnibus Volume 1: Hunter Rose, this epic work now stands poised to assume its mantle as an equal to those other landmarks of comics.
Weighing in at 600 pages, Volume 1 tells the story of a gifted but dissatisfied young man named Eddie, whose disillusionment with all thing banal leads him to test his limits and those of the world around him, with him ultimately becoming the masked crime boss of the entire East Coast, until his downfall at the hands of his nemesis.
In the foreward to 25th Anniversary of “Devil by the Deed” [the first chapter in this volume], Wagner expounds on his creation, explaining, “If a book, whose main protagonist was in fact the antagonist, were to succeed, the title character would have to be handsome and debonair, his outward appearance an absolute mask of the amoral monster that lurked within. Similarly, the story’s ‘hero’ should also run against type, his appearance bent by violence and a frustrated rage – an utter beast, in every sense of the word.”
After falling in love and then losing a woman twice his age, Eddie decides to become the master of his own destiny and forms a dual new life, assuming the personas of both Hunter Rose, successful novelist and socialite, and Grendel, an elegant masked assassin and crime lord.
Grendel is relentlessly pursued by Argent, a 300-year-old cursed Native American in the form of a monstrous man-wolf with a thirst for violence as the result of a curse for a forbidden love.
However, love betrays them both again in the form of Stacy Palumbo, the young daughter of a mobster he kills as Grendel. After adopting her, Hunter becomes a loving father to the girl, who is also befriended by Argent; however, when she discovers Hunter’s role as Grendel, she sells him out to the wolf, unknowingly setting in motion a chain of events that will reverberate for hundreds of years.
Within the Grendel universe, “Devil by the Deed” is the “non-fictional” account of Grendel’s life and history written by Christine Spar, Stacy’s daughter and acknowledged expert on Grendel. It is a bestseller, and “Grendel” becomes a recognizable pop-culture figure.
More an illustrated story than a traditional graphic novel, “Deed” forms the basis for the entire volume, detailing the story of a man whose desire for control ends up blinding him to the threats that exist within his own life. A gaudy art-deco dream of a tale both written and illustrated by Wagner, it echoes all the traditional film noir tropes that make a story good, but only gives us the barest glimpse of the depth of the story, just enough to whet our appetites for more.
Then, for 550 more pages, Matt Wagner delivers a feast.
From the original publication of “Deed” in 1986, Wagner has supplemented this original story with a multitude of additional works, most notably in his two Grendel miniseries, Grendel: Black, White, and Red and Grendel: Red, White, and Black, both named obviously for their use of only those colors in each, but also for the stark, brutal beauty of the stories within.
In both, Wagner works with some of the most talented artists in the business to flesh out his dark, magnum opus, including such names as Tim Sale, Jill Thompson, the Pander Brothers, Tim Bradstreet, Jay Geldhof, Bernie Mireault, Teddy Kristiansen, Jim Mahfood, and Michael Zulli, just to name a few.
Utilizing their skills, Wagner expands his “Grendelverse,” by both elaborating on the crimes and stories presented in “Deed,” and by telling new stories that enlarge our understanding not only of the characters, but also the overarching dark impact of Grendel on the lives of each.
But, it is here that Wagner is also his most playful, not only letting the artists play in his sandbox, but also pushing the boundaries of storytelling itself. From a big-eyed children’s tale written by a woman in an asylum to calendar diary entries and poems to a story written entirely in haiku, tales of bloody violence and mayhem mingle with stories of lost children and twisted fates.
As an intermission of sorts, the one-shot tale “Sympathy from the Devil” (2011) is included. Originally written for the CBLDF fundraising project Liberty Annual, the story touches on the “It Gets Better” campaign.
Closing this volume, “Behold the Devil” (2007) is one of the newest pieces and the only full-length Hunter Rose tale included here, both written and drawn by Wagner, and again exemplifies a great storyteller at the peak of his craft. Told from multiple points of view, including police interviews, notebooks, and additional excerpts from the Spar book, it reveals the contents of the missing pages from Hunter Rose’s journals, a time in which he found himself haunted and hunted, prey instead of predator for once, and of the glimpse given to him of his destiny.
And, with this preview comes my only caveat: If you do read this and enjoy it and want to be surprised by what follows, hold off from reading the final chapter. The scope of the Grendel saga unfolds in such breathtaking spectacle that while any forewarning might not spoil your adventure, some knowledge might lead you to expect things. Holding off on finishing is like the chocolate on your pillow in your hotel after a wonderful night out.
While billed as a complete collection, we note that that Batman/Grendel (1993) story is not included here and can only hope it will be included in the Grendel Prime Volume.
If you are already a fan of Grendel, you probably have all of the stories contained in this collection. But, if not, you would be hard-pressed to find a more worthy investment of your comic-buying dollars. And, if you already have the comics, proudly displaying this on your bookshelf will only increase your respectability, so pick up a copy, either way.
Then, steel yourself for the wild ride of Volume 2, coming out in December 2012. Additional volumes will follow in June 2013 and December 2013.
VERDICT: HIGHLY RECOMMEND