Grendel: Archives and Grendel: Devil by the Deed by Matt Wagner (writer and artist)
Now that I’ve read Matt Wagner’s Grendel: Archives and Grendel: Devil by the Deed, I regret how long it took me to read any of his Grendel stories, a series of comics that have a thirty-year history (and counting). I kept reading about them here and there, but had no sense of what they were about. I assumed they had something to do with Beowulf, and — having spent a year of graduate school translating old English line-by-line — I am not a big enough fan of Beowulf to watch movies or read novels and comics inspired by Beowulf. I’ve even talked to quite a few people who have made it clear that they haven’t read Wagner’s Grendel because of their high school or college experience with Beowulf. The sad truth is that some of us have been missing out on a great comic for the wrong reasons: Other than making some potential connections to the main character’s choosing Grendel as a name, there are no direct connections to Beowulf as far as I can tell in the initial stories I’ve read (I think some thematic connections could be made, of course, as they can be made between many great fictional narratives).
So who is Grendel? The basic story is that Grendel was a man who had a childhood in which he excelled at everything to such a degree, it bored him. His greatest delight came in the study of fencing, an art at which he also excelled. During a tournament he meets on older woman, and they become lovers for a short time, after which this love of his life dies from a terminal illness of which she was always aware but had kept hidden from her young lover. In emotional pain and anger, he went on to develop the double-life on which the initial Grendel stories are based (apparently later stories build up an elaborate mythology, some of which takes place in the future, with even other Grendels, but I haven’t read any of these). His double-life consists of taking on the public persona of “Hunter Rose,” wealthy, successful popular novelist by day, and at night, Grendel, master criminal who mercilessly defeats all who oppose him, even wiping out the entire eastern seaboard of mafia-run crime syndicates.
The story of Grendel is given narrative tension by his great opponent, Argent, who looks like the bad guy in comparison to Hunter Rose, a Bruce Wayne-type figure whose charming personality belies his evil nature. Argent is a wolf-man who looks like a violent, evil creature of the night. Instead, he is a 300-year-old, pacifist Native American who lived mostly in isolation; however, he angers a Wolf Deity by being the lover of the woman who was to be sacrificed to him, and this deity curses him to turn into a wolf-man who has the violent desires of the wolf. In effect, Argent is a Dexter-like character who takes his tendencies toward physical violence and channels them toward those he feels deserves it. He acts in this positive, but violent manner, by working with the police to hunt down criminals, particularly the greatest criminal of them all, Grendel.
The story I’ve mentioned here is really just the origin story, and Matt Wagner wrote and drew this origin twice in a row. First, he did so starting in 1982, telling this tale in four issues. It was told as a story included in the comic Primer #2, and then continued in Grendel #1-3. The story ended abruptly at the end of Grendel #3 because Comico, the company issuing these independent comics, went out of business. These stories have been collected and issued by Dark Horse as Grendel: Archives, with a short, but interesting introduction by Wagner.
From 1984-1986, Wagner set out to retell the story of Grendel as a series of back-ups to his incomplete, yet equally awe-inspiring, series Mage. All of these short Grendel back-up stories, once put together, end up being about 48 pages long and once collected, became known as Devil by the Deed. It is fascinating in its retelling of the origin story Wagner first told in the Archives. This retelling in Devil by the Deed is highly regarded, and it has been collected several times, most recently as the opening piece in the first of four projected Grendel Omnibus Editions (one and two are out now; three and four should be out by December 2013.) However, even if you end up getting the omnibus edition (which I also plan on reviewing eventually), I would track down a copy of the slightly larger-sized 25th anniversary version of Devil by the Deed for several reasons. First, it’s got an excellent introduction by Alan Moore that shows off Moore at his best and most analytically insightful in writing in praise of another’s work, unfortunately more and more a rarity it seems for him. Second, in the omnibus, Devil by the Deed has very small, difficult-to-read print because the omnibus editions are not printed at full comic-book dimensions (the other Grendel stories reprinted in the omnibus initially had larger print to begin with, so reissuing them in a book of smaller dimensions does not cause the same problem with the size of the lettering). Finally, it’s truly a story worth having packaged by itself — you’ll want to read and reread this one. The artwork is stunning.
