The very first telling of this story

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Rereading Grendel Archives by Matt Wagner and Reggie Byers. 

What is it that makes the earliest work of comic artists all look the same? What characteristics do they share? Because the first three-and-a-half issues of Matt Wagner’s Grendel share something, something both on the surface and at the core, with work as diverse as the earliest published Freak Brothers, the first couple of years of Viz Comic, the first few issues of Cerebus, Alan Moore’s stipple-crazy Sounds strips. Is it as simple as a lack of familiarity with printing, the inability to know how the finished work will look until you’ve been through the process a few times? Is it the rough, personalised lettering which the pro quickly learns how to make regular, uniform, unnoticeable? Or the enthusiasm for exclamation points, unnecessary quotemarks, and sound effects, all thrown onto the page in the heady rush of creation?

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A Grendel aficionado since I was 14 years old, I’d never read the aborted early series until now. I tend not to be a first album person and anyway it was unavailable, impossible to get hold of even if you wanted to, until a few years ago. Matt Wagner, creator of Grendel and the writer and artist of the introductory story in Comico Primer and the first three issues, says that it wasn’t the quality of the work that made him reluctant to reprint it but the fact it remained unfinished, plot points dangling. The quality of the work, however, isn’t high. The first appearance of Hunter Rose and Argent is an unpromising ten-pager stuffed with dodgy figurework, blank backgrounds or stuff that’s dropped in with unregarded perspectives, art that lurches from almost Bigfoot cartooning to something much closer to realism. The sound effects, YARGG! KRAK! ARRGK! on a single page, are used much as Adam West’s Batman used them. The fights are better choreographed than most superhero comics today, but that’s more a condemnation of modern artists than a positive notice for Wagner.

The real mark of amateurism, though, is the same unthinking use of captions that mars Paradax and early Marvelman. Under the influence of Stan Lee and Bob Haney without even realising it, Wagner breathlessly tells his story using a slangy omniscient narrator, jumping around from scene to scene, anxious to get going on one half of his life’s work. The story itself barely makes sense – why does Grendel need a truck and three henchmen to escape with stolen ledgers? It’s there to serve, in the time-honoured way of comics, the introduction of the two lead characters, the smooth, handsome anti-hero and the monstrous anti-villain.

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In the three issues of the Grendel series proper, there’s definite progress in Wagner’s writing and art. The narrative frame is a flashback, the protagonist and his nemesis dying on a rooftop in a scene we wouldn’t properly return to for 19 years. They tell us their origins as heroes and villains should, narrating their formative events with Grendel even getting the “I shall call myself–” costume-and-name moment that was the industry standard. The device takes us away from the slugfests of the Primer to a level where we’re able to better contemplate the story, the characters, and how unusual they are.

Wagner’s intention, in creating the dark pairing of assassin and wolf, was to question the Manichean clashes of shining good and irredeemable evil that characterised comics narratives before their deconstruction began. Hunter Rose is not dissimilar to Bruce Wayne, a playboy socialite (though self-made rather than an heir) who hides his true self behind a mask. Grendel, his costumed identity, is an assassin and crimelord rather than a vigilante, his drive the desire for amusement rather than compulsive vengeance. The question asked by Mark Millar for the putrid Nemesis – what if Batman was a villain? – had been answered decades before.

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In style, however, Grendel is the answer to a question repeatedly posed in Frank Miller’s concurrent first run on Daredevil: who will be the Kingpin’s chief assassin? The answer cycled between Bullseye and Elektra, with dark horses Stilt-Man and “Guts” Nelson entering bids. It was a bloodily effective driver of plot. And Grendel, an educated orphan, a genius for violence, a killer born without a trace, would be the Kingpin’s perfect chief assassin. He has the look of Bullseye, the simple black bodysuit with white gloves, white boots, and the added impractical visual hook of the trailing ribbons. He has a signature weapon like Elektra, a single fork to her double sai. And he has the ninja skills, the silence, the precision, the artistry of murder that weren’t yet clichés at the beginning of the 80s. We see him become Theo Ciccone’s pet hitman in a page that even has the island in darkness desk and rectangles of window-light that Miller used for the Kingpin’s office, then we see him take over, become the head of New York’s crime operations for himself. A break even from the European anti-hero, who was usually in business for himself; this one not just the flamboyant super-thief or terrorist, but Godfather.

(Excuse note: Grendel is generally said to be influenced by Diabolik or Fantomâs from the European comics tradition. I don’t have any reason to believe this isn’t true, but I don’t have enough knowledge of those characters to say anything that wouldn’t be a straight retake of someone else’s view.)