The next question that needs to be answered is this one: Why buy both Grendel: Archives and Devil by the Deed if they both give the same origin story, particularly if that story isn’t even complete in Grendel: Archives? There are several good reasons. One of those reasons should be apparent to all comic book lovers: It’s like asking why we would want to read the origin story for Batman more than once. The perfect origin stories — and I think you’ll find Grendel’s is one of those — bear repeating more than once. Also, there are just a few variations, and since — unlike with most Batman origin stories — this one is told by the same person, I find it interesting to ask why he made the changes that he did.
I think looking at the change in art between the two versions also is worth seeing. It’s amazing to see the development in Wagner’s art in just a few years. You almost won’t believe it’s the same person. At the same time that I like the art in the second story better, there’s something about the black-and-white art in the first story that I love (Devil by the Deed is reprinted in what is now-standard for Grendel stories: black, white, and red — though I think Devil by the Deed was initially published in black-and-white only). Also of interest artistically is that Wagner tries two different visual story-telling techniques. In the Archives, the story is told in typical comic book form by using speech bubbles. Devil by the Deed is more of an illustrated novel. Wagner uses blocks of narrative on each illustrated page. But there are no speech bubbles. Doing so frees up the images to look completely different. The first looks like a typical comic book in its use of characters and panels and gutters; Devil by the Deed was a shock to me the first time I opened it. It’s striking brilliance comes from the layout of the entire page instead of the bringing together of panels. Each page of Devil by the Deed is a masterpiece in its layout and its use of art deco design. I’ve never seen a comic book like it before.
Though I can give Grendel: Archives only four stars, I must give Devil by the Deed five stars for the writing, the art, for its unity as a narrative whole. However, I think the experience of reading Devil by the Deed, then The Archives, and then Devil by the Deed again is a worthy one. Reading the two together helped me appreciate how much better the second story looks, but also showed me that the story is equally compelling in both — the origin story transcends the art as does Batman’s origin story. Perhaps Grendel’s origin story is so good because it’s a parody of Batman’s, with the good guy by day dressing up in black at night to become truly our worst nightmare, villain and law-abiding citizen alike. And the frightening looking and violence-prone wolf-man, Argent, is really our only hope against this man who takes our money by day by selling us novels and by night through robbery. Like the Batman and the Joker, Grendel and Argent are two sides of the same coin.
I also recommend Wagner’s other work if you become a fan of Grendel or are already a fan of the old pulp stories: I think Wagner has a real knack for telling origin stories based on the pulp tradition, a skill that shows why he’s so good at creating at his first attempt such a perfect origin story for Grendel and Argent. He’s told in comic book form the Year One stories of Zorro and The Green Hornet. He’s currently working on a Year One story of The Shadow (the first issue is perfect), and he’s written for DC The Sandman Mystery Theater, which is the story of a high-society male and female detecting couple/team in the style of The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett, the creator of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and, my favorite, The Continental Op. Wagner has even written stories that take place early in Batman’s career as he’s figuring out how to fight these new mastermind criminals: Batman and the Monster Men and Batman and the Mad Monk. One of his best known, and one of my personal favorites of his, is Trinity: Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman, the story of Batman and Superman meeting Wonder Woman for the first time. And finally, as I mentioned before, his other great masterpiece is Mage, a three-part modern retelling of an ancient hero who is reluctant to take up his mantle again (the first two parts have been completed — look for an upcoming review).
Basically, Matt Wagner is a writer/artist of whom you should be aware, and I think a great place to start is with these two books. The Archives, the volume you might be most likely to skip, will actually be of interest to any comic book fan who wants to see what talent looks like in a young comic book writer/artist, but I think it’s essential for any fan of Grendel. And you will be a fan once you read Devil by the Deed, so you might as well pick them up at the same time — The Archives is not likely a title to stay in print for long, and given the new omnibus editions of the Grendel stories, I don’t know how long affordable, decent quality editions of Devil by the Deed will be available. I’d get them while you can if you are even slightly interested. I’ve learned that the comic book industry is incredibly unreliable in keeping even the best works in print.