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And then there’s the sexual stuff. Or its conspicuous absence. Which will be more fully discussed when I reread Devil by the Deed, which tells the complete story. But in even this early version of Grendel’s origin, he’s the stereotype of the European aristocrat (while not actually being European; see Martin Amis’s brutally thorough takedown of Hannibal for more on this) who would usually have a refined but twisted sexuality. Instead he’s negated as a sexual being almost as he becomes one: seduced by a woman twice his age when he’s 14, an act of child abuse, and taken into an adult world where playing the game is the thing. The death of his lover follows, taken by the kind of unnamed terminal illness that struck down frail beauty in the Victorian age, and with that the sexual door closes. Thereafter, sexual urges and acts are transmuted to violent ones in the grand action tradition.

Argent’s origin in the second issue is a villain’s origin, all historical and ancient curses and forbidden love with little explanation of how he was delivered to the present day. It too reflects a trend, this one of growing diversity in comics exemplified by Chris Claremont’s X-Men. While the industry itself remained pretty solidly Caucasian, an influx of educated writers were trying to dilute the triumphal whiteness of the Golden and Silver Age, even if it was just to give a character an eyecatching origin from an exotic mythpool. Wagner draws from Native American history to create Argent, who like his opposite had a single sexual experience and nothing thereafter. There’s little, in all honesty, to separate him from any Alpha Flight bad guy, any other human who finds himself cursed, transformed, monstrous. Apart from he works with the police, on the side of the existing power structures, against a renegade. And apart from a mention of the “Wondrous Wolf”, we don’t even find that out here.

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So far, then, so unsophisticated: Wagner has his goodie and his baddie and is setting them up to fight. The only difference is that they’ve reversed roles. But while the writing remains clunky, the art has leapt on from the Primer. Wagner used black-and-white fairly well there, exploring its possibilities rather than longing for colour. In the three issues of the first aborted Grendel series, he melds that confidence in stark blacks and open whites to a superb storytelling sensibility and, most impressively, an incredible feel for design. Right from the first static page, with blank rectangle buildings and silhouette figures, he’s thinking about the whole panel and the whole page. Argent as a black shape, feral triangles for eyes and a chaotic mass of hair, is a presence both sinister and wounded. The iconic double-fork of the Grendel mask, a human presence making itself a symbol, contrasts in every alternate panel. The first panel of Hunter’s face is a misstep, too much character in too little space, but the horizontal Letratoned panels of his childhood, silent moments with spare narration isolated in a vertical white panel on the left, are elegantly arranged. And the next page, predictable fencing triumphs fading from grey to black, tells a mood completely visually. As awkward as the faces and figures in the seduction are, the structure of eight panels echoed in the window of the full-bleed panel at the bottom of the page communicates what Wagner’s words can’t. And the multiple Grendels, the repeated figure cutting its way through a statue-gallery of mob henchmen, tell eloquently of his speed, his power, his grace, his ferocity. The single panel of Grendel, all black poise, overlooking a right-angled sequence of the boss’s reactions, is equally vivid. The faces still strain for clarity, the words are still amateurish, but the design and structure, the building-blocks of the comics page, are possessed of a precocious sophistry.

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The Argent pages in the next issue are very different, all raw and ink splatter, their power as tableau meaning there’s no need for the subtleties of emotion. Each double-page spread is composed with simplicity, broad brushlines and expert silhouettes, and each has far more rhetorical power than an overstuffed spread of heroes brawling. And in the pages that follow, despite lapses like Stacey’s jarringly off-model face, Wagner’s art begins to look more Wagnerian. The sparing use of lines, tone and white on Barry’s face in close-up, the eyes of Inspector Atkins never resolving from dark crow-marks, the growing confidence in perspectives and the use of tone to shape, to draw the eye along. I don’t have much to say about the whole murder plot and the battle between Grendel and Argent; it’s pedestrian in both conception and execution. But standing back from the pages, watching the storytelling get surer, the belief growing, it’s possible to see what might one day be.

There was a period, from the mid-80s to the early 90s, when Star Wars disappeared from the lives of those who’d loved it as children. It wasn’t on video, it wasn’t at the cinema, it was only rarely on TV. When it – the original film, Episode IV I guess – came out on video at the end of this lacuna I got a copy, watched it and found it a curiously dissociative experience. Everything in the film, from the spaceships to the outfits to the barfly aliens at Los Amos Cantina, had been monetised and marketed to the extent that the actual movie looked like a reconstruction, a jigsaw put together from action figures and bubblegum cards and arcade games and the oral tradition.

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Reading the early issues, the vanished volume one, of Grendel is similar. Everything here has been returned to at least once, and most often twice. A one-page montage of Hunter and Jocasta becomes an eight-page David Mack montage later on, eight pages of Argent becomes a three-issue miniseries. It’s a first draft that throws light on the uneven joins that come later. And it wasn’t ever Grendel the character I fell for – Hunter Rose was dead two Grendels ago when I got interested – but the experimentation, the willingness to be different. That is here, in embryo, but stands behind work that only an artist pumped up on youth and naivety could produce. What’s remarkable is how complete it is, and completely different the next shot it gets.

Grendel Archives by Matt Wagner and Reggie Byers, which collected the Grendel story from Comico Primer and Grendel v1 #1-#3, is still in print. 

